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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Thucydides, Richard Crawley, David Lateiner, Donald Lateiner Thucydides sounds surprisingly modern for a writer who lived 2,400 years ago. He provides a record of over 21 years in strict chronological order and describes the interests of the two sides with more objective fairness than can be expected today from modern journalists (especially the TV kind). He mentions in the middle of the book that he spent 20 years away from Athens in exile, so that may explain why he can describe the non-Athenian view with such poignancy.

"I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis, and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely."

This book deserves honor and respect due to its antiquity, and the fact it has survived all those years. It was written about 400 BCE and the oldest surviving manuscript dates from 900 CE. That is 1300 years over which the equivalent of a 700 paged book needed to be hand copied at approximately 100 year intervals in order for it to still be available today.

In addition to his strict adherence to chronology, Thucydides also includes dozens of speeches assigned to the principal figures engaged in the war. These include addresses given to troops by their generals before battles and numerous political speeches, both by Athenian and Spartan leaders, as well as debates between various parties. Of the speeches, the most famous is the funeral oration of Pericles. Thucydides undoubtedly heard some of these speeches himself while for others he relied on eyewitness accounts. Some of the speeches are probably fabricated according to his expectations of, as he puts it, "what was called for in each situation." While the inclusion of long first-person speeches is somewhat alien to modern ears it makes sense within the context of ancient Greek oral culture.

The gods play no active role in Thucydides' work--very different from Herodotus. Instead, Thucydides regards history as being caused by the choices and actions of human beings. When referencing myth he clearly so indicates:

”The earliest inhabitants spoken of in any part of the country are the Cyclopes and Laestrygones; but I cannot tell of what race they were, or from where they came or to where they went, and must leave my readers to what the poets have said of them and to what may be generally known concerning them.”

Thucydides correlates, in his description of the 426 BC Maliakos Gulf tsunami, for the first time in the history of natural science, quakes and waves in terms of cause and effect:

“The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.”

Another interesting reference to natural phenomena is his description of the volcanic action of Mt. Etna:

”In the first days of this spring, the stream of fire issued from Etna, as on former occasions, and destroyed some land of the Catanians, who live upon Mount Etna, which is the largest mountain in Sicily. Fifty years, it is said, had elapsed since the last eruption, there having been three in all since the Hellenes have inhabited Sicily.”

Another interesting quotation I found contains a hint of Thucydides' skepticism of divination and soothsayers:

"... they gave orders as secretly as possible for all to be prepared to sail out from the camp at a given signal. All was at last ready, and they were on the point of sailing away when an eclipse of the moon, which was then at the full, took place. Most of the Athenians, deeply impressed by this occurrence, now urged the generals to wait; and Nicias, who was somewhat over-addicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers."

As it turns out, the 27 day delay caused by the lunar eclipse probably resulted in the Athenians losing the battle, and consequently the war as well.

Despite being an Athenian and a participant in the conflict, Thucydides is often regarded as having written a generally unbiased account of the conflict and all the sides involved in it. In the introduction to the piece he states, "My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever." Some historians have challenged this assertion, but it appeared true to me.

The book has an unsatisfactory ending. It suddenly ends in the 21st year of the 27 year long war. Historians are not certain as to why it ends there. One possibility is that he died. But there are some sources that suggest that he lived beyond the end of the war. He mentions in his own text that the war lasted 27 years. So answer me this! If he died before the end of the war, how did he know the length of time for the duration of the war? Maybe his pet dog ate the last 6 years. Or maybe he did things as I do, just never got around to finishing the job.

I find it interesting to note what is not in the book. There is no mention of the two individuals who subsequently became the most famous Ancient Greek names of the era, Socrates and Plato. (There is one reference to "Socrates son of Antigenes," but that it is not the Socrates we know about from Plato.) Socrates and Plato were contemporaries of Thucydides, but they were mere civilians of little consequence--although Socrates did fight in the early parts of the war as a young man. The importance of Socrates and Plato only became evident with the later popularity of Plato's writing. It's interesting to note that writers of contemporary history don't always know what will be considered important to later readers--e.g. Josephus' making no mention of Jesus and writing one sentence about his followers.

The only reason I listened to this book was because it was selected for discussion by the Great Books KC group. I listened to the LibriVox audio recording of the translation by Richard Crawley. Otherwise I would have never had the patience for it.

A much more pleasant way to learn about the Peloponnesian War is the historical novel, Tides of War by Steven Pressfield. Link to my Review.