Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: An introduction

[by T. Greer]

On a summer night, nearly three thousand years ago, three hundred men of Thebes, wet and mud soaked, snuck into the town of Plataea with murder on their minds. Their attempt to launch revolution in Plataea was futile: most would die before the night was over. If their aim was political change, they failed, and failed utterly. But if their aim was undying fame, they succeeded. Perhaps they did not know that their deeds would echo through time, but they have. These were the men who began the Peloponnesian War. What they did is still read and written about thousands of years later.

Why is this?

Why is this war so well remembered?

Thucydides answers these questions in terms of scale:

This was the greatest movement yet known in history…there was nothing on a greater scale, either in war or other matters (1.1).

Perhaps this was true in Thucydides’ day, but to moderns who have witnessed millions perish in global wars, the scale of the Peloponnesian War is minuscule. Even by classical standards, it can claim no special title in size or extent.

Thebes and Plataea were separated by only seven miles. That is barely a shadow on the frontier of the greater ancient empires. Even the fabled Sicilian campaign, whose distance robbed Athens of her empire, was only half as far away as Caesar wandered from Rome, and only a fourth of the distance Han warriors traveled from their capitals at Chang’an or Luoyang to the farthest frontier of their empire.

A bit less than three hundred Thebans died that day. This was a fairly normal casualty count for the war. Even Athens at her greatest could only put ten thousand hoplites into the field. In contrast, in one day of fighting at Cannae, Rome lost more than 50,000 men. Emperor Ashoka lamented that he killed more than 100,000 enemy soldiers in the conquest of Kalinga.

Seen in this perspective, the Peloponnesian War was a tiny conflict, fought between the small towns of a fractious, tribalistic, and self-absorbed people. Despite this, it is not only remembered, but earnestly studied and carefully reconstructed. Many wars of far greater scale languish unremembered.

Perhaps the key to the war’s hold on our minds is its complexity? This was a war that involved dozens of polities. It pitted land powers against sea powers, oligarchs against democracies, coalition against empire. Culture and ideology played their part in this war; so did domestic strife and civil conflict. This war spawned great contests for food, for wealth, and for power; it witnessed both plague and starvation. No matter what angle you wish to take, the Peloponnesian War has something for you.

Yet the Peloponnesian War’s complexity is hardly unique. American history began, after all, with a war that stretched across land and sea, entangling enemies both domestic and foreign, flinging diverse cultures, ideologies, and political regimes into one violent contest. This sort of multi-sided warfare, one-part wheeling-and-dealing on the international stage, another part grandstanding on the domestic one, is the historical norm. It describes all great wars found in our records—and its shadows haunt the legends and ruins of wars who had no historian to record them. To parse through the tales of the Iroquois oral tradition, or piece together inscriptions from Mayan steles and tombs, is to be struck with wonder. It is wonder at the intricacy of their wars, the complexity of their alliances, and the drama of their betrayals.

Above all, it is to wonder what classics these events might have produced if these peoples and places had a Thucydides to write about them. Alas! They had no Thucydides. There has been only one of him. That is all that truly sets the Peloponnesian War apart from the other wars of human history: this was the war witnessed by Thucydides.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page