The Peloponnesian War
A Personal Odyssey
My admiration for the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, is unabashed. To me he shines like a beacon across the two and a half thousand years which separate us. Even today I feel few historians can match the grandeur of vision that was held by Thucydides.
My personal interest in his work stems from the early 1980’s - a period of Reagan, Thatcher, Star Wars (the defence system - not the movie!), invasions of Afghanistan et al. The Cold War, as we see now, was moving into its final, potentially deadly phase. Protesters were up in arms against Cruise Missiles being deployed in Britain, and here in Australia - blissfully removed from many of the ‘hot-spots’ - the Nuclear Disarmament Party started to win parliamentary seats. People really felt that the situation was sliding to war.
In this period of turmoil, Thucydides seemed to be speaking across the centuries - from his time of total war - to we who were about to embark on the same course.
In one of his most interesting passages, Thucydides wrote:
"It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever."
Thucydides (ca. 410 BC) Book 1.22
Translation: Rex Warner, Penguin Classics
This passage sets out Thucydides’ major theme and his desire to see his work as universal. In this he has most certainly succeeded. This work, twenty four centuries old, can be readily found in bookshops today in a dozen translations. Given a good translation (if your ancient Greek is lacking), Thucydides’ history reads like a modern work and indeed, as he himself says, his work contains a few reminders for today’s world.
"...human nature being what it is"
In one phrase Thucydides encapsulates the Greek world view - a view which bequeathed to future generations the concept of the power of the individual.
This humanist streak, evident in Thucydides’ work, sees history as a global kaleidoscope of similar themes not restricted to the society of a particular people. In this view, given the same set of circumstances, humans will react in much the same way - be they Pacific Islanders or Reindeer herders. There is a feeling of inevitability about human affairs - the common thread being people themselves.
Take our own century and, in a superficial way, project it back on the world of Thucydides. At the beginning of the fifth century BC, the Persian Wars brought together Greeks who had not customarily been strong friends. In our century the common threat of Hitler did the same with the allies. After the defeat of the Persians, the Greek world slowly drifted into two spheres of influence with Sparta and her allies on one side and Athens and her allies on the other. So too did countries during the Cold War years - this time on a global scale - some towards the West, some towards the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere in his history, Thucydides paints a picture of his world. As one national characteristic we find the eternally restless Athenians, brash, confident and ready to give anything a go. In opposition to this are the Spartans, conservative, somewhat aloof, land based and suspicious of foreign engagements. If we generalise the Cold War years we can see a similar pattern emerging with the Americans taking on the role of Athens and the Russians the role of Sparta.
"...(the past) will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future"
In the twentieth century we appear to have broken the Thucydidian nexus that the rivalry of the power blocs brought about a dreadful, all consuming war. But the circumstances this century are a little different and I believe that the endgame of the Cold War has yet to be played.
All the leaders of the major powers during the Cold War had lived through one, if not two, world conflagrations and both sides of the divide had ‘the bomb’. These leaders were war weary and it was all too painfully obvious to them what would happen should America and the Soviet Union come to blows. Therefore, thankfully, remarkable restraint was shown by the Cold War leaders. Instead the war moved underground, to distant places - each power trying to whittle away the prestige of the other.
But we have not come to ‘the end of history’ and the world has not yet settled from the collapse of the Soviet Union. We live in, as the Chinese would say, ‘interesting times’ where there are fundamental shifts occurring in society. We now hope that as the world becomes more of a ‘global village’ with instantaneous and world-wide audiences, the risk of war is diminished. But, human nature being what it is, ways and means will be found if there is a strong enough case at hand. We should not be complacent that global peace is a done deal and that our version of the Peloponnesian War will never be fought.
"My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever"
A note of ego but here Thucydides underlines one of the fundamental skills of the historian. If Thucydides had been an apologist for the Athenians to gain popularity in his lifetime, his work would have been diminished. Like every writer, Thucydides is captive to his own beliefs and thoughts, but he was also wise in being able to pick the wheat from the chaff.
He tells the story of the Peloponnesian War but it is really the story of why people go to war and what happens to societies which are at war. This is the reason why Thucydides has become timeless - an oracle from long ago with many pertinent reminders for the present.
I hope that the accumulated weight of history and experience is relegating Thucydides’ message as a historical redundancy - thereby mocking the feeling of inevitability...but it is early days yet! We are only two generations away from the end of the Second World War, yet Thucydides’ work is 100 generations old. History is bigger than all of us!
I, for one, am extremely glad to have Thucydides as a erudite warning of what can happen when societies at the peak of their prosperity go to war.
Essay by Ben Churcher
To find out about our video on the Peloponnesian War, Click Here.