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The Greatest War in History by Thucydides
by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Thucydides' life is largely a mystery. He was born into an
Athenian noble family around 460/455 BCE and died around 400 BCE.
As an adult, he served as a general in the Athenian army during
the Peloponnesian Wars and became a supporter of Pericles, making
him a "democrat" rather than an "oligarchist."
As a historian, Thucydides was interested in power and how
human nature affected its creation and use. His book is usually
considered to be the first example of "scientific history"
because he focused on reporting facts and tried to stay away from
offering opinions. Thanks to his devotion to facts, he provides
details on many aspects of Athenian life including food, clothing,
housing, trade, technology, religion and so on.
His book, which was never finished, covered roughly twenty years
of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and
Sparta from 431-411 BCE. This reading is from the beginning of
the book, where Thucydides reviews what he already knew about
Greek history before his own time.
Although the Greeks formed a united "Delian League" to defend against the Persian invasions of 490 BCE and 480 BCE, competition developed between the two main military powers, the city-states of Athens and Sparta. Not only were the cities created for different reasons -- Athens was a trading town located near the coast, while Sparta was located in the middle of a large agricultural region -- they also had competing forms of government. Athenian democracy and Spartan oligarchy served as rallying points for people in all of the other Greek cities, and as a result, the conflict between Athens and Sparta created divisions in other city-states, and ultimately split the Greek world.
The first war between Athens and Sparta in 459-445 BCE resulted in no decision, but the second war in 431-404 BCE was decisive. Not only did all the other Greek city-states become involved, but Sparta won and Athens was destroyed. After the war, however, the other Greek city-states came to resent Spartan domination, and in 371 BCE, Thebes led a coalition of Greek city-states against Sparta.
Sparta, as the dominant city on the Peloponnesian peninsula, led a military alliance that predated the Persian Wars. That formed the basis for resistance to Athens, which prospered in the years following the Persian invasions. Athens had an advantage on the seas, since it controlled the largest navy and could guarantee the delivery of supplies and land armies to any point along the coast. Sparta, on the other hand, had more land-based allies and was able to win battles whenever both sides confronted each other directly.
Following Athens' defeat in 404 BCE, the Spartans backed a government by an oligarchy in Athens known as the "Thirty Tyrants" and established similar governments in cities and on islands throughout the Greek world. Spartan rule was not popular, however, and a year after their defeat, Athenians revolted and restored their democracy. Other Greek cities began to rebel against Sparta, and even to ask the Persians for assistance. Sparta invaded Persia in 399, but had to abandon their fight to resist a new alliance of city-states that included Athens, Argos, Corinth, and Thebes. Next, Sparta sought Persian help to end the rebellion in 387 BCE (which included the conquest of Mantinea), then fought a war with Thebes in 382 BCE. Thebes got help from Athens and defeated Sparta in 371 BCE, but then became a target of the other city-states, so that even Athens joined Sparta to fight against Thebes.
The landscape of Attica
The Chronology Problem: As a historian and someone who tried to identify cause-and-effect, Thucydides had to specify when things occurred in order for his story to make sense. For events that took place within the same year, there was no difficulty, since his audience was aware of the cycle of seasons in Greece. Thus, statements like "The next summer, just as the corn was getting ripe, the Peloponnesians and their allies invaded Attica under the command of Archidamus ..." or "Next summer, about the time of the corn's coming into ear, ten Syracusan and as many Locrian vessels sailed to Messina ..." were precise enough.
On the other hand, the modern
system for numbering years did not yet exist, so there was
no way to refer to any particular year except in terms of well-
known events, like a major flood or the death of a famous person.
Thucidydes solved the problem by discussing the war in two-year
cycles, and using phrases like "... in the forty-eighth year of
the priestess-ship of Chrysis at Argos, in the ephorate of
Aenesias at Sparta, in the last month but two of the archonship
of Pythodorus at Athens, and six months after the battle of
Potidaea, just at the beginning of spring, a Theban force"
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