Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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I would suggest that one of Thucydides's primary themes is the transient nature of both political power and of success in war and peace, regardless of the good intentions of the leaders of a state.

To Thucydides, the Athens of Pericles was a model for the successful state. He quotes Pericles extensively while at the same time describing the unraveling of the Athenian cause and the tragic developments in the conflict with Sparta. His account of the plague that struck Athens, perhaps more than any other part of his History, expresses the theme of not only transience but also one of the randomness and unpredictability of human affairs. Unlike other writers of antiquity, he doesn't describe a plague as an action of the gods to punish an unjust people. Nor is it, of course, anything that human action could have prevented. This brings us to an additional theme, a kind of self-referential one for Thucydides: the fact of the limitations on any historian's ability to provide explanations for occurrences. He acknowledges that

As to the question of how it [the plague] could first have come about or what causes can be found adequate to explain its powerful effects on nature, I must leave that to be considered by other writers, with or without medical experience. [p. 123 of Penguin Classics ed., trans. Rex Warner]

Thucydides also expresses an idea which is a corollary of the themes of impermanent political glory and the random nature of human success or failure. This is that no matter how admirable or successful a leader has been, the population will turn on him if the situation changes and things are not going well. In Book 2, chapter 6, he states that after the second invasion by the Peloponnesians there was a change in the attitude of the Athenians, and they now began to blame Pericles for having persuaded them to go to war.

With all these individual points considered, we can quote the translator Rex Warner's summary of the main thrust of the entire History:

He shows us how on the Athenian side, as the war proceeds, the claim to exercise power over others, which at one time might have been represented as 'just' or at least 'noble', has, through the mere logic of events, to be expressed with the most brutal cynicism. Yet his belief in the fact and in the ideal of the Athens of Pericles never wavers. [Penguin Classics ed., p. 6]

This can then be seen as an ultimate theme of the History: that an ideal must still be believed in regardless of the changes and misfortunes overtaking a nation or a state.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

The History of the Peloponnesian War narrates a chronological history of armed conflict that happened between the city-states of Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BCE. Although the author Thucydides was Athenian, he works hard to tell an unbiased history of this war. One of the main themes he explores in his work is the question of power. Specifically, Thucydides questions the nature of power and abuse of power. Athens and Sparta were at the height of their respective power during this conflict. Athens, specifically, had set a policy of expanding power. When exploring the treatment of the Melians, inhabitants of a colony of Sparta, Thucydides remarks that “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Athens, particularly, executed a policy of imperial expansion during this time. The Athenian government believed it their right to expand the boundaries of the state; as the quote states, the "strong do what they can." It is ironic that both states were weakened by the conflict, opening the door for the conquering of all of Greece by Phillip II of Macedon in 371 BCE.

Another theme Thucydides explores is the consequences of human actions and decisions. His retelling of the war focuses specifically on the human element. His work shows how decisions by individuals caused events to develop rather than presenting the events in isolation. He uses speeches within the narration of the history as a way to investigate and develop the theme. The speeches provide opinionated commentary of the events, something he attempts to avoid in his own chronology.

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