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VINE VOICEon 26 March 2010
I first read Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War" in the sixties, when the Cold War was fast simmering towards a boiling point. Reading Thucydides at that moment, which (thankfully) passed into modern history with a whimper rather than a bang, was a revelation. The 5th-century BC historian writes a riveting account of how two major powers--Sparta and Athens--became embroiled in a twenty-seven-year war because of self-interest, mutual distrust, and buildup of arms. He then notes that he is writing his history as a lesson for mankind so that such wars will never occur again. With chilling cynicism, however, he notes that since human nature is essentially rotten, the same wars will break out over and over for exactly the same reasons.

Rex Warner's translation from the Greek is both enlightening and readable. The headings at the top of every other page allow the reader to 'skim' easily to particular topics. I shall note only two passages, which speed by despite their length, as examples: the Plague of 430 BC (Thuc. II. 47-55), and the Corcyrean Revolt of 427 BC (Thuc. III. 69-95; esp. 82-83). The first demonstrates Thucydides' brilliance as what we today would call a journalist. His account of the plague is based on keen observation of the disease, which he both caught and survived. Originating at Athens' harbour, it swept through the confines of the city, partly as a result of Pericles' disastrous policy of moving the population into an already-crowded city (Thucydides does not know about rats and lice, but he does note that all domestic animals and birds of prey, which came into contact with the stricken, died). The historian, whose narrative is considered the first epidemiology, describes the disease from its symptoms, through its crisis, to its devastating end, sometimes in recovery, most often in death. As riveting as his narrative is, Thucydides transcends straight reportage as he describes the psychological toll on the populace, who not only became demoralised, but also sank into committing normally unthinkable acts, such as sneaking out at night and dumping their dead relatives onto someone else's funeral pyre, or allowing the sick to die of neglect.

The other not-to-be-missed passage is Thucydides' narration of the Corcyrean Revolt, which is far more than an account of a mere rebellion. It is an account of propaganda, and how the very language undergoes transmogrifications of meanings during times of stress. For example, what in peacetime might be considered "a thoughtless act of agression," in wartime becomes "courage"; what in peacetime is a consider-all-sides-of-an-issue policy, in wartime, becomes cowardice; Thucydides writes: "Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was a perfectly legitimate self-defence" [Thuc. III. 82]. The passage seems especially relevant in this commercial age of mass media, when language becomes so easily distorted and misinterpreted.

Thucydides' history breaks off in 411 and thus does not cover the end of the war in 404. Even so, its themes are so universal that they convey an immediate ring of truth that bridges the gap of the millennia.
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on 18 May 2010
From Thucydides' foreward in the book, he is a self-confessed curmudgeon. He insists that his book is not to 'entertain', but to act as an accurate record for future generations. He comes across as the complete opposite of the gregarious Herodotus, but he gives tribute to his predecessor's account by continuing from exactly where Herodotus finishes.

According to the translator's preface, Thucydides' use of ancient Greek is notoriously technical and dry. In spite of this, this particular translation is easy enough to read. True to Thucydides' warning, however, he doesn't make any concessions to the reader, and the pace is not always as fast as one might like.

The story that this book portrays is fascinating, though. The two great Greek city states of Athens and Sparta - which are so different in every way - embark on a battle to the death just three decades after jointly defeating the Persian invasion. It is so easy to both love and hate both sides simultaneously, and you find yourself cheering one side on and then castigating them for their foolishness.

If you enjoyed The Histories (Penguin Classics) and you wanted to find out what happened next, then Thucydides will tell you. He doesn't have the same panache or flair, but he has the same eye for detail and an interesting story to tell.
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on 23 November 2004
"History of the Peloponnesian War" is, superficially, merely an account of a war that happened centuries ago, the Peloponnesian War, between Athenas and Sparta. Of course, you might think that the subject is trivial to you. After all, how important can a book like that be?. Well, if you were to think that, you would be enormously mistaken.
To start with, this book is a milestone you need to be aware of. Thucydides, its author, is very possibly the first modern historian. He tried to explain the causes of the Peloponnesian War, without reducing its complexity by saying that the gods had motivated it. Thucydides doesn't follow the easy path; instead, he searches those causes in human nature, and in power. He doesn't weave tales, but tries to write History.
It is rather astonishing how objective this Athenian was when he analyzed the war, and all that happened immediately before it. He examines methodically many events, paying special attention to facts. The author also gives his opinion from time to time, but he doesn't judge whether an action is good or evil: he merely shows that those that have power can use it as they see fit. Due to that, Thucydides is called by many the first realist theoretician. I was especially taken aback by how well he expresses his ideas regarding the fact that "power makes right" in the Melian debate. I don't agree with him, but I cannot deny that he makes a powerful case, and that his point of view is shared nowadays by many noteworthy thinkers.
It is important to point out that in "History of the Peloponnesian War" you will find a painstaking account of many things that actually happened, but also some speeches that weren't made by the actors, but could have been made by them. To explain that more clearly: Thucydides wrote some political dialogues and monologues that allow us to understand some aspects of the conflict (and many of his ideas) better. The introduction to this edition also highlights that the author sometimes made up some of the speeches (from the data he had), and was present when others were pronounced. My favorite speech is the one made by Pericles, in honor of the men who died during the war. In that discourse, he explains why those men fought and died to defend Athens, and what Athens meant not only for Athenians but also for Greece.
This book isn't easy to read, but it is well-worth the effort. The translation is quite good, so that will make your task a little easier. If you don't feel like reading this book all at once, try to read it little by little. The results will be the same, but you won't feel dismayed by the need of finishing it immediately.
Also, if you can, try to relate some of Thucydides themes to our modern world. You will find that easier that you might think, and it will make you pay more attention to what you are reading. You are likely to be very surprised, for example, at how similar some of nowaday's justifications for taking advantage of power without paying attention to justice are to those that Thucydides already made a long time ago. On the whole, I highly recommend this book :)
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on 18 July 2013
Perhaps more than other wars this conflict reveals inverse natural selection at its most selective, slaughtering the best of the citizen soldiers in a conflict that ebbed and flowed for twenty-seven years. The Athenian reaction to the disaster of the Syracuse Expedition, for example, is more than grief for the dead (the citizen backbone of Athenian democracy) but justifiable fear for survival of state identity. Indeed democracy was replaced by oligarchy in 411 B.C.

In Homer's 'The Iliad' fortunes of war are guided by beings possessed of every human failing except mortality. In this historical account of the Peloponnesian War there are no gods, no divine interventions or miracles. Citizens of each polis shape their own destinies according to the inspiration of the moment, articulated by the rhetoric of statesmen whose speeches are recorded here. Perhaps the most famous is the Funeral Oration of Pericles, whose sentiments are found in various guises including the English Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence. Moreover, Thucydides (like Shakespeare) had an acute insight into human nature - just the same today as in the 5th century B.C. Very little, it seems, has changed or has been learned since. This is the book's real tragedy.

Thucydides admits that his work is not meant to entertain and unfortunately he is correct. There is much tedious detail on dry historical rather than historic events that fail to engage the modern reader - this reader at least. From an historian's point of view the comparison of Herodotus with Thucydides is always unfavorable. 'The Histories' by Herodotus might not be history in the modern sense of the word (historia meant inquiry), but it is far more entertaining to read and expands upon everything of interest to an active mind of the 5th century.
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Classic text.

A superb and fascinating look at ancient Greece and the war between Athens and Sparta.

Carrying on where Heredotus finished Thucydides takes a more measured and fact based approach.

It can be a little difficult to follow at times - the places and names come in a plenty and unless you have a map of ancient Greece you may find yourself becoming a little lost.

Quite a few speeches which are clearly of Thucydides creation.

Overall a good read if you can stick with it.
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on 12 December 2003
After reading Herodotus I enquired about reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian war. I was told it was 'a tough read'. However I thought I'd persist and was glad I did. After just a few pages I started to admire the man, his insistance on facts and telling only what he knew. The man was hundreds of years ahead of his time, but don't let this detract from the story. The story of the great war between the two greatest ancient greek powers Athens and Sparta, is a brilliant one and is shaped by Thucydides in this work.
Through great speeches by great figures such as Nicias and Alcibiades Thucydides brings you insights into the way both sides were thinking before the battles.
Overall the work is one of precision but also of great drama, you find yourself willing the Athenians not to go on the ill-fated Syracusan expedition but knowing full well they will and they'll lose everything.
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I once was in the U.S. Army. As part of our job we were always encouraged to study history to see how people thought and wars were executed. No war is ever the same so what we are reading to learn is the why. There is also how people responded to different tactics and strategies.

I found this easy to read as the translation made it appear like we were reading today's news. Not just the actins but the politics of the time. There are great descriptions of the time and place. The only thing that is missing is visual maps to put the places in perspective. Luckily you can get maps of the time off the net as a supplement.

I have a paperback edition which is easily navigated and you can place sticky notes in. I also have a kindle version which you can put book marks in. the problem with the kindle is the text-to-speech has a horrible time translating place and people names. The advantage of the kindle is it moves you forward so you do not doddle. I am contemplating a hard copy for the library and reverence.

There is enough detail that it may require a second reading after you have digested the first. I am also looking for some good books to tell me what I would have noticed in this book.
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on 17 September 2015
The next time I read this book - and it will have to be read again as there is a lot to absorb in one reading - I intend to set a room in my house aside and have a large map of the med to cover the floor. Then with the aid of lots of wooden model boats for the different triremes and blocks for the different armies I can move them around on a page by page basis (probably dressed appropriately in a horse haired helmet and metal greaves and pushing the markers with a wooden spear) and fully immerse myself in the experience. Maybe a few dioramas of the various battles which are explained in exhaustive detail, would also add to the effect. A book for armchair generals of all ages. It basically reads as most modern histories. The strong take from the weak and nations attack others if it it is in their self interest to do so. Some of the personalities of the combatants are also described, though this is almost in passing. And the leaders then seem to have been just as unscrupulous and deceitful as they are now. Totally fascinating.
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on 11 March 2014
Having battled my way through Herodotus’ Histories a little while ago, Thucydides seemed like the natural follow-on as the period he writes about takes place shortly after the period at which Herodotus stops. There is a distinct change in tone however, between the two, with Thucydides being far more focused on his task in hand, whereas Herodotus wrote about pretty much anything that took his fancy. The translation I read was that of Rex Warner. As far as making the ancient Greek intelligible in modern English, he did a splendid job. Whether it is the most faithful translation, I cannot tell. This was the one and only translation I picked up.

One cannot begin a review without commenting on its sheer length. It took me several months to work through the 8 books. It would have taken even longer had it not been for a very accessible translation and the help of the introduction. The title of the book really gives it away. It’s a detailed account of a war that took place some 4 centuries before the birth of Jesus, predominantly between the forces of Athens and those of the Peloponnese, though the war also brought in warring parties from other parts of the Mediterranean.

I could not hope to give a synopsis of this 600+ page tome, except to say that it’s pretty much wall-to-wall war. Thucydides gives detailed accounts of the military movements of each side as well as the discussions that took place between the various warring faction when negotiating terms and treaties. While there may be some lingering questions over the precision of some of the details, the fact remains that Thucydides is the most reliable witness and author about the events described whose work survives today.

In trying to remain as factual as possible, Thucydides doesn’t give his reader any great sense of scale. One must discern for oneself what was important and what was recorded merely for the purposes of record-keeping. Indeed, Thucydides is poignantly silent on the matter of why he wrote the history. There is no grand narrative, no lessons to be had. Or rather, Thucydides doesn’t give them to us. There is very little by way of analysis, which is in stark contrast to more modern exponents of history and even current affairs.

This is not a book to be picked up lightly and it will draw you in. There are times when it gets quite turgid, you must be warned. But if you liked Herodotus (particularly the second half) then this should appeal to you. It won’t be for everyone; indeed, talking to some people who had attempted to read it, about half gave up and the other half thought I was mad.

A book more to be admired than enjoyed, I think.
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on 16 January 2006
...there is one thing that all potential readers, particularly those seeking to learn about the Peloponnesian war, should bear in mind.
Contrary to the claim made in the blurb for this book, Thucydides' account is not by any means a perfect 'factual record' of the conflict. While it certainly contains much factual information, and is extremely important for better understanding the war, Thucydides is not as accurate as some historians might hope. We know that much of what he wrote was incorrect, and that many of the speeches he included were little more than creative writing, and as such the reader should always take care not to put too much faith in him.
It's also worth noting that, despite his "contempt for myth and romance", Thucydides' history is filled with tragic elements, and the events at Syracuse are narrated with particularly tragic language used.
Which, to me, only serves to make the book much more interesting.
A far less dry history than many might have you believe, Thucydides' works are a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in Ancient Greece, the Classical World, or simply history in general, and this accessible version comes highly recommended - just don't believe too much of the blurb!
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