35. History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides (c. 431 BC)

Contents : A very detailed historical account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Sparta and Athens (and nearly every other country, city and island in the eastern Mediterranean) which covers the major events and battles up until 411 BC (the remainder of the war is described by Xenophon in his Hellenica, which I shall hopefully get to in a few months’ time)

My copy is, you guessed it, the Penguin edition translated by Rex Warner (ISBN 0140440399)

My thoughts :  A much more detailed and believable account of Greek history than Herodotus’ Histories, the question first in my mind was whether Thucydides showed any bias in his writing. Thucydides was Athenian and had been a general in their army before being exiled following his defeats. Some readers find him free of bias, others see him as pro-Athenian. I found him mildly anti-Athenian, and he definitely disliked certain Greeks such as Cleon and admired some Spartans such as Brasidas.

His depiction of the Greeks and Spartans also made me stop and think about the stereotypes of the civilized democracy of Athens and the warlike Spartans. Athens came across as much more aggressive, ruthless and power-hungry than I had thought, while the Spartans were slow to anger and hesitant to act.

It was also interesting that Thucydides firstly did not bring the Gods and their influences into the History at any stage, and despite the rash of storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, eclipses and a most virulent plague, such things were rarely taken as omens to start or stop fighting.

As well as the detail of battles, and manoeuvres both political and martial, Thucydides includes the text of a lot of speeches from both sides. Of course there is no way these speeches could be accurate in the length and detail provided.

Most chilling of all the descriptions is the final defeat, rout and destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily in the penultimate Book VII. Once this is described, the remaining battles and political sidesteps become somewhat of an anticlimax, even though Book VIII brings Athens itself to near defeat and civil war, and the overthrow of the democratic government.

Favourite lines/passages
With so many political and patriotic speeches, it should be easy to find passages that stand out. For instance, the depiction of Athenian democracy in Book II:

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, as long as he has in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty”

Pericles’ funeral oration, Book II

(unless of course, she’s a woman)
In the same speech. Pericles also praises his city’s empire with the words

“Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now”

lIttle knowing of the devastation of the plague to follow.

But the total and overwhelming destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily is really the climax of the story, and foreshadowed by the Spartan general Gylippus in his speech to their allied forces before their attack:

“Let us go into battle with anger in our hearts; let us be convinced that in dealing with an adversary it is most just and lawful to claim the right to slake the fury of the soul in …. taking vengeance on the enemy.”

The following battle scenes, both on board ship and as the Athenians attempt to escape by land are harrowing.

Given the huge level of detail, the unfamiliarity of many cities and place names, and the sheer number of participating cities and the difficulty of keeping track of whose side each was on, I read this in small bursts across a week, and let most of the detail slide over me, just existing in the moment of each individual conflict or speech.

Personal rating : 5

Next : The Trachiniae (Women of Trachis) by Sophocles (430 BC)


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