History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

1634 edition of
Eight bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre
translated by Thomas Hobbes.
I have long feared reading and writing about Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (Ιστορία του Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου), an account of the Peloponnesian War and written towards the end of the 5th century B.C. It's not that I fear ancient literature, on the contrary, it's just that I very rarely read non-fiction these days, and to read a fairly large work on a subject with which I am almost entirely unfamiliar is quite daunting. I did fear Thucydides' History would be too advanced for me, and, with the best will in the world, it really was, but that's not to say it wasn't very readable. Even so this post will have to be a fairly brief account of what I've learned. 

The Peloponnesian War was fought by Athens against the Spartans (the Peloponnesian League) between 431–404 BC: here it must be noted - Thucydides writes about the events from the summer of 431 B.C. to the summer of 411 B.C. The manuscript is unfinished and it's assumed that Thucydides died about this time. The Book is divided into eight sections:
Book I: Introduction and the causes of the Peloponnesian War.
Book II: The formal beginnings of the war; Summer 431 B.C. to Winter 429-28 B.C.
Book III: Summer 428 B.C. to Winter 426-25 B.C.
Book IV: Summer 425 B.C. to Winter 423-22 B.C.
Book V: Summer 422 B.C. to Winter 416-15 B.C.
Book VI: Winter 416-15 B.C. (conclusion) to Summer 414 B.C.
Book VII: Summer 414 B.C. (conclusion) to Summer 413 B.C.
Book VIII: Summer 413 B.C. (conclusion) to Summer 411 B.C.
Prior to the outbreak of the war in 431 B.C. there were already great tensions between Athens and Sparta that had been rumbling away for some 50 years. Athens had been growing at an exceptional rate and fast becoming rich, powerful, and very influential, something some of its neighbours were beginning to resent. Sparta was staunchly anti-Athens, and the Athenians growth and prosperity was undertaken fairly aggressively, hence the mounting tensions. Ultimately the two sides, the Athenians and the Spartan Peloponnesian League, went to war, Athens relying on overwhelming its enemy with their sheer strength and the Spartans fighting more ideologically, encouraging revolts and revolutions in the spirit of "freeing Greece". Nevertheless there was fighting from both sides; one example I found rather pertinent was the attack on Acharnae, which inspired Aristophanes' Acharnians (425 B.C.).

Thucydides also of course writes on the leaders of the time and includes a great many speeches. The tensions and subsequent outbreak was during the leadership of Pericles for the Athenians and Archidamus II, the king of Sparta. After Pericles' death in 429 B.C. the new leader was Cleon, a very divisive figure: I've mentioned before in another post of how Aristophanes fervently disliked Cleon for banning his first play Babylonians; Thucydides too had been prosecuted by Cleon (Thucydides was an Athenian general during a part of the war), so one does have to admit the possibility, given the two authors' unfavourable characterisation of Cleon, that perhaps he wasn't so bad. Whatever the case, Cleon followed from Pericles, and Brasidas from Archidamus II. By the time the war finished, power had passed from Cleon to Nicias to Alcibiades to Demosthenes , and on the Spartan side, from Brasidas to Lysander to Alcibiades.

Thucydides History is remarkable in that he gave a largely objective and unbiased report of the war, presenting the events in a strictly chronological structure and including speeches and first-hand accounts of the events. He also considers ideological motivations and the human aspects of the war, not simply loss but shifts in the psychological driving forces. He discusses not only human nature but the religious elements and mythology, particularly Homer, and the impact both from a cultural and social perspective as well as a geographical. For his depth and approach he is known now as the father of "scientific history". It's a very impressive read and I do feel I've learned a fair amount, but my absolute lack of knowledge was rather a disadvantage as I was rather overwhelmed by it. Still, as I said earlier, it is a very enjoyable read, I just wish I had have done a little better with it.

Fortunately, I've found a few people who did do very well with it! Here's two links for more information on Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War:

Comments

  1. This is one I would really like to tackle. I had to read it in college, but I had a week, and I can't say I understood anything. Someday---after I finish Herodotus--I will do it!

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    Replies
    1. It is a great read and I think at some point I'd like to read it again chunk by chunk. Given the position I was in (unfamiliar with the subject matter) it was good just to sit and read it, but now that introduction's over I'd like another shot at it at some point :)

      As for Herodotus - I'm really looking forward to reading him. I'm hoping to read Histories next month.

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  2. I read this at school too (along with Herodotus) & loved both.

    But this was quite some time ago now.
    I've added both to my classics club #2 list to prompt me to go there again.

    Reading your review has tempted me too....oh yo have more reading time......

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    Replies
    1. I would love more reading time... I was inspired to read The Iliad when reading this, hoping so much I can soon... I need a day (at least!) dedicated to reading :)

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