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Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities Essay (Book Review)



The Peloponnesian War was a significant part of Greece history. Many books have been written on this great war detailing the events that unfolded during the war. The events that transpired during this period were significant to the modern-day politics and social organization. This period also presents the existing divisions within the empire that is known to be one of the greatest kingdoms in history. The civilization at the time had a life expectancy that was lower than what is experienced currently in many parts of the world. It is important to look at the war to establish the events that took place. One of the books that feature the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ book Peloponnesian War, which is written with clarity and professionalism. Therefore, the following is a review of the book.

Brief Overview of the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was fought between the Athenian Empire and a group of city-states that had formed an alliance called the Peloponnesian League (Tritle 2). The war between two states in Greece was preceded by a period of prosperity in Greece, especially in Athens (Kagan 4). The city-state had accumulated large financial assets. Besides, it had developed a strong political influence in the area. The traditional opponents of this state started viewing it with suspicion, with Sparta being the main threat to Athens (Duchesne 12). Before the break of hostilities, the states that had been entangled in the hostilities had tried diplomatic solutions that proved to be ineffective (Duchesne 12).

Sparta hosted a strong army that often engaged in destructive activities against Attica while Athens frequently used the strong naval force to attack the coast of the opponent states (Duchesne 12; Jowett 13; Hammond 12). This war was a miscalculation on the side of Athens, with most of its forces being lost and annihilated. Athens suffered major losses after starting the second phase of the Peloponnesian war.

Athens went through economic and political depression (Jowett 13). Sparta managed to establish a variety of political systems, which led to numerous civil wars that lasted over the next few decades (Thucydides: The Jowett Translation 3). The Peloponnesian War saw the introduction of a number of technologies in the war field, with the battlefield being revolutionized (Thucydides: The Jowett Translation 13). Most researchers and historians also agree that the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War was a significant event in Greece, thus ending the Golden Age that the country had enjoyed for a number of decades (Jowett 13). The book by Thucydides on ‘The Peloponnesian War’ is a significant representation of the events that transpired during the war. The analysis of this book provides important arguments that the author incorporates.

Book Analysis

The sixth book begins with the introduction of the idea that Athens had developed of attacking Sicily using a larger force than they had used previously (Thucydides 1). The main aim of the attack was to conquer the large Island and expand their political and social influence (Thucydides 1). The author describes the distances that the Island of Sicily was separated from the mainland together with what it would take for Athens to reach the island. He also describes the constituent states for Sicily before this planned attack (Thucydides 2). The preparations for the attack saw opposition and support in equal measure from influential individuals in Athens, with some claiming that it would be an expensive affair. The author states the existence of arguments over the gains that Athens would have in attacking this state (Thucydides 8).

Some of the individuals in Athens thought that the war would bring honor, with others arguing that the move into Sicily would agitate the enemy and create new ones for Athens (Thucydides 10). The author qualifies in showing the state of the country before the war. According to him, the country had previously signed agreements to stop hostilities between it and its enemies. The attack was viewed as an act of defiance against this agreement. The other argument against the invasion of Sicily was that due to its vastness, Athens would not be able to control it even after it had defeated its armies (Thucydides 11).

An argument was made on the likely effects of the union between Sicily and the enemies of Athens to form a war coalition. The supposition also included an analysis of the financial status for Athens, which indicated that the country was not well equipped to finance another war after major losses in the previous one. A plague had also cost the state numerous resources, which also made the war difficult for it. Many citizens in Athens supported the proposed war. It was viewed as a positive way of ensuring that the state was not undermined (Thucydides 15).

The book concurs with the fact that there must be opponents and proponents in any war. Alcibiades was one of the proponents of the war. He was against Nicias, a political enemy that was also entangled in the war debate (Thucydides 15). However, his support for the war was driven by a desire to command the army that was to attack Sicily. This desire was to be the main victor and conqueror of the state of Sicily (Thucydides 15). He argued that Athens should not fear Sicily for it had no strong army and though highly populous, Sicily had different multitudes with some supporting Athens and the war. He boasted of the strong navy that was present under Athens, stating that although the attack on Sicily could leave Athens vulnerable, it would leave a navy force that is adequate to repel any attack from the enemies (Thucydides 16).

The author strategically presents the war as an assistance of the allies of Athens in Sicily that had been invaded and their properties destroyed. Nicias, who was in the opinion that the war was not necessary, raised several arguments that were intended to stop this war. There were arguments that Sicily was subdivided and would not exchange sovereignty for the rule of Athens. There was the fear that the different territories in Sicily would merge to form an opposing force for Athens, thus leading to the defeat of this powerful nation. The suggestion was that the Athenian force attracts heavily armored fighters through an adequate pay and provision of the necessary resources. The army was supposed to have many supplies in terms of food, which would have been provided by the large force that would have been constructed (Thucydides 22).

The other claim was that Sicily was a relatively new area for most of the fighters that were deployed. The author defends this claim by showing how the fighters could not understand the geography of the area. The land was also vast. The nations within it might gang up against the invading forces of Athens (Thucydides 24). The generals were given the authority to act in the best interest of the Athenian citizens. A keen analysis of this situation reveals that the state was to go into war after all, and that the war would be an important one in guaranteeing the security of Athenians and establishing their strong control of the regions around them (Thucydides 21).

The author talks about an incident that occurred in the period before the war after the heated debates over whether or not to go into the war. The carved figures that were worshipped throughout the city and that represented the history and success of Athens were mutilated, with the offending individuals being unknown to anybody (Thucydides 27). To the reader, this brings about fear to the leadership that thought that the offending individuals were out to cause fear and/or lead to the overthrow of the democratic government in place (Thucydides 27). Some individuals blamed drunkards that had previously celebrated in a close house. One of the individuals who were named as being responsible was Alcibiades (Thucydides 28).

The book presents a blame game that captures the reader to know how it begins and/or things unfold as a result. It began in the state of Athens over who was responsible for the mutilation of the figures. Alcibiades saw the blame on him as being built on jealousy and desire for some individuals to take up his position in the state. The plot was to have Alcibiades arrested and made an ordinary citizen who was not worthy of being in the state of Athens.

When accusations were made against Alcibiades, the voyage for Sicily was ready. Ships were waiting at the port to take the men to their final war ground in Sicily. He denied the charges of mutilating the important figures or plotting against the leadership in Athens and demanded a fair trial where he was tried and/or made to defend himself. Alcibiades offered to clear himself from the accusation before being jailed. He will be punished according to the law If found guilty (Thucydides 29).

The people supporting the punishment of Alcibiades and those that accused him of the destruction of the figures before the war were afraid of putting charges against him before the war because he enjoyed the support from the military. The civilians could not support any action against him too. The author makes it clear to the reader that the trial cannot go on until Alcibiades returns from the war with Sicily. A plot was hatched to stir bad feelings and sentiments against Alcibiades when he and the army were away. However, just as it happens in the contemporary court cases, the author shows how Alcibiades is later recalled to stand an unfair justice (Thucydides 29).

The expedition for Sicily started in the middle of summer, with the army and the allies sailing towards the island. The author describes the fleet of vessels that sailed towards Sicily as one of the largest that had ever been witnessed in the region’s history. The author also describes of some of the differences that were observed in the army while on a journey to Sicily. However, the reader will wonder based on how the disagreements seem insignificant compared to the size of the army (Thucydides 31). The disagreements on how the individual ships performed among other things prove decisive in the final battle.

Prayers were said before the eventual departure from port. The ships sailed in the direction of Syracuse. The rulers in Syracuse got many reports of the impending attacks from many quarters, although the reports were rubbished as rumors that had no basis. One of the individuals that had evidence of the approaching Athenian fleet was Hermocrates who took this information to Syracuse’s rulers (Thucydides 34). He suggested an alliance between this nation with that of Carthaginians who had also feared an attack from the Athenians (Thucydides 34). Hermocrates was instrumental in describing the alliances that were made to win the war with the Athenian fleet that was now in high seas and about to attack his homeland (Thucydides 35).

The author successfully brings another character, Athenagoras, as one of the great leaders of the Syracuse city at the time to play the role of the leading opponents of the rumor that Athens was to attack the city. He stated that it was just a fear being spread by individuals to instill apprehension in the populace (Thucydides 35).

The claim was that even if the Athenians attacked Sicily, the city could defend itself out of the vast resources that it had. However, an agreement was reached to investigate the rumors that were spreading in the country. The generals were asked to be on the watch and prepare for any eventuality. By this time, the author describes that the fleet that had started to organize how it could land on the shore, with the ships being divided into three squadrons in readiness for an attack in that order (Thucydides 43). The forces that were making up the fleet are also described, with most of them being from the subject states under Athens.

When the fleet arrived at a place called Rhegium, Syracuse was now sure that there would be an attack by Athens. Efforts were made aimed at solidifying defense and gaining support from the other states and cities in Sicily (Thucydides 45). The Rhegians did not support the invasion of Syracuse by Athens. Nicias had expected this to happen even before setting sail. The three vessels that had gone before the large fleet to negotiate an agreement with the rulers of this city came back with few treasures that were thought to be crucial in financing the war.

Some of the disappointments as regards the payments made some of the generals think about turning back, and hence the reason why a war council was held (Thucydides 47). However, Alcibiades was of the opinion of proceeding with the attack, stating that it will be embarrassing to go back without any achievements. He suggested negotiations with some of the cities in Sicily while seeking support from citizens in this island. Readers expect the people to revolt against their leaders or support the invasion. After much debate, it was agreed that the generals would try to make agreements with the cities in Sicily in an attempt to ensure that they pass through these cities on their way to Syracuse, which was their main target. Why did some of the cities refuse to make an alliance with the Athenians while few indicated any support for the offensive that was in progress? (Thucydides 52).

The fleet eventually landed on the Syracuse territory that had a long beach. The author succeeds in presenting a brief encounter with the Syracuse Calvary that killed some of the light armored members of the Athenian Army (Thucydides 52). Even before the battle began, Alcibiades was summoned to Athens to face trial for the actions that he was accused of. The message was conveyed through the vessel Salaminia, which had met with the fleet at Catana (Thucydides 52). He was required to go home and defend himself of the accusations leveled against him. The author proceeds to explain the origin of the hate relationship that existed between Alcibiades and the people accusing him of the acts he was to stand trial for (Thucydides 54).

Alcibiades’s enemies had continued with the onslaught even after he went into battle by accusing him of the atrocities that had befallen the city (Thucydides 61). Alcibiades made an understanding with a small Lacedaemonian force and managed to fool the Athenians while they were still having a debate of how to punish him. Alcibiades went into exile after disappearing from the Salaminia, with the crew searching him with no luck (Thucydides 61). He was sentenced to death in his absentia. Alcibiades later crossed into Peloponnesus and proceeded to cross over to the crew’s side when he reached the city. Two generals who divided the fleet into two, sailing in different directions (Thucydides 62), now commanded the fleet in Sicily.

By the time the Athenians were planning to attack Syracuse, the city had been preparing for the onslaught. The author describes that the spirits were now high as ever. The Athenians had delayed at sea. The author uses the delay-strategy as a way of making the Syracuse army prepared for any attack. They also managed to make agreements with the some of their allies to help them in the war that was to follow. The Athenian generals knew of the danger that followed if they disembarked from their ships in the presence of the Syracuse army. Therefore, they drew away from the city and planned to land at night (Thucydides 64).

The book brings out a plan that was hatched to deceive the Syracuse army using one of the trusted friends of the city. The author is straightforward in terms of revealing the intentions of the plan: to mislead the army into attacking a different part of the city where the Athenian soldiers were believed to be staying. Since the generals were excited, they started to march towards the area that hosted the Athenian Army even before the arrival of the messenger (Thucydides 65).

The Athenian sailed away from this attack and disembarked at Syracuse. The Syracuse army had to rush back and protect the city from the Athenians after the equestrians found out that the Athenians had sailed towards their city. While the march back to the city was long and involving, the Syracuse army was to be surprised by the Athenians that had set up advantageous positions from which to attack their returning enemies (Thucydides 65).

When the Syracuse army approached the city, it realized that its enemy had gotten there before it. The author here wants to drive home the issue of incompetence that many armies have been accused of in terms of not using intelligence properly to determine the location and/or intentions of any attackers who had settled for a safer area from which to attack them. For instance, it is clear that the Athenians had all the time to prepare for an attack to the Syracuse army the next day. According to Thucydides, the Athenians took the center of the attack while their allies took the flanks (67).

Nicias addressed the soldiers before the attack by encouraging them to fight in unison and as a unit. The author here wants to bring out unity as one of the tools that lead to success even in times of wars. The message was that a defeat and retreat would be impossible. Since these people were in a foreign land, any defeat would mean death to any member of the army from the cavalries that would follow them, and hence the call for unity as the author presents. After this speech, Nicias led the army to charge (Thucydides 68).

The issue of unpreparedness of many armies is well captured in the book. For instance, the Syracuse army was unprepared at the time of the attack, with some of the members having visited the city, which was just close to the battlefield. Therefore, they were forced to make a hasty defense of the camp (Thucydides 69). The attack began with the stone throwers engaging the attackers who were later followed by the charging cavalry and the whole army. The author wishes to show the outcomes of an unprepared army especially when a battle strikes. Death and defeat are inevitable in this case. As such, the battle saw massive losses on both sides of the battle. At some point, the Athenians heavily defeated the Syracuse army at the center (Thucydides 70).

The Athenians won this battle. They later sailed to Catana after the battle to request for equestrians from their homeland and those from the cities that were in their support in Sicily. The Syracuse Calvary was a large and mighty one. It had the capacity to obliterate the Athenian army that had few equestrians. The Athenian army was also relying on the victory that it had registered against the Syracuse to request for money from Athens and the cities in Sicily.

On the other side of the divide, the author strategically depicts the Syracuse army preparing for return attack against the Athenian army. The assembly was called to discuss this matter (Thucydides 72).

The author prepares the reader for a discussion on some of the weaknesses that were to be debated as key elements that hinder success in any battle. The author presents elements such as the professionalism of the force, the large number of generals commanding the army, and poor discipline among the soldiers. The reader sees the author as one who had experience in the battlefield based on the proposal that the meeting made. Any army that has ever failed in battle who resolve to reduce the number of generals and/or ensure that the people sent to fight are courageous and masters of their craft (Thucydides 72). After much debate on the changes that should be adopted to make the Syracuse army, preparations went into high gear to ensure that the army was well prepared for the next onslaught that the Athenians would organize (Thucydides 86).

The Athenian army was at this time still seeking support from the cities that were in Sicily, promising them protection and leniency from the empire among other things. Some of the cities agreed to offer themselves for the battle on the side of Athens while others chose to remain neutral or opposed such a move (Thucydides 88). Syracuse had sent for help from the other territories around them such as the Italian Greeks. The author depicts the move by Athens as a threat to their freedom. The author wants to drive home the idea of unity and togetherness. According to him, Athens should unite together to defeat this common enemy (Thucydides 88).The Corinthians, Lacedaemon, and the Syracuse met in the same assembly to discuss the onslaught by Athens, what it meant for all of them, and what action they would take. Alcibiades and other exiled Athenians were instrumental in the war, thus assisting the Syracuse and the Corinthian forces.

Alcibiades had been organizing and army against Athens that was supposed to attack his native country. The Athenian rulers were at the same time offering support for the army. Their request to have money and Calvary was met (Thucydides 93).

At the beginning of spring, Thucydides states that the Athenian army started to head to Megara to attack a fortress that was operated by the Syracuse army (94). Any keen reader will expect a failure of the attack. As such, this attack was not successful. The Athenians proceeded to carry out destructive activities against Syracuse and its farms. The army also attacked several other Sicilian cities and burnt their crops. Upon returning to its base at Catana, it found that the equestrians that it had requested for had arrived, along with other weapons and money for the war (Thucydides 94). A battle followed that saw massive losses for the armies.

A number of other equestrians that had come from Egstaean joined the Athenian army. These equestrians were mainly from the different parts of Sicily. The author here wishes to show how governments resort to seeking assistance from other sources or armies when things seem worse. Frequent battles occurred between the Syracuse army that was defending the town and the Athenian army, with the Athenians often winning the single battles (Thucydides 99). The two sides decided to erect walls that would prevent the rise of their enemies, with the Syracuse army erecting one wall opposite that of the Athenians (Thucydides 99).

The author describes a major battle on one of the wings of the Athenian force. The city inhabitants as well as the Syracuse army decided to attack along this side. The Syracuse army was defeated once again. The wall erection by the Athenians continued. The cities that had been in opposition to the fight joined in support of the Athenians. The Sicilian army was almost obliterated.

News of the construction of the wall around the city spread. The Corinthians sent troops and ships in aid of the Syracuse army. The Athenians under the leadership of Nicias despised the approaching army claiming that it was too small to come to the rescue of the Syracuse (Thucydides 104). The author depicts how some armies look down upon some enemies. He presents this miscalculation as a threat since it is not the number of enemies that determines whether they will win the battle. Rather, unity and the state of arms are the key determinants. Because of this pride, Nicias did not set up a watch against the invaders. Alliances were being made while this was happening. The events that followed led to a number of wars being fought. The reader expects the book to end with an attack on the Athenians by the allies that were now strong in support of Syracuse.


The book presents some important aspects of the Peloponnesian War that took the lives of many fighters and citizens (Orwin 13). In the book, the author demonstrates the decision-making process by most of the generals at the time and the rivalries that defined the population that can be described as unique. The strategies demonstrated are not new to the military at this period. The author demonstrates that their effective application could ensure success in any war.

Another lesson from this book is that poor decision-making can lead to massive losses in the army, despite the presence of a strong force (Jowett 13). Syracuse initially has a weak defense before the arrival of the Athenian offenders. However, his people were not able to utilize the element of surprise to obliterate their long-time enemies (Jowett 18). The divisions in the army leading to the defection of Alcibiades were unfortunate, and hence one of the reasons for the experienced losses.

The book is clearly written. The author uses simple language to explain some of the events that took place. In conclusion, the Peloponnesian War was a significant event in the history of Greece, and especially Athens. The civilization existing at this time was one of the greatest ever to live. The level of technology used in the army in the many battles was advanced. The war is detailed in the book in fine details. The author uses proper ways of presenting it to the audience, and hence the reason why it qualifies as a must-read and informative piece of work.

Works Cited

Duchesne, Allan. Democracy and empire: the applicability of the dictum that a democracy cannot manage an empire (Thucydides, book III, 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), Cornrnell: 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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"Thucydides' Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities." IvyPanda, 5 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/thucydides-peloponnesian-war-sicilian-antiquities/.

1. IvyPanda. "Thucydides' Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities." June 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/thucydides-peloponnesian-war-sicilian-antiquities/.


IvyPanda. "Thucydides' Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities." June 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/thucydides-peloponnesian-war-sicilian-antiquities/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Thucydides' Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities." June 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/thucydides-peloponnesian-war-sicilian-antiquities/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Thucydides' Peloponnesian War: Sicilian Antiquities'. 5 June.

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