THUCYDIDES: The History of the Peloponnesian War [Book II, V]

Book II

Chapter 6: Beginning of the Peloponnesian War—First Invasion of Attica—Funeral Oration of Pericles

  • Theban forces try to take the city of Plataea, but are routed from the town.
  • Archidamus, the Spartan king, leads a Lacedaemonian force into Attica. The forces ravage many Athenian cities, prompting resentment towards the policies of Pericles commanding the Athenians to remain within the walls of their city while their fields are burned.
  • Athenians have a difficult time adjusting to life in the city. There was insufficient space for all of the Athenian citizens, who mainly dwelled in the country-sides, within the fortifications.
  • While Lacedaemonian forces ravaged Athenian fields, the Athenian navy plundered many coastal towns in the Peloponnese.
  • Pericles gives a funeral oration for the casualties of the first year of the war. The majority of his speech is focused on praising the excellence of Athens, which serves as an indirect praise of those who fought and died in her defense.


“I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperilled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature. For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity.”


“Holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance, and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment.”


“These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war.”


There are many similarities between Pericles’ funeral oration and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both men begin by praising their ancestors. Both men praise the deeds of the dead, and state that no words can express the heroism and virtue of those men who fought and died in the particular wars. Finally, both men praise their democratic governments, and exhort those in attendance to emulate those who fought and died for their country.


Chapter 7: Second Year of the War – The Plague of Athens – Position and Policy of Pericles – Fall of Potidaea

  • Thucydides gives a lurid description of the symptoms of the plague that afflicted Athens during the War. The disease began as a fever, and then became progressively worse until the person could not quench their thirst or bear to wear any clothing. Retching, vomiting, and diarrhea severely weakened the person until they succumbed to death. The ‘fortunate’ ones were those who survived the disease, but lost limbs or even their eyes.
  • Many Athenians resent Pericles and blame him for the sufferings. There is even discussion about capitulating to the Peloponnesians. Pericles gives a speech, in which he persuades the Athenians to persevere in the War, and also removes some of the feelings of blame that are held by some Athenians towards him.
  • Thucydides believes that the Athenians eventually lost the war because Pericles died during the second year of the war, and no sufficiently strong replacement was found to lead the people. Instead, the subsequent leaders were actually led by the whims of the multitude rather than by their own intuitions and reasons.
  • Athens successfully takes Potidaea after many years besieging the city. The inhabitants of the city had become so famished that some resorted to cannibalism.


“Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.”


One of the results of the plague was a general degeneration of morals among the Athenian citizens. Thucydides describes how people disregarded the laws of men and the laws of the gods. People indulged their every pleasure, believing that they would die soon, or their property would be lost, so it was necessary to spend it all while they still possessed it. This type of response to a disaster does not speak well of human nature. Everyone would like to believe that they would still act with respect to one another, and not treat others as ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’ – see Kant. But one can never know how he will react in a situation until he is experiencing those specific circumstances. Thucydides does write that some people still frequented their friends who had caught the plague, despite the high probability that they would contract the disease from them, from a sense of friendship and sympathy. I suppose that some people are truly good, and will be good no matter the circumstances. However, for the majority of people, they are only good according to their particular circumstances.


Chapter 8: Third Year of the War—Investment of Plataea—Naval Victories of Phormio—Thracian Irruption into Macedonia under Sitalces

  • The Lacedaemonians besiege Plataea. They try a number of tactics, including burning the city, but all attempts fail to take the city. The Lacedaemonians content themselves with surrounding the city and essentially blockading the defenders of the city within the walls.
  • The Athenian admiral Phormio successfully defeated a Peloponnesian fleet at Naupactus. The Athenian fleet was composed of 20 ships while the Peloponnesian possessed over 40. However, the Athenians lost a second battle that followed soon after this victory. In the second battle, the Peloponnesians possessed over 70 ships, and were able to take more than half of the Athenian ships in the first assault.
  • Sitalces, a Thracian and Athenian ally, leads an attack into Macedonia. He successfully ravages many of the lands in Macedonia, and retires back to his country at the end of the year.


There were not many interesting events in this chapter, but merely descriptions of the various battles throughout the Hellenic world. The Athenians displayed courage and naval superiority in battles where they were outnumbered 2 to 1 by Lacedaemonian forces, which reinforces Thucydides argument that Athens would likely have won the war if they had not lost their great leader Pericles.

Book V

Chapter 15: Tenth Year of the War—Death of Cleon and Brasidas—Peace of Nicias

  • At the battle of Amphipolis, the Lacedaemonians successfully defended the city from the Athenians. Brasidas, the Spartan commander, and Cleon, the Athenian commander both died during the battle. The two men were strong proponents of the war. After their death, Sparta and Athens were able to contract a peace with one another.
  • The Peace of Nicias was intended to bring an end to the war and establish an alliance between Athenians and Spartans for 50 years.


“Make no show of cowardice then on your part, seeing the greatness of the issues at stake, and I will show that what I preach to others I can practice myself.”


Cleon has become the epitome of a demagogue. The Athenian politician was born to the lower commercial class, but raised to political eminence through appealing to the fears, prejudices, and emotions of the Athenians. He was a zealous opponent of Pericles’ strategy to refrain from meeting the Spartans in the field of battle. He accused Pericles, and all others that valued deliberation over immediate and violent action of being weak. It is very interesting to learn that political models, such as the virtuous statesman and the violent demagogue, have existed since the very beginnings of society; very little of man’s nature and relationships with others has changed.


Chapter 16: Feeling against Sparta in Peloponnese—League of the Mantineans, Eleans, Argives, and Athenians—Battle of Mantinea and breaking up of the League

  • The Argives were age-old rivals of Sparta. They entered into an alliance with the Mantineans, Elean, and Athenians.
  • The Argive alliance fought the Spartans in the Battle of Mantinea. The Spartans routed the Argive alliance, killing over one thousand men and losing only three hundred.
  • The victory restored confidence to the Spartans, and led further credibility to the notion that Spartan hoplites were invincible on land.


Chapter 17: Sixteenth Year of the War—The Melian Conference—Fate of Melos

  • Melos is a small island that wishes to remain neutral in the Peloponnesian War. Athens commands the Melians to surrender their city to Athens and agree to pay yearly tributes to them, or Athens will destroy their city.
  • Athens states that if they allow Melos to remain neutral, then the other Hellenic states would perceive Athens as weak, and not strong enough to conquer tiny Melos.
  • Melos argues that other neutral states will fear similar actions taken against them, and therefore will rebel against Athens before they are invaded themselves. The Athenians disagree.
  • Melos argues that they will fight for honor because it is their duty as a free people to resist being enslaved. Athens rejoins that this fight is not about honor, but about self-preservation. Honor can only be attained in a fight against those of equal powers. There is no honor in futile resistance against an overwhelming force. Hope is a prerogative of the strong, not the weak.
  • Melos believes that the gods will favor them because they are fighting for what is right against what is wrong. Athens argues that the gods favor strength, not moral arguments.
  • Melos believes that Sparta will assist her against Athens because of their kinship. Athens states that Sparta has too much to lose and too little to gain by helping the Melians.
  • Melos remains obstinate. Athens besieges the city, takes it, slaughters all the men of military age, and enslaves the women and children.


“We, who are still free, would show ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than submit to slavery.”


“The strong do as they can, the weak suffer as they must.”


The interaction between the Athenians and the Melians is yet another instance of the prevailing theme of the first few books in the third year of the reading plan – i.e. resistance against overwhelming force. As Prometheus rails against Zeus, as the small Greek force defies the massive Persian army, so too do the Melians resist the power of mighty Athens. It is astonishing to learn that Athens committed such an atrocity. I have always regarded Athens as a utopia, a nation that produced some of the greatest minds in history. This is a strong argument for the duality of man; we are body and spirit, animal and divine, cruel and benevolent.


I also found the Athenian argument that honor could not be won in futile resistance to be completely fallacious. First, it is impossible to know whether resistance is futile until the resistance has been made. Second, I felt that Prometheus preserved some of his honor and dignity by defying Zeus, despite the impossibility of escape from his torment until he revealed the identity of Zeus’ usurper.


After reading three books of Thucydides’ History, I would rate him behind both Herodotus and Gibbon as a historian. Thucydides does not provide the compelling anecdotes of which Gibbon and Herodotus provide in abundance. His speeches are interesting, but they are not enough to save the dry account of the number of troops and ancient cities where insignificant battles were fought.

2 thoughts on “THUCYDIDES: The History of the Peloponnesian War [Book II, V]”

  1. Thank you for sharing this it’s very helpful to the overall understanding of the text. However, it seems confusing that this summary breaks off between books. Is there a particular reason you chose to leave out Books III and IV before introducing Book V?

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