Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369
Thucydides lays out his motives for writing his History in the introduction to the text:
Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. (History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, trans. Richard Crawley – Book I, Chapter 1)
The Peloponnesian war had been in the making for decades, as Athens and Sparta both grew in power following the Persian Wars a generation earlier. The rival states had significant cultural differences, and there was serious friction between them whenever their spheres of influence overlapped. Thucydides could see that the situation was a kind of “cold war" and sensed, correctly, that it would be cataclysmic if the war ever became "hot." He therefore began chronicling events as they happened. After the war ended, he wove his observations together into a coherent narrative in which he could identify the themes behind the action, and draw conclusions therefrom.
Thucydides attempts to be as factual and unsentimental as possible, but his History is very much a cautionary tale for future readers. In providing an end-to-end narrative of the war, Thucydides is able to showcase just what a protracted war does to the societies involved in it. Athens, a city of art and culture, attempts to transform itself into a military state. By the end of the war its political life has disintegrated, and its people are starving and bankrupt. Sparta, which was already a military state, wins the war but fails to make any use of what it has won; Spartan culture is anaemic compared to that of Athens, and the Spartans have no substitute for what they have destroyed. The rest of Greece, which was drawn into the war, is suffering from thirty years of upheaval. All of society seems to have entered a long moral decline, from which there may be no recovery. Thucydides outlines all of this for the reader, and returns to the same point again and again, which is that war, as a tool of policy, is a double-edged sword that cuts the one who wields it.