History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is an account of the war fought between the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and its allies) and the Delian League (Athens and its allies) from 431–404 BCE.

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Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is seen as one of the first great works of western history. He's been particularly praised for his objectivity and attempt at historical analysis, as he spends considerable time exploring the causes of the war. One can contrast Thucydides' chronicling approach with the more meandering and subjective storytelling of Herodotus in the Histories, the other great historical work of this time.

The Peloponnesian War is broken into eight books and is a detailed account of the conflict. The conflict begins when the Spartans attack Attica, the surroundings of Athens, and lay siege to Athens itself. The Athenians respond with naval attacks on Spartan territory.

A plague strikes Athens and forces the Athenians' hands, which leads to an Athenian defeat. As the book continues we witness the ebb and flow of the war and its seasonal nature. Each year, it seems, the Spartans attack Attica and the outskirts of Athens.

The tide of battle truly turns after the Athenians fail in their attempt to take Syracuse, a Greek colony far to the west on the Italian Peninsula. This ill-fated naval expedition and the shifting loyalties of certain individuals (in particular the General Alcibiades, who famously betrays the Athenians) leads to an eventual Spartan victory.

Throughout the text, Thucydides explores all sorts of important details of the war including technology and military tactics. One of the ways he tells the story is through long speeches and orations that he recalls in great detail. Particularly famous in this respect is Pericles's Funeral Oration, a rallying cry to the Athenians as the city is besieged by the Spartans and struck by the plague. In this respect the History of the Peloponnesian War is also one of the first examples of true political history.

Thucydides' classic text remains one of the best known pieces of Greek writing and has been translated and reprinted numerous times.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318

In writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides looked for human causes behind results and refused to credit the gods with responsibility for the acts of human beings. Impartially he chronicles the clash of a military and a commercial imperialism: the land empire of the Spartans confronting the Athenian maritime league. Some have attributed to him an attitude of moral indifference, such as is revealed in his report of the debate between Athenian and Melian ambassadors, but he wrote with no intention of either moralizing or producing a cultural history. He was a military man interested in the vastly different political and economic patterns of Athens and Sparta. Writing for intelligent readers rather than for the ignorant masses, he saw in the modes and ideals of their cultures an explanation of their ways of warfare.

The eight books of Thucydides’ history, divided into short paragraph-chapters, provide a few facts about their author. In book 4, for example, he refers to himself as “Thucydides, son of Olorus, who wrote this history.” He must have been wealthy, for, discussing Brasidas’s attack on Amphipolis, he states that the Spartan “heard that Thucydides had the right of working gold mines in the neighboring district of Thrace and was consequently one of the leading men of the city.” He also tells frankly of his failure as the commander of a relief expedition to that city and of his twenty years’ exile from Athens as punishment. Apparently he spent the years of his exile in travel among the sites of the battles he describes, thereby increasing the accuracy of his details. Students of warfare find that he gives descriptions of the tricks and stratagems of both siege and defense. Not until 404, after the war had ended, did he return to Athens. He seems to have been killed about 400 b.c.e., either in Thrace for the gold he carried, or in Athens for publicly writing his opinions.

In his masterpiece of Greek history, the Athenian Thucydides wrote of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians from the time it began, “believing it would be great and memorable above all previous wars.” Thucydides explains the rivalry of Athens and Sparta, the two great states of Hellas then at the height of their power. He was proud of the advances made by his native Athens over the ways of the barbarians. “In ancient times the Hellenes carried weapons because their homes were undefended and intercourse unsafe.” Swords, however, like the old-fashioned linen undergarments and the custom of binding the hair in knots, had gone out of style by his time.

Rivalry between the two cities had a long tradition. It had kept Spartans from fighting beside Athenians at Marathon, but it took a commercial form when the Lacedaemonians demanded that their allies, the Megarians, be allowed to market their products in Athens. Pericles, the orator, statesman, and patron of the arts, took the first step toward breaking his own Thirty Years’ Truce, agreed upon in 445 b.c.e. In a fiery oration, he declared that to yield to the Spartans would reduce the Athenians to vassals.

The final break, according to Thucydides, came later. He dates the year, 431, according to the calendars of the three leading states: Chrysis had been high priestess of Argos for forty-eight years, Aenesias was ephor of Sparta, and Pythodorus was concluding his archonship in Athens. In that year Thebes, at the invitation of disgruntled Plataean citizens, made a surprise attack on Plataea, a Boeotian ally of Athens.

To understand the situation fully, it is necessary to keep in mind a clash of political concepts that the historian does not mention. In 445 b.c.e., under Pericles, Athens had become a radical democracy whose policy was to send help to any democratically inclined community. Sparta and its allies were just as eager to promote their conservative oligarchy. To both, self-interest was paramount.

Violation of the truce by Thebes, says Thucydides, gave Athens an excuse to prepare for war. Its walled city could be defeated only by a fleet, and Sparta had no fleet. On the other hand, landlocked Sparta could withstand everything except a full-scale land invasion, and Athens had no army. The Lacedaemonians begged their friends in Italy and Sicily to collect and build ships, and Athens sent ambassadors to raise armies and completely surround Sparta. Thucydides was honest enough to admit that public opinion largely favored the Spartans, who posed as the liberators of Hellas.

Sparta moved first by invading the Isthmus of Corinth in 431 b.c.e. Strife during the winter and summer of the first year (as the historian divided his time) consisted largely of laying waste the fields around the fortified cities. Like many primitive peoples, the Greeks stopped fighting during planting and harvesting (the entries frequently begin with: “The following summer, when the corn was coming into ear . . .”). The war was also halted for games, not only the Olympic games of 428, but the Delian, Pythian, and Isthmian games as well.

In the summer of the next year, a plague broke out in Athens and raged intermittently for three years. Seven chapters of book 2 provide a vivid description, “for I myself was attacked and witnessed the suffering of others.” The seriousness of the plague protected Athens because enemy troops were afraid to approach its walls.

The most vivid part of Thucydides’ history deals with the Syracuse campaign of 416. An embassy from Egesta, Sicily, sought Athenian help against its rival city of Selinus. The ambitious Alcibiades thought this would be a good excuse for Athens to annex Syracuse. With Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus sharing the command, the best-equipped expeditionary force ever sent from a Greek city sailed for Sicily with 134 triremes, 5,100 hoplites or heavy-armed infantry, 480 archers, and 820 slingers.

Alcibiades left behind bitter enemies who accused him of defacing sacred statues on the day the fleet sailed. Though there was no evidence against him, he was ordered home to defend himself. Fearing treachery, he fled to Sparta, where he was warmly welcomed. Informed of the Athenian expedition, the Lacedaemonians sent a military adviser to Syracuse. The Persians offered to outfit a fleet for Alcibiades to lead against Athens. His patriotism outweighed his injured pride, however, and eventually he returned to Athens and won several victories for the city before another defeat sent him again into exile. This occurred, however, after the period covered by Thucydides’ history.

In the campaign before Syracuse, Nicias disregarded the advice of Demosthenes and was defeated on both land and sea. “Of all the Hellenic actions on record,” writes Thucydides, “this was the greatest, the most glorious to the victor, and the most ruinous to the vanquished. Fleet and army vanished from the face of the earth; nothing was saved, and out of the many who went forth, few returned home. This ended the Sicilian expedition.”

The account of the expedition practically ends Thucydides’ history. There is another book, but it does not rise to the dramatic pitch of book 7. Though he lived eleven years after these events and four years after the end of the war, Thucydides did not chronicle its last stages, perhaps because they were too painful. After Alcibiades was exiled a second time, Sparta starved the Athenians into surrender, and with this defeat their glory faded. For the next thirty years Sparta was the supreme power in Hellas.

As Thomas Macaulay wrote, Thucydides surpassed all his rivals as the historian of the ancient world. Perhaps not as colorful as Herodotus, “the Father of History,” he was certainly more accurate; and although the annals of Tacitus contain excellent character delineation, his pages, by contrast, are cold. Thucydides may be superficial in his observations and shallow in his interpretation of events, but he accumulated facts and dates and presented them in a three-dimensional picture of people and places. For this reason his work has survived for more than two thousand years.

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