Chapter 1: The State of Greece from the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Peloponnesian War
- Thucydides claims that the Peloponnesian war was the largest war in history to that point in time, and also more worthy of relating to posterity than any other war.
- He provides a brief history of Greece.
- He discusses the method of writing his history – i.e. he will adhere strictly to the facts, and abstain from exaggerating or inserting entertaining anecdotes for the sake of truth, which Thucydides believes to be of the utmost importance to those who require an exact account of the past in order to interpret the future; for the future always resembles, if not reflects, the past.
- He claims that the true cause of the Peloponnesian war the growth of Athenian supremacy, and the fear of the Lacedaemonians as a consequence of this aggrandizement.
“The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.”
“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”
“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”
Chapter 2: Causes of the War – The Affair of Epidamnus – The Affair of Potidaea
- Epidamnus was a colony in Illyria, settled by colonists form Corinth and Corcyra. The common people expelled the nobles from the land. Consequently the nobles joined with barbarians and plundered the city. The common people sent for help from Corinth, who agreed to assist them. The exiled nobles that had joined the barbarians sent for assistance from Corcyra, which agreed to help restore them to power.
- Corcyra defeated Corinthian forces in a battle, but Corinth spent the next two years in amassing a powerful naval force. Perceiving the impending danger, Corcyra appealed to the Athenians for help. They entreated the Athenians to consider the benefit of allying themselves with a powerful naval force such as Corcyra, given the fact that the outbreak of war with Lacedaemon was imminent. The Corinthian envoys told the Athenians that allying with Corcyra meant that Athens would be breaking the treaty between the Peloponnesian and Delian leagues.
- Athens decided to assist the Corcyreans.
- Athens and Corcyra won a naval battle against the Corinthians at Sybota.
- Then the contending parties fought again at Potidaea. Potidaea was part of the Delian league, but revolted from Athens, and received assistance from Corinth. Athens besieged the city for many years.
Chapter 3: Congress of the Peloponnesian Confederacy at Lacedaemon
- The Corinthians entreat the Spartan assembly to declare war on Athens. Their argument relies mainly upon the notion of preventing Athens from growing too powerful to be defied. As Brutus states in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “think him as a serpent’s egg – which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous – and kill him in the shell.”
- Next, the Athenian envoys address the assembly. They argue that Athens displayed tremendous patriotism in the Persian war, and that they have warranted the friendship of Sparta rather than enmity. Furthermore, they warn Sparta that even if they should be defeated, the people would revolt against the severity of Spartan laws.
- The Spartan assembly dismisses the Corinthian and Athenian representatives. The King Archidamus addresses the assembling, arguing that Sparta should not hastily declare war on Athens because he foresees a war of great magnitude and high cost to both Sparta and all of Greece.
- An Ephor named Sthenelaides addresses the assembly. He exhorts the assembly to declare war on Athens, appealing to Spartan fears of the aggrandizement of Athenian power. The assembly votes for war.
“The true author of the subjugation of a people is not so much the immediate agent, as the power which permits it having the means to prevent it.”
“Our subjects are so habituated to associate with us as equals that any defeat whatever that clashes with their notions of justice, whether it proceeds from a legal judgment or from the power which our empire gives us, makes them forget to be grateful for being allowed to retain most of their possessions, and more vexed at a part being taken, than if we had from the first cast law aside and openly gratified our covetousness. If we had done so, not even would they have disputed that the weaker must give way to the stronger. Men’s indignation, it seems, is more excited by legal wrong than by violent wrong; the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior.”
“This, the war on which you are now debating, would be one of the greatest magnitude.”
“The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand.”
Chapter 4: From the end of the Persian to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War—The Progress from Supremacy to Empire
- Thucydides provides an account of the years between the end of the Persian War and the beginning of the Peloponnesian war. Athens was busy with quelling revolts in its colonies and expanding its empire. Sparta was primarily concerned with squashing a Helot revolt.
Chapter 5: Second Congress at Lacedaemon—Preparations for War and Diplomatic Skirmishes—Cylon—Pausanias—Themistocles
- At the second congress at Lacedaemon, the Peloponnesian League voted for war against Athens.
- During the time between the Peloponnesian decision to go to war and the commencement of hostilities, Sparta sent envoys to Athens to create pretexts for going to war with the Athenians. They entreated Athens to make amends for past religious transgressions, knowing that Athens would never assent to their requests.
- Thucydides relates the tale of Cylon, who attempted to make himself tyrant of Athens. After seizing the acropolis, he was surrounded by Athenians. Many of his men died of famine, but those who survived were killed by the Athenians, though they sought sanctuary in a temple. This was the instance that Sparta half-heartedly sought amends for.
- The Athenians made similar requests to the Lacedaemonians. Thucydides relates the tale of the Spartan hero of the Persian War – Pausanias – who fell from grace with the Spartans. The Spartans discovered that Pausanias was communicating with the Persian king with intentions of cooperating to subject Hellas. The Spartans killed Pausanias by locking him inside a temple at which Pausanias sought sanctuary, and allowed him to starve to death.
- Thucydides also relates the traitorous story of Themistocles, who fled Athens for Persia after Athenians and Spartans discovered that he was cooperating with the Persians. Thucydides died of an illness while living in Persia. His friends were able to convey his body to Attica, where they interred it unbeknownst to Athenian authorities; for it is unlawful for an outlaw to be buried in Attic land.
- Thucydides recounts Pericles’ speech to the Athenians, exhorting them to declare war on Sparta. The Athenians vote for war.
In Book I, Thucydides outlines the catalysts of the Peloponnesian War. Many of the causes of the war can be recognized in Herodotus’ account of the Persian War. I remember while reading Herodotus’ History that there were noticeable hostilities brimming underneath the surface of Hellene relations, especially the relationship between the Athenians and Spartans. Thucydides believes that the key cause of the war was Spartan fear over the growing power of Athens. The Spartan decision to attack Athens before it grows too powerful resembles the thoughts of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus reasons that Caesar is like a serpent in its egg. He must kill the serpent in its egg before it hatches and grows into a deadly snake.
The speeches in Thucydides’ History are the highlights of the book. While reading these speeches, I tried to empathize with the listeners of these speeches. I found that all of the speeches were very persuasive, that good reasons could be used to support any position one chose. With this in mind, how could one make a rationally objective decision? I don’t believe that there is an objectively correct side in this affair. Therefore, I believe that the majority of voters of the Delian and Peloponnesian leagues were likely persuaded to one position by money or emotion rather than the rationality of arguments.