|Old Dominion University
Analysis of The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
Prof. Del Corso
By: Robert Townsend
26 January 2010
The History of the Peloponnesian War was written by Thucydides (c.460-400 B.C.), a Greek author and historian. Thucydides resided in Athens for much of his life around the time when Pericles was in power and Sparta and Athens were at war.1 He was very rich and quite powerful within the government, becoming general for a short time, but failing to thwart Spartan attackers. After his failure and subsequent exile around 424 B.C., he was sent out of Athens, and continued to document events in Athens through primary sources until its end.2 Just before he died, Thucydides returned to Athens.
As the title suggests, the book is a recollection of the Peloponnesian War, a battle between the powerful Greek city-states of Sparta (combined with the Peloponnesian League) and Athens (leading the Delian League). The war, however, was neither random nor unexpected. As noted in The History, war became inevitable when Athens’ flourishing trade and governmental system under Pericles became too strong, and Sparta attacked at the first signs of weakness in Athens’ dominance over their many external territories.3
Thucydides writes in a mainly chronological order of events throughout the war, while also including analyses of political and civil thought behind the actions taken, as well as many quotes from the leaders of both sides of the war. The History is divided into eight books, all of them documenting specific years of the war, beginning with a brief Greek history, the period between the Persian War and the Peloponnesian War, and some early thoughts about why the war was imminent by Thucydides himself.
The History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the most significant documents of the historical discipline. While Thucydides was Athenian, The History remains mainly neutral, as sources from both sides were used to gather quotes and specifics of battles. This was a revolutionary idea at the time (though common sense today) that changed how history was recorded.4 Thucydides’ exclusion of references to an angry god or godly interference was also very significant regarding historical recording. Instead, he focused on the human side and how it was what the leaders chose to do, not what the gods wanted of them, that led to all of the events that occurred.5
The Cold War between the USSR and United States is one of the most recent and comparable connections to Thucydides’ The History. The dominance of the United States in foreign affairs starting with World War II, the immense spending on out strengthening, and the seemingly ever-present threat of war all relate to the Athens-Sparta competitions which were recorded by Thucydides, and was recognized by historians and politicians as such.6 Using The History of the Peloponnesian War enabled Cold War analysts to look at and comprehend what was happening in ways unavailable had it not been for Thucydides.
Many dilemmas that Thucydides confronts during The History have been repeated throughout history and are commonly talked about among historians and policymakers. One of the most relevant still today is the idea of a disparity between how government interacts with its own citizens and how a government interacts with another country. Thucydides, influenced by fellow Athenians, believed that while within a country the people are mostly equal, the many differences between countries lead to inequality on an international level which in turn causes many problems.7
Thucydides’ analysis of what will eventually be known as Realpolitik and Realism revolutionized thought of political science in every century to the present.8 The theory that personal gain and survival is the focal point of all foreign policy has been reaffirmed by some of the best political thinkers including Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes.9 Thucydides’ conclusion regarding Realism is not a positive one, however. While it is obvious that a country must focus on its own survival, he states in The History that overindulgence in self-interest regarding foreign policy is detrimental. Watching Athens fall to Sparta largely in part of Athens’ rulers selfishly overreaching their power to distant lands, Thucydides was able to make a strongly supported argument that such actions of selfishness “risks provoking an extreme and self-destructive moralistic or religious backlash,” and will ultimately lead to failure.10
When attempting to dig deeper into what Thucydides said, whether intentional or not, still more influential discoveries can be found within The History. Thucydides began authoring his account of the war before the war even began. Many analysts, such as Steven Forde of the University of North Texas, believe this predetermination of the massive war-to-be suggests that relations between opposing sides, especially at a magnitude that large, cannot be reversed.11 Throughout history, as observed by many thinkers of their respective ages, this pattern has been repeated, from the French Revolution to the Second World War, where the fighting did not end until one side was almost completely obliterated.
The History of the Peloponnesian War is an essential document to this day not only because of the significance it has on the understanding of the specific event, but because of the understanding it gives us regarding international affairs since 400 B.C. to 2010 A.D. It can even be argued that the analysis in The History reaches beyond the historical discipline and into philosophy and early science.12 While there were other influential ancient historians, most notably near-contemporary Herodotus13, Thucydides’ analysis and constant search for truths make The History undoubtedly the most important and relevant ancient text regarding history itself.
AAC Staff, “Causes,” The Peloponnesian War 1998. (January 26, 2010)
Ahrensdorf, Peter J. “Thucydides’ Realistic Critique of Realism,” Polity (Winter 2007): 233-65.
Croix, G. E. M. De Ste. “Herodotus,” Greece & Rome 2 (Oct. 1977): 130-148.
Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Realism and Realpolitik,” history of Europe, (Jan. 26 2010).
Forde, Steven. “Thucydides on Ripeness and Conflict Resolution,” International Studies Quarterly (March 2004): 177-95.
Hooker, Richard. “Thucydides,” Ancient Greece. 1999. (January 26, 2010).
Kagan, Donald. Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. Penguin Group, 2009.
Kemos, Alexander. “The Influence of Thucydides on the Modern World,” Point of Reference (1998), Harvard University. (January 26, 2010).
Kreis, Steven. “Thucydides c.460-c.400 B.C.,” Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. 2009. (January 26, 2010)
Moseley, Alexander. “Political Realism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer Reviewed Academic Source (2005), University of Tennessee at Martin. (January 26, 2010).
Zagorin, Perez. Thucydides: An Introduction to the Common Reader. Princeton University Press, 2005.