Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War
Thucydides wrote the second volume in the unofficial trilogy of great Greek historians. He begins almost exactly where Herodotus’ Histories ends. Having defeated Persia, Athens now finds itself at war with Sparta. This time, Athens would lose. But Thucydides, who participated in the war, does not see it through to the end. No one is quite sure why. Fortunately, Xenophon would later pick up the baton and finish the war and the “trilogy” in his Hellenica.
Where Herodotus is filled with legends, exoticism, and fantastical creatures, Thucydides is more earthbound. The gods are absent, he never leaves the Pelopennese, his prose style is plain, he consciously sticks to the facts, and his organization is meticulously chronological. Each chapter covers exactly one year, and if important events and themes do not respect those boundaries, so be it. The contrast in historiography, or historical method, is as interesting as the actual history itself.
The Peloponnesian War also contains Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which is one of the heights of Greek literature. Many of the other speeches Thucydides recounts also have high literary value. He stands out in his attempt to humanize his opponents and to understand their points of view. Rather than smear Spartans with ad hominems the way many modern political writers do their opponents, Thucydides sought understanding and objectivity. He saw his task as leaving a reliable record, not making the case for his side events.
At the very least, Thucydides assumes good intentions and noble deeds among the enemy he fought and lost to. Thucydides understood that if one is going to lose, better that it be to a noble opponent than to a weak and immoral one. There are lessons here for today’s politicians as well as the crass Internet commenters who egg them on.