History of the Peloponnesian War Summary
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,027 words.)