History of the Peloponnesian War Themes
by Thucydides

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History of the Peloponnesian War Themes

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.

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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.


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...

(The entire section is 711 words.)