The Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War is the name given to the conflict between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies fought between 431 and 404 BCE. As wars go in the impressive record of human mayhem it was nothing much; dwarfed by the Persian wars that preceded it and the conquests of Alexander and then the Roman Republic to follow. And yet the record made of it by an upper class Athenian who participated in the war as a fairly unsuccessful general – Thucydides - has become the template for all subsequent historical enquiry.
This is a book whose influence and ambition are truly staggering. Thucydides himself said his work “was done to last forever” and rarely has reach and grasp coincided as satisfactorily. The reasons for the success of the book tell us a lot about the cultural enterprise to which we are all heirs.
For a start you have the theme of democracy versus oligarchy. Thucydides was a luke warm democrat but so honest an observer that two and a half thousand years later we can still feel for the Athenian democracy as it struggles to balance self-interest and morality.
Then there are the debates. These are very Greek, in the classical sense. Probably reconstructions in detail but they repeatedly confront the reader with the real moral questions that confront politicians and soldiers and certainly confronted Thucydides’ peers. You hear the Plateans pleading for their lives with their laconic Spartan judges; you hear the debate in the Athenian assembly about whether to execute the male populace of the rebel city of Mytilene. And in the Melian debate you have a profound examination of the ethics of the exercise of power and its inherent capacity to corrupt.
On top of that there is some great narrative history. The account of the defeat of the Athenian Sicilian expedition is one of the greatest stories of hubris and nemesis ever told.
So do yourself a favour. The Penguin Classics translation by Rex Warner cost $3.50 back in 1977 and I’m sure is still a bargain.