History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides

Monday, May 16, 2016

In his introduction, Thucydides remarks that “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.” He then makes the claim: “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.” (p. 48, Rex Warner translation) Those represent extraordinary claims, but they are ones that Thucydides more than lives up to.

In effect, Thucydides paints an extraordinary tableau—on one side capturing the sharp end of war, while on the other laying out not only the strategic framework within which wars occur but the moral and human consequences that result from human conflict. His depiction of the prewar crisis lays out the Peloponnesian War’s great cause, “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” (p. 49) Then, after capturing the larger issue in the making of wars, he examines the immediate factors that explain why war broke out in 431 B.C. and not in some other year. Chance, friction, ambiguity all dominate his telling of the war and present a world that in every respect resembles the one in which we live. Equally important is Thucydides’ understanding of the terrible impact of war in destroying the civilized standards of how men act in peacetime. Like Clausewitz, Thucydides carries in his text warnings for those who consider war an easy solution to the complex problems that they confront in the international arena. He has the Spartan king Archidamus warn his fellow countrymen in the Spartan Assembly: “Spartans in the course of my life I have taken part in many wars and I see among you many of the same age I am. They and I have had experience, and so are not likely to share in what may be a general enthusiasm for war, nor to think that war is a good or safe thing.” (p. 82) Thucydides has indeed written a work not only for his age, but for ours as well.