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Historical Context for History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Thucydides & The Peloponnesian War 

The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta—the two leading ancient Greek city states—and their respective allies. Thucydides' narrative covers the first 20 years of the conflict, which came to a final end in 404 BCE.  (Why the narrative is incomplete is not known; It was continued by Xenophon who covers the last seven years of the war in his Hellenica.)  A number of sources of friction sparked the hostilities, notably Athenian intervention in a quarrel between Corinth (Sparta's ally) and her colony Corcyra, but the real reason for the conflict, according to the Athenian historian Thucydides, was the rise of Athens to greatness, which made the Spartans fear for their own position.

Athens was morally the aggressor, but it was Sparta who first declared war. In the event, Sparta's army was far superior in quality and quantity, but the Athenians had an even bigger advantage at sea. The defences of Athens were strong and the city could not be starved into surrender, as it was connected to the port of Piraeus by the Long Walls and could import supplies almost with impunity. It had sufficient finances to buy supplies and pay the fleet (and army). This was the assessment of the situation made by Pericles, the Athenian leader, and his strategy was based upon it. He persuaded the country population to move themselves and their possessions into the city and into the space between the Long Walls, temporarily sacrificing their farms.

The Delian League (Athens) in yellow;  The Peloponnesian League (Sparta), in green. (Wikimedia Commons)The Delian League (Athens) in yellow; The Peloponnesian League (Sparta), in green. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first 10 years of the war, known as the Archidamian War from the name of the Spartan king who led the incursions into Attica, were indecisive. The Peloponnesians who invaded and ravaged Attica in 431 found it deserted, and after about a month returned home; this was to be, in general, the pattern for the next six years. In 430, however, a devastating plague broke out in Athens and the city lost more than a quarter of her population. Fatefully, Pericles himself died of plague in 429, his death depriving Athens of the only leader who could cajole the unruly Athenians to stick with a coherent strategy.  Nevertheless, even without Pericles, the Athens won a number of victories on land and at sea in the next few years, notably the capture of Pylos in 425.  And, as a result, Sparta gave up her annual invasions of Attica and made overtures for peace.

Pericles' successor Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the Spartan peace offers.  But both he and the outstanding Spartan general Brasidas were killed at Amphipolis in 422, and thus the two chief opponents of peace were removed (the "pestles of war" as they were called in Aristophanes' Peace). The Peace of Nicias was concluded in 421. It was in the main a victory for Athens, especially since she kept her empire intact while her enemies were divided, Corinth and Boeotia refusing to sign the Peace.

The Peace of Nicias was unstable, however, and broke down completely in 415 when Athens, under the influence of Alcibiades, sent a great fleet to attack Syracuse. The Sicilian Expedition was a disaster, ending in 413 with the defeat of the Athenian fleet and army and the exhaustion of their finances.  Sparta, meanwhile, was developing a good fleet of her own, financed by Persia. The war at sea continued to go Athens' way for several years, but in 405 the Spartan commander Lysander destroyed the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami. Besieged by land and sea, without money or allies, Athens capitulated in April 404 and became virtually the subject-ally of the victor.

Adapted From:

Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature


Thucydides: Transformation of the Historiographic Tradition

In the tradition of Greek historical writing Thucydides does not betray influence but rather shows radical innovation. The early 5th Century BCE produced several prose narratives—now preserved only in fragments—of genealogies beginning with the mythical past or of traditional stories centered on one particular geographic area. By contrast with these, Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars, which may have appeared as late as the 420s, was a sprawling masterpiece, eschewing most myth but transporting the reader to distant lands, with frequent, long, and marginally relevant digressions, written in the most artful and delightful prose that the classical Greek language ever achieved. Herodotus’ work presented his readers with assorted theories and moralizing by a genial author happy to pass on information that he hears from any source.

Thucydides’ intimate knowledge of Herodotus is probable, but his formal project is completely different—and he never mentions Herodotus’ name, nor Herodotus’ word “history.” Implicit for Thucydides is that history must be useful, and to that end it must deal with a contemporary event whose accuracy is painstakingly verified; the structure must be strictly chronological and the historical event must be of sufficient duration, magnitude and unity to have exemplary significance. With a few notable exceptions, his authorial voice is withheld after Book One: once begun, the narrative is impersonal, analyses and generalizations being offered by the characters themselves in speeches to each other.

These historiographical innovations are matched by Thucydides' distinctive prose style. In reaction to the extended parallel sentences of rhetoricians like Gorgias, Thucydides’ speeches and analytical passages are characterized by abstraction and express complex ideas concisely. Even in antiquity his Greek was considered notoriously difficult to parse and is seldom imitated in modern translations.

Adapted From:

Oxford Encyclopedia of Greece & Rome