“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”
Ah, the lovely Landmark editions! Where would I be without them? I would have no idea the location of Thrace or Thessaly or Corinth, etc. and therefore have less of a concept of the complicated dynamics that influenced various states in their struggles to fit into the puzzle of Hellenistic supremacy!
Thucydides account of the war between Sparta and Athens falls just after the events recounted in Herodotus’ The Histories. Athens, high on her victory over the very powerful Xerxes, king of Persia, during the Persian Wars, is feeling rather self-important and she appears to be rushing around with her forces, conquering states here and subduing enemies there. And while Athens becomes more powerful, the Lacedaemonians of Sparta are left to conduct their somewhat mundane and traditional existence. But Athens’ power begins to worry them and while they were allies during the Persian Wars, this brotherhood appears to be heading towards a separation that could prove bloody as well as costly.
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Thucydides, indeed, gives a fascinating account of a mega-war between two superior powers that were at the height of their military powers, a war that would not only engulf their nations, but many of the city-states surrounding them and would even spread to Italy with the disastrous Sicilian expedition launched by Athens. At first, the reader perhaps can sympathize that Athens might want to expand her influence or that Sparta might want to assert herself for balance, but soon the war grows like a cancer wherever it touches, prompting Thucydides to make an insightful observation:
“Think, too of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when peole are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”
How right he was! One goes into a war with laudable intentions, but soon enough greed and power and hegemony begins to infect the general purpose and beyond anyone’s control the conflict becomes a nine-headed hydra.
After reading Herodotus, Thucydides’ narrative at first felt dry and sparse. It definitely took determination and some plodding through a literary desert to keep going, but the reward was unexpected and quite amazing. The fact that Thucydides did not colour the actions of others with his own palate (or at least, very little) allowed these actions and decisions to stand out in stark contrast and emphasized the selfless bravery, the strategic plotting, the blind stubbornness of leaders, the diplomatic brilliance, the plain stupidity of many and the various other exploits of all those involved in this lengthy and tragic war.
One wants to catalogue the evils of war, but Thucydides made me realize that war is much more complex that just an event; in fact, it seemed like the war was simply a side-issue that was a symptom of a much larger problem. The problem of people ……. their greed and small-mindedness and selfish ambition. It’s a scenario that’s played over and over throughout history and the actions of these people are always catastrophic at the most and injurious at the least, no matter if the venue is war, or political strife, or family matters, or any other large or small issue that our human faults and failing play into. Next I’m reading The Republic by Plato, a man whose life was coloured by this lengthy war. It will be interesting to read the conclusions he draws.