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For almost three decades at the end of the fifth century b.c. the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance in a terrible war that changed the Greek world and its civilization forever. Only a half-century before its outbreak the united Greeks, led by Sparta and Athens, had fought off an assault by the mighty Persian Empire, preserving their independence by driving Persia's armies and navies out of Europe and recovering the Greek cities on the coasts of Asia Minor from its grasp.
This astonishing victory opened a proud era of growth, prosperity, and confidence in Greece. The Athenians, especially, flourished, increasing in population and establishing an empire that brought them wealth and glory. Their young democracy came to maturity, bringing political participation, opportunity, and political power even to the lowest class of citizens, and their novel constitution went on to take root in other Greek cities. It was a time of extraordinary cultural achievement, as well, probably unmatched in originality and richness in all of human history. Dramatic poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes raised tragedy and comedy to a level never surpassed. The architects and sculptors who created the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, at Olympia, and all over the Greek world powerfully influenced the course of Western art and still do so today. Natural philosophers like Anaxagoras and Democritus used unaided human reason to seek an understanding of the physical world, and such pioneers of moral and political philosophy as Protagoras and Socrates did the same in the realm of human affairs. Hippocrates and his school made great advances in medical science, and Herodotus invented historiography as we understand it today.
The Peloponnesian War not only brought this remarkable period to an end, but was recognized as a critical turning point even by those who fought it. The great historian Thucydides tells us that he undertook his history as the war began,
in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before, inferring this from the fact that both powers were then at their best in preparedness for war in every way, and seeing the rest of the Hellenic people taking sides with one side or the other, some at once, others planning to do so. For this was the greatest upheaval that had ever shaken the Hellenes, extending also to some part of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of mankind. (1.1.2)1
From the perspective of the fifth-century Greeks the Peloponnesian War was legitimately perceived as a world war, causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside. It also reversed the tendency toward the growth of democracy. When Athens was powerful and successful, its democratic constitution had a magnetic effect on other states, but its defeat was decisive in the political development of Greece, sending it in the direction of oligarchy.
The Peloponnesian War was also a conflict of unprecedented brutality, violating even the harsh code that had previously governed Greek warfare and breaking through the thin line that separates civilization from savagery. Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance increased as the fighting dragged on, resulting in a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents; throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure; and hurling them into the sea to drown. Bands of marauders murdered innocent children. Entire cities were destroyed, their men killed, their women and children sold as slaves. On the island of Corcyra, now called Corfu, the victorious faction in a civil war brought on by the larger struggle butchered their fellow citizens for a full week: "Sons were killed by their father, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it" (3.81.2-5).
As the violence spread it brought a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life. The meanings of words changed to suit the bellicosity: "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness." Religion lost its restraining power, "but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation." Truth and honor disappeared, "and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow" (3.82.1, 8; 3.83.1). Such was the conflict that inspired Thucydides' mordant observations on the character of war as "a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances" (3.82.2).
Although the Peloponnesian War ended more than twenty-four hundred years ago it has continued to fascinate readers of every subsequent age. Writers have used it to illuminate the First World War, most frequently to help explain its causes, but its greatest influence as an analytical tool may have come during the Cold War, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, and which likewise witnessed a world divided into two great power blocs, each under a powerful leader. Generals, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars alike have compared the conditions that led to the Greek war with the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
But the story of what actually took place two and a half millennia in the past, and its deeper meaning, are ultimately not easy to grasp. By far the most important source of our knowledge is the history written by the war's contemporary and participant Thucydides. His work is justly admired as a masterpiece of historical writing and hailed for its wisdom about the nature of war, international relations, and mass psychology. It has also come to be regarded as a foundation stone of historical method and political philosophy. It is not, however, completely satisfactory as a chronicle of the war and all that the war can teach us. Its most obvious shortcoming is that it is incomplete, stopping in midsentence seven years before the war's end. For an account of the final part of the conflict we must rely on writers of much less talent and with little or no direct knowledge of events. At the very least, a modern treatment of accessible scope is needed to make sense of the conclusion of the war.
But even the period treated by Thucydides requires illumination if the modern reader is to have the fullest understanding of its military, political, and social complexities. The works of other ancient writers and contemporary inscriptions discovered and studied in the last two centuries have filled gaps and have sometimes raised questions about the story as Thucydides tells it. Finally, any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself. His was an extraordinary and original mind, and more than any other historian in antiquity he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity. We must not forget, however, that he was also a human being with human emotions and foibles. In the original Greek his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is by necessity an interpretation. The very fact that he was a participant in the events, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that must be prudently evaluated. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be as limiting as accepting without question Winston Churchill's histories and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so important a role.
In this book I attempt a new history of the Peloponnesian War designed to meet the needs of readers in the twenty-first century. It is based on the scholarship employed in my four volumes on the war aimed chiefly at a scholarly audience,2 but my goal here is a readable narrative in a single volume to be read by the general reader for pleasure and to gain the wisdom that so many have sought in studying this war. I have avoided making comparisons between events in it and those in later history, although many leap to mind, in the hope that an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
I undertake this project after so many years because I believe, more than ever, that the story of the Peloponnesian War is a powerful tale that may be read as an extraordinary human tragedy, recounting the rise and fall of a great empire, the clash between two very different societies and ways of life, the interplay of intelligence and chance in human affairs, and the role of brilliantly gifted individuals, as well as masses of people in determining the course of events while subject to the limitations imposed upon them by nature, by fortune, and by one another. I hope to demonstrate, also, that a study of the Peloponnesian War is a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife, and about the potentialities of leadership and the limits within which it must inevitably operate.
1Adapted from the translation of Richard Crawley (Modern Library, New York, 1951). Throughout, references are to Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War unless otherwise indicated. The numbers refer to the traditional divisions by book, chapter, and section.
2These have been published by the Cornell University Press. Their titles are The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1969), The Archidamian War (1974), The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (1981), and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (1987).