History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides

Other authorsRex Warner (Translator)
Paperback, 1970




Penguin (1970), 648 pages


Presents an English translation of the Greek text which provides an account of the people and events involved in the long, fifth-century conflict between Athens and Sparta, and includes notes, a glossary, and other resources.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
First things first: the whole Herodotus/Thucydides grudge match binary thing is such bunk. There's no comparison. Thucydides is the father of history. Herodotus is the father of telling cute lil stories. (Although I am well aware that said stories have had a salutary influence on the profession, influenced the Annales school and the move away from Thucydidean political history to social history and the politics that come along with it, and in short, that Herodotus is probably our favourite dude).

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.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Loosely put, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War describes the war between Athens and Sparta which took place over 431-404 B.C. That may sound incredibly dry, and I suppose you have to have a strong interest in history to enjoy this type of book, but I found it very interesting and readable.

Perhaps a civil war was inevitable in the decades that followed the defense of Greece against the Persians, first led by Darius and then by his son Xerxes, events which were recounted by Herodotus. Athens was at the center of a largely maritime alliance known as the Delian League, while Sparta was allied with the mainland city-states known as the Peloponnesian League, and the two represented a classic pair of cultures which were diametrically opposed.

Athens seems more aligned with what we see as ‘good’, with its democracy, love of knowledge, artistic expression, and with enlightened statesmen such as Pericles. Sparta, by contrast, is austere in the extreme, a place where boys were taken at age 7 from their mothers to be raised by soldiers, men under 30 not allowed to live with their wives on a regular basis, and no written documents or lasting art survives because it was eschewed and never generated in the first place.

However, it’s wealthy, imperialistic Athens that is actually the oppressor here, exacting taxes from other city-states, and forcing them to submit to alliances or be destroyed. The people of the little island of Melos stand up for themselves, which is beautifully captured in dialogue in Book 5 by Thucydides, and are utterly destroyed. The stakes for war couldn’t have been higher in these days; a typical outcome for the defeated was the killing of all the men, and the selling women and children into slavery; Melos was no exception to this. The Spartans react out of fear of this imperialism and might, and are actually the liberators of Greece when they ultimately defeat the Athenians (sorry, spoiler alert, lol). It is sad, however, that as an outcome, Athens was completed devastated, and never recovered.

There is room for reflection in America’s position in the present-day state of the world here, and in addition on man’s nature, for Thucydides coolly describes the brutality of human nature when placed under the stress of war, with all its attendant cruelty, political maneuvering, greed, and lawlessness.

Much has been made of “Thucydides vs. Herodotus”, since their approaches were so different, and in fact I found myself recently lightly debating someone who took the position that Thucydides was superior. He certainly makes an effort to be more factual, and describes events chronologically, without diversions. The largest allowance one must make for him relative to stretching the truth is his inclusion of speeches from leaders, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which could not possibly have captured verbatim. He is dispassionate and largely unbiased, despite having been one of the Athenian generals in the war. Herodotus, by contrast, writes a richer and more entertaining history, even if he does include back-stories, invoke the role of the Gods, embellish facts, and draw moral conclusions. They’re both well worth reading however.

Norton Critical Editions are always great for the additional material they provide, and for this one it’s particularly true, since Thucydides’ narrative leaves off at 411 B.C. Included is Xenophon’s Hellenica, which completes the events through the end of the war, as well as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and other commentators that one can pick and choose from. I loved finding this from Machiavelli:
“He who considers present affairs and ancients ones readily understands that all cities and all peoples have the same desires and the same traits and that they always have had them. He who diligently examined past events easily foresees futures ones in every country…”

A few other quotes:
On Capital Punishment, wow, could have been written today…
“Everyone, individually or collectively, is naturally inclined to go wrong, and there is no law that can prevent them from doing so. Indeed, people have exhausted every punishment, constantly adding one to another, in the hope of reducing the harm done by criminals. It’s likely in the distant past, punishments for even graver crimes were weaker than they are now, and that most of them evolved into the death penalty as people just kept on breaking the law. And capital crimes, too, will keep on being committed. So a more terrifying terror than death has to be found, for this penalty won’t prevent anything either. Poverty, with its want, will give people the audacity; and plenty, with is arrogance and presumption, will give them the greed.”

On Democracy:
“…The rich are the best at administering the treasury; the intelligentsia are the best at framing issues; but the people are best at hearing arguments and making decisions. In a democracy, none of these functions outweighs the other.”

On Man’s nature:
“People did just what they would do when they had been governed more by caprice than by prudence and when, offered a chance for revenge, they could finally get even. Some who coveted their neighbors’ property sought freedom from their lifelong poverty by going outside the law – especially when it was poverty coupled with oppression. Others, not actuated by greed but carried away by ignorant rage, attacked their equals with an implacable savagery. As people’s lives kept pace with the tumultuous changes in the city, human nature came to predominate over the laws; human nature, which habitually breaks laws anyway, showed itself in its purest form as eager to be above the law, as the enemy of all authority.”

On turning the other cheek:
“I don’t blame those who want to rule over others. I blame those who are more than ready to submit, because although it is human nature everywhere to dominate those who give way, it is also in our human nature to defend ourselves against attack.”
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LibraryThing member Neutiquam_Erro
Thucydides is known as the great-grandaddy of history, sharing that title with Herodotus but generally accepted as being the more objective of the two. And while Herodotus keeps us entertained with beguiling if largely unbelievable tales of lands he probably never saw, Thucydides renders a cold, calculated, intensely detailed snapshot of events in which he was a minor player. Thus 'The History of the Peloponnesian Wars' is at once, very believable and very dry. If you are interested in a good story about the fall of the Athenian empire you've come to the wrong place (albeit perhaps the only good source). If you are an archaeologist or historian trying to determine the number of Carmarinaean hoplites at the siege of Syracuse, Thucydides is a treasure trove.

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.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Thucydides clearly states that he wants to record what happened because he is sure that in the future, people are likely to "repeat it". Athens destroyed itself by invading Syracuse, a people who appeared weak, but could not be conquered. A sapped Athens then fell to the Pelopenese/Spartan assaults.
LibraryThing member jhudsui
One thing I definitely noticed is that contrary to all the talk about how dispassionate and objective the thing is supposed to be, Thucydides makes all kinds of really explicit value judgments about people and decisions that they make. It's mostly impartial in the sense of not taking the side of Athens against Sparta, but he heaps praise on his favorite politicians from both sides and scorn on the people on both sides that he thinks made foolish choices.

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.
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LibraryThing member la2bkk
There are some excellent prior reviews, so I will not repeat much of what has already been stated by other readers.

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.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I was shocked at how much I loved this from first read. I know that often the view people have towards classics is of something boring, stiff, and stodgy--an absolute slog to get through. Right now, I'm making my way through Tacitus Annals of Imperial Rome. There are some eye-popping gossipy parts, and it certainly gives you a sense of Roman civilization and Roman barbarism, but much of it is a dry slog. Thucydides and his history has some dry, pedantic patches, yes, but overall its shockingly readable and wears its age well. Maybe it helps he was a participant in events. Thucydides himself, an Athenian, was one of the city-state's generals in this war in the 4th century BC that lasted over a quarter of a century with devastating effect on all of Greece. It's as if Colin Powell told the story of the two American-Iraqi Wars or Eisenhower wrote an account of both World Wars and the Cold War. Except Thucydides tells the story, if not in a detached way, than one that comes across as even-handed. It's not as if you don't get his opinion on various figures and events--you definitely do. The character of Alcibiades comes through as fascinating and complex, Pericles as admirable. But there's no evident animus towards Sparta, Athens' adversary in the conflict. Sure Thucydides has his faults by modern standards of scholarship. It's hard to know what he left out or slanted since it's not as if many other versions of the events survived--certainly not in this detail. But Thucydides seemingly makes up speeches and conversations and otherwise acts in ways even our Capote-inspired creative narrative historians such as McCullough and Chernow wouldn't dare. But Thucydides invented history--the study of events, the people and forces that shape them, without attributing them to the acts of Gods. Nor did he write merely history, but literature--the kind of work you can read and reread and come away with new insights each time.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lukerik
A superb translation with equally good critical apparatus. This is the edition I would recommend if you want to read this history.
LibraryThing member gmicksmith
Why does Thucydides spend so little effort on the gods or the divine? Thucydides is the second major historian of the Greeks but you have to admire his independent and, for his day, scientific bent. He is much more modern than Herodotus and he is untypically Greek since he does not attribute human events to divine intervention. You have to admire his attempt to write a reliable history despite his personal involvement in the war. The Peloponnesian War has so many implications for later conflicts that it remains a treasure trove of reflection and insight, all thanks to Thucydides.… (more)
LibraryThing member axelp
"The Corcyraeans...went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death. The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there on the consecrated ground; some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. During seven days...the Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of the moneys owed to them. Death thus raged in every shape; and as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the altar or killed upon it, while some were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there."… (more)
LibraryThing member TJWilson
This is the chronicle of an ancient WWI. Slow in terms of the circumstances and technology. Much is similar. Alliances upon alliances. Betrayal. Romantic victorious predictions followed by brutal stagnation.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member allwebdeals
I learned many interesting facts about early Greek, Sicilian, and Italian history and place names which I had not previously discovered in my earlier readings on any of these subjects.
LibraryThing member antiquary
Important but boring. Much less lively than Herodotus, but not necessarily more reliable despite his claims.
LibraryThing member serogers02
Thank goodness Thucydides died when he did. Though it would have been interesting to see some possible cynicism about the war, I don't think I could have handled another three hundred pages. I found many of the speeches and the use of rhetoric interesting, but overall the book was so dense that it wasn't worth it.
LibraryThing member madepercy
This work is a proper classic, therefore it is difficult to "review" it. This is my first cover-to-cover reading and I must say that putting the "speeches of democracy" into context is helpful. I have read Pericles "Funeral Oration" so many times, but it takes on such an insignificant role in the long history of Thucydides' incomplete work. We are lucky to have such a document survive, yet I was surprised by the lack of studies in English of the text and its context. For such an important document, I assumed that the scholarly work would have been done to death. At times, the History reads like an adventure novel, and often I found myself turning pages eagerly to discover what happened next. Nowadays, I try to read classics cover-to-cover because I, like many, have never devoted proper time to do so, but the effort is most rewarding.… (more)
LibraryThing member longhorndaniel
very detailed account of sparta and athens and their struggles both against and with each other and if you are not a history buff you may be bored to tears for the most part
LibraryThing member soradsauce
Thucydides certainly made this a slog to get through, but I still give it four stars because the detail and description that makes it so hard to get through also makes it one of the clearest pictures of Ancient Greek war and life. If you're under house arrest/stuck in a blizzard/hiding from nuclear holocaust for weeks, I'd recommend this book to you. Also, if you really are committed to Ancient Greek History.… (more)
LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Reread the complete version of this for the first time since reading the excerpted "On Justice, Power, and Human Nature" as an undergrad. Really shines in the imagined monologues negotiating terms, truces, and pleas. The military logistics fade in interest because this unwinnable war amounted to the Athenian Vietnam.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
A thorough account of the intrigues during a large portion of the Peloponnesian war. The descriptions are basic and the prose is simple, but this only aids the reader as they work along the bulk of this document.

Note: The manuscript is incomplete.

Recommended for history buffs.
LibraryThing member datrappert
Thucydides is essential reading, but I recommend THE LANDMARK THUCYDIDES unless you are already well-versed in Greek history. It provides all the context you need to truly understand what's going on.



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