History of the Peloponnesian War
Book II: This book takes the reader from the beginning of the war to the third year in the winter season. An altercation between Spartan and Athenian allies provides the spark for Sparta to invade Hellene lands and so the war begins, with descriptions of battle and raids and refugees. and even the great Athenian general Pericles donates his land to the Athenian government for political reasons. His eulogy over dead fighters (his famous funeral oration) gives a particular insight into Hellenic culture and character:
“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves …… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality …. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggles against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no part in theses duties not as unambitious but as useless, and we are able to judge proposals even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminiary to any wise action at all …… But the prize for courage will surely be awarded most justly to those who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger …. “
Soon after, an horrendous plague hit Athens, which started on Lemnos and is speculated to have originated in Ethiopia. Thousands upon thousands of Hellenes began to die and Thucydides was one of its targets, although obviously he didn’t die and was an expert on its progression, both from having the disease, to observation and inquiry.
Pericles is then disparaged by the people for the deprivation and struggles they are facing during the war, and he gives a rather stirring speech in his defense, after which the people throw their support behind him, albeit not without a fine to assuage their previous grumblings. Thucydides’ description of Pericles is very complimentary:
“For as long as he was at the head of the state during the peace, he pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time its greatness was at its height. When the war broke out, here also he seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country. He outlived its commencement two years and six months, and the correctness of his foresight concerning the war became better known after his death. He told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards, during the war, and doing this, promised them favourable results. What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions and private interest, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themsevles and to their allies —- projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private personas, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war. The causes of this are not far to seek. Pericles indeed by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude — in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unreasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy was becoming in his hand government by the first citizen.”
Then follows many general descriptions of battles that take us through to the end of the third year of the war: Plataea is wooed by Archidamus, king of the Spartans, but decides to remain loyal to Athens and are besieged by the Peloponnesians for their decision; Acarnania, in western Hellas, is attacked by the Peloponnesians and defends itself, causing a Peloponnesian retreat.
|The Acropolis of Athens (1883)
⇐ Book I