Friday, October 8, 2010


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Written in the 5th century BC, this is one of the great early histories of anything. Thucydides was a general in the Athenian army and seems to have set about to write an impartial history of the wars, telling the story in a chronological way, describing the battles of the summer and the preparations of the winter.

One surprising thing he does not do is to involve the Gods in the story. Nowhere does he say that the gods were responsible for this or that victory or defeat. He does mention frequently the messages of the oracles, especially the oracle of Delphi. But he recognizes that the ambiguity of the oracular declamations is such that the messages don’t always help those who get them.

The first book establishes that Athens, after the end of the Persian and Mede wars, and the rebuilding of the Acropolis (although he says little about this), had essentially become a very large empire and felt that it was its duty to remain Imperial in its ambitions. Meanwhile the other city states of the Peloponnese felt that Athens had become too powerful and that it was impinging on their rights and powers. The Delian League (Athens) thus became the target of the Lacedemonians led by Sparta, and war ensued quickly.

Thucydides is inovative in many ways in this book. For one thing, he identifies himself clearly at the end of each of the books as the historian of the wars. For another, he includes the first person speeches of important figures all throughout the book. It is possible that he heard Pericles’ Funeral Oration when it was first spoken, and it is possible that he heard other great speeches, but it is likely that he either took them from the memory of others who heard them, or that he reconstructed them as best he could from what he heard from second-hand. What is so striking is the balance and patterning of the speeches, even in translation, that reveals so clearly the training in rhetoric that all these educated Greeks had. Nothing like this exists in today’s public utterances. The arguments in favor of saving or destroying cities are clear, eloquent, and difficult to act upon.

Thucydides’ method is to recount each of the important battles, on land and on sea, one after another and then explain who won, who lost, and what was at stake. He also goes into detail about how the fortifications were laid, what the nature of the armies was like: the heavy infantry with weapons and shields; the light infantry with less armor; the distant light fighters with stones and slings, arrows, and darts; and the navy with infantry standing on the upper decks while the rowers moved the boats in and out of harbors.

Athens, as Pericles is quick to point out, had the most seasoned navy and was immediately at a complete advantage over their opponents. He explained how long it would take the Spartans to learn how to move ships in and out of battle, and how powerful the admirals were who could defeat the Persians as they had done.

In the second year of the war Plague hit the Athenians and wiped out thousands of the best warriors. Thucydides does not say this was a punishment by the Gods – not a word of it. But he does describe having had a touch of the plague himself and having survived. He also pointed out the doctors in Athens almost all perished while helping patients. They could do nothing, of course, except try to comfort the dying. Finally, the citizens piled the bodies where they could and let the dying die. He also points out that those who contracted plague and also lived were essentially immune from getting it again. The plague was worse in the 2nd year, but it never entirely left the Athenians and later erupted again in the 4th year. They were all unaware of its source or its carriers.

One of the most telling passages occurs in his narrative of the 5th and 6th years of the war, when various factions attacked cities that were peripheral to one or the other side in the war. Often, when a city was beseiged the inhabitants would take sides against one another and ultimately civil war would break out. In some cases the seigeing army would put all the inhabitants to death, killing innocent and collaborators alike. But also, the murdering of neighbors became so vicious and so bloody, and the butchery so inhumane that it shocked even Thucydides. He says at one point that such internescine butchery would probably go on forever, as long as human nature stays as it is. His prophecy holds true.

Reading this book today, in view of the continuation of extensive wars, is frightening.

During a period of truce after the 6th year of the wars, Athens under Nisius and Demosthenes decided to chance an expeditionary war in distant Sicily.  This would have opened up new markets for Athens and it would have expanded their imperial ambitions and opportunities.  But this was a disaster.  After underestimating the power of Syracuse and the naval fleets, and not realizing that Syracuse had fitted its ships in ways that permitted them to ram and destroy many of the Athenian vessels, the Athenians overreached and had their involnerable navy essentially destroyed. 

The great expeditionary army of the Athenians eventually discarded its fleet and marched inland.  The huge army was split in two between Nisius and Demonstenes and totalled 40,000 men.  They were slowly picked apart by the Syracusans and their allies from a distance.  Eventually 7,000 men survived, and they were let perish in a prison until only hundreds were left, and they were sold into slavery.  It was heartbreaking to read the story of the destruction of the Athenian army.

In the end, Athens surrendered to the Spartans after 27 years.  Their democracy had been abandoned and they were ruled by an oligarchy and that was the end of Athens' greatness. 

As Santayana said, Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.