The Peloponnesian War, Book I: Setting the Stage for War

Thucydides begins his historia of the great war between the Peloponnese and Athens (431 BC – 404 BC) by noting that he is an “Athenian” and that the he wrote of the war “from the beginning” because it is “more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” In saying so, Thucydides cleverly draws distinction between himself and his predecessor, Herodotus, who wrote the foundational historia of the Persian Wars. Additionally, he draws distinction between himself and Homer, when he calls the war “the greatest movement yet known in history” – in other words, greater than the Trojan War, greater than any barbarian war, and greatest in scale than any other war or other matter. It forced all the peoples of the Hellenic races to choose a side. Whereas, Herodotus examined the war between two distinct cultures: the Greeks and the Persians, Thucydides examines a civil war.

In order to justify his claims of the Peloponnesian War being greater than any movement, even in antiquity, Thucydides outlines the origins of the Hellenes – a country without a settled population as warring tribes gave way to superior numbers. Perhaps Thucydides agrees with Thrasymachus that the nature of justice is none other than the advantage of the stronger? The origins of tribal Greeks begin as anarchic groups, no communication or commerce and living only by necessity, always living in a kind of Hobbesian fear that their food would be stolen. They did not plant farms, for rich soils were constantly battled over: like Boetia (just North of Athens), Thessaly (Northeastern Greece), and the Pelopponesus (the large landmass West of Athens connected by a land-bridge containing Corinth, Arcadia, Argos, Olympia, and of course, Sparta). Pleasant soils brought “faction”, which brought ruin and also invited invasion. Ironically, Athens benefitted by the poverty its soil. Athens became a save-haven for the weaker peoples until it grew too large and had to send out colonies to Ionia (modern Turkey).

It was not until Homer that a collective Greek identity emerged (Danaans or Achaeans) and later the Hellenes, named after Hellen and his sons of Phthiotis who developed alliances with other cities and thus the name Hellenes took hold. For Thucydides significant things like names and collective identities emerge from “strong men” and “political alliances”.

Early seafaring in the Aegean was a kind of piracy – to support men’s greediness and to support the needy. A similar kind of frontier piracy developed on land and some of the Greeks in Thucydides’s day carried arms with them when traveling across the countryside, though the Athenians were the first to maintain a more safe and luxurious lifestyle, in contrast to the Spartans. Under Minos a great navy chartered the seas and communication opened. Minos conquered many islands and eliminated piracy. The love of gain reduced the weak to the will of the stronger, subjecting the smaller cities to imperial ambitions. Thucydides notably gives his opinion of the Trojan War -that Agamemnon likely raised such an army through force, rather than the oaths of Tyndareus. Thucydides finds arms more convincing over and against letters. Agamemnon compelled the Greek armies, rather than persuaded them, and “fear was quite as strong as love”.

After the return of the soldiers from Troy, the Hellenes experienced a series of revolutions and it was a number of years before peace could be achieved and Athens could send out colonies to Ionia and the Peloponnesus could send colonies to Italy and Sicily. As the power of Hellas grew, and wealth became a major objective, tyrannies were established almost everywhere and the old hereditary kingships disappeared. Corinth was the first to develop ‘modern’ naval triremes. It was only with the invasion of the Persians and Themistocles’s persuasion of the Athenians to build a fleet (as outlined in Herodotus’s Inquiries) for the battle at Salamis. War was infrequent in ancient Hellas, other than the typical border dispute.

Obstacles to the growth of Hellas included invasions, like the invasion of Cyrus and the Persians, overthrowing Croesus in Ionia (Turkey) as described in Herodotus. Additionally tyrannies were established, until they were all put down by Sparta. For Sparta suffered from “factions” (a term used by George Washington) yet still obtained “good laws, and enjoyed a freedom from Tyrants which was unbroken.” After the war with the Medes (Persians) Athens and Sparta made war upon each other. Does Thucydides believe the natural state of the city is at war?

In the interim after the war, Athens demanded tribute, and Sparta only demanded subservience under oligarchies.

Thucydides believes the common vulgar man accepts any story without need of proofs. However, he believes his history can be better relied upon, unlike the poets or the chroniclers. Thucydides believes he will be “content” if inquirers look to an accurate representation of the past to gain a better understanding of the future, which must resemble events of the past. He wrote his work not to gain the applause of the moment, but as a “possession for all time”.

Thucydides frankly states the cause of the Peloponnesian War – the rising power of Athens which caused Sparta great alarm. Athens took property and  built up its fortifications after the Persian War, and  thus it drew enemies. Additionally, Athenian naval power grows under Themistocles. However, each side had different claims to the grounds  of war: Corinth and Corcyra send envoys to Athens for help in a dispute, and ultimately Athens decided to support Corcyra, with the caveat that it must be a defensive alliance so as not to disrupt the treaty. Ultimately, both sides ended hostilities claiming victories. The Corinthians sought to seek vengeance on the Athenians in Potidaea which raised hostilities with the Spartans, however the Athenians provided significant reinforcements and as a result they were criticized heavily by the allies assembled at Sparta, and Sparta agrees that Athens was the aggressor.  As a result of their growing power, Athens makes claims of a universal empire, to bring the fruits of their lifestyle to others, and thus the Peloponnesians vote for war, and less than a year later Attica is invaded.

Pericles emerges as the first of men in Athens in his time. He passionately speaks to the Athenians demanding a principle of no concession to the Pelopponnesians, plus they are a land of unprepared farmers, while Athens is a naval power. Pericles claims that war is inevitable to the Athenians, however Thucydides has already claimed that war may have been avoided had Athens forgone the Megarian Decree, and approached the Spartans on friendly terms. Thucydides disagrees with Pericles.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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