Written four hundred years before the birth of Christ, this detailed contemporary account of the long life and death struggle between Athens and Sparta stands an excellent chance of fulfilling its author s ambitious claim Thucydides himself cBC was an Athenian and achieved the rank of general in the earlier stages of the war He applied thereafter a passion for accuracy and a contempt for myth and romance in compiling this factual record of a disastrous conflict For over three years I was a history major at Grinnell College In the junior year only one course requirement remained, historiography, a course taught by only one faculty member That was fine by me until we got to Augustine s City of God which, at the time, I thought was absolutely crazy and unreadable I ve since read it Having almost completed the requirements for a religion degree as well by then, I switched majors and graduated on schedule.Although Augustine was unsupportable, I very mu For over three years I was a history major at Grinnell College In the junior year only one course requirement remained, historiography, a course taught by only one faculty member That was fine by me until we got to Augustine s City of God which, at the time, I thought was absolutely crazy and unreadable I ve since read it Having almost completed the requirements for a religion degree as well by then, I switched majors and graduated on schedule.Although Augustine was unsupportable, I very much enjoyed being made to read Thukydides History as anyone would because of how his seems so modern and objective an account.What is interesting in this regard is how unique Thukydides is To my knowledge, no other historian approaches what we regard as serious historical scholarship until the Enlightenment, untilthan a thousand years later Read Herodotos, Diodoros, Livy or Suetonius to see what I mean Tell me if you can think of an exception The only one who comes to mind is Caesar whose account of the Gallic Wars approaches history Towards the end of this book I had a flashback of watching an episode of Mastermind in the 80s, the contestant had chosen the Spartan military as their specialist subject was asked being asked by Magnus Magnusson, the Icelandic Viking who swooped down from the north to Britain as a child to become a TV quiz host, why the Spartans had stopped their campaign on one particular occasion and gone home The correct answer was that this was in response to an earthquake Judging by Thucydides history t Towards the end of this book I had a flashback of watching an episode of Mastermind in the 80s, the contestant had chosen the Spartan military as their specialist subject was asked being asked by Magnus Magnusson, the Icelandic Viking who swooped down from the north to Britain as a child to become a TV quiz host, why the Spartans had stopped their campaign on one particular occasion and gone home The correct answer was that this was in response to an earthquake Judging by Thucydides history that could have been a lucky guess The best way to maintain a reputation as fierce some warriors is not to fight, but to be frightening, and the Spartans seem to have displayed a rare skill in finding reasons in the shape of a sacrificed animal s liver or a passing earthquake or a religious festival for either staying home or returning there.I found Thucydides difficult to start view spoiler the translation might have been an issue hide spoiler but increasingly intriguing His history is a book that can be reread, studied, attention paid to each word as much because of what he doesn t say and how he says what he does.It is an ambitious book in several ways Thucydides was writing after Herodotus and his epic on the Persian war but opens by telling us that this war wasworthy of of relation than any that had preceded itthe greatest movement yet known in history p1 Secondly Thucydides makes great claims for his precision and accuracy implicitly a dig here at Herodotus and his giant gold gathering ants or the baby Cyrus lowered in a basket into a river to be brought up by step parents but you ve heard that story before Both claims are dubious, the first has become a common place, people invariably want to claim that the story they want to tell is about the biggest, most impressive, amazing, far reaching, and influential story ever in the history of history and they can t all be right,the other requires the reader s trust in Thucydides He has decided what to trust as reliable information and what to include in his history While he mentions a couple of times comparing accounts he never gives any clue as to whose accounts he is comparing or indeed when The composition of the book is unclear, some parts seemcomplete than others Parts of the book were presumably being written or revised decades after the events and since he doesn t reveal his sources there are untold layers of interpretation between the pages While with Herodotus I hadof a feeling that I knew where I was in terms of what source materials were going into the finished work view spoiler apparently everything and anything and the giant gold gathering ants are fun hide spoiler Thucydides does have some clear biases He is fan of Pericles, he can live with Athenian democracy but doesn t seem to be enthusiastic about it, he doesn t like Cleon and while he lived among the Peloponnesians after his exile seems to find the Athenians a superior bunch in terms of their lan.Remarkably given his stress on accuracy and reliability he tells us that he makes up the speeches that he has people say view spoiler With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said p.11 hide spoiler About mid way through I wondered if the speeches were a key, it was unhelpful to think of this a history, better to frame it in my imagination as a drama In which case this is a tale about hubris The pride of Athens that came before its fall.Thucydides tells a very familiar story of Machtpolitik Athens through fighting off the Persians obtains an Empire Sparta comes to fear Athenian power and is motivated by that to fight Athens Pericles has a wise policy of avoiding battle but this is undone, first by his death but then by the ambition of reckless, feckless and self serving politicians view spoiler as I said two thousand plus years later virtually everything in Thucydides is deeply familiar hide spoiler view spoiler in Thucydidies world there was in Pericles one of a unique type thoughtful, farseeing and good looking in a helmet hide spoiler At the same time in speeches a reoccurring criticism of Athens is its arrogance Given the opportunity, the subject parts of its empire will break away Athens can compel the rebels to obedience, but only for as long as its politicians are able to respect the foundations of Athenian power Some have read this as Thucydides believing that might is right and that a state should use power directly in pursuit of its own ends, simply taking what it wants I m not so sure, in the context of the history that isn t an approach that works out well for Athens view spoiler they lose the war hide spoiler Nor is Thucydides direct, the political attitudes are expressed in speeches made up to reflect what he felt was demanded of the speaker at the time and are typically paired one person arguing for a position, the other arguing against it This is a cleaned up, parred down, staged account of a decision making process played out in the theatre of public assemblies that runs counter to what he describes happening in book eight where we have political clubs view spoiler in Crawley s expression, which sound a bit too Jacobin to my ears, I can imagine that Thucydides was referring to something quite different hide spoiler , rumour and discussion between small groups of people going on in the aftermath of Athenian defeat in Sicily and the seizure of power by a Junta in Athens itself.This is intriguing, there is a sense of purpose beyond a historical inquiry into the twenty sevenish year war between Sparta, Athens, and their allies that is never quite spelled out but hangs elusive over the whole work The influence is clear in Livy s The War with Hannibal there is the same assertion of the epic and unique scope of the conflict view spoiler every war in recorded history now has to be bigger and evenimportant than the preceding on down to the Cod War which was the mightiest struggle of all time, waiting only for the emergence of its chronicler hide spoiler , the same use of paired speeches to stage a policy debate, the same use of a cart to block a gate to allow one side to gain entry to an enemy town which made me wonder if Livy or his sources were reusing Thucydides or if Hannibal co were themselves keen readers and took their tactical ideas from history or if some plans are just so basic that they are unwittingly repeated Perhaps this is why the long siege of Syracuse gets so much attention in Livy here victorious Rome clearly surpassed Athens.This was a very intimate conflict, when Athens lost in the region of five thousand of its citizens killed or captured in Sicily, this was about one in eight of its entire citizen population view spoiler which is to say adult men born to Athenian parents hide spoiler It was fought at close quarters, the bitter rivalry between Thebes and Potidaea is between a town and a village a couple of miles apart but will eventually end in the execution of every man left to defend Potidaea after a lengthy siege view spoiler most of the population were evacuated taking refuge in Athens leaving a contingent of men to fight and a force of women to bake their bread Eventually they surrender to the Spartans agreeing to be judged by them, the Spartans ask each man one question what service did you render Sparta during the siege naturally given their answers each man is then put to death hide spoiler I was then a little taken aback by Thucydides treatment of the Corcyrean Revolution For him this outbreak of inter communal violence seemed particularly horrific yet from an outsiders perspective it just seemed to be the application of a similar degree of violence within a community as they were prepared to visit upon a neighbouring community kill the men and sell the women and children into slavery this was the time when Euripides Trojan Women was first performed, the resonance must have been inescapable view spoiler he also writes that Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them p170 , while a general the world is going to hell in a hand basket meditation it is also an observation that remains contemporary, as does much of his description of how the great powers move among smaller states and decision making is open to manipulation but also to the logic of events hide spoiler view spoiler during the war Aristophanes play in which the women of Athens go on strike, refusing to have sex with their husbands until they do the sensible thing and make peace with the Spartans, was performed Aristophanes proposes an act of solidarity to achieve political ends but often what we see in Thucydides is political atomisation, most intensely in book eight People are isolated, alone with their feelings, fearful, but unable to find reassurance except through violence or maybe I m reading this too much in the spirit of Hobbes hide spoiler Fear plays its part in the revolution in Corcyra too Those who have power fear those who are excluded from it view spoiler not only class struggle but apparently also generational struggle as here fathers fought sons, mothers and daughters at least were left out of it at first hide spoiler , masters fear their slaves, Sparta fears Athens Yet this isn t entirely convincing It doesn t make a lot of sense that Sparta s conduct of the war until the first truce is so limited and so doesn t seem particularly fear driven invading Attica each summer providing the omens were favourable and there were no earthquakes or festivals This is another level at which Thucydides is intriguing, fear can be the general psychology background of a society yet the practical application of policy is capable of a range of nuance One of the Spartan kings they had two at any one time Agis seems to be the key figure here Through the speeches we get an illusion of being close to the mind of a character, yet the information that Thucydides does share with us holds us at arms length too, and much is obscure Is there enough in Thucydides description to imagine a power struggle between the king and the ephor the senior magistrate who speaks in favour of immediate war with Athens, that is realised in Agis conduct of the war Is the debate expressed to show how politicians manoeuvre with human emotion to win personal advantage Then again Thucydides is writing from hindsight In his remarks on Pericles and poor decisions made after his death he refers to the eventual ending of the war pp107 109 , while at the time his fellow citizens did not enjoy quite the same advantage of perspective My feeling was that Thucydides came close to blaming the citizens for being capable of being manipulated by others, but perhaps I was reading too much into him If you are tempted to dip your toes in and test the waters of Thucydides I d suggest starting with the Sicilian expedition It comes relatively late in the war but is a good narrative block with swings of fortune and the sad picture of Nicias, the commander of the Athenians on the verge of battle with the Syracusians, appalled by the position of affairs, realising the greatness and the nearness of the dangerand thinking, as men are apt to think in great crises, that when all has been done they have still something to do, and when all has been said that they have not yet said enough, again called on the captains one by one, addressing each by his father s name and by his own p399 Also of interest two new books on Thucydides history view spoiler I was also struck by how Alcibiades but also before him Themistocles after exile from Athens gave advice to the enemies of Athens in total contrast to the kind of patriotism expressed in the Roman story of Coriolanus who turned against Rome until his mother told him off, but then I suppose the desire to avoid the behaviour of an Alcibiades might well be precisely why the Romans had the story of Coriolanus hide spoiler view spoiler perhaps my memory serves me wrong but this seems to be a history in which women are silent appearing only to bake bread or be sold into slavery The interesting thing about this is how this means that the family relationships between political figures not to mention the brazen heterosexuality of Pericles completely fall by the wayside This includes Thucydides own family background, which if as speculated did include a relationship with Thracian royalty would explain his own role in events better than his silence It is another point of contrast with Herodotus in which the Queen of the Massagetae gets to have the last word with Cyrus the great view spoiler although admittedly she does have to have him decapitated first hide spoiler hide spoiler The Edition and the TranslationI bought while I was still at school Then I d stop off on the way home and root about boar like in a second hand book shop and exchanged an entire one and a half UK pounds for this small, old, Everyman pocket sized edition True to my on going austerity reading project view spoiler as inspired by the book Howards End Is on the Landing A Year of Reading from Home which true to my project I haven t read hide spoiler I decided to finally read it all the way through.The edition uses the 1876 Richard Crawley translation view spoiler I assume that since then new manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts may well have been found in Egypt sorecent translations may be based on better editions of the text hide spoiler , perhaps stylish in its day but some of the word choice introduces its own distance between the original and the contemporary reader for instance his use of the term capital ie in terms of finance rather than centre of government , heavy infantry for hoplite which I was ok with until I remembered my paternal Grandfather served in a light infantry regiment , with first rate and cruiser used to describe the ships Theyou are familiar with the mid Victorian British military the clearer you ll find Crawley s account of the Peloponnesian war The problem for me was that this introduces doubt as to what else is obscured through his word choice and AC s recommendation in a comment on one of my status updates is to go for the Rex Warner translation available in Penguin if, gentle reader, you are tempted to give Thucydides a go in English What I love about the best ancient Greek literature is how startlingly modern it could be This is particularly true of Euripides whom I regard as a 21st century dramatist and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides The accounts of the Corcycran revolution, the so called Melian Dialogue in which Athens shows itself to be somewhat less enlightened than reputed , and the utter disaster of the Sicilian Expedition can just as easily be taking place now in remote parts of the world.The What I love about the best ancient Greek literature is how startlingly modern it could be This is particularly true of Euripides whom I regard as a 21st century dramatist and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides The accounts of the Corcycran revolution, the so called Melian Dialogue in which Athens shows itself to be somewhat less enlightened than reputed , and the utter disaster of the Sicilian Expedition can just as easily be taking place now in remote parts of the world.The Peloponnesian War even had its own Neocon in Alcibiades He was largely responsible for Athens undertaking the Sicilian Expedition, only to be called back by the Athenian leadership for sacrilege Thereupon, he made his escape at Thurii, went over to the Spartans, where he gave them excellent advice in combating the Athenians Then, when the Spartans began to suspect him, he went over to Tissaphernes, the Persian Governor of Asia Minor Later still, he returned to Athens I recommend the Rex Warner translation but urge readers to have a copy of The Landmark Thucydides at hand for its numerous and excellent maps, if not for its somewhat archaic translation by Richard Crawley Courage in the face of reality ultimately distinguishes such natures as Thucydides and Plato Plato is a coward in the face of reality consequently he flees into the ideal Thucydides has himself under control consequently he retains control over things Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols