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Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
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Thucydides' context
When reading Thucydides' History, we need to ask the same basic questions we asked of Herodotus's Histories (click here for a list). Remember that we are interested not so much in "what really happened," but rather in "how Thucydides tells it and why."

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 League.
    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 is located).

    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 all members.

    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 in...

  • ...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 map), 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, for "safekeeping."

  • 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 world order."

  • 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 War, above...).

  • 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 takes over.

  • 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.
    Alcibiades (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 decimated.

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."

*          *          *          

Intellectual context
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 work?

II.   The Sophists [see (I. b) above] were also known for their use of antithesis, or bipolar oppositions, to structure their arguments--such as:
                                        logos (word) vs. ergon (deed)
                                        nomos (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?

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