As with Beowulf, it seems a bit hubristic to “review” History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Written about four centuries before the birth of Christ, it’s far older than almost any book you will read and, needless to say, there’s a reason it has been passed down by generation after generation.
That’s because the stories and lessons in it are timeless. The political debates about the war, from Pericles’ warnings to the Athenians to the Athenian debate with the Mytileneans show how war can degrade the humanity of a people and how things don’t always end up the way you expect. The stories of individual heroes, politicians, and champions in History of the Peloponnesian War have inspired or informed generations. And, most of all, the focus on great power competition in it, all the more important now due to America’s new cold war with China, has led to countless debates on if war between established and rising powers is inevitable.
So, rather than review it in the traditional sense, I’ll give a summary of it and then delve into what I think the most important lessons are from it. I don’t deign to think myself informed enough to critique Thucydides, but do think I was able to gather a few takeaways from it that we should all keep in mind.
Summary of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
The Peloponnesian War was a war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League, which was headed by the Spartans. While a few states did their best to remain uninvolved, most city-states and kingdoms in the Classical world eventually participated. Persia provided support to the Spartans, Sicily became a major battleground with its largest power, Syracuse, siding with the Spartans, and most of Hellas and the Peloponnese was a battleground for decades. Cities were sacked, farmland was ravaged, slaves were taken, and thousands of hoplites perished in seemingly never-ending combat.
Thucydides, in his brilliant History of the Peloponnesian War tells what happened. He describes how the war began, why certain states chose to side with whom they did, and why subsequent events played out in the manner that they did. While the book ends before the conclusion of the war, it does show the general trend of Sparta triumphing over Athens, largely as a result of increased morale and help from Alcibiades, along with Athens’ misguided decision to invade Sicily.
As the introduction to my translation, published by Penguin Classics, noted, Thucydides was one of the few ancient authors to demonstrate a commitment to the truth. While he doesn’t cite his sources, something unthinkable for a modern historian, he obviously did his research and interviewed countless combatants and politicians from all sides to find out why decisions were made, what happened during battles, and to pass on the truth about the war to future generations.
The result is a magnificent, highly detailed depiction of an ancient war. Thucydides, because of his research and commitment to the truth rather than propaganda, is able to give the reader the facts about the war.
That’s most obvious in two areas- speeches and battles. With the speeches he includes, whether they be from generals inspiring their troops at the front, politicians pushing for one policy decision or another at home, or diplomats discussing terms of surrender or alliance, Thucydides demonstrates a knowledge of what was said and, although there are doubtless inaccuracies, the speeches are useful in telling the story and representing the inclinations of the sides involved. Likewise, with the battles, Thucydides shows an understanding of both Spartan and Athenian perspectives (and their allies in each battle), which helps him construct the battles and faithfully represent how they went for each side.
Few stories from the ancient world are meant to be truthful. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks is, although some of it is shrouded in myth. Likewise, Tacitus was probably trying to faithfully relate the truth in what he wrote. But, other than that, most works are shrouded in myth or meant to be somewhat propagandistic- demonstrating morality, teaching the next generations how to be great men, or building legends about the state.
What makes Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War great is that he tries to faithfully describe the war. While some of it might be untrue, the reader can generally be safe in assuming that what he wrote actually happened, even if a few minor details might be wrong.
With all that in mind, know that History of the Peloponnesian War will teach you an incredible amount about the Greek world in that era. How justice was perceived, the culture of each city state, the motivations of certain politicians and states, how war was waged, what battle on land and sea was like, how sieges were conducted, and much more. It’s a veritable treasure trove of information about ancient Greece.
What You’ll Learn from History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
What History of the Peloponnesian War is most known for is its discussion of great power competition, mostly because Thucydides presents Athens and Sparta as being destined for war. However, like many others, I think that depiction is somewhat simplistic and isn’t necessarily supported by the facts in the book. For one, after presenting the war in that manner at the beginning, Thucydides neither returns to it nor relates any facts about the start of the war to that idea. Instead, the war is, to me, much more reminiscent of World War I; the main powers stumbled toward war and were pushed over the edge by politicians that wanted to fight rather than reach a reasonable compromise. They weren’t destined for war, Pericles of Athens, Sparta’s Corinthian allies, and others pushed them into a decades-long struggle.
Instead of great power competition, I think the main lessons in History of the Peloponnesian War relate to the deleterious effects of a long war for democracies and how individuals can have an outside influence on history.
Beginning with the deleterious effects of a long war for democracies, Athens changes significantly over the course of the war. In the beginning, although somewhat realism-focused, it’s still the Athens we think of when contemplating the ancient world: a democracy with somewhat lofty ideals and ambitions. But, while Sparta was a kingdom that could keep its society together because the best men were in charge and had a commitment to conservative, safe policies, Athens was a democracy that grew frustrated with the long, slogging combat. As a result, by the end of History of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was completely changed. An oligarchy (the 400) had taken over the city, an imprudent invasion of Sicily had cost it thousands of troops and much-needed funds, and its lofty, democratic ideals had been replaced with utter realism, as shown by its refusal to even discuss justice during the famous Melian Dialogue. The war destroyed Athens, even before it was defeated.
On a brighter note, History of the Peloponnesian War also shows how individuals can change the course of history. Alcibiades helped the Spartans win by switching sides when the Athenians turned on him and showing the Spartans how to defeat the Athenians. Similarly, Pericles and Cleon were significant in affecting decision making and, at times, the fate of the war hung on the actions of certain generals or diplomats. Had the strategy of the combined Spartan-Corinthian-Sycracusian force been different on Sicily, had the Spartan general Lysander not won the final major naval battle of the war, Athens might have won. Individuals can change the course of history. History of the Peloponnesian War proves that.
Few books have been as influential for as long as History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. As I said earlier, there’s a good reason for that; it’s simply excellent. Thucydides’ commitment to truth makes the events described believable and the lessons learned from it not false takeaways. His depiction of battles, tactics, strategy, and the logistics of ancient warfare will help you learn about what combat in that era was like.
Yes, it is a bit dense and can be hard to read. Yes, it does jump around somewhat and some events, such as the Melian Dialogue, aren’t introduced as well as we might like. And, of course, it would have been better had Thucydides cited the sources he used.
But, despite those minor flaws, flaws that might be simply the fault of the passage of time, History of the Peloponnesian War is excellent. It, like few other books, is an absolute “must read.” There’s almost nothing else like it. You need to read it.