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The 27 year long Peloponnesian war was an obsession for Thucydides. All along, the Peloponnesian War that took 27 years is symbolic of the military conflicts between Sparta and Athens; eventually, it is Sparta which emerged the victor in 404 BCE. Thucydides did record his account of the whole event, but even then it is still hotly debated by many political scientists (Bolotin, 1987).
Background of Thucydides
Thucydides is most famous for his work of literature titled “The Peloponnesian War”, and it is in this account that details about his background emerge. Obviously, he was an Athenian citizen born around the year 460 BCE, and it is reported that he died shortly after the war.
He was elected general during the eighth year of the war, but he fled Athens shortly afterwards as he went to exile when Sparta captured the strategically important city of Amphipolis. In his work, he tells us that he began writing his history at the onset of the war (Bolotin, 1987).
In his work, he writes:
“and with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.
Not that even so the truth was easy to discover; different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for the one side or the other or else from imperfect memories.” (Finley, 1972).
“Politics, like philosophy, was a Greek ‘invention’. Never before, at least in the west, had there been a society in which ordinary men, lacking either inherited authority or divine sanction, openly debated and decided on such vital matters as war and peace, public finance, or crime and punishment. Political activity had become accepted not only as a legitimate activity but even as the highest form of social activity.
And the defeat of the great Persian Empire proved that this new way of running society was effective and valuable. That it was a new way was recognized; so was the fact that even now there among the Greeks powerful opponents to the city-state system, whereby free men organized their life under the rule of law. An inquiry into the past (as distinct from a mere re-telling of the accepted tales) was thus stimulated, as a complement to the inquiries into ethics and philosophy.” (Finley 1972)
Background of Athens and Sparta
In 5th Century BCE, Greece was composed of dozens of independent city-states which were autocracies, but the two super-powers of that time were Athens and Sparta, as all the other city-states were militarily subject to them. However, Athens was more of a democracy while Sparta was more of an autocracy, and indeed Sparta was stronger than Athens military-wise. Therefore, this implies that the Peloponnesian war was chiefly fought by Athens and Sparta (Bolotin, 1987).
Reasons for war
- Growth of Athenian power
The constant growth of the power of Athens in both population and material wealth was an alarm to the other cities of ancient Greece, especially Sparta. This was the main reason which made the Spartans launch the first attack on Athenians, eventually sparking the Peloponnesian war with Athens. Thucydides was elected to the office of general in the eight year of the war – in 4242 BCE, and stayed on throughout the war (Bolotin, 1987).
- Naval superiority of Athens
The Spartans, the main arch-rivals of the Athenians, had undoubtedly the better military land superiority as compared to the Athenians, who had a stronger naval force, as Bolotin, 1987, explains. This difference in the military strength of these both sides prolonged the war until the eventual fall of Athens and its empire (Bolotin, 1987).
- Influence of Corinthians on Spartans
In support of the war, Thucydides claimed that the Spartans had been urged by the Corinthians to carry out the war in order to oppose Athenian injustices at Potidaea (Bolotin, 1987). At that time, the Athenians were being threatened by war from many different sides, so they saw that the safest way to counter this was to invade Sparta and expand their land, thus the conflict in Potidaea, as Bolotin, (1987) explains.
To bolster this point, they also said that honour and interest afterwards came in. The Athenians also claimed that they were entitled to rule other people, and it is on this premise that Thucydides built his main reasons for going to war with Sparta (Bolotin, 1987).
- Influence of Pericles
This is perhaps the most prominent excuse given by Thucydides to go to war with Sparta. His tribute to the fallen soldiers sparked the interest in going war. He often preached to the citizens of Athens of the importance of keeping their city close to their hearts and to be prepared to make sacrifices for its name sake, just as the fallen soldiers.
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He recited that it had so much beauty and valour that demand the ultimate sacrifice, as Bolotin (1987) asserts. Bolotin (1987) also points out that Athens had long history of both good and evil, because of the destruction brought about by the violence of the war they had experienced and the loss other people had suffered as a result of their military activities.
- Influence of generals in the Athenian army
Alcibiades, Cleon and Pericles were some of the most prominent proponents of Athens engaging in war. They claimed that they practiced democracy, but the democracy they practiced involved much more direct control of the city and foreign policy, and their own opinion sufficed the popular opinion of the people. With their immense influence, they were able to convince Thucydides to go to war at any available instance, as Bolotin (1987) further explains.
From the above discourse, it can be concluded that the arguments put forth by Thucydides were valid for the most part. Thucydides’ views were not consistent with his narration regarding the conflict at Athenian and Spartan. In any event, the views and social measurements that he introduced will be of great importance as they will be used continuously for generations to come, according to Bolotin (1987).
In connection to this, it is quite clear that Thucydides indeed changed his mind severally as the war progressed. His acceptance of past mistakes and efforts to appear as a pacifist for sure justify his reasons for going to war. (Bolotin, 1987)
Bolotin, D. (1987) Thucydides. In L. Strauss & J. Cropsey (eds) History of Political
Philosophy (pp. 7-32). 3rd edition. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. p.14,18-19, 21-22, 27-31.
Finley, M.I. (1972) Introduction, Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 2nd edition. Translated by R. Warner, with an Introduction and Notes by M.I. Finley. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 26, 27, 28.