Athens vs. Sparta

Next up is Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. It is the history of the ~30 year war between Sparta and Athens told by a prominent Athenian citizen who spent half of the war in exile with the Spartas due to his having commanded a failed expedition. Thus a lot of the history is a first-hand account with the remaining being almost entirely compromised of second-hand accounts.

The edition I've linked is another Landmark edition. This one has meatier footnotes and a nice big map at the end, though all the maps in this volume are in black and white. So two of my major criticisms of their Herodotus edition have been somewhat ameliorated. Sadly, the Thucydides predates the Herodotus edition so I guess this wasn't a general trend in the series. Maybe someday I'll try their Xenophon or Arrian and report my findings.

I'll start off with the bad part of Thucydides. His history is largely a military one, owing to the nature of the topic. If you aren't into military history, and I'm not, some of the long passages about circumvallation and hoplite formations can be exhausting. But a lot of other history-loving folks get a lot of enjoyment out of this sort of thing. If you are one of those folks, you're in for a treat. It just isn't for me, at least not to the extent that it is present in Thucydides. And it is still valuable and useful information from a historical perspective.

On the upside, even if you just skim those aspects, Thucydides is pretty brilliant in his commentaries. He also loads up on some brilliant Greek and Spartan speeches, the treaties, and the very occasional cultural tidbit. I'm tempted to bomb you folks with quotes. I shall abstain. Thucydides tries to maintain objectivity throughout. This is pretty hilarious when Cleon comes up. You may remember him as the corrupt politician mocked by Aristophanes. It's hard to describe but the weight is in what is not said. Despite being as diplomatic as possible, you get the sense that Thucydides hated this man more than any other figure in his history.

There are some valuable lessons to learn from the course of the war. First, the war largely started due to the fact that Spartan and Athenian influenced expanded so greatly that they started to have conflicts among their various allies and client states. Basically, they started to step on each other's toes. But neither was really interested in a direct confrontation. The overlapping spheres of influence simply made it inevitable. It is unnecessary entanglements and their consequences in action. Second, when Athens started losing, people started blaming anything and everything, even democracy itself. As such, democracy more or less died for the bulk of the war, replaced with unstable tyrannies and oligarchies. Defeat spurs on knee-jerk reactions. On the upside, it can also produce some serious rethinking in the long run. This war gave us Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, which you'll hear about more in the future. Third, prolonged war weakened both Athens and Sparta permanently. The ruling Spartan class was all but spent by the end. Athens lost its empire. They were no longer capable of challenging Persian power on the Persian side of the pond, much to the woe of the Ionian Greeks over there. And before long, the inevitable happened: they got steam-rolled by a foreign power. But they got lucky there. That invading power would be Alexander the Great and his semi-Hellenic Macedonians, which assured a strong Greek presence on that side of the Mediterranean until the fall of Byzantium some 1800 years later. Obviously they'd lose out to the Romans but Greek culture quickly became one of the pillars of the Empire and ultimately the Greek side outlasted the Roman side.