The Peloponnesian War, Books VII-VIII: Athens in Decline and an Abrupt Ending

Book VII of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War begins with a battle over Syracuse in which Athens is defeated. Nicias sends emissaries home to Athens to warn that enemies are seeking to exploit the weakness of Athens’s deteriorating naval power. He asks whether or not they should consider sending reinforcements, and if they will accept his resignation as general. Athens sends Nicias reinforcements, and they reject his request to resign. Meanwhile Sparta opens a second front by invading Athens, and Athens begins to face mounting casualties. Thucydides notes the “foremost decline” of Athens as follows:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [by the Syracusans]…beside the general impression of dismay and discouragement placed upon the army” (7.24).

The stress of the dual war increases strain on Athens. They fail to cover lost ground in Syracuse while Demosthenes leads a failed moonlight ambush that leaves Athenian soldiers scattered and confused. Demosthenes argues in favor of returning home, while Nicias refuses to admit any weakness. Ultimately, the Athenians are demoralized and embarrassed by the loss at Syracuse, culminating in Nicias’s surrender. Nicias, who Thucydides praises for his virtue along with Demosthenes are butchered by the Syracusans, despite the will of the foreign general who had preferred bringing them to Sparta instead. Savagery was the rule of the day. The defeat is called a “total” destruction as seven thousand are captured, imprisoned, and enslaved. Thus ends Book VII with the cataclysmic conclusion of the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

Upon receiving word of Athens’s destruction in Sicily, Athenian citizens are shocked but they decide to rebuild their naval power. Alcibiades encourages several Spartan revolts from Athens. Meanwhile, Sparta signs a treaty with Persia. Things look grim for Athens. Then Alcibiades betrays Sparta and an oligarchy overturns democracy in Athens.

Book VIII abruptly ends in 411 BC, an unfinished work by Thucydides. It ends before Thucydides can explicate the story of Athens as it gets crushed by Lysander’s superior tactical skills at Aegospotami. The ensuing power vacuum eventually falls to Macedon under Philip who fights against Persia to expand the Macedonian Empire under the rule of his son, Alexander the Great. The Peloponnesian War ultimately leads to the future establishment of the expansive Hellenic world under Alexander the Great, though it never would again achieve its former greatness in artistic and philosophic inquiry as it did in the pre-war golden age of Athens.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s