Monday, January 03, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: an everlasting possession (Book I, Chapters 1-23)

Bust of Thucydides
Picture source

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the war of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians as they warred against each other, beginning to write as soon as the war was on foot; with expectation it should prove a great one, and most worthy the relation of all that had been before it: conjecturing so much, both from this, that they flourished on both sides in all manner of provision; and also because he saw the rest of Greece siding with the one or the other faction, some then presently and some intending so to do. For this was certainly the greatest commotion that ever happened amongst the Grecians, reaching also to part of the barbarians, and, as a man may say, to most nations. For the actions that preceded this, and those again that are yet more ancient, though the truth of them through length of time cannot by any means clearly be discovered; yet for any argument that, looking into times far past, I have yet light on to persuade me, I do not think they have been very great, either for matter of war or otherwise.

(Book I, Chapter 1—all quotes from the translation by Thomas Hobbes)

Thucydides begins his history with a bang—this is a man confident in himself and his story. The first twenty-three chapters (paragraphs) seem to form a type of introduction, making many claims while also laying out his methodology and some key concepts or themes. His terse style packs a lot of information into each sentence, so the following summary won’t be comprehensive but I hope it hits most of the high points.


  • The greatest conflict ever: “This was certainly the greatest commotion that ever happened amongst the Grecians”. In order to lay the groundwork for this claim, Thucydides looks at previous great wars and compares their scope and impact with the war between Athens and Sparta. The history he provides isn’t revisionist so much as putting the previous conflicts into context and looking for pedestrian explanations. Thucydides doesn’t dismiss Homer completely, recognizing “who being a poet was like to set it forth to the utmost” and that details would be sacrificed to play up the story. Delving into why the Trojan War lasted as long as it did, Thucydides believes that it was the relative weakness of the Greeks that drew the war out so long. Plenty of men were sent to Troy but not enough supplies, causing the troops to divide so some would till the soil, others to hunt, while the remaining soldiers would lay siege to the city. The importance of the war with Persia is recognized (“the greatest action before this war”) but those conflicts were limited to a few brief battles. The war between Athens and Sparta, however, “both lasted long, and the harm it did to Greece was such, as the like in the like space had never been seen before. For neither had there ever been so many cities expugned and made desolate, what by the barbarians and what by the Greeks warring on one another;… nor so much banishing and slaughter, some by the war some by sedition , as was in this.” Evils or portents claimed in prior times could be confirmed in this conflict: earthquakes, eclipses of the sun, droughts (leading to famine), and plague. I’m interested to see what will be the relationship between these portents and the war. Another reason this was the greatest commotion between the two cities—both were at the top of their game: “they arrived at this war, both well furnished with military provisions and also expert”. The uniqueness of this conflict will be something to evaluate as Thucydides’ narrative unfolds.
  • This history will be “an everlasting possession”: “To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, he shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession, than to be rehearsed for a prize.” Getting past the snark aimed at Herodotus, Thucydides believes that human nature changes little and his history will prove useful and ‘profitable’. Other translations term his statement as a “possession for all time”. With either view, it is intended as more than a simple history. Rather it will be something that can educate and enlighten long after he is gone.
  • The cause of the war: “The causes why they brake the same, and their quarrels, I have therefore set down first, because no man should be to seek from what ground so great a war amongst the Grecians could arise. And the truest quarrel, though least in speech, I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power; which putting the Lacedæmonians into fear necessitated the war.” (emphasis mine) Thucydides acknowledges Spartan fear at Athen’s growth in power may not be the reason often cited as the cause of war, being “least in speech” (in other translations “formally most kept out of sight”). So will his facts, theories and logic in upcoming chapters support this theory?

  • Methodology

    Thucydides believes the truth from ancient times can be divined despite its murkiness. While evidence of previous conflicts may be out of reach due to the passing of time, Thucydides insists he critically evaluates everything while recognizing that man tends to blindly accept tradition. The clearest data will be relied upon instead of the verse of poets, who provide things more delightful “to the ear than conformably to the truth”. Thucydides mentions a fallacy in evaluating wars: “And though men always judge the present war wherein they live to be greatest, and when it is past, admire more those that were before it; yet if they consider of this war by the acts done in the same, it will manifest itself to be greater than any of those before mentioned.”

    Thucydides realizes he may be accused of this fallacy so he lays out his methodology so he goes into detail on his use and source of speeches.

    “What particular persons have spoken when they were about to enter into the war or when they were in it, were hard for me to remember exactly; whether they were speeches which I have heard myself, or have received at the second hand. But as any man seemed to me, that knew what was nearest to the sum of the truth of all that had been uttered, to speak most agreeably to the matter still in hand, so I have made it spoken here. But of the acts themselves done in the war, I thought not fit to write all that I heard from all authors, nor such as I myself did but think to be true; but only those whereat I was myself present, and those of which with all diligence I had made particular inquiry. And yet even of those things it was hard to know the certainty; because such as were present at every action, spake not all after the same manner; but as they were affected to the parts, or as they could remember.”

    There is much to unpack here and it can lead to confusion—are speeches manufactured, based on what he thinks they should have said, or are they exact? Does the reader hear the speech of Thucydides or the speech of the historical figure? Obviously it’s too early to tell at this point, but it’s something to watch as the history unfolds. From what he says, there are some speeches he (or someone he trusted) was able to hear. Other addresses are constructed as he thinks they should have happened based on what he thinks was appropriate. In addition, he does not relay everything about the war that he has heard, limiting what he includes to things he saw or could confirm (excluding the speeches, as detailed). What should be interesting will be what he excludes as well as what he includes. I’m sure there will be much more to investigate and comment on with the speeches.


  • Differences between Athens and Sparta: while the book focuses on the war between Athens and Sparta, the introduction appears to set the stage for differences between the cities in several aspects. The way each city interacted with confederates stands out the most, Sparta governing “so as to make them tributaries, but only drew them by fair means to embrace the oligarchy, convenient to their own policy.” The Athenians, on the other hand, “having with time taken into their hands the galleys of all those that stood out, (except the Chians and Lesbians), reigned over them, and ordained every of them to pay a certain tribute of money.” After the Persian wars, this seems to be quite a distinction in having a Greek city impose tributes on other cities. I’m sure more differences between the two cities will be highlighted as the history unfolds.
  • Types of government: differing types of government make a cameo appearance in the introduction and should be a major theme further on in the history. The progression Thucydides lays out in his brief survey of Grecian history moves from monarchies to tyrannies to democracies/republics (some with a monarchal flavor). Keep in mind the definition of tyrant in this sense is “one who illegally seizes and controls a governmental power in a polis.” Thucydides targets tyrannies as possible retardants to development—tyrants focused on their family’s needs and wealth, eschewing growth for the city (Sicily is noted as an exception). The Spartans are credited with putting down the tyrannies in Greece (again, except for Sicily). But how will the governments of Athens and Sparta (and others) factor during the war?
  • Rest vs. motion: many hints in the introduction lead me to believe there will be a study of contrasts of many concepts throughout the history. The dichotomy between rest and motion stood out and I think it will provide substance behind Thucydides’ outlook. Within this short section I see some evidence to frame this contrast within an Athens/Sparta context. Good things seem to happen to the cities that have stability, or rest. Athens became the most stable early in Greek history because they had the least fertile area. Because of their relative bareness, no one sought to invade them. Athenians also were the “first that laid by their armour, and growing civil, passed into a more tender kind of life.” Prosperity accrued during this “rest”. What happens when you don’t have rest? “For also after the Trojan war the Grecians continued still their shiftings and transplantations; insomuch as never resting, they improved not their power.”

    What about Sparta? Another type of rest shows up in their history: “yet hath it had for the longest time good laws, and been also always free from tyrants: for it is unto the end of this war four hundred years and something more, that the Lacedæmonians have used one and the same government, and thereby being of power themselves, they also ordered the affairs in the other cities.” Good laws help provide the stability for flourishing. As with other concepts and themes, I’m interested to see where this goes.

    alyssha said...

    I'm currently taking a class on Classical Greece in which we are studying the Peloponnesian war. Your summaries have proven very helpful in the unraveling of some of the themes that Thucydides' presents. THANK YOU!

    Dwight said...

    Trust me, they aren't comprehensive but I'm glad they help. Be sure and check out the posts at StratBlog (listed in the "Online Courses" on the right sidebar). They have had helpful discussions and posts as well. Thanks for the note!

    Nestor said...

    I just started reading your summaries on "The History of the Peloponnesian War," and so far, they have proved very useful in clarifying some of the more confusing aspects of the text. Your list of themes is extremely beneficial - sometimes it can be hard to fish them out when your brain is focused more on the plot. So, thank you!

    ally said...

    I love you.

    Dwight said...

    Well that's a first.
    I hope the posts help!

    ally said...

    Yes, they still help college students everywhere, even 8 years after your post was created.