The Peloponnesian War, Book V: Battle Recommences and Melos Enslaved

Book V of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens at the conclusion of the truce between Athens and the Spartans. Cleon leads the Athenians in an attack on Thrace. A double surprise attack is launched against Cleon and the Athenians by Brasidas of Sparta. The attack catches Cleon off guard and kills him en route, as well as Brasidas.

After this cataclysmic juncture, both sides desire peace. Athens fears further revolt from its allies. Spartan men and their land/economy begin to suffer. New leadership (King Pleistoanax in Sparta, and Nicias in Athens) desperately desires peace. Thucydides called Nicias the “most fortunate general of his time” (5.16). Many of their allies did not agree with the yearning for peace, nevertheless they make a treaty, allying Sparta and Athens for fifty years. Thus ends the “first war” spanning ten years.

Thucydides digresses from this juncture to discuss the nature of the peace being a mere interval in the ongoing hostilities, rather than a true peace. He mentions his own age being old enough to reflect on the activities and his exile for twenty years after his command of Amphipolous as mentioned earlier. As a result of his exile to the Peloponnesus he was able to see things with far more clarity. The city in motion lacks clarity absent the benefits of hindsight.

Hostilities resume in the war following the fifty year truce. Alcibiades leads a faction of Athenian allies in diplomacy against Sparta. The Spartans are barred from the Olympic games. Sparta battle the Argives, allies of the Athenians. The Melians choose to remain allied with the Spartans, despite Athenian warnings of ruin. Eventually the Melians are defeated: the men all killed, and the women and children enslaved. Athens settles the Melian country.

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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