The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Herodotus | Thucydides (Great Books of the Western World, #6)Herodotus | Thucydides by Herodotus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These two classics establish the poles between which all subsequent history-writing has navigated.

This review will focus on Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, since I have already reviewed The Histories of Herodotus separately.

The “poles” I referred to above are the storytelling approach exemplified by Herodotus and the “chronicle” approach exemplified by Thucydides. For while Herodotus tells his history as a series of yarns, hearsay, and human-interest stories, Thucydides sees himself as a searcher for and reporter of literal, factual truth. Thucydides himself is conscious of the disadvantage that this approach puts him under, as he explains near the end of chapter 1:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. 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.

I wonder whether Thucydides, writing in the 5th century BC, in using the phrase “a possession for all time”, imagined that his work would still be read 2,500 years later.

His history is an account of the Peloponnesian War, a grim 21-year conflagration that consumed Greece in Thucydides’ own lifetime; indeed he himself took part in it as a commander of forces at Thasos. This war, though long and brutal, may seem to be a mere byway of ancient history, but I took interest in it because Arnold J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History series, identifies it as the turning-point of the Hellenic Civilization, when its period of flourishing ended and its Time of Troubles began. Here, according to Toynbee, began its long and bumpy ride downward to its final dissolution as a distinct civilization, manifested in the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. If the Peloponnesian War really was the beginning of the end for the Hellenic civilization, could the Greeks somehow have pulled themselves back from the precipice and found a way to inject new creative life into their society?

The war itself was about which of the two dominant states in Greece, Athens or Lacedaemon on the Peloponnese, would be masters of Hellas. In the days since the Greeks had miraculously fought off the invading Persians (the story told by Herodotus in his book), Athens and Lacedaemon had both acquired little empires for themselves within Greece: leagues of subordinate states that paid tribute to the hegemons and joined with them in military alliances. But running these teams of “allies” was like herding cats, for the member states were always fighting amongst themselves and switching sides when it seemed convenient.

As I read Thucydides’ description of the causes of the war in chapter 2, I was reminded of the events leading up to World War I in the sense that such seemingly trivial beginnings led to such a ferocious catastrophe. In this case it had to do with the civic politics of Epidamnus and Corcyra (modern Corfu), two states on the Ionian Sea. Internecine conflicts dragged in their imperial masters, and hey presto: regional war. Athens and Lacedaemon make repeated attempts to resolve their differences, and even sign more than one peace treaty, but all to no avail. At bottom, they both think they can win, so war it must be.

As a read I found this book tough going. There are many detailed and circumstantial accounts of particular episodes in the long war, involving many different places and people. To follow these in detail would require vastly more time and effort than I was prepared to put in. Occasionally I referred to the maps at the back of the book, but mostly I just let the information wash over me, sitting up straighter as I reached passages where the author summarizes things and also where he reports the speeches of various characters involved, for here could be found a number of powerful arguments on different aspects of politics and war. Thucydides describes his own handling of speeches thus:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; in all cases my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. [slightly compressed]

One famous dialogue occurs when the powerful Athenians are trying to persuade the much weaker Melians to surrender to them without a fight. When the Melians point out the injustice of the Athenians’ actions, the Athenians give this chilling reply:

You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

There in capsule form lies the political theory that underlies just about all of human history.

As a writer Thucydides is sober, astute, and understated. His goal is not to tell a captivating story, but to provide, for people who have not actually participated in this war, the next best thing to being there. His prose reads like a long military report, including signs of special interest and eagerness over the tactical details of specific engagements.

Here again I found myself flummoxed by the star-rating system. For while this book was not pleasure reading for me, I found it to be deep and worthwhile. My impression is that societies become prone to war when they become rich, bored, and lacking in intellectual vigor. It was true 2,500 years ago, and it’s true right now.

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