The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book 12 - History of the Peloponnesian War


Dear Henry,

Book 12, Thucydides's "History of the Peloponnesian War" of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here), is done! Let me tell you all about it.

The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between Sparta and Athens and their allies in ancient Greece. It began in 431 BC and lasted 27 years, ending in 404 BC. Both Sparta and Athens had significant advantages during the conflict.  

The Spartans, their army, and their discipline were well known. They had fully refined the disciplined and harsh lifestyle they were known for, and the stories of "the 300" from The Battle of Thermopylae were a mere 50 years prior. They also controlled the largest land area on the ancient Greek map through alliances and direct subjugation. 

The Athenians were wealthier, and Athens had a tremendous defensive advantage with their sea walls. Athens also controlled the most formidable navy.  

While the war itself was caused by Sparta and Athens jockeying for the dominant position in ancient Greece, the conflict began with a dispute between Corinth, a Spartan ally, and the Corinthian colony of Corcyra, who had appealed to Athens for help against their colonizers.   The Athenian Navy supported the Corcyrans and kicked off the entire shebang.

The first six or so years of the war were static. Spartans would attack the lands surrounding the city, and the Athenians would hold up inside their city, using their wealth, sea walls, and the strength of their Navy to protect the population and bring in needed supplies.    

But Athens had some bad luck from the start. A plague hit the city in 430 BC, and the loss of the great strategian King Pericles to the epidemic in 429 BC hurt the Athenian cause tremendously. The following king, Creon, never did rise to Pericles's vision. Still, the Athenians had held enough territory and won enough skirmishes (including the capture of Pylos) that Sparta sued for peace in 425 BC.

King Creon said no.

In 422 BC, however, King Creon and the Athenian General Brasidas were killed during the Battle of Amphipolis, and the Athenian Navy was severely diminished. The Athenians agreed to peace terms (Peace of Nicias) in 421 BC.

It was a short-lived peace. In 415 BC, Athens (under the direction of Alcibiades) sent their fleet to attack Syracuse in the Sicilian Expedition. Sparta, however, had used the time of peace to build their own Navy (with the help of the Persians) and retaliated. By 413 BC, the Athenian Navy was in shambles, and the city was out of money. The Athenian Navy was conclusively destroyed in 405 BC, and in April 404 BC, Athens (and most of the rest of ancient Greece) became a subject of Sparta.

The account of the war was written by Thucydides, an Athenian General, born about 460 BC, who fought in the early part of the war and was, due to his family's historical ties to the area, posted to Thasos. When the Battle of Amphipolis decimated the Athenian Navy, he was exiled because it was felt that Thucydides could have sailed from Thasos to Amphipolis in time to prevent the loss. His exile in Spartan-occupied territory gave him insight into both sides of the war and allowed him to write an unbiased history. Thucydides is considered the father of "scientific history" and political realism, with "The Melian Dialogue" being the basis of the International Relations Theory and "Pericles Funeral Oration" as one of the great speeches everyone must read at least once in their lifetime.

Thucydides didn't finish the account. The history stops at 411 BC, seven years before the war ends, and looks like a rough draft in some places. It is thought that Thucydides, who died in 400 BC, died before he could finish the work.

Anyway, the book was a beast. There were lots of details and lots of speeches.

Despite its bulk, there are several things of interest within it. Unlike other chroniclers or storytellers of the time, the gods were not noted anywhere for their involvement in the war. Thucydides attributes the battle to the very human fear and self-interest of Athenians and Spartans. Thucydides also gives an accurate account (it is believed) of the motives and actions behind the strategic policies of both city-states. Finally, he doesn't say which city-state was fighting a "just" war nor pass any moral judgments about the fight.

It is an excellent account of ancient strategy and displays combatant differences. I also think Thucydides explained why Sparta came out stronger. Spartan military discipline was built into the polity culture, whereas Athens enjoyed a more luxurious lifestyle. The Athenians had planned to rest upon their wealth and defenses and felt they would "rise to the occasion." I think that this war was an example of how hard that is to do because, really, it was the Spartan "spartanness" that gave them the tactical edge.   

It's also a great book on human nature and the causes of conflict.  

Next up is a return to the realm of the gods with Eurpidies's Hippolytus. I'll let you know what I think soon.

xoxo a.d. elliott 


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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