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The History of the Peloponnesian War is an account of the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece, fought between the Peloponnesian League (led by Spartamarker) and the Delian League (led by Athens). It was written by Thucydides, an Athenian general who served in the war. It is widely considered a classic and regarded as one of the earliest scholarly works of history. The History was divided into eight books by editors of later antiquitymarker.

Analyses of the History generally fall into one of two camps. On the one hand are those who view the work as an objective and scientific piece of history. The judgement of J. B. Bury reflects this traditional interpretation of the work: "[The History is] severe in its detachment, written from a purely intellectual point of view, unencumbered with platitudes and moral judgements, cold and critical." A more recent interpretation, associated with reader-response criticism, argues that the History is better understood as a piece of literature than an objective record of the past. This view is embodied in the words of W. R. Connor, who describes Thucydides as "an artist who responds to, selects and skillfully arranges his material, and develops its symbolic and emotional potential." The former outlook views Thucydides as pathbreaking, modern, and philosophical, ahead of his time; the latter views the historian as closely connected with his historical and cultural context. Both interpretations are accepted by scholars, sometimes by the same scholar, and seem to capture the contradictory impulses and tensions within the History.

Historical method

Thucydides' History made a number of contributions to early historiography. Many of his principles have become standard methods of history writing today, though others have not.


One of Thucydides' major innovations was to employ a strict standard of chronology, recording events by year, each year consisting of the summer campaigning season and a less active winter season. As a result, events that span several years are divided up and described in parts of the book that are sometimes quite distant from one another, causing the impression that he is oscillating between the various theatres of conflict. This method contrasts sharply with Herodotus' earlier work The Histories, which jumps around chronologically and makes frequent and roundabout excursuses into seemingly unrelated areas and time periods.


Another distinctive feature of the work is Thucydides' inclusion of dozens of speeches assigned to the principal figures engaged in the war. These include addresses given to troops by their generals before battles and numerous political speeches, both by Athenian and Spartan leaders, as well as debates between various parties. Of the speeches, the most famous is the funeral oration of Pericles, which is found in Book Two. Thucydides undoubtedly heard some of these speeches himself while for others he relied on eyewitness accounts. Some of the speeches are probably fabricated according to his expectations of, as he puts it, "what was called for in each situation" (1.22.2).

While the inclusion of long first-person speeches is somewhat alien to modern historical method, in the context of ancient Greek oral culture speeches are expected. A brief glance at Homer's poems, the works of the tragedians, and Herodotus's Histories shows that many of the most influential literary forms in Thucydides' time included substantial first-person speeches. Oratory also played a large part in the political life of the democracy in Thucydides' home city of Athensmarker.

Neutral point of view

Despite being an Athenian and a participant in the conflict, Thucydides is often regarded as having written a generally unbiased account of the conflict and all the sides involved in it. In the introduction to the piece he states, "My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever" (1.22.4). However, this has been challenged; Ernst Badian is one scholar who has argued that Thucydides has a strong pro-Athenian bias. Others claim he had an ulterior motive, specifically to create an epic comparable to those of the past, and that this led him to create a nonobjective dualism favoring the Athenians..

Role of religion

The gods play no active role in Thucydides' work. This is very different from Herodotus, who frequently mentions the role of the gods, as well as a nearly ubiquitous divine presence in the centuries-earlier poems of Homer. Instead, Thucydides regards history as being caused by the choices and actions of human beings.

Subject matter of the History

The first book of the History, after a brief review of early Greek history and some programmatic historiographical commentary, seeks to explain why the Peloponnesian War broke out when it did and what its causes were. Except for a few short excursuses (notably 6.54-58 on the Tyrant Slayers), the remainder of the History (books 2 through 8) rigidly maintains its focus on the Peloponnesian War to the exclusion of other topics.

While the History concentrates on the military aspects of the Peloponnesian War, it uses these events as a medium to suggest several other themes closely related to the war. It specifically discusses in several passages the socially and culturally degenerative effects of war on humanity itself. The History is especially concerned with the lawlessness and atrocities committed by Greek citizens to each other in the name of one side or another in the war. Some events depicted in the History, such as the Melian dialogue, describe early instances of realpolitik or power politics. The History is preoccupied with the interplay of justice and power in political and military decision-making. Thucydides' presentation is decidedly ambivalent on this theme. While the History seems to suggest that considerations of justice are artificial and necessarily capitulate to power, it sometimes also shows a significant degree of empathy with those who suffer from the exigencies of the war.

For the most part, the History does not discuss topics such as the art and architecture of Greece.

Military Technology

The History emphasizes the development of military technologies. In several passages (1.14.3, 2.75-76, 7.36.2-3), Thucydides describes in detail various innovations in the conduct of siegeworks or naval warfare. The History places great importance upon naval supremacy, arguing that a modern empire is impossible without a strong navy. He states that this is the result of the development of piracy and coastal settlements in earlier Greece. Important in this regard was the development, at the beginning of the classical period (ca. 500 B.C.), of the trireme, the supreme naval ship for the next several hundred years. In his emphasis on sea power, Thucydides resembles the modern naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose influential work The Influence of Sea Power upon History helped set in motion the naval arms race prior to World War I.


The History explains that the primary cause of the Peloponnesian War was the "growth in power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta" (1.23.6). Thucydides traces the development of Athenian power through the growth of the Athenian empire in the years 479 BC to 432 BC in book one of the History (1.89-118). The legitimacy of the empire is explored in several passages, notably in the speech at 1.73-78, where an anonymous Athenian legation defends the empire on the grounds that it was freely given to the Athenians and not taken by force. The subsequent expansion of the empire is defended by these Athenians, "...the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest came afterward." (1.75.3) The Athenians also argue that, "We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up." (1.76) They claim that anyone in their position would act in the same fashion. The Spartansmarker represent a more traditional, circumspect, and less expansive power. Indeed, the Athenians are nearly destroyed by their greatest act of imperial overreach, the Sicilian expedition, described in books six and seven of the History.

Some difficulties of interpretation

Thucydides' History is extraordinarily dense and complex. This has resulted in much scholarly disagreement on a cluster of issues of interpretation.

Strata of composition

It is commonly thought that Thucydides died while still working on the History, since it ends in mid-sentence and only goes up to 410 BC, leaving six years of war uncovered. Furthermore, there is a great deal of uncertainty whether he intended to revise the sections he had already written. Since there appear to be some contradictions between certain passages in the History, it has been proposed that the conflicting passages were written at different times and that Thucydides' opinion on the conflicting matter had changed. Those who argue that the History can be divided into various levels of composition are usually called "analysts" and those who argue that the passages must be made to reconcile with one another are called "unitarians". This conflict is called the "strata of composition" debate.


The History is notoriously reticent about its sources. Thucydides almost never names his informants and alludes to competing versions of events only a handful of times. This is in marked contrast to Herodotus, who frequently mentions multiple versions of his stories and allows the reader to decide which is true. Instead, Thucydides strives to create the impression of a seamless and irrefutable narrative. Nevertheless, scholars have sought to detect the sources behind the various sections of the History. For example, the narrative after Thucydides' exile (4.108ff.) seems to focus on Peloponnesian events more than the first four books, leading to the conclusion that he had greater access to Peloponnesian sources at that time.

Frequently, Thucydides appears to assert knowledge of the thoughts of individuals at key moments in the narrative. Scholars have asserted that these moments are evidence that he interviewed these individuals after the fact. However, the evidence of the Sicilian Expedition argues against this, since Thucydides discusses the thoughts of the generals who died there and whom he would have had no chance to interview. Instead it seems likely that, as with the speeches, Thucydides is looser than previously thought in inferring the thoughts, feelings, and motives of principal characters in his History from their actions, as well as his own sense of what would be appropriate or likely in such a situation.


Thucydides' History has been enormously influential in both ancient and modern historiography. It was embraced by the author's contemporaries and immediate successors with enthusiasm; indeed, many authors sought to complete the unfinished history. For example, Xenophon wrote his Hellenica as a continuation of Thucydides' work, beginning at the exact moment that Thucydides' History leaves off. His work, however, is generally considered inferior in style and accuracy compared with Thucydides'. In later antiquity, Thucydides' reputation suffered somewhat, with critics such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus rejecting the History as turgid and excessively austere. Lucian also parodies it (among others) in his satire The True Histories. Woodrow Wilson read the History on his voyage across the Atlantic to the Versailles Peace Conference.


Thucydides correlates, in his description of the 426 BC Maliakos Gulf tsunamimarker, for the first time in the history of natural science, quakes and waves in terms of cause and effect.

Method of citation

Most critics writing about the History, including this article, use a standard format to direct readers to passages in the text: book.chapter.section. For example, the notation that Pericles' last speech runs from 2.60.1 to 2.64.6, this means that it can be found in the second book, from the sixtieth chapter through the sixty-fourth. Most modern editions and translations of the History include the chapter numbers in the margins (a notable exception being Rex Warner's translation published by Penguin Classics).

Outline of the work

  • Book 1
    • The state of Greece from the earliest times to the commencement of the Peloponnesian War, also known as the Archaeology. 1.1-1.19.
    • Methodological excursus. 1.20-1.23.
    • Causes of the war (433-432 BC) 1.24-1.66.
    • Congress of the Peloponnesian League at Lacedaemonmarker. 1.67-1.88
      • The Speech of the Corinthians. 1.68-1.71.
      • The Speech of the Athenian envoys. 1.73-1.78.
      • The Speech of Archidamus. 1.80-1.85.
      • The Speech of Sthenelaidas. 1.86.
    • From the end of the Persian War to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, also known as the Pentecontaetia. 1.89-1.117.
      • The progress from supremacy to empire.
    • Second congress at Lacedaemonmarker and the Corinthian Speech. 1.119-1.125.
    • Diplomatic maneuvering. 1.126-1.139.
    • Pericles' first speech. 1.140-1.145.

  • Book 2 (431-428 BC)
    • War begins with Thebesmarker' attempt to subvert Plataeamarker. 2.1-2.6.
    • Account of the mobilization of and list of the allies of the two combatants. 2.7-2.9.
    • First invasion of Atticamarker. 2.10-2.23.
      • Archidamus leads the Peloponnesian army into Atticamarker. 2.10-2.12.
      • Athenian preparations and abandonment of the countryside. 2.13-2.14.
      • Excursus on Athenian synoikism. 2.15-2.16.
      • Difficult conditions in Athensmarker for refugees from countryside. 2.17.
      • Archidamus ravages Oenoe and Acharnaimarker. 2.18-2.20.
      • Athenian fury and anger at Pericles. 2.21-2.22.
    • Athenian naval counter-attacks along coast of Peloponesemarker and islands. 2.23-2.32.
    • Pericles' Funeral Oration. 2.34-2.46.
    • The plague of Athens. 2.47-2.54.
    • Second invasion of Atticamarker and Athenian naval counter-attacks. 2.55-2.58.
    • Pericles' third speech, defending his position and policy. 2.59-2.64.
    • Thucydides' estimate of Pericles' qualities and the causes for Athensmarker' eventual defeat. 2.65.
    • Diplomacy and skirmishes in Thrace, the islands, and the Northeast. 2.66-2.69.
    • Fall of Potidaea. 2.70.
    • Investment of Plataeamarker. 2.71-2.78.
    • Naval victories of Phormio in the Northeast. 2.80-2.92.
    • Threat of raid on the Piraeusmarker. 2.93-2.94.
    • Thracian campaign in Macedonia under Sitalces. 2.95-2.101.

  • Book 3 (428-425 BC)
    • Annual invasion of Atticamarker. 3.1.
    • Revolt of Mytilenemarker. 3.2-3.50.
      • Speech of Mytilenian envoys to Spartamarker at Olympiamarker, asking for help. 3.9-3.14.
      • Sparta accepts Lesbosmarker as an ally and prepares to counter the Athenians. 3.15.
      • Mytilenemarker surrenders to Athens despite Spartan support. 3.28.
      • Mytilenian Debate. 3.37-3.50.
    • Fall of Plataeamarker. 3.20-3.24, 3.52-68.
      • Some Plataeans escape. 3.20-3.24.
      • Plataeamarker surrenders. 3.52.
      • Trial and execution of the Plataeans. 3.53-3.68.
        • Speech of Plataeans, 3.53-3.59.
        • Speech of the Thebans. 3.61-3.67.
    • Revolution at Corcyramarker. 3.70-3.85.
      • Thucydides' account of the evils of civil strife. 3.82-3.84.
    • Athenian campaigns in Sicily. 3.86, 3.90, 3.99, 3.103, 3.115-3.116.
    • Tsunami and inquiry into its causesmarker 3.89.2-5
    • Campaigns of Demosthenes in western Greece. 3.94-3.98, 3.100-3.102, 3.105-3.114.
    • Spartans establish Heracleia in Trachis. 3.92-3.93.
    • Athenians purify Delosmarker. 3.104.

  • Book 7 (414-413 BC)
    • Arrival of Gylippus at Syracuse
    • Fortification of Decelea
    • Successes of the Syracusans
    • Arrival of Demosthenes
    • Defeat of the Athenians at Epipolae
    • Folly and obstinacy of Nicias
    • Battles in the Great Harbour
    • Retreat and annihilation of the Athenian army


Secondary sources

  • Connor, W. Robert, Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984). ISBN 0-691-03569-5.
  • Crane, Gregory, Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: the Limits of Political Realism. Berkeley: University of California Press (1998).
  • Hornblower, Simon, A Commentary on Thucydides. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon (1991-1996). ISBN 0-19-815099-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-19-927625-0 (vol. 2).
  • Hornblower, Simon, Thucydides. London: Duckworth (1987). ISBN 0-7156-2156-4.
  • Orwin, Clifford, The Humanity of Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1994).
  • Romilly, Jacqueline de, Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1963). ISBN 0-88143-072-2.
  • Rood, Tim, Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998). ISBN 0-19-927585-8.
  • Strassler, Robert B, ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press (1996). ISBN 0-684-82815-4.


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