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Peloponnesian War by Thucydides > Thucydides: Answers to Suggested Questions

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message 1: by Beth (last edited Jun 07, 2017 04:14PM) (new)

Beth | 46 comments Level I:
Who is the author, and does he/she state the purpose for writing?

Thucydides lived through the Pelopponesian War. He states that he began to write a history of the two decades of war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians as soon as it broke out, believing that "it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that preceded it… there was nothing on a greater scale, either in war or in other matters." The introduction in The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War says the narrative was probably written and revised on and off from 431 to the 390s.

Thucydides hopes that recording the recent past can provide insight into future events. His work is meant to be a factual account and, he hopes, "a possession for all time."

What are the major events?

The Penteconteia ('period of 50 years') - the 50 years after the defeat of Xerxes’s invasion of Persia & the formation of the Delian League and before the Spartan invasion of Attica in 431. During this time Athens became a powerful state.

The First Peloponnesian War (460-445) was fought between Sparta as the leaders of the Peloponnesian League (with support from Thebes) and the Delian League led by Athens (with support from Argos). The First Peloponnesian War ended in a treaty known as the Thirty Years' Peace (winter of 446–445 BC) which was intended to last thirty years.

The Archidamian War 431-421 This phase of the war began with the Spartan invasion of Athens in 431. It’s named for the Spartan king, Archidamus, who ruled at the time it began.

The Peace of Nicias 421—414 - A peace treaty between Athens and Sparta that the first half of the (second) Peloponnesian War.

The Sicilian Expedition 415-413 - Athens invaded Sicily. Officially this was in order to defend their allies the Egeteans, who had been attacked by Syracuse, but the Athenians also wanted to conquer Sicily. The Spartans backed Syracuse in the war, acting on the advice of the Athenian general Alcibiades, who had switched sides when he was sentenced to death (see below). Syracuse defeated the Athenian invasion.

End of the war - Athens recovered from the Syracusan defeat temporarily - long enough to win a string of victories and recover significant parts of its empire for a few years - but was finally defeated in 405.

Who are the main characters?

Pericles - influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. A plague struck Athens in 430, and Pericles died of it the following year.

Cleon - Athenian general and politician. He advocated executing the adult male population of Mytilene during the Mytilenean Debate, and he opposed peace with Sparta. He was killed in an attempt to recapture the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

Nicias - an Athenian politician and general during the period of the Peloponnesian War. Nicias was largely responsible for the negotiations which led to the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC. He argued against the Sicilian expedition, and predicted the problems it would face pretty accurately. But he was sent to lead the invasion along with Alcibiades in 416.

Alcibiades - The strongest proponent of the Sicilian expedition in the Athenian assembly. He was tried and sentenced to death in absentia for suspected sacrilege. He changed his political allegiance several times. He switched sides and joined the Spartans and their allies, then defected to the Persians after making political enemies among the Spartans, until Athenian political allies brought about his recall.

Archidamus II - A king of Sparta (ruled approx. 476 BC - 427 BC) of the Eurypontid royal house. During the negotiations that preceded the Peloponnesian War, he tried to prevent or postpone the war with Athens because he thought Sparta could not hope to match Athenian naval superiority.

Agis II - Succeeded Archidamus II in 427 BC. He ruled with his co-monarch Pausanias, of the Agiad royal house.

Brasidas - Spartan officer during the first decade of the war. He convinced many cities that were part of the Athenian empire to come over to the Spartans, most importantly Amphipolis. In order to capture the city before the Greeks arrived (under Thucydides, who was a commander sent there from the island of Thasos), Brasidas offered moderate terms to the people there; the Amphipolitians and the Athenians would be allowed to stay with full rights of citizenship, while those who did not wish to stay under Spartan rule had five days to leave.

He was at the head of the Spartan troops when Cleon attacked Amphipolis, and was mortally wounded. Thucydides describes his influence on the course of the war:
"… his just and moderate conduct toward the cities generally succeeded in persuading many to revolt, besides the places which he managed to take by treachery; and thus when the Spartans desired to negotiate, as they ultimately did, they had places to offer in exchange, and the burdens of war meanwhile shifted from the Peloponnesus. Later on in the war, after the events in Sicily, the present valour and conduct of Brasidas, known by experience to some, by hearsay to others, was what mainly created in the allies of Athens a feeling for the Lacedaemonians. He was the first who went out and showed himself so good a man at all points as to leave behind him the conviction that the rest were like him." [Book IV]

Level II:
What are the historians' assertions, and what questions is he/she asking?

The first major question he addresses is, “What was the cause of the war between Athens and Sparta?”

The war began in 432 BCE, ending a period of peace that had lasted since the end of First Peloponnesian War (446 or 445 BCE). To secure the "Thirty Years’ Peace" (which didn’t last 30 years), Athens gave up bases in Megara and the Peloponnesus.

Sparta invaded Athens in response to Athens’s refusal to meet its demands for the independence of the Greek city-states: to raise the siege of the Corinthian colony of Potidaea, restore independence to the island of Aegina, and revoke the Megarian decree (a set of economic sanctions levied upon Megara, excluding the Megarians from Athenian harbors and markets. Athens offered to submit these issues to arbitration by a third party, but Sparta refused.

Thucydides says that the war had a more fundamental cause:
"The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable" (16).

Thucydides gives an account of the growth of Athenian power during the 50 years after the defeat of Xerxes in the second Persian invasion of Greece (479-431). Scholars call this period the Penteconteia ("period of fifty years").

During this time the Athenians captured the city of Eion from the Persians, and forced the city-state of Carystus, which had previously been conquered by the Persians, to join the Delian League. Athens also suppressed a rebellion by the island of Naxos. Thucydides says that the rebellion of Naxos, and other members of the Delian League after it, was a reaction to Athens’s strict demands from members of the league; they "made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity to men who were not used to and in fact not disposed for any continuous labor" (53).

Thucydides is also interested in more theoretical questions (this is why he’s had so much influence on political theory & international relations). The most important one is: What are the consequences of power politics?

This is introduced very early on when the Athenians, answering complaints about the siege of Potidaea from the Corcyrans, say that "it has always been law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger."

The The Oxford History of the Classical World has a section on Thucydides that points out how the events of Book III examine the implications of this view:

"There are three great set episodes [in Book III] the question of how Athens should punish the Mytileans for their revolt, along with the question of how Sparta should deal with the captured Plataens, and the story of the revolution at Corcyra. In the first, the new morality of empire leads to the conclusion that it is better to rule by kindness than by terror. In the second … [the Spartans] reject an appeal to sentiment, and destroy the sacred city of the Persian Wars: they decide to liberate the Greeks through terror. In the third, Thucydides explores the breakdown of trust and social order when a society is ruled entirely by the new morality, and the only madness is to be a moderate."

The Oxford History of the Classical World notes that in the second half of the work, Thucydides’s awareness of the disturbing consequences of this view is magnified: "The reason lies in the logic of events: if the laws of politics which Thucydides has accepted are laws of nature, then their full horror will be brought home in the greatest tragedy of all, the destruction of Thucydides’s own city of Athens; and the pessimism of the historian concerning human nature will be finally justified in that fall. There are strong signs that Thucydides began to articulate the second half of his history around the conception of a tragedy..."

What sources does the historian use to answer them?

He identifies the sources for the speeches he includes and for his narrative: "With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word-for-word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

With reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw for myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other."

Does the historian list his or her qualifications?
He mentions in Book IV that he was a commander in the war. He was sent from Thasos on the coast of Thrace to the Athenian colony of Amphipolis, half a day’s sail west, but he arrived too late; Amphipolis had already surrendered. The Athenians exiled him for his failure to save Amphipolis.

Thucydides writes:

"I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly." [Book V, p. 316]

"Twenty years" means that the end of his exile would have corresponded with the end of the war.

I haven't done level 3 questions yet, but I might pick some to answer.

message 2: by Beth (new)

Beth | 46 comments Level III:
What is the purpose of history?

Thucydides says that the study of history can help us understand the future.

How is this history the same as - or different than - the stories of other historians who have come before?

Herodotus says he has two aims in his history: to record events so that the heroic deeds of the Persian Wars will be remembered, and to explain the causes of the conflict. He isn’t writing an objective account in the sense that modern historians think of objectivity; he’s often not very careful about the reliability of his sources. However, his acknowledgement that both sides have accomplishments that should be remembered seems like a precedent for Thucydides’s attempt to get information from both sides of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides presents himself simply narrating the facts. Unlike Herodotus, he rarely goes off on tangents that have little connection to the war - there is no ethnography, and almost no personal stories about the individuals in his history. His account is almost entirely naturalistic and he is much more careful about chronology. Herodotus includes some pretty fantastical stories (sea monsters, cyclops…) and takes many of them at face value. To be fair, though, there are other times when Herodotus includes stories that he is skeptical of but that he believes are worth recording anyway.

The The Oxford History of the Classical World says that the first local historians in Greece came after Herodotus, inspired by the exploration of local traditions that he included as part of the larger narrative of the Persian Wars. Their work does not survive, but they are mentioned in later sources.

Thucydides’s approach is much less idealized than Herodotus’s. The heroism and democratic ideals that Pericles praises in his Funeral Oration are seriously compromised in the course of the war.

message 3: by Cleo (new)

Cleo (cleopatra18) | 56 comments Mod
Wow, what an in-depth commentary! Excellent, Beth!

I'm slightly less than half way through so I'm going to wait until I'm at least almost finished to comment fully, however I did read your Level III commentary and I wanted to throw out a couple of observations. I wouldn't say that Herodotus' approach was 'idealized'. Both writers were writing (as far as I can tell) for entirely different reasons. Herodotus had a much broader scope and was simply trying to record his observations without too much personal opinion, however as you see, he did give his two-cents now and then; it was quite obvious when he did it, because he didn't do it very often. For the most part, he left it to the reader to form his own conclusions from his observations, yet really, I didn't get the impression that Herodotus was arguing for or against anything. Thucydides, on the other hand, is directly focussed on war and its effect and repercussions. He does have an argument and wants to share it and convince his readers. Herodotus' work is probably more engaging if you take into account the scope of it; Thucydides might only interest those who were interested in the subject of war.

On a personal note, I know Herodotus has been questioned about the reliability of his sources, but I love the way he engages the reader to employ his own common sense. He doesn't filter the information for us, but treats us as adults able to form our own opinions. Of course, being so far removed from his time, it's more difficult to do now, but it would have been easier for a contemporary to judge and ask questions, and the fact that Herodotus wrote something that would have ignited general curiosity in all who read him is a real accomplishment!

Okay, back to reading so I can read your review more comprehensively. I'm very impressed that you stuck with it and are probably the first to finish. If only I had been that focused! :-)

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