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 he decided to write about 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, the great poet of the Trojan War. Thucydides calls the Peloponnesian War greater than any that preceded it, indeed “the greatest movement yet known in history.” Why? In part because the Peloponnesian War forced all the peoples of the Hellenic races to choose sides -neutrality was impossible. Whereas, Herodotus examined the Persian War between two distinct cultures: the Greeks and the Persians, Thucydides examines a civil war between all the Greek peoples.

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 eventually 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 began as anarchic groups, with 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, because 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). Agriculture is a sign of the flowering of civilization and is a key theme in the text. Among the early Greeks, pleasant soils brought “faction” which also brought ruin and 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 the emergence of Homer that a collective Greek identity emerged (Danaans or Achaeans) and later known as 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 with 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 by the oaths of Tyndareus as detailed in the Iliad. Thucydides finds arms more convincing than letters in terms of international affairs. Thus according to Thucydides 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 established colonies in Ionia and the Peloponnesus established colonies in 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. With the invasion of the Persians Themistocles managed to persuade the Athenians to build a fleet (as outlined in Herodotus’s Inquiries) for the Battle at Salamis. Prior to the Persian Wars, war was infrequent in ancient Hellas aside from the typical border dispute.

Obstacles to the growth of Hellas included invasions, like the invasion of Cyrus and the Persians, and the overthrow of Croesus in Ionia (Turkey) as described in Herodotus. Eventually the established tyrannies were all put down by Sparta. Internally, Sparta suffered from “factions” (a term later used by George Washington) yet it still obtained “good laws, and enjoyed a freedom from Tyrants which was unbroken.” After the war with the Medes (Persians) Athens and Sparta then made war upon each other which is the subject matter of Thucydides’s book. Does Thucydides believe the natural state of the city is at war? And that a city at rest is merely a temporary delay of nature?

At any rate, Thucydides describes an uneasy interim period between the Persian Wars and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. We moderns might call it a cold war. The empires of Athens and Sparta grew in their own directions. From its client cities, Athens demanded tribute, while Sparta only demanded political subservience under a string of oligarchies. One was a commercial relationship, the other a strictly political relationship.

Thucydides pauses for a moment to offer an observation. He 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.” He defends his work as gravely important for the future human political life. Does Thucydides believe we can learn from the past in order to change the future? Or are we merely bound by the fate of natural law?

At the conclusion of Book I, Thucydides frankly states the cause of the Peloponnesian War: the rising power of Athens which caused Sparta great alarm. Athens claimed property and built up its fortifications after the Persian War, and thus Athens earned enemies. Additionally, Athenian naval power grew under Themistocles. However, both the Athenians and the Spartans had different justifications for the grounds of war: Corinth and Corcyra were the first to send envoys to Athens for help in a regional dispute over Epidamnus, a territory in northern Greece which was a colony of Corcyra but which underwent a democratic revolution against its oligarchy, and ultimately Athens made the rather reckless decision to support Corcyra, with the caveat that it must be a defensive alliance for Athens so as not to disrupt the treaty. Ultimately, both sides ended hostilities claiming victories. However, the Corinthians sought vengeance on Athens 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, which claimed Athens was the aggressor. As a result of Athens’s growing power, Athens boldly claimed to be a universal empire in order to bring the fruits of their lifestyle to others, and thus the Spartans decided to vote for war, and less than a year later Attica is invaded. This is the story of the outbreak of war.

Pericles emerges as the first of men in Athens during his time. He passionately speaks to the Athenians demanding a principle of no concession to the Pelopponnesians, plus he claims Sparta is 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 but once war was inevitable he acknowledges the necessity of Pericles.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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