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Thucydides (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 600/2 & 3

The Peloponnesian War Precis

In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, an Athenian, recounts the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Thucydides cites the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm this this inspired in Sparta “made war inevitable.” Corinth declares war against Corcyra and is defeated. Both Corinth and Corcyra send delegates to Athens to appeal for an alliance. The Athenians make a defensive alliance with Corcyra because of its large fleet and strategic position on the route to Italy and Sicily. The Athenians make this alliance to strengthen their position in the event of a larger war with the Peloponnesians. The Athenians and Corcyraeans battle the Corinthians, who appeal to Sparta for aid. While the Spartans are debating whether to join the Corinthians, the Athenians argue that they cannot be faulted for pursuing their own interests and that fear, honor, and interest motivate Athens as they do any other state. The Athenians believe the Spartans should praise Athens for acting with greater justice and moderation than would be required of a state with Athens’s power. The Spartans declared the Athenians to be aggressors and vote for war. The affairs of Corcyra and Potidaea served as a pretext for the Peloponnesian War. “Finally, the growth of the Athenian power could no longer be ignored as their own confederacy became the object of its encroachments.” It is less than a year between the time the Peloponnesians vote for war and then invade Attica. The Athenians believe the Peloponnesians will not be able to sustain the war effort due to insufficient funds. Pericles concludes the war is inevitable but that the Athenians should avoid any new conquests or unnecessary risks until the war is over. The war begins. Enthusiasm for the war runs high. The Peloponnesians invade Attica. The Athenians retreat within the city walls. The Athenian fleet raids Peloponnesus, and the Peloponnesian army returns home. Pericles gives a funeral oration in which he praises Athens’ unique democratic institutions and says that Athens is a model for Hellas and that the survivors should emulate the war dead’s valor and patriotism. In the second year, the Peloponnesians again invade Attica, and the Athenians are afflicted by plague. Pericles rallies the Athenians and says that all has gone according to the plan, except for the plague. Thucydides praises Pericles, saying that he provided sound advice to Athens. However, the Athenians allowed private ambitions and private interest to interfere, which ultimate cost Athens the war. In the fourth year, Lesbos revolted from Athens. The Mytilenians (Lesbians) appeal to Sparta for support. In the fifth year, Paches (Athenian) reconquers Lesbos. The Athenians condemn the Mytilenians to death but reconsider. Cleon argues for vengeance while Diodotus argues for deliberation without haste or passion. The Athenians vote to spare Mytilene. The fifth year also sees revolutions between the People and the oligarchs. Thucydides describes the evils of the revolutions, saying the” cause of all the evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition.” In the seventh year, the Athenians under the command of Demosthenes land at Pylor or Coryphasium. A battle between the Athenians and the Spartans ensues. The Spartans fear defeat and conclude an armistice. The Spartans then propose a treaty of peace and alliance with the Athenians, arguing that real peace must arise through generosity, not through military success that creates a desire for revenge. However, the Athenians reject the offer and grasp for something more. The Athenians regret this decision and turn on Cleon who argued against the peace. Cleon is forced by the masses to lead Athenian forces in Pylos and leads the Athenians to victory. Yet again, the peace is elusive as the Athenians kept grasping for more. In the tenth year, both sides desire peace. The two sides negotiate a treaty, yet the Spartans’ allies rejected the treaty. The peace lasted for seven years, but Thucydides argues that the peace was not genuine and felt this time was just a period of limited hostility.

In the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides recounts the discussions of the Athenian generals with the Melian commissioners. The Melians were a Spartan colony on the island of Melos who would not submit to the Athenians, attempted to remain neutral, but “assumed an attitude of open hostility” after the Athenians plundered their territory. The Athenians say that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must and that Athens must subdue Melos to keep the respect of its subjects. The Melians argue that such a policy will only create more enemies for Athens. The Athenians advise the Melains to avoid hope, which deludes men and leads them to ruin. The Melians refuse to yield to the Athenians, who then lay siege. The Melians eventually surrender to the Athenians, who then executed the men and sold the women and children for slaves.

In Books Six and Seven of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides details the Athenians’ Sicilian Expedition. The Athenians vote to attack Sicily, though most were unaware of the island’s size and population. Egestan envoys sought aid from Athens in their war with Selinus. The Egestans warned of potential Syracusan domination of Sicily and aid to Sparta and promised to pay Athens’ war expenses in Sicily. Athenian envoys ventured to Egesta and returned with favorable, but untrue, reports of the wealth in Egesta. Nicias argues that it would be imprudent to attack Sicily due to the precarious peace. He further argues that Sicily is too far away to be permanently subdued, that even a united Syracuse would be unlikely to attack Athens, and that Sparta is still the main threat to Athens. Alcibiades argues that Athens must help its allies, if only to extent its empire further. Nicias argues a second time against the expedition, saying that the Athenians would need overwhelming power in order to succeed. His second speech actually fuels enthusiasm for the expedition. The enormous size of the Athenian armada highlighted the danger and magnitude of the expedition to the Athenians, but they were comforted by the unprecedented wealth and magnificence of the fleet. In Syracuse, Hermocrates warns that Athens is about to attack but stresses the difficulties the Athenians will face and the advantages Syracuse holds. Athenagoras, a leader of The People, argues the Athenians are too smart to risk such an attempt. The Athenians stop at Rhegium, where they learn of the Egestaean ruse. Nicias proposes to settle the war with Selinus, display their power, and return home. Alcibiades and Lamachus advocate attacking Syracuse. Alcibiades is called home to stand trial for plotting against the democracy, but he escapes to Peloponnesus. The Athenians battle the Syracusans in the Battle at the Anapus River. The battle goes evenly until thunder rattles the inexperienced Syracusans. Syracuse requests aid from Sparta. The Athenians and Syracusans both send envoys to Camarina, who remains neutral. Alcibiades urges the Spartans to act against Athens and that he is not a traitor – a true patriot will go to any length event o aid his country’s enemies, in order to recover it. The Athenians begin a wall of circumvallation around Syracuse. Gylippus (Spartan) set sail to save Italy. Nicias was aware of Gylippus but took no action because the Spartan force was small. Sparta invaded Argos, provoking an Athenian response, thus providing a pretext for hostilities between Sparta and Athens. Gylippus arrives as the Athenians are about to close their siege walls, and his arrival restores Syracusan morale. The Athenians send reinforcements to Nicias, who attempted to resign but was urged to stay. The Spartans invaded Attica, forcing a second front for the Athenians. Gylippus urges the Syracusans to build a fleet to challenge the Athenians at sea. After failing to take the Syracusan counterwall by siege engine and assult, Demosthenes attempts a night attack on Epipolae, which is initially successful but turns into a defeat. Demosthenes urges an immediate withdrawal, but Nicias disagrees, arguing that Syracuse is running out of funds and is about to collapse. The Athenians eventually decide to withdraw, but a lunar eclipse changes their minds. The Syracusans win a decisive battle in the harbor, which causes despair among the Athenians. The Syracusans begin to close the Great Harbor. Nicias urges his soldiers and sailor to victory – failure here will lead to Athens’ quick defeat by Syracuse and Sparta. The Athenians are defeated at sea, again and begin a retreat on land. Demosthenes and Nicias eventually surrender to the Syracusans and are executed. Thucydides calls the Syracusan victory the greatest of the war, and the Athenian defeat the most calamitous and total.


· “The war between Athens and Sparta offers profound human knowledge in the extreme variance between what a man says and what he does, between the jealousy of ambition and the contempt for docility, between the dream of a people and the reality of their experience, between innate discomfiture with the good and the human attraction toward the base, between the burdens and responsibilities of power and the necessary acknowledgement of impotence, between democracy at home and imperialism abroad, between the Athenian thesis that they are powerful but reluctant players in a brutal cosmic order, and the Spartan notion of free will, which hinges on the gods’ punishment of the guilty and aid of the virtuous.” (xi)

· “Athens and Sparta are states in a real war, but they are also metaphysical representations of opposite ways of looking at the universe, whose corollaries are often emphasized in a variety of contexts.” (xi)

· “Thucydides saw that the ultimate confrontation between these two remarkable societies would be both inevitable and terrible; inevitable, because of their remarkable antitheses between land and sea, autocracy and liberty, narrow Dorian gentry and broader Ionian commerce; terrible, because there existed between the two powers neither an adherence to the past restrictions on Greek warmaking nor sufficient common political ground to negotiate a lasting peace.” (xix)

· “Athens’ biggest worry was the sheer recklessness of its own democratic government.” (xix)

· Even more extraordinary is Thucydides’ ability to use that knowledge to reach a higher wisdom about the nature of human behavior, whether it be unveiled by plague, revolution, or war.” (xxii)

Book One

· “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war was inevitable.” (16)

· “The power which is at enmity with you, is also at enmity with us, and that power is fully able to punish defection.” (24)

· “Whatever your fears, your strength will be formidable to your antagonists; on the other, whatever the confidence you derive from refusing to receive us, you will be the weaker and less terrifying to a strengthened enemy.” (24)

· “For you cannot become their auxiliary and remain our friend; if you join in their attack, you must share the punishment which the defenders inflict on them.” (26)

· “For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth.” (28)

· “This was the first cause of the war that Corinth had against the Athenians, namely, that they had fought against them with the Corcyraeans in time of treaty.” (33)

· “A degree of confidence she [Athens] may feel from the idea the your bluntness of perception prevents your noticing her; but it is nothing to the impulse which her advance will receive from the knowledge that you see, but do not care to interfere.” (39)

· “And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest.” (43)

· “It follows that it was not a very remarkable action, on contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest.” (43)

· “The Spartans votes that the treaty had been broken, and that war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them.” (49)

· “It must be thoroughly understood that war is a necessity, and that the more readily we accept it, the less will be the ardor of our opponents, and that out of the greatest dangers communities and individuals acquire the greatest glory.” (85)

Book Two

· “And if both sides nourished the boldest hopes and put forth their utmost strength for the war, this was only natural. Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking.” (93)

· “The course of war cannot be foreseen, and its attacks are generally dictated by the impulse of the moment; and where overweening self-confidence has despised preparation, a wise apprehension has often been able to make head against superior numbers.” (97)

· “[Pericles], meanwhile, seeing anger and poor judgment just now in the ascendant, and confident of his wisdom in refusing a sally, would not call either an assembly or a meeting of the people, fearing the fatal results of a debate inspired by passion and not by prudence.” (104)

· “Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory.” (115)

· “What they [the Athenians] did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions. And private interests, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies – projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war.” (127)

Book Three

· “Now the only sure basis of an alliance is for each party to be equally afraid of the other: he who would like to encroach is then deterred by the reflection that he will not have odds in his favor.” (164)

· “In short, only show yourselves as liberators, and you may count upon having the advantage in the war.” (165)

· Cleon, “They declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right, their attack being determined not by provocation but by the moment which seems propitious.” (178)

· Diodotus, “I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.” (179)

Book Four

· ”It was a strange reversal of the order of things for Athenians to be fighting from the land and from Laconian land too, against Spartans coming from the sea; while Spartans were trying to land from shipboard in their own country, now become hostile, to attack Athenians, although the former were chiefly famous at the time as an inland people and superior by land, the latter as a maritime people with a navy that hand no equal.” (230)

· Spartan envoys to Athenian assembly, “Our resources are what they have always been, and our error has been an error of judgment, to which all are equally liable. Accordingly the prosperity which your city now enjoys, and the accessions that it has lately received, must not make you suppose that fortune will always be with you.” (233)

· “If peace was ever desirable for both parties, it is surely so at the present moment, before anything irremediable befall us and force us to hate you eternally, personally as well as politically, and you to miss the advantages that we now offer you.” (233)

· “The Athenians, however, kept grasping at more, and dismissed envoy after envoy without their having effected anything.” (246)

Book Five

· “Athens had suffered severely… and had no longer that confidence in her strength which had made her before refuse to accept the offer of peace, in the belief of ultimate victory which her success at the moment had inspired; bedsides, she was afraid of her allies being tempted by her reverses to rebel more generally, and repented having let go the splendid opportunity for peace which the affair of Pylos had offered. Sparta, on the other hand, found the actuality of the war falsify her notion that devastating their land for a few years would suffice for the overthrow of the power of the Athenians.” (309)

· “Looking at in the light of the facts it cannot, it will be found, be rationally considered a state of peace, as neither party either gave or got back all that they had agreed.” (316)

Melian Dialogue

· “Since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal powers, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (352)

· “If any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in thwarting the masters of the sea.” (xi)

· Book Six

· “The Athenians resolved to sail again to Sicily…most of them being ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants; Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians.” (361)

· “If the Syracusans were allowed to go unpunished for their depopulation of Leontini, to ruin the allies still left to Athens in Sicily, and to get the whole power of the island allies still left to Athens in Sicily, and to get the whole power of the island into their hands, there would be a danger of their one day coming with a large force as Dorians to the aid of their Dorian brethren, and as colonists, to the aid of the Peloponnesians who had sent them out, and joining these in pulling down the Athenian empire.” (365)

· Nicias, “We ought not to give so little consideration to a matter of such import, or let ourselves be persuaded by foreigners into undertaking a war with which we have nothing to do.” (367)

· “It is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise.” (368)

· “For the future we do not enter into alliance, as we have been used to do, with people whom we must help in their need, and who can never help us in ours.” (369)

· “With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.” (375)

· “Indeed the expedition became not less famous for its wonderful boldness and for the splendor of its appearance, than for its overwhelming strength as compared with the people against whom it was directed, and for the fact that this was the longest passage from home hitherto attempted, and the most ambitious in its objectives considering the resources of those who undertook it.” (378)

· “And thus they advanced, the Syracusans to fight for their country, and each individual for his safety that day and liberty hereafter. In the enemy’s army, the Athenians sought to make another’s country theirs and to save their own from suffering by their defeat.” (401)

· “In short, in the struggle against the Persian, the Athenians did not fight for the liberty of the Hellenes, or the Hellenes for their own liberty, but the former to make their countrymen serve them instead of him, the latter to change one master for another, wiser indeed that the first, but wiser for evil.” (405)

· Euphemus, “We make no fine professions of having a right to rule because we overthrew the barbarian single-handed, or because we risked what we did risk for the freedom of the subjects in question any more than for that of all, and four our own no one can be censured for providing for his own safety.” (407)

· Euphemus, “We assert that we are rulers in Hellas in order not to be subjects; liberators in Sicily that we may not be harmed by the Sicilians; that we are compelled to interfere in many things, because we have many things to guard against; and that now, as before, we come as allies to those of you who suffer wrong in this island, not without invitation but upon invitation.” (410)

Book Seven

· “But the Spartans derived most encouragement from the belief that Athens, with two wars on her hands, against themselves and the Sicilians, would be more easy to subdue, and from the conviction that she had been the first to violate the truce.” (436)

· “Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium; even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army.” (440)

· “In fact this occupation [of Decelea], by the destruction of property and loss of men which resulted from it, was one of the principal causes of their [Athens] ruin.” (442)

· “They Syracusans had now gained a decisive victory at sea…deep, in consequence, was the despondency of the Athenians, and great their disappointment, and greater still their regret for having come on the expedition.” (459)

· Nicias, “If you do other than conquer, our enemies here will immediately said thither, and those that are left of us at Athens will become unable to repel their home assailants, reinforced by these new allies. Here you will fall at once into the hands of the Syracusans…and your countrymen at home will fall into those of the Spartans. Since the fate of both thus hangs upon this single battle – now, if ever, stand firm…” (465)

· “When are once checked in what they consider their special excellence, their whole opinion of themselves suffers more than if they had not at first believed in their superiority, the unexpected shock to their pride causing them to give way more than their real strength warrants; and this is probably now the case with the Athenians.” (466)

· “The rarest dangers are those in which failure brings little loss and success the greatest advantage.” (467)

· “For this was by far the greatest reverse that ever befelt an Hellenic army. They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary; traveling by land instead of by sea, and trusting not in their fleet but in their hoplites. Nevertheless the greatness of the danger still impending made all this appear tolerable.” (472)

· “This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army – everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily.” (478)

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