chapter  2
History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, ca. 460–ca. 395 B.C.)
Pages 7

Thucydides was a contemporary of Herodotus (see essay 1 in this volume) and about thirteen years his junior. In later antiquity The Persian Wars was better remembered, probably because Herodotus is entertaining and Thucydides is austere. Thucydides had his eye fixed on posterity: “The absence of romance [an oblique shot at Herodotus] in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest … I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” His attention to evidence had an overarching purpose, which was less to isolate and explain causes of a war and its human dislocations than to extract from its history enduring lessons for those “who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” He believed human nature never varies in its reactions to physical circumstances. The future, therefore, will resemble the past (i. 23, 24). He was a wealthy Athenian aristocrat with roots in Thrace. He

grew wealthier by investing in Thracian gold mines. Study with the skeptic Protagoras may have stiffened his critical frame of mind. Study with the orator Antiphon may have influenced his style of eloquence. He was twenty-five when the war broke out in 431 and was appointed general in 424 to relieve a besieged city in Thrace. Spartans had already occupied it by the time he arrived. He was blamed and

exiled for twenty years, possibly a reason he was so little known, but also an advantage because he was free to travel and study the war from both sides. He returned to Athens when exile ended and dropped out of sight. In Hellenistic and Roman times, the rhetorical style of his speeches

was much imitated and may have contributed to the book’s survival. As a “scientist” he had little impact, but was respected as a writer of secular history as late as the sixth century by the Byzantine historian Procopius (see essay 7 in this volume). Dionysius of Halicarnassus (d. 8 B.C.), rhetorician and historian, wrote treatises on him and concluded the History was wasted on a minor, inglorious war deserving of oblivion. About three-fourths of the work is narrative and one-fourth is

speeches. It covers twenty years of a complex struggle, actually two wars with an intervening truce, from 431 to 411 (the end came in 404). Athens, a sea power, and Sparta, a land power, both faced internal dissension among their respective allies and had military setbacks. The decisive outcome was Spartan victory and the end of Athenian authority in Greece. Book I discusses causes and preparations. The Trojan and Persian Wars are cited as minor upheavals compared to the Peloponnesian War, for never before had the entire Greek world been plunged into such a destructive struggle. Thereafter a few narrative and analytical high points include the demoralizing plague that struck Athens in the second year and killed Pericles in 429; the violent revolution in Corcyra driven by class hatred; the fortuitous event at Pylos that might have ended the war; defeat of the Spartans on the island of Sphacteria, where to universal surprise the legendary warriors did not fight to the death; brutal Athenian conquest of neutral Melos on the principle that strength trumps weakness; pathetic fate of the hapless town Plataea at the hands of Athenians; successes of the Spartan general Brasides; and the catastrophic Sicilian campaign that destroyed an Athenian fleet and army. Among speeches not to be missed are:

The funeral oration of Pericles that contrasts commercial, civic Athenian culture with Spartan agrarian, military culture: “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business … We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy … In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring not by

receiving favours … In short, I say as a city we are the school of Hellas … ” (ii. 37-42).