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“History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides



Thucydides’ first stated purpose was to chronicle the great war.

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. (1.1)

He also wanted to help people understand the past, and (perhaps) to avoid repeating mistakes in the future:

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to met the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever. (1.22)

He also wanted to establish his own excellence and, I believe, to spread his interpretation of the events.

The Greatest War

Why did Thucydides’ believe the war he chronicled was the greatest war?

My belief was based on the fact that the two sides were at the very height of their power and preparedness, and I saw, too, that the rest of the Hellenic world was committed to one side or the other; even those who were not immediately engaged were deliberating on the courses which they were to take later. This [war] was the greatest disturbance in the history of the Hellenes, affecting also a large part of the non-Hellenic world, and indeed, I might almost say, the whole of mankind. (1.1)

He continues on to recount why earlier times were less sophisticated and advanced than his own, using a combination of reasoning and observations from Greek legends. In these passages, Thucydides demonstrates an impressive capacity to reason from individual’s motives. For example, he deduces that earlier people did not have a “regular system of agriculture they lacked the protection of fortifications and at any moment an invader might appear and take their land from them.” He deduces that earlier cities were placed inland to avoid raiders, but when sea-trade became more important, new cities were placed nearer to the coast. He reasons the kings who accompanied Agamemnon did so because he was powerful, and not because of the oaths they took. It is interesting that he implicitly trusts the overall narrative of Homer, while being skeptical about the details. His discussions here are similar to Herodotus’ arguments about why Helen was left in Egypt.

Throughout this discussion, Thucydides’ is careful to recognize the difficulty in understanding the past:

For though I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distance past or even of the history preceding our own period, yet, after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else. (1.1)

Mycenae certainly was a small place, and many of the tows of that period do not seem to us today to be particularly imposing; yet this is not good evidence for rejecting what the poets and what general tradition have to say about the size of the expedition. Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that they place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. (1.10)

In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way—even when these stories concerns their own native countries. (1.20)

However, I do not think that one will be far wrong in accepting the conclusions I have reached from the evidence which I have put forward. It is better evidence than that of the poets, who exaggerate the importance of their themes, or of the prose chroniclers, who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be checked, and whose subject-matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology. We may claim instead to have used only the plainest evidence and to have reached conclusions which are reasonably accurate, considering that we have been dealing with ancient history. As for this present war, even though people are apt to think that the war in which they are fighting is the greatest of all wars and, when it is over, to relapse again into their admiration of the past, nevertheless, if one looks at the facts themselves, one will see that this was the greatest war of all. (1.21)

After some brief comments about his approach, Thucydides resumes his argument as to why the Peloponnesian war was the greatest war ever, by explaining why he thought it was greater than the war recounted by Herodotus:

The greatest war in the past was the Persian War; yet in this ware the decision was reached quickly as a result of two navel battles and two battles on land. (1.22)

The Cause

What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta. (1.23)

The Greek poleis thought of themselves as independent political units. During the war, there was pressure to join the Delian or Peloponnesian leagues. In a limited sense, this was pressure for the Greeks to produce larger political structures. This process is seen during the speech of the Corcyrians to the Athenians:

What has happened is that our policy in the past appears to have been against our own present interests, and at the same time makes it look inconsistent of us to be asking help from you. It certainly looks inconsistent to be coming here to ask for help when in the past we have deliberately avoided all alliances; and it is because of this very policy that we are now left entirely along to fact a war with Corinth. We used to think that our neutrality was a wise thing, since it prevented us being dragged into danger by other people’s policies; now we see it clearly as a lack of foresight and to a source of weakness. (1.32)

It seems to me that concerns about being overrun by larger political groups will produce an upward pressure on smaller groups. This pressure will continue exherting itself until there are two groups remaining. Clearly there are other pressures, many of which push towards smaller sizes.

All quotations are taken from Rex Warner’s 1954 translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War, published by Penguin Classics.