The Peloponnesian War
(Free Press, 2008) [c.400 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Richard Crawley
Thucydides’ history of the decades-long war between Athens and Sparta is generally considered to be the first great masterpiece of historical writing in the Western tradition. He wrote only a few decades after Herodotus, but his conception of what constituted specifically historical writing had sharpened up considerably in the meantime. Thucydides gives us very little in the way of anecdote or local colour; he is focused, detailed, and concise. His attention is focused on military affairs and politics, principally. Thucydides was himself an Athenian naval general, and he appears at several points in the narrative.
The Peloponnesian War was a messy affair. The principal opponents were Athens and Sparta, but over its 27 years the war drew the entire Greek-speaking world, and more, into its orbit. The history of the war turned on a long and complicated series of shifting allegiances between the principal powers and the lesser: Corinth, Argos, and the various island peoples scattered throughout the Aegean. Thucydides attributes the cause of the war to Spartan concern over the rising power of Athens, who had, in the wake of the defeat of the Persian invasion (recounted by Herodotus) built an extensive empire around the rim of the Aegean Sea. These far-flung holdings became a major problem for Athens as the war progressed, for subject peoples saw the war as an occasion for revolt, sometimes with Spartan support, against a weakened authority.
Thucydides made use of a novel technique to effectively present the factors and arguments that, in his judgement, most affected the progress of the war. At crucial junctures, he had important figures deliver speeches. By his own admission, these speeches were not “historical”; there was no transcript from which he could draw. Instead, his speeches were imaginative reconstructions of what he thought the figure “should have said” in his specific circumstances. Obviously, this is a respect in which Thucydides’ conventions of historical writing are not identical to ours, but, in his defence, the speeches make terrific reading.
One gains much from reading Thucydides: first of all, exposure to certain great men — Pericles, who counselled the Athenian assembly against war in the first place; the bold and tenacious Athenian general Nicias; the enterprising and scheming Alcibiades; the conquering Spartan Brasidas, to name a few; an appreciation for the uncontainable consequences of war, for who could have foreseen the tortured path this conflict would take?; many portraits, presented especially through the speeches, of the human side of war; a certain sad awareness of the plight of mankind, subject to so many forces and prone to make poor decisions (something that also, and perhaps especially, afflicts democracies); and a lively sense of the art of military strategy. It really is one of the great books.
As is well known, Thucydides did not finish his history, for the book covers only 21 of the 27 years of the conflict. I suppose I don’t give anything away by saying that eventually it was the Athenians who were defeated, largely because the Spartans were able to forge an alliance with the Persians. What happened after the war, with the March of the Ten Thousand, and the gradual decline of Greek power, and then the rise, some seventy years later, of a Macedonian power that would rival even the Persians in ambition and achievement — well, that is a story for another time.
I read The Landmark Thucydides edition of The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert Strassler. It has all of the virtues that I enumerated when I wrote about The Landmark Herodotus some time ago: many maps to keep the reader oriented geographically, marginal summaries, parallel timelines for the various theatres of operation, a thorough glossary, a detailed index, and numerous appendices to fill out the historical background. It is a beautiful piece of work. Were it not available one would obviously struggle through anyhow, but since it is available I cannot imagine reading Thucydides without it.
Related reading: Steven Pressfield — The Tides of War