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Customer Review

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classical history original, 10 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The History of the Peloponnesian War (Classics) (Paperback)
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is an absolute must for anyone who has read or wishes to read classical history. Herodotus, who wrote of the earlier Persian war, may be recognised as the father of history, but it is Thucydides' book that became the template for classical history as a genre, a genre that would endure into the Byzantine empire and thus for a good millennium. The prose is elegant, the account well paced, the historian self-effacing. His history has both narrative depth and a bird's eye overarching coherence. Indeed, though Thucydides would have many imitators, there is an argument that he never found an equal.

The History of the Peloponnesian War tells the history of the long war between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, that took place between 431 and 404 BC. This is a blow-by-blow military history interspersed with diplomacy, and transcripts of the treaties themselves, as well as reports of the decision-making processes in each camp. It provides a matchless panorama of contemporary power relations and political mores. It is also a gripping account, including such episodes as the dramatic isolation and capture of an elite Spartan contingent on the island off Pylos that almost lost them the war, and of the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily. Be aware, however, that Thucydides' narrative ends on the twenty-first year of the war (for reasons that are unclear, since the author writes in several places that the war lasted twenty-seven years), so that if you want to follow the narrative until the end, you will need to reed Xenophon's continuing A History of My Times.

One of Thucydides' innovations was to introduce speeches in his account. These rarely were verbatim reproductions of what by said by the actors, but more often consisted of what Thucydides thought they had said or even 'what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions'. This is important, because the use of speeches was imitated by classical authors sometimes quite clumsily and to the point of making some histories semi-fictional. With Thucydides, however, the speeches often serve to convey the historian's view of the parties' relative positions, the causes of events, or his analysis of their choices. It seems that he was loath to introduce such outside material in the narrative itself, and that the speeches were his remedy to the problem.

Though he was an Athenian, Thucydides was exiled at some point for having mismanaged a campaign in Thrace. This explains both his ability to obtain information on the Lacedaemonian side of the war and his restraint from overt partisanship. He seems to have been in favour of democracy over oligarchy, unlike many contemporary or near-contemporary Greek writers, but even that is difficult to establish, such was his control over his text. There are tantalising hints, finally, that the conflict he describes was more than what he made of it: Athens led a confederacy of mostly Ionian Greeks, and Lacedaemon Dorian Greeks. Many or most of Athens's allies were democracies, while those of Sparta were oligarchies. We will never know to what extent the war may have been an ethnic or an ideological clash, however: Thucydides' history is the only surviving account.
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