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Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War: Revolt of Mytilene Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jun 5th, 2020


Thucydides’ work has been widely quoted in relation to his vivid description of the account of the Peloponnesian War. Many researchers have used his work, especially in the field of international relations. Most of the scholars who have looked at his work confirm the abundant realism in this work. Some authors have expressed differences of opinion by stating that his form of ancient writing was different from the realism that current researchers and authors attribute to him (Orwin 1). Thucydides’ book on the History of the Peloponnesian War is divided into several other books (Jowett 1).

These books, which total to eight, cover a significant portion of this famous war that was fought between the Greek city of Athens on one side and the group of nations that formed the Peloponnesian League (Kagan 12; Duchesne 21).

The author dies before the war is over. However, he covers a significant part of this period by providing the necessary history on the war. The series of books look at the progress of the war from its origin to the point, which researchers suspect that the author died. This essay provides a review of the seventh book in the series by offering a review of Thucydides’ work on the same. It also provides an analysis of the literary tools used by the author to convey his message to the audience. The review will also analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the book in focusing on the Peloponnesian War while at the same time providing an opinion on some of the key areas.

Book Review

Thucydides’ book VII is a continuation of book VI, which looks at the period that the Athenians declared war on Syracuse for attacking one of their allies in the Sicilian Islands. The author provides a continuation of the events that surrounded the attack on Syracuse. He successfully presents the extension of the war that was already being waged against this supposedly strong nation and city. In this seventh book, the author generally presents the main war fought between the Athenian army and the opponents that had received a form of backing from their allies such as Sparta (Hammond and Rhodes 4).

At the beginning of the seventh book, the author indulges immediately into the ongoing conflict between Athens and Syracuse. He immediately provides the readers with the names of the individuals involved in the conflict (Thucydides 1). In this first part of the book, the author looks at the advantage that the Syracuse allies used to come to their aid (Thucydides 1). He states that the allies had learnt about the fate of the Syracuse army and people, and that there was still hope in getting to the battle in time to help their friends. The author provides the audience with a visual description of the battleships that were to come to the aid of the Syracuse army from Corinth, thus demonstrating the urgency with which these battleships were sailing towards their besieged allies (Thucydides 2).

The author describes the battle formations that were taking place between the Athenians and their enemies. In the initial pages of the book, he states that the Athenians had an advantage over the Syracuse army. In the first three pages, the author generally describes the arrival of Gylippus at Syracuse (Thucydides 3). He continues to describe the battle formations that were taking place at the time besides describing the fortifications that took place around the city and the battle lines (Thucydides 4).

He demonstrates how the fortification of the area was important to the armies that were fighting at that time. The audience can deduce the battle formations that were taking place in the first chapter of the book. The author uses these battle formations to explain further the battles that followed. He also demonstrates the time-spending techniques applied by the fighting armies in this war (Thucydides 4).

Thucydides explains that the Athenian Army was exuding confidence early in the battle, thus winning several encounters that it had with the Syracuse opponents (Thucydides 8). The other area of focus in the first chapter is the effects that the Syracuse army and the administration were making towards acquiring new cities and friends that would assist them in the war (Thucydides 12). Thucydides strategically highlights the changes that were being brought about to ensure that the war was won (Thucydides 12).

The author is categorical in the book. In fact, he chooses to stay neutral by just describing the events as they were unfolding (Thucydides 12). He highlights the mighty numbers that the Athenians had over their offending armies. He is keen to demonstrate the differences in powers that were evident in the number of ships that each side was commanding (Thucydides 12).

The author uses a series of direct quotes to highlight the conversations that took place between the different individuals commanding the different sides of the war. Through these direct quotations, he highlights the difficulties that the Syracuse army had in attaining the number of men who were required to fill the ships and/or achieve success over the Athenians (Thucydides 14). During this period that the author focuses on the Syracuse difficulties and those of their allies, the Athenians were supposedly making important gains over their enemies, thus crushing every army that was erected against them (Thucydides 15).

After the frustrations of the Syracuse army, the author changes the subject to the rising desperation among the Athenians. He states that the Athenian army had started to sense defeat should the Syracuse opponents get reinforcements from other parts of Sicily or from their colleagues in different parts of Italy (Thucydides 15). The author analyses the different strategies that were being employed by the different sides in getting more men at their disposal. The author analyses the conditions in the war by focusing on some of the letters that were sent to the generals and rulers in Athens (Thucydides 16).

The concept of political negotiations is categorically put under scrutiny. The author describes the diplomatic ties that were at play in the war. The diplomatic relationship that existed between Syracuse and Corinth is a point of focus in the book. The author explains the ties that were being forged at the time (Thucydides 17). He focuses on the fortifications that were taking place before the main battle, thus providing the audience with a preview of the expected hostile interactions between the two sides. The key message in the war is the fortification of Decelea that was viewed as being crucial to both sides (Thucydides 18).

In this book, the author alludes to the treaty that had been signed between the warring cities and territories (Thucydides 18). Thucydides does this to ensure that the audience is aware of the effects and consequences of the ward that Athens had started. Because of the war that this nation was fighting with the Syracuse army, the nation became vulnerable to attacks from Lacedaemonians who the author states were willing to open another front for the Athenians (Thucydides 18). After all, the Athenians were responsible for breaking the truce that had been created by the treaty that ended the war that occurred before the present one (Thucydides 18).

The author describes the opening of the second front by explaining how the Lacedaemonians had attacked the Athenians from a different side while their army was away fighting the Syracuse armed forces (Thucydides 19). The battle plan for each of the sides is presented in the book, with the author detailing the speeches and communication between the different individuals who were involved in the planning of the various battles. The author also uses the different seasons of the year to indicate the periods between the different activities (Thucydides 20). The different strategies that were employed by the Athenians are highlighted in the book, including the process of gathering men and/or organizing expeditions to different parts of the area in search of wealth and people to fight for them.

In most parts of the book, the battles that were fought between the Syracuse and the Athenians were fought on land. However, the author highlights one important battle that the two sides fought on the seas, with the Syracuse sailors defeating the Athenians. This outcome is the first such defeat that the Athenians had experienced in the hands of the Syracuse army. According to Thucydides, the Syracusans were initially unsuccessful in the main sea battle that was fought between themselves and the Athenians, although they took the fortress of Plemmyrium (Thucydides 24). According to the author, this situation represented a step in the right direction for the Syracuse army in its fight against the Sathenians.

The author describes in details the battles that followed in the sea and the series of skirmishes that accompanied such fights (Thucydides 24). The other major point that he discusses is how the defeat of the Athenians at Plemmyrium made the Syracuse people rejuvenated in their efforts to ensure that they were putting against their enemies. Diplomacy is evident after the battle that is described on the sea, with Syracuse sending ambassadors to different countries and regions (Thucydides 25). Some of these regions included Corinth. The Syracuse ambassadors were seeking support in the form of men to fight for them in the war with Athens together with supplies to sustain the war. The author uses descriptive terms to evaluate the events that were taking place in the period around the war between Athens and Syracuse in addition to the conflicts that followed.

The other part of the war that the author describes is the arrival of Demosthenes. It is significant in the final battle between the two opposing sides (Thucydides 32). To the audience, the author introduces Demosthenes as a new character in the interaction between the two warring sides. Using imagery, the author describes the conflict that Demosthenes had won in an attempt to show how he is of great contribution to the battles at sea and on land (Thucydides 31). In a response to the request made by Syracuse to the neighboring cities, a great force was assembled to provide additional troops to the Syracuse army that was now fighting to maintain its position and force the Athenians back. Unknown to Demosthenes, an ambush had been laid by the allies of Athenians in Sicily. These allies managed to destroy a significant part of the army that was passing through their cities (Thucydides 33).

The author describes how the Syracuse army managed to convince its fellow islanders to fight against the occupying force (Thucydides 33). The Athenians were facing most of the cities in Sicily that had made a combined force with Syracuse fighters. Before the final interactions in battle between the two forces, the author analyses the available forces for each side, thus ensuring that the audience is aware of the conditions that existed at the time. After the definition of the existing scenarios in the war, the author gives a commentary of the war that took place between the two sides at sea. By this time, the Peloponnesians had joined the sea battle. They were well equipped and organized. The Corinthians unsuccessfully engaged the Athenian ships at sea, thus destroying only a few of their ships (Thucydides 34).

Thucydides strategically explains the techniques that were used by the Syracuse army to build its ships in a manner that allowed it engage the mighty Athenian fleet that was at the sea. The author explains to the audience the different changes that the Syracuse army had made to its fleet to ensure that it was among the strongest in the region. In the previous chapters of the book, the Athenians had recorded many successes in the war, thus ensuring that they crushed their enemy. However, in this chapter, the Syracuse was successful in his campaign against the Athenians, thus demolishing the fleet that was supposed to crush them.

The author describes vividly the first instance that the Athenians had to retreat, with most of the people manning the ships being taken prisoners or killed in the ensuing battle (Thucydides 42). However, the battle is not over with the defeat of the Athenian sailors at sea. However, with the delivery of the reinforcements, the Athenian spirit is reignited. The author keenly displays the poor planning exhibited by the Athenian army, with most of the generals inadequately setting up the different battles that they were engaged in. There is a display of poor skills in the side of the Athenian army. The author states that this army was inadequately prepared for the battles that it had to face.

There were several desperate attempts by the Athenians to defeat the Syracuse army at the walls that it had put up. The author describes the different strategies that were used by the Athenians. He categorically reveals how these tactics were unsuccessful because of the poor training that the generals and the fighters had. After the main defeat of the Athenians at sea at the hands of the Syracuse, most of the allies that Syracuse had contacted agreed to send troops against the Athenians. They agreed to participate in the war on his side (Thucydides 43). During this period, the Athenians were weak. They had lost many men during the battles with the Syracuse.

The main battle that the author describes vividly to the audience is the battle of Epipolae, which was fought between the many sides that had now joined in the fight. The Athenians were heavily defeated in this battle, with their enemies gaining ground on them. According to the author, this battle was decisive in the final war between the Athenians and the Syracuse who had managed to get many allies into the war, both on land and on the sea (Thucydides 47). The walls, whose construction the author had previously described, were easily defended by the Syracuse army. The Athenians had no chance to overrun their enemies.

Thucydides displays the different opinions that emerged in the Athenian camp because of the successive defeats. Some of the individuals were of the idea that the army should be withdrawn from Sicily to defend the other front in the mainland that the neighbors had opened (Thucydides 48). According to the author, this idea was the best one since the country was at risk and that it would fall to the enemies soon. The main proponent of this idea was Demosthenes who the writer describes as preferring the end to the siege and abandonment of the ambitions for the Syracuse city. To him, the city was fortified. It would not fall anytime soon. The war was also getting expensive, with many allies joining Syracuse in the fight. The battle that was being fought in their (allies) homeland by their enemies was also a cause for concern. It would lead to the obliteration of the kingdom (Thucydides 48).

The other commanding officer that had a different opinion over whether the army should stay or leave Syracuse is Nicias. The author states that Nicias was of the contrary view based on his analysis of the problem. The audience can contrast the two leaders using the differences in opinion that the author describes (Thucydides 49). According to Nicias, an early departure meant that the army disappointed the authorities in Athens. The author also states that Nicias was constantly receiving information from inside the fort that was under siege (Thucydides: The Jowett Translation 1). This revelation indicated that Syracuse would fall after the supplies were over. The commander also thought that the wall would be insignificant if all the fighters descended on it. The strengths of the Athenian army, in relation to the number of ships, were also considerably to their advantage. The differences of opinion between the two leaders contributed to the poor performance of the Athenian army after the defeat at Epipolae.

The author describes the beliefs of the Athenian army, especially the reactions to the eclipses that took place in the course of the war. He reveals that the belief in bad omens after a lunar eclipse made the Athenian army delay departure from Sicily after their defeat in this place (Thucydides 50). With the delayed departure, the author uses this situation to explain the stage for another battle. This battle took place at the harbor, with the Syracuse army sending numerous ships to counter the Athenians that were still stuck at the harbor (Thucydides 52). The many battles in the ‘Great Harbor’ that pitied the Syracuse and its allies against the Athenian Amy led to the loss of many lives. The author describes the desperation that was evident in the Athenian camp and the disorganization that had led to the defeat of this camp.

The consequences of war are evident in this book, with the author describing the different feelings that were expressed in this battle (Thucydides 69).For the Athenian army, the original confidence that it had displayed against its enemies transformed into despair, with the only option being to retreat. The author describes the level of desperation that accompanied the defeat of Nicias’ men at the ‘Great Harbor’, with most of them choosing to retreat through the land (Thucydides 72). Initially, the commanders wanted to retreat using the ships that had remained. These ships were more in relation to those owned by their enemies. However, this plan was not successful since the sailors did not have the confidence to sail in the direction of their enemies (Thucydides 76). According to the author, desperation made the commanding officers opt for the retreat on land (Thucydides 76). This retreat was also risky. It was accompanied by hostilities from the cities and other regions that were allied to the Syracuse fighters.

The author’s fears are confirmed after the army retreats on land, with most of the men being slaughtered and killed by the Syracuse army that had pursued it. The cities that were now loyal to the Syracuse army also provided important support, thus ensuring that the Athenians did not pass through their land. In the final chapters of the book, the author describes the conditions that the wounded fighters had to endure, with most of them having to beg their friends to carry them away from the battlefield. The retreating soldiers were not in a position to help their friends and family that had been left behind by the retreating army (Thucydides 83). The author also states that the consequences that befell the different fighters were attributable to the choices made by their commanding officers. Many mistakes occurred in the battles. They were used by the Syracuse army to its advantage.

In this book, the author explains the different interactions between the fighting sides while showing how these interactions affected the results. The defeat of the Athenian army was accompanied by the rise of other cities in Sicily, with the original Athens area being attacked from different sides. The author describes the differences in strategies that the armies employed to remain ahead of their opponents. These were mainly tactical. The patience of the Syracuse fighters ensured that they obtained success against their invaders. The eventual retreat and annihilation of the Athenian army was also significant in the book. The author describes it in vivid form. The author describes many battles as being decisive in the war between the two opposing sides.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Book

Any book has its strengths and weaknesses that ensure that it is either successful or communicates the intended messages to the target audience. Thucydides book VII was originally written in a period where the art of writing had not been perfected. Many writers at the time were the Greeks who applied similar styles of writing. The main strength that the book has is that it is systematically organized. The audience can follow the chronological events that took place in the course of the Peloponnesian war. The author manages to capture the audience using figurative language together with the use of imagery and other stylistic devices. There are many chapters in the book, which allow readers to analyze the different sections in different ways.

The other strength that is evident in the book is the clarity with which it presents the different opposing arguments. The author employs the use of rich language to ensure that the audience is captured into the story. They reader finds it easy to pay attention to the different parts of this book. The Peloponnesian War is a significant part of the Greek history. Many researchers have stated that it contributed to the changes that the region went through (Thucydides 13).

Many researchers state that the war meant the end of an era for the Greeks who had played an important part in the modern-day governance and diplomatic relations (Tritle 5). The Peloponnesian War ensured that the region reduced in dominance. Its recovery was not immediate. Thucydides’ book VII provides readers, scholars, and scientists with proof of the war and the different changes that took place here.

The main weakness that is observed in the book is the original introduction that the readers get. There is no formal introduction into the book. The author indulges immediately into the topic of the war between the Athenians and their Syracuse counterparts. For readers who have not read the previous books, the start of book VII is not appropriate. It is misleading in a way. The other weakness of this book is its use of names and titles that may not be appropriate in the modern-day era, and that may not be applicable to the current language use.

Summary and Opinion

In summary, Thucydides’ book VII is an example of the work of art that details the history of a group of people. The Peloponnesian War was important since it shaped Greece. The author is able to capture the events that transpired between the two warring sides. He analyzes the battles that these sides fought. The book is a continuation of the sixth book by the same author. It presents the battle between the Athenians and the Syracuse army along with its allies. Initially, the Athenians are successful in their wars with the Syracuse.

They manage to keep them within the walls of the cities and forts that they had built for protection. The turning point in the war occurs when the Syracuse army defeats the Athenians in a single battle. This situation causes them to increase confidence. They also manage to use this victory to convince their friends to join and get support from many cities and areas.

Thucydides’ book presents the differences that existed within the Athenian command. These variations are important in determining the eventual outcome of the war. Many researchers have stated that the occurrence of the differences between the commanders led to the disappointing performance for the Athenians who had to contend with massive losses in the form of men and weapons. Open defiance from the fighters and poor beliefs also contributed to the loss. The book presents the Peloponnesian War in a way that allows historians and other individuals to analyze it in the future. The book is an example of a well-written work.

As a personal opinion, the book is an important source of information for the historians since it allows them to obtain information on the Peloponnesian War. The author presents his work in a well-organized manner. Besides, he provides the reader with the necessary information on the history of this area. The tactics displayed in the book, although they are not effective for the Athenians, may be a useful learning point for strategists and commanders who choose to engage in conflict. They may also be vital for students who analyze conflicts.

Works Cited

Duchesne, Allan. Democracy and empire: the applicability of the dictum that a democracy cannot manage an empire (Thucydides, book VII, ch. 37, Jowett’s translation) to the present conditions and future problems of the British empire, especially the question of the future. London, N.Y.: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1916. Print.

Hammond, Martin, and Pamela. J. Rhodes. The Peloponnesian War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Jowett, Benjamin. The Peloponnesian War. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1963. Print.

Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York, NY: Viking, 2003. Print.

Orwin, Clifford. The humanity of Thucydides. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

Thucydides, Robert. Thucydides: Translated Into English, to Which is Prefixed an Essay on Inscriptions and a Note on the Geography of Thucydides (V.2) (1900), Cornell: Cornell University Library, 2009. Print.

Thucydides: The Jowett Translation. Thucydides Book VI, Jowett Translation, n.d. Web.

Tritle, Lawrence. The Peloponnesian War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

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