Thucydides' military and diplomatic acumen, his understanding of human psychology, and his narrative skill have shaped the writing of history for over two thousand years. "Backgrounds and Contexts" provides supplementary selections from Xenophon, Herodotus, Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and twentieth-century journalist, Walter Karp. "Interpretations" includes richly varied assessments of Thucydides by Theodor Gomperz, Francis M. Cornford, Charles N. Chochrane, R. G. Collingwood, Albert Cook, Cynthia Farrar, Adam Parry, Glen Bowersock, Robert Gilpin, Michael Doyle, and Gregory Crane. The edition also includes fourteen maps, a chronology, a glossary, a selected bibliography, and an index.
And yet, even at that, this is history, but not as we moderns know it. Thucydides's vaunted objectivity consists mostly in talking to people on both sides (not consulting records, because by 'n' large there werent any), and keeping Athenian prejudice out of it--so it's a start. And he does a good job on the prejudice thing--although some apparently disagree, and certainly he feels no such compunctions when dealing not with Greeks v. Greeks, but Greeks v. Barbarians--his treatment of the Illyrian horde in, oh, one of those battles fairly drips with scorn. On the other hand, the Illyrians seem like they deserved it. "Don't hurt women or children", as a rule of warfare, makes the Greeks not only more civilized than the barbs, but than, well, us. One of the fascinations of this book, incidentally, is seeing that ritualistic, circumscribed approach to warfare break down. When the atrocities start, at Plataea, at Melos, you're like damn it. Maybe the logic of realpolitik does irresistibly lead to total war.
And while I can't love this and clutch it to my heart completely without reservation--the actual troop movement and war-tech stuff is dry, pedantic, most likely geared to the industry insiders that Thucy and 99% of his readership would have been, with a few exceptions like the final stand of the Athenians in Sicily, and even there you're like "Lamachus died in a ditch! Did a Syracusan arrow pierce his eye? Did a Spartan hoplite claim his shield as a trophy? Inquiring minds!"; also, the maps are pretty bad, Penguin Classics--the Melian Dialogue before the Athenians kill everybody's ass for no real reason, besides being the book's centrepiece,is the prime example of the prime awesome afoot in The Peloponnesian War: the speeches. Maybe I should say "speeches", since the introduction gives me to understand that many of them are reconstructed, but hey, Thucydides can get a little Herodotean on me anytime. It's an amazing way of doing business--talk, talk, talk the issues of the day right into the ground and then some before you make your move. Talk civilized, and then when you do make that move it can be brutal and people will still talk about the Greek Golden Age. It leads to a world of demagogues instead of accountants; public engagement instead of apathy; the extreme concern for points of rhetoric that gave us alliteration and anaphora and anadiplosis and anacothulon (and anastrophe to zeugma!). It explains how we can agree with Nicias, and Thucy can praise him, and yet somehow Alcibiades foxes him and us and Athens and Sparta and the Persian satrap again and again and again.(And how cool that it's the same Alcibiades who ran with Socrates!)
There are some phenomenal speeches--the initial petitions from Corinth and Corcyra to Athens, before the world catches fire; Pericles's Funeral Oration. Most of all, though, you come back to that Melian Debate, where the Melians throw everything they can at the Athenians, dead men walking and tonguing desperate word magic. I would love to have a rhetoric-annotated edition, or speak Ancient Greek. And . . . nothing. The Athenians don't even blink. "It is true that it is more in keeping with the dignity of a great nation to show mercy, but we're still gonna kill everybody's ass. And yes, it is true that to extend the hand of peace to a defeated rival makes a foe an ally and adds to one's own strength, but sorry, you're still fucked. Can't you die with dignity?"
This is Warsaw Ghetto shit. And that's probably the biggest adjustment to be made as a result of the book to one's (my) classic picture of Ancient Greece: Athens is fucking awful. It's like, okay, their democracy is vigorous or whatever, and the Spartans are a racial slave theocracy--but then you see the way Athenians treat their colonies, their ostensible allies, the places whose power and wealth they usurped and even those, like Melos, they didn't--and of course they were all slave states, and Athens just exports the contradictions of their class structure with the superficial democracy they market. Classic imperialist neocons.
And okay, Sparta uses not entirely dissimilar rhetoric, but . . . they really seem to mean it. We keep getting told how artless they are, and if Thucydides does have a bias, it's certainly not in their direction, so I see no reason to believe that Brasidas, say, is not exactly what he seems--and what he seems is like Optimus Prime or some shit, liberating all the townz, and if there is a little bit of "we're gonna liberate you whether you like it or not!", well, look at the way Sparta's allies--your Corinth, your Thebes, your Syracuse--get treated versus what happens to the Athenian subaltern.
After Brasidas, consider "The state of feeling among the people of Camarina was as follows. They were well disposed to the Athenians, except insofar as they thought they might enslave Sicily . . . ." Athens as charismatic asshole/Sparta as misunderstood weirdo?
But then, what did I just say? Racial slave state. So Sparta rules unless you're a helot or a weakling child, and Athens rules unless you're from the colonies, and who's to say whether power games trumps eugenics in the worst historical powers stakes, and none of them had refrigeration, and Thucydides rules. This deserves five stars for being the first and one of the best of its kind, dry patches and all.
Probably the most entertaining parts were the intrigues of Alciabades and Tissapharnes near the end where they're both trying to play both sides against each other and against each other too. Oh Alciabades, you scamp.
Thucydides, covers the approximately thirty years of the Pelopponesian wars. The wars, which effectively pitted the Athenian empire, formed of Athens and its mostly Ionian 'involuntary' allies, against the Spartan's and their more voluntary, if less democratically governed allies. The war grinds on for years without major event until the Athenians try to conquer Syracuse and Sicily. They ultimately fail, and, when the Persian empire intervenes on the side of Sparta, are stripped of their empire and ultimately defeated. The resulting book is full of details - not of character or daily life but of places and people. It's not an easy read.
That's not to say there aren't a few moving tales amongst the vast welter of place names, personal names, ship lists and roll calls. The story of the Mytilenian debate, in which the conquered Mytilene population is nearly massacred by a decree rescinded at the last second is definitely worth a read. The sad fate of the Athenian army after the long siege of Syracuse is also gripping, as is the escape from the siege of Plataea of two hundred men.
If you are an academic, this book is full of a lot of useful material on the Athenian empire, Sicily, Persia and Greece in the 4th century B.C. I imagine you could spend a lifetime cross-correlating names and places with other early documents and inscriptions. This edition is not particularly well stocked with scholarly resources, coming as it does with a brief introduction, four short appendices, few footnotes, and only a brief bibliography and index. You might be better off with the four volumes of the Loeb Classical Library's Thucydides. If you are taking a course in classical Greek history this might suffice.
Since I am not an academic but read history for interest's sake only, I found the book slow, pedantic and over-absorbed with details. If you are very interested in this time period but not willing to slog through a lot of factual detail I would suggest you read a modern book on Greek history. If, like me, you feel the need to read the source material, I would suggest you get a really good atlas of classical history, familiarize yourself with the history of the time period fully and only then attempt Thucydides.
Suffice to say that it is often difficult to appreciate ancient works. Nonetheless, the significance of Thucydides' history is beyond question, making this book a classic by any standard.
Although well written and remarkably readable given its age, the subject matter is complex, and sometimes difficult to keep in context. (Liberal usage of maps would be very helpful.) That said, the effort and time required to complete this book is well spent.
It can be a hard read at times. There is much out of context. But the description of the battle at Pylos and at Syracus is gripping. An interesting read.
Note: The manuscript is incomplete.
Recommended for history buffs.
The first book—created by later editors not Thucydides—of the work focuses on early Greek history, political commentary, and seeks to explain how the war was caused and why it happened when it did. Over the course of Books 2 through 8, Thucydides covered not only the military action of the war but also the numerous political machinations that both sides encouraged in each other’s allied cities or in neutrals to bring them to their side. The war is presented in a chronological manner for nearly the entire work with only two or three diversions in either historical context or to record what happened elsewhere during the Sicilian Expedition that took up Books 6 & 7. The sudden ending of the text reveals that Thucydides was working hard on the work right up until he died, years after the conflict had ended.
The military narrative is top notch throughout the book which is not a surprise given Thucydides’ time as an Athenian general before his exile. Even though he was an Athenian, Thucydides was positively and negatively critical of both Athens and Sparta especially when it came to demagogues in Athenian democracy and severe conservatism that permeated Spartan society in all its facets. Though Thucydides’ created the prebattle and political speeches he relates, is straightforwardness about why he did it does not take away from the work. If there is one negative for the work is that Thucydides is somewhat dry which can make you not feel the urge to pick up the book if you’ve been forced to set it down even though you’ve been enjoying the flow of history it describes.
The History of the Peloponnesian War though unfinished due to Thucydides death was both a continuation of the historic genre that Herodotus began but also a pioneering work as it recorded history as it happened while also using sources that Thucydides was able to interview. If you enjoy reading history and haven’t read this classic in military history, then you need to.