Analysis Of Thucydides’ Study Of The Peloponnesian War

The Great Age of Greece is home to so many of the things in which we value of the Greeks, where these thoughts were created and carried forward. Yet the Peloponnesian war managed to destroy the newfound hope in human capacities and in the developments of the future. Thucydides’ analysis of the Peloponnesian War gives us an understanding of how this occurred, being the only full primary source that we have today. Thucydides’ style of writing is very much persuasive throughout the text, making the readers thus trust what he proceeds to tell us, adding an innate, perhaps false, sense of reliability to his text. However, although his text is particularly persuasive due to the literary techniques that he employs, his reliability is somewhat questionable as he was not present throughout the war and can be seen as a ‘revisionist’ historian, changing accounts of what happened when new events came to light. In this sense we have to be careful in analysing his reliability, however, overall it seems that he attempts to create an objective, accurate account of the war in order to pursue his perhaps real reason of writing the text, to analyse “human nature” and use as a guide to future wars and how we should act.

Thucydides’ was a primary source, as he physically witnessed parts of the war and thus he is the only full account of the war available to us, so questions of reliability can become somewhat problematic. However, through his objective perspective of the Athenians, his desire to understand the human condition and the use of other sources, we can see that overall he is a reliable source into the analysis of the Peloponnesian War.

Throughout history, it seems as though primary sources usually fight for their country, and write a history on their victory, so it is somewhat interesting that Thucydides’ wrote about a war that his country lost. His history does not argue in favour of the Athenians, but rather outlines the issues of both the Spartans and Athenians, and fundamentally blames the origins of war on the different value systems at hand, and their need to grow their Empire.

Both Sparta and Greece sought to add other poleis to their leagues. However, Sparta found Athens “growth of power” an “alarm” particularly in regards to their wealth, making war “inevitable”, as Thucydides puts it. However, he also states that “war could have been avoided if Athens would revoke the Megarian Decree which excluded the Megarians from all ports in Athenian Empire and from Attica itself”. Evidently, he provides accounts from both sides, proving that his analysis is reliable. Moreover, he additionally blames the Athenians for their over confident imperialism as a factor in causing the war. Through substituting tribute for military services, Athens had the other cities essentially pay for the Athenian fleet. Although this helped maintain Athens’ power in the Aegean, it made them “unpopular” as they “insisted on obligations being exactly met” bringing the “severest pressure to bear on allies who were not using to making sacrifices and did not want to make them”. In this sense, Thucydides’ objectively analyses the different causes of the war, with no bias towards Athenian politics. Contemporaries such as Diodoros portray Thucydides’ analysis as reliable as he too states that some cities found Athenian control “oppressive” in as early as 464, “plotting among themselves, scorning the general assembly”.

Moreover, the politics of the time is very telling of Thucydides reliability in regards to the war. The political structure was the Spartans, who were the oligarchy, which led to Athens also shifting from an old democratic state, to a new more oligarchic society. With the financial crisis caused by the Sicilian Expedition of the Athenian military in 413 BC, some high status Athenian men, who for long disliked the broad based democracy of the city-state, sought to establish an oligarchy of the elite. The Athenian coup of 411 BC provides evidence for how Athens had changed to a short lived oligarchy, with them believing that they could manage the foreign, fiscal and war policies better than the existing government.

This demonstrates Thucydides’ reliability as he sided with neither the Spartan or Athenian oligarchies, but rather of an old democratic Athens, demonstrating his neutrality and thus reducing his bias. However, arguably this reduces reliability, as he is against Spartan politics, and has an “involuntary bias” towards the “arrested oligarchic tribalism of Sparta”. Yet “his heart was not with Athens, his native city” once again, he sided with neither power, thus remaining ultimately neutral. Moreover, although he was certainly a member of the oligarchic party, especially due to him being a part of the hoplite class, he did not belong to the extremist wing of Athenian oligarchic clubs, like the four hundred, who conspired throughout the war with the enemy, neither was he a friend of the Athenian people, or their imperialistic policy, one again lending to his credibility.

Thucydides’ writing style appeals to the logos of the reader through his use of literary devices. His aim to analyse the human condition and the speeches of Pericles is ultimately making him a persuasive historian. From the outset, the historian identifies his aims in writing the book “It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.'

Through identifying his intentions, it immediately makes the reader feel as though they can trust the historian by identifying as an equal to him, appealing to our ego’s as we too want to understand our own human condition. Moreover, he is underlining one of the fundamental skills of the historian, if Thucydides had been an apologist for the Athenians in order to gain popularity in his lifetime, his work would have been diminished. Additionally, in his need to understand human nature, his work has to be as accurate as possible in order to work as a real moral guide to the events that will be “repeated in the future”. It is in his speeches of Pericles that we can see how he wants us to react to war in the future. He argues that if Pericles hadn’t died then the Sicilian invasion wouldn’t have been successful “So Pericles has more than enough reasons to predict that the city might easily outlast the Peloponnesians in this war”. Perhaps Thucydides’ is saying that if Pericles had survived the Plague he would have led the Athenians to success. If they had only listened to their leader, were quiet, took care of the navy and did not seek to grow an empire and thus endangering the city itself, the results of war could have been very different. This bold statement urges the reader to view Pericles as the model future citizens should follow. Evidently he was persuasive in doing this as modern day individuals still quote Pericles. After World War II the former General and then Secretary of State George C, Marshall doubted whether anyone could understand basic international issues without reading Thucydides. “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in this mind the period of the Peloponnesian war and the Fall of Athens”. Moreover, Thucydides is also beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. H.R McMaster, the national security adviser called Thucydides work an “essential” military text, with Defense Secretary James Mattis is also being fluent in his work.

However, there is a compelling argument that the way in which we quote Thucydides is completely wrong, and thus most of it is down to interpretation. Moreover, his style appears somewhat contorted, with many historians complaining about the difficulty of his language. Dionysius devoted a long essay to Thucydides’ work, critiquing his convoluted language “If people actually spoke like this, not even their mothers or their fathers would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of it” in this it is easy to see how those who study the original text can find Thucydides’ work no longer persuasive but rather contorted, with translations thus not being entirely accurate. As Kagan states “his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is necessarily an interpretation” therefore we cannot be entirely persuaded by Thucydides, and must not fall into the Thucydides trap. Additionally, the “good” translations, those that are easy to read, give a very bad idea of the linguistic characteristic of the original Greek, with the ‘better’ versions give less flavor to what Thucydides actually wrote, thus the slogans we attribute so readily to him, pleading that he is a distinctive approach to history, bear a tenuous relationship to his original text. Regardless of the variety of translations and their accuracy, it is Thucydides overarching message that comes through in every translation of the text. The message that there is a “thin veneer” between the civil and bestial. It is his literary style of writing that teaches us that the worst than bestial exists in humans and that a civilized society is merely what covers up our ability to become beasts. That warfare puts a strain on our civilized manner, producing a “depression of atrocities” that the Peloponnesian war led to “throwing” people “into pits to die of thirst, starvation in Sicily and hurling them into the sea to drown”. In this he is providing evidence of how disastrous we can become, and how we must be careful of the inevitable nature of ourselves to let war allow “anger, frustration, desire for vengeance” to take over so readily. Through providing the analysis of our nature, Thucydides ultimately persuades us of his analysis of the Peloponnesian war, urging us to reflect on our own condition.

In conclusion, Thucydides is a persuasive historian, with readers and scholars alike still referencing and analyzing his work. The historian’s use of speeches and inclusion of figures such a Pericles aid his persuasion, leading us to read his works in a light of examining our own human nature, thus making us inevitably focus on the analysis of the Peloponnesian war as something that we can learn from. The reliability of Thucydides is somewhat still in debate, but his credibility is helped by his objective stance throughout the work, ensuring that both the Athenian and Spartan perspectives are revealed, helping us to also impartially analyse the Peloponnesian war. It is somewhat difficult to check the reliability of the facts that Thucydides’ uses due to the lack of other accounts of the war, but we can be somewhat confident in saying that Thucydides was reliable through his objective viewpoint of the Peloponnesian war. 

09 March 2021
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