Friday, February 04, 2011

The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides: The Classics Circuit

Welcome to those visiting from The Classics Circuit Ancient Greek Classics Tour.

For the past month I’ve been reading and posting about Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war. I’ll try to keep this post short but would like to take a cursory look at why anyone would want to read a 2,400 year old history written by an Athenian general exiled for failure. I’ll start with Thucydides’ own statement: “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.”
(See my online resources post for a link to the Thomas Hobbes’ translation I use.)

Thucydides was wrong in his claim—the work is delightful. And frustrating. And unnerving. He succeeds in making it “an everlasting possession” for several reasons, not least of which is his insight into the human condition and the unchanging nature of our behavior. Thucydides saw recurring patterns in history and his work was an attempt to help people understand these patterns.

His backdrop in doing this was to document the war between Athens and Sparta that occurred from 431 to 404 BC—a war he called “the greatest commotion that ever happened amongst the Grecians”. Although Thucydides lives through the end of the war and returns to Athens, his history ends mid-sentence as he is recounting the 21st year of the war. The Peloponnesian War wasn’t just a conflict between two cities and their allies (the Peloponnese, the peninsular part of Greece below the Gulf of Corinth that included Sparta, gives its name to the war). It was a clash between two vastly different cultures and political structures: democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta. But it’s not as simple as reducing to those easy terms. Athens, under Pericles, had turned the Delian League, an association formed in response to the Persian invasions, into a de facto empire. We don’t see Athens’ rise in Thucydides’ work, only part of its decline.

Thucydides explores human nature as displayed during the war. That’s why I said the work can be frustrating and unnerving at times since he paints a very pessimistic and dark picture. We are privy to many atrocities that occurred during the war, and Thucydides posits one explanation:

And many and heinous things happened in the cities through this sedition, which though they have been before, and shall be ever as long as human nature is the same, yet they are more calm, and of different kinds, according to the several conjunctures. For in peace and prosperity, as well cities as private men are better minded, because they be not plunged into necessity of doing any thing against their will. But war, taking away the affluence of daily necessaries, is a most violent master, and conformeth most men’s passions to the present occasion.

War isn’t the only violent master in his history. Early in the conflict a plague sweeps through Athens, affecting many future decisions of the city. There are many sub-themes throughout the work, such as the struggle between what is just and what is best for a city (the Melian dialogue and the Mytilene debate are two examples), that highlight the power and responsibility of a state.

The characters in the history are wonderful—if you placed Alcibiades, constantly changing sides, in a modern day movie most viewers would say his scheming was over the top. Nicias makes for classic tragedy, fumbling on most efforts in trying to do what is best for Athens until he worries more about his own reputation. Pericles, responsible for Athens' rise to power, yet puts in place a strategy that is untenable (at least long term).

There are many lessons to be taken from Thucydides’ history, but perhaps his greatest contribution lies in his focus on what war does to people and their institutions. No matter how much we think we have progressed in ------- (take your pick: politics, psychology, religion, government, rationality, institutions, etc.), Thucydides highlights essential elements at our core that are the same as 2,400 years ago. That’s the ultimate reason for me to read Thucydides—to explore what makes us human.

In the next few days I will have a summary page linking all the posts related to the book. I realize my posts are way too long for the casual reader (and many not-so-casual readers), so anyone wanting to dip into Thucydides might want to try one of the following posts covering a few of the more famous passages or simply scroll down the blog for the latest entries.

Pericles’ funeral oration

The plague in Athens and Pericles’ last speech

The Melian dialogue (complete with video...who knew?)

Athens defeat in Sicily


Rebecca Reid said...

I am SO IMPRESSED that you read this all so fast. Incredible.

You say you read Thucydides "to explore what makes us human." I think that's why I love reading great literature. While I can't say this is at the top of my to read list, maybe I'll try reading some of the highlights to get a feel for it.

Thanks for participating in the Circuit!

Dwight said...

My pleasure Rebecca...thanks again for hosting. I know that involves a lot of work and it is appreciated.

taavali said...


I was looking for on-line resources in thucydides and found this site. Your texts are great, and furthermore I found Leo Strauss center through you.