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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.


  • Attica: the region surrounding the city of Athens and its port of Piraeus. It was not a particularly good area for farming, so the local economy focused on fishing from an early date, and later, the people of Attica became especially well-known for trading by sea.
  • Hellas: the Greek word for the region inhabited by the ancient Greeks
  • marginal land: In agriculture, this is land that produces a satisfactory crop when conditions are at their best, but fails to produce enough when conditions are poor. In farming communities, marginal land is only used when no more good farm land is available.
  • Peloponnesian Wars: name given to a series of wars between the city-states of Athens and Sparta, and their allies, between 450-404 BCE The Peloponnesos was a peninsula in southwestern Greece dominated by Sparta.
  • trireme: type of ship using humans with oars for power. A trireme was a particularly large ship of this type, with three rows of oars, one above the other
  • tyrant: a form of government first described in 6th century BCE Greece. It was led by a tyrant -- someone who grabbed power, usually by winning the support of the masses. A "tyrant" was not necessarily a bad ruler, but merely someone who obtained power in an "illegal" way. See also demagogue.


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 landscape of Attica

 The Greek coast between Athens and Argos
The Greek coast between Athens and Argos

Map of Greece and the surrounding seas
Greece and the surrounding seas

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" invaded.


  1. Why did Thucydides open his book by writing about earlier Greek history?
  2. What was the cause of the Peloponnesian Wars, according to Thucydides?
  3. Which side do you think Thucydides favored in the war, and why?
  4. Why did Thucydides believe that the war between Sparta and Athens was worth writing about?
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