Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Part 1

1642again, Going Postal
Chigi Vase with Hoplites holding javelins and spears
Chigi Painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long wanted to write about Thucydides, widely regarded as the greatest historian of the ancient world and, as far as we know, only the second of the discipline after Herodotus’ account of the Persian War and the years preceding it.  Indeed, I have promised at least one person here and many times I have picked up the pen to start writing, only to put it down again for want of knowing where to start. Dozens, hundreds, of books have been written about Thucydides, son of Olorus, and his history of the Peloponnesian War between the confederacies of Sparta and Athens which lasted from 431 to 404 BC until the surrender of Athens.

I don’t want to write yet another account of the war or a detailed analysis of Thucydides’ method – he has largely been called the ‘the father of scientific history’ as if the writing of history can be scientific in the true sense, i.e. objective, neutral and based solely on evidence which can be replicated time and again by demonstration.  Yet even today the academic literature largely repeats this claim, something he never claimed himself although he came close, but which was the invention of the German historians of the 19th century.

What I do want to do over a series of articles is show that what Thucydides was trying to do was far more ambitious than merely record the events of the war and its causes.  Why bother you may cry?  Well, in a way not only did Thucydides shape the way we think history should be written, but as importantly he was trying for the first time ever of which we know to understand and illustrate what we might call ‘the human condition’ or ‘human nature’ when exposed to extreme stress, not just of war but also natural disaster or pandemic.  I would also argue he might be considered the inventor of political analysis and history, and the study of the political process both within countries/states and between them in a wholly secular sense.  Just as the Bible writers shaped the way we view morality and religion, and Newton etc the way we conceive of the scientific method, Thucydides shaped more than any other the way we think of the political and historical process.  The three sides of the triangle that make up Western Civilisation, its world view and very thought assumptions.  Big claims indeed, but ones supported by the fact that military staff colleges, political theorists and academics still study and debate a relatively minor war fought nearly 2,500 years ago – due solely to the vividity and nature of Thucydides’ account.

Who was Thucydides?

We know surprisingly little about him.  We know he was an Athenian from a wealthy family, born around 460 BC and died probably around 400 BC, just after Athens’ defeat.  He seems to have a Thracian (today Bulgaria) mother and Athenian father, and his family clearly had extensive financial and property interests in the Northern Aegean and probably Thrace itself.  So much so that he was elected strategos or general, one of the ten elected annually by the citizenry, and given command of some Athenian forces in the region in 424 BC, being based himself with a small naval squadron on the island of Thasos.  Pretty well all the Greek cites on the northern coast of the Aegean were under Athenian control and an Athenian general with strong links to local Thracian royalty was an obvious appointment.  Thucydides’ problem was that the best general Sparta produced in over half a century, Brasidas, turned up with a small army during his stint of command in the area and proceeded to incite local Greek cities to revolt against Athenian control and cause severe damage to an economically important area of the Athenian imperium.  Most notably, Brasidas captured the strategically crucial Athenian colony of Amphipolis before Thucydides could stop him.  The disaster was such that Thucydides was sacked and exiled for 20 years by a furious Athenian citizen Assembly.  The exile didn’t cost him his citizenship or his wealth, and he was able to live on his Thracian estates and travel freely in areas controlled by the Spartan alliance so came to develop a good understanding of the war from the perspective of both sides.

Politically, his family had been associated with Cimon, the dominant and pro Spartan military and political leader of Athens before his birth.  Cimon, and his centrist conservative party, backed largely by the middle-class landowning citizenry, lost power to what are called by moderns the ‘radical democrats’ who, depending on the landless citizenry, were largely urban.  Pericles was the leader of the latter and the dominant military and political leader in Athens for over three decades and it was his imperialist policies that caused the breach with Sparta and led to war.  That said, Thucydides clearly admired Pericles and saw him as a far better and more pragmatic leader than his successors, demagogues such as Cleon, whom he clearly despised and blamed for his own exile.

Thucydides tells us little of himself other than this, and later writers add little than can be trusted.  His history breaks off mid-sentence with seven years of the war to go and it is generally viewed that he died suddenly before completion, a great loss because, while later historian such as Xenophon picked up literally when Thucydides left off, they are not regarded so highly as sources.  Later writers suggest he returned to Athens from exile after the lapse of his 20-year exile and the fall of Athens in 404 BC, but that’s about it.


The surviving book is divided into eight books with Book 8 uncompleted, with Book 1 setting out in abbreviated form the events between the Persian Wars and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War half a century later, and the causes of the outbreak of the war.  He attributes the latter to the Athenians’ relentless empire building and the Spartans’ fear that they were being surrounded and their allies picked off.  There was also an ideological component – the Spartan confederations’ members were largely aristocracies or partial democracies controlled by the citizen soldier farmer class, whereas Athens and the states it controlled were largely radical democracies controlled by the landless majority.  There was even a racial component – the Athenians and most of their imperium were Ionian Greeks speaking a different dialect and having different origin histories, even gods, from Sparta and its allies, who were Dorian or other minority Greek groups such as the Arcadians or Boiotians.  Ultimately, Thucydides’ analysis of the causes of the war are almost certainly correct – it was chiefly down to Sparta’s feeling of fear at relentless Athenian expansion.

If he had lived to finish writing, it would probably have comprised ten books, each divided into short chapters.  In reality these divides are not the work of Thucydides but later editors to make it easier to read.  Thucydides’ own script would have no divides, no punctuation, no spaces between words or letters, and all the latter would be in capitals only – these writing devices had not been invented in his day.  Add in his already obscure and tortured syntax and one can see why even in the ancient world he had a reputation for being almost impenetrable.

He uses an annalistic chronology divided by years so that broadly contemporary events appear alongside one another in passages, his innovation as far as we know based on the annual lection for the main Athenian offices of state.

What was Thucydides’ Motive and Purpose in Writing His History?

By now I hope I have piqued your interest. If I have, I suggest you buy a copy of The Peloponnesian War, perhaps the readily accessible Penguin Classics translation so you can follow through the series of articles I hope to write.  Believe me, if you want to understand something of the secular forces at work in our society today, it will repay the time and few £s invested, and that’s why I want to write these articles.  We live in climactic times as did Thucydides, and he understood that from the first and in his introductory chapters of Book 1, especially chapters 20-23, he outlines why he believed the Peloponnesian War was the greatest in history to his time, if not the biggest in numbers (chapter 21), and then makes the most extraordinary claim of all which is worth quoting in full:

“And it may well be that my history will be 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 meet the immediate taste of a public but was done to last for all time.”

Such arrogance! Such self confidence!  Only the second attested historian in history (excluding the Hebrew historical books of the Old Testament which I would account the first history books), designed his work to last forever, not appeal to the immediate public, but so true that 2.500 years later academics are still writing books about his achievement, military and political colleges studying and teaching it, and he shaped as I have outlined two study genres.

These chapters are still controversial and strongly disputed by academics even today. What did he mean?  His Greek was notorious for being the most complex and obtuse even in his day, but in these key chapters it becomes almost impenetrable and difficult to translate well, as if a man with an enormous conceptual capacity and vision was struggling to put it into the words of his day, as if mere language did not possess the bandwidth to download the content of his vision and wisdom.  Reading them in the Greek is hard work and translations differ, but his intent is clear – his book was to demonstrate to future generations how states and people behave in climatically stressful times and that human nature, not changing as it does, people will go on responding in similar ways and making the same mistakes as they did in his day.

In a way he intended his work was to provide a case study for future generations to be able to avoid some of the mistakes of his own generation, but he strikes a profoundly pessimistic note in saying that he knows that they won’t and that they will go on repeating the mistakes of the past.

So, what were the lessons he wanted to demonstrate to we future generations?  Future articles will address these but broadly they all touch on the corrosive effects of stresses such as cynical/amoral realpolitik, war, plague, civil strife and demagoguery on societies.  Now all good novels try to follow the maxim show, don’t tell and Thucydides’ dramatic prose in an early example, He doesn’t tell you what conclusions to draw, but the way he selects and describes events gives you little room not to absorb the lessons he is trying to teach.  In many ways he applies the dramatic techniques used by his contemporaries such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to the telling of history. It’s clever and all the academics arguing that Thucydides invented ‘scientific history’ missed it completely and many still do.  In the early 1970s a Canadian scholar – Virginia Hunter – wrote a brilliant book arguing against this traditional view and that Thucydides embedded his world view within his account without ever stating it.  Even today you can look at a contemporary book on Thucydides and find her and the books of likeminded scholars not cited in the bibliography – the upstart view, which is spot on in my view, is simply ignored.

The Role of Speeches in Thucydides

When you first read The Peloponnesian War you are struck by the number of long speeches supposedly quoted from those made by the leaders of protagonists in the events being described.  Thucydides even discussed it in the introductory chapters mentioned above:

I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation. Essentially an admission that he generally made them up as required go serve the purposes underlying his narrative.  That’s not to say he made them all up – it’s almost certain that he heard Pericles’ Funeral Oration as he says and may well have written much of it down, but then edited it to serve his purposes.  The vast majority of the others he cannot have heard and it’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of other speeches recounted were written down by observers at all, being made, if at all, on the eve of battles.

This has always been a problem for the traditional ‘scientific historian’ school, but as with all inconvenient data, the dominant academic or scientific school of thought just tends to explain away or ignore something that undermines their cherished theory.  It’s not uncommon in any academic discipline, whether ancient chronology with the radical redating based on hard evidence proposed by David Rohl and others such as Peter James, or indeed climatology.

The Dualist Mechanic at the Core of the Narrative

In reality the speeches play a crucial part in Thucydides’ narrative, generally coming in pairs setting out to their troops the plans and intentions of opposing commanders before battles or sieges.  What then follows is the events the speeches cover and then the reader can see who was right and who was wrong.  Words/thoughts (logoi) precede events/actions (erga).  The dualist mechanic is threaded through the narrative and appears in different forms elsewhere, for example Pericles’ Funeral Oration (words) is followed by the events of the Plague in Athens (events) – it’s a compare and contrast mechanism showing the fallibility of even the greatest human minds’ assumptions.  I will cover this pair of events in a subsequent article in much more detail.  It also operates in debates on strategy between parties on the same side either in councils of war or in the citizen assembly.

Once you notice this dualism involving speeches and events, you also begin to see dualities of events widely separated in time which illustrate the effect of war on people’s morality and decision making, for example the Athenian debates about what to do about the captured rebel city of Mytilene, where the Athenians only just pull back from an act of extermination, to their unprovoked assault on the neutral island of Melos and their extermination of the entire population just over a decade later, another subject for a future article.  Thucydides is basically illustrating how the collapse of rationality and morality go hand in hand after a society is placed under long term stress.  Ultimately, the Athenian democracy goes feral, gives itself over the worst instincts of humanity, falls into the hands of charlatan leaders and sows the seeds of its own destruction.

The greatest regret for me of Thucydides’ death before recounting the defeat of Athens in 404 BC is how he would have treated the Spartans’ astonishing decision to defy their vengeful allies and to spare Athens from destruction, something they had not done to Athens’ ally Plataea at the start of the war.  We know that the Spartans spared Athens ostensibly because of its role in helping defeat the Persian invasion but that did not stop them destroying Plataea, another hero of the war against Persia.  It’s pretty clear to me that if he had finished his account of the war the reader would have been left with two inversions, the pitiless Spartans at the start of the war learning the lessons of their defeats to become rationally merciful (sparing Athens helped them put a check on their ambitious ally Thebes’ ambitions) while the well-led rational Athens of the start of the war described in Pericles Funeral Oration becomes an immorally savage imperial state which falls prey to the most self-destructive emotions.


Hopefully, you will be by now interested in Thucydides and what he is doing in his history. It’s a brilliant and subtle piece of writing that still deceives many today, and it is 2,500 years old.  Its series of encoded structures and tropes deep within the narrative suggests a mind of architectural genius. It may even have been unconscious, at least partly, on his part as to in which events he saw particular significance and how he wanted to persuade subtly his readers to see things his way by show, don’t tell.  Add to that a real talent for dramatic writing when he put his mind to it (something to cover in future, for instance the defeat of the Athenian invasion of Sicily) and his effective cover story of objectivity (haha), and one can see why he is still studied avidly today.  And the lessons he had to teach are every bit as valid today as they were in his time, as he so confidently asserted.

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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