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When reading Thucydides' History
, we need to ask the same basic
questions we asked of Herodotus's Histories
for a list). Remember that we are interested not so much in "what
really happened," but rather in "how Thucydides tells it and
To that end, it's useful to understand something of the background
conditions against which Thucydides was writing (that is, the political
landscape and the intellectual climate in Athens in the second half
of the 5th century B.C.E.). It's also useful to have a decent handle
on the events Thucydides is narrating (so that you can pay attention
to the "how" of the narrative, instead of struggling to make
out the "what").
Herewith, then, a basic outline:
479 B.C.E. marked the
end of the Persian Wars, at the Battle of Plataea, which Greece (led
by Sparta) won. Of course, the Greeks couldn't know for sure that
it was the end of the war. They lived in constant fear of a Persian
comeback, so in...
- ...478 B.C.E. they formed an alliance
called the Delian
The two major power centres in Greece at the time were Sparta and Athens;
although Sparta had fought the decisive victory at Plataea, its land-based
military was unable to offer long-term protection to the many Greek
city-states in Asia Minor (across the Aegean from Greece proper;
this map shows you where Attica, Asia Minor, the Peloponnesus and
other Ancient Greek regions were in relation to one another. This
other map shows you where each of the cities Thucydides mentions
Athens, with its powerful navy, could offer further-reaching protection,
so the Delian League made Athens the leader of the city-states, with
the following caveats:
--each member state (including Athens) would have one vote, making the
League a democratic alliance among equals;
--each member state would retain complete autonomy and could leave the
alliance at any time
--each member state would make an annual contribution of money and/or
ships to support the Athenian navy, which would be at the service of
The Delian League had several purposes besides defense; one of these
was to wage a military campaign against the Persians to free those Greek
cities that were still under Persian control. This was finally achieved
- ...467 B.C.E., freeing several Greek
cities, all of which joined the league. Many cities joined unwillingly;
they were coerced by the League members sometimes under threat of destruction.
Although the League was essentially democratic, they believed that the
safety of the League and its objectives would be seriously compromised
by states independent of the League.
- 465/4 B.C.E., a small
city-state named Thasos rebelled against the League--tired of paying
taxes to Athens--and was firmly put in its place by the Athenian leader,
Cimon (a hero of the Persian War). This was a watershed moment: the
first time that the League-subsidized fleet had been used by Athens
to secure Athenian (rather than League) interests, and the first time
it had been used against a League member.
This precipitated the Spartan Crisis: having
agreed to side with Thasos in the dispute, Sparta found itself beset
first by an earthquake and then by an opportunistic rebellion on the
part of its slaves (the Helots). Sparta called on Athens for assistance,
but turned away the Athenian troops when they showed up. The political
ramifications were far-reaching: Cimon and his pro-Spartan policies
were discredited, and the rivalry between Athens and Sparta was institutionalised.
- 462 B.C.E.: Pericles
comes to power in Athens, replacing Cimon. Athens begins to define its
foreign policy in relation to Sparta, rather than in relation to the
old enemy, Persia.
Pericles is most famous, however, for his institution of radical
democracy, which put power in the hands of all free-born male Athenian
citizens (instead of an elected, elite body) and provided new opportunities
for the lowly to advance. He also, however, altered the citizenship
laws so that one could only be an Athenian citizen if both parents
were citizens (no foreigners.)
- 460 B.C.E.: First Peloponnesian War
begins, precipitated by Athens' alliances with Megara and Boeotia (see
which provided a buffer zone between Athens and Sparta.
- 454 B.C.E.: The League treasury is moved
from Delos (island in the middle of this
map; hence the name "Delian League") to Athens,
- 451 B.C.E. Five year truce is signed
by Athens and Sparta.
- 450 B.C.E. The "Peace
of Kallias" officially ends the ongoing conflict between
the Delian League (aka Athens+allies) and Persia, in which the Athenians
et al. had been faring poorly.
The conclusion of hostilities between Greece/Athens and Persia obviated
the need for a League-funded navy-- yet the allies continued to pay
into the League treasury in Athens, which had gradually turned into
the Athenian imperial treasury. All this extra money enabled Athens,
now the dominant power in the region, to embark on a major building
program (to which we owe the Parthenon), and to invest in all sorts
of cultural institutions and activities. To this period of Athenian
ascendancy (ca. 460-404 B.C.E.) belong all the great Athenian dramas
we have read, for example.
- 446 B.C.E. Megara revolts from alliance
with Athens, joins Peloponnesian League (Spartan-led League, in opposition
to Delian League). Averting confrontation with Sparta, Pericles concludes
"Thirty Years' Peace" between
Athens and Sparta: Athens agrees to reliquish power over cities in mainland
Greece, and Sparta officially recognises the Athenian Empire. Both parties
agree to refrain from hostilities for 30 years. Meanwhile, Athenian
allies continue to chafe (and in some cases rebel) under the "new
- 431 B.C.E. (just 14 years into the "Thirty
Years' Peace") war breaks out again between Athens and Sparta.
This war is known simply as the
Peloponnesian War (not to be confused with "the First Peloponnesian
- 429 B.C.E.: Outbreak of plague
in Athens; Pericles dies. Cleon takes over. The war continues, but neither
side is gaining.
- 422 B.C.E. Cleon killed in battle; Nicias
- 421 B.C.E.: After ten
years of inconclusive war, Nicias persuades Athens and Sparta to conclude
a peace treaty, known as the Peace of Nicias.
Planned to last 50 years, it only lasts about five.
(a former ward of Pericles) opposes the peace and lobbies (successfully)
for an alliance with Argos.
- 417 B.C.E.: the
Athenians capture Melos (not a part of the Delian League but a neutral
party); they kill the men and enslave the rest of the Melians.
- 415 B.C.E.: Alcibiades
flees from fleet to Sicily after charges of sacrilege brought against
him. (Most notably, he was implicated as the perpetrator of a to-this-day
unsolved crime: the defacement of the Herms (small statues of
Hermes that were in front of temples and private houses). See Thucydides
pp. 426-7 and 447-8. Athenians woke up one morning and found that all
the Herms had been castrated (Thucydides is circumspect about the nature
of the "defacement.")
Alcibiades flees to Sparta and urges them to send their fleet against
Athens in Sicily. After a long and bloody campaign, occasioning heavy
Athenian losses (of men and ships), the Athenians withdraw, their fleet
Our readings end there, but here, in brief, is the rest of the story
Thucydides goes on to tell (as summarized by Richard
Hooker at Washington State University):
"Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spartans soon attacked
Athens andóworse news piled on top of bad newsóthey were soon joined by
the Persians who were still smarting from the war Athens had so vigorously
prosecuted in the first half of the fifth century. For a while the Athenians
hung on, even enjoying tremendous victories when the war was shifted to
the Aegean Sea. But in 405, the rest of their navy was destroyed in a
surprise attack, and by the next year the situation was hopeless. In 404
BCE, the Athenians surrendered totally to the Spartans, who tore down
the walls of the city, barred them from ever having a navy, and installed
their own oligarchic government, the Thirty. The Age of Athens, the Age
of Pericles, the Classical Age, the Athenian Empire, had come to an end."
* * *
I. Thucydides was writing at the time of
(a) the end of the heyday of Attic Tragedy
(Euripides and Sophocles both died around the time that Sparta instituted
the rule of the Thirty at Athens);
(b) the rise of the Sophists,
who were renowned for their emphasis on rhetoric over dialectics (i.e.,
on the power of language to "make things true"--what Homer and
Aeschylus would have called "Persuasion"--as vs. the use of
reason to ferret out "The Truth." Plato, among others,
criticized them severely for this). Their use of persuasive argumentation,
though, changed the rules for what could be claimed as"true";
(c) the rise of Hippocratic medicine,
which emphasized anatomy (detailed description of conditions) and
aetiology (theory of causes).
What influences of these three
different, yet complementary, intellectual currents can you find in Thucydides's
II. The Sophists [see (I. b) above] were
also known for their use of antithesis, or bipolar oppositions, to structure
their arguments--such as:
(word) vs. ergon (deed)
(law) vs. phusis (nature).
III. Keep track (especially in Thursday's reading!) of the following
as you read:
(a) Leaders. Cimon,
Pericles, Cleon, Nicias, Alcibiades (NB: Alcibiades was brought up by
Pericles). Keep track especially of Alcibiades (who will appear
again in Plato's Symposium), and also of his fellow-general in
Sicily, Lamachus (who will appear in Aristophanes' Frogs).
(b) Speeches and debates.
How are these used? Is there an overall
trajectory that you can trace through all the debates? (How do you suppose
Thucydides was able to quote them all from memory??)
IV. Some general questions:
1) Where are the women?
2) Where are the gods?
3) What is Thucydides's view of human nature?
4) " " " "
" 'the good'--that is, on what should
human beings base their decisions about how to act?