The Peloponnesian War Background

The Peloponnesian War Background

There is an old saying about how some people may only do one thing, but do it well. Such is the case with Thucydides. As a historian, he may have been more than a touch obsessive: his entire historical literature output comes down to a single subject: the Peloponnesian War. He was motivated to focus entirely on this single historical event by the conviction that from the study of this particular war could the lessons related to every other war of the past and the future be learned.

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War is not just a military strategy textbook, however. The volume is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about a historical philosophy known as the “Great Man” theory, which was made popular by the biographies of Flavius Josephus. For Thucydides, the Great Man driving the historical narrative covered by the period during which the war took place was Pericles. Worth nothing, however, is that while the historian is unceasing in his admiration of Pericles, his dedication to writing a detached, relatively object account of the facts in support of his theories remains unblemished. In addition to contributing to that particular theory of historical change, the history becomes one of the first to reveal that war was is not all glory and celebration and ritual, but leaves in its wake devastation to humans and the societies they have been built.

The History of the Peloponnesian War is covered over the course of eight different volumes that cover all the major portions of the long engagement from the Archidamian War of the 420s B.C. to the Ionian War drawing to close along with the century. His historical account suddenly ends with the war around 411 B.C. with no authentic account yet found for the stoppage. The history does continue, however, with the additions contributed by two historians that followed in his path: Theopompus and Cratinus. Between the two, the narrative is extended a decade past the defeat of Athens.

History as provided by Thucydides bears the mark of the eyewitness. His multi-part history is not the work of a historian trying to construct truth from the ruins of time. Thucydides was a general himself in exile from Athens and actually lived to see the war come to an end though, he may not have lived long enough to write that ending.

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