History of the Peloponnesian War

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The History of the Peloponnesian War is an account of the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece, fought between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens). It was written by Thucydides, an Athenian general who served in the war. It is widely considered a classic and regarded as one of the earliest scholarly works of history. The History is divided into eight books. These book divisions are the work of editors in later antiquity.

The judgement of J. B. Bury reflects the standard view of the work: "[The History is] severe in its detachment, written from a purely intellectual point of view, unencumbered with platitudes and moral judgements, cold and critical."[1] In recent years, however, critics have come to a more nuanced view. Compare the words of W. R. Connor, who describes Thucydides as "an artist who responds to, selects and skillfully arranges his material, and develops its symbolic and emotional potential."[2]

Historical method

Thucydides' History made a number of contributions to early historiography. Many of his principles have become standard methods of history writing today, though others have not.


One of Thucydides' major innovations was to employ a strict standard of chronology, recording events by year, each year consisting of the summer campaigning season and a less active winter season. As a result, events that span several years are divided up and described in parts of the book that are sometimes quite distant from one another, causing the impression that he is oscillating wildly between the various theatres of conflict. This method contrasts sharply with Herodotus' earlier work The Histories, which jumps around chronologically and makes frequent and roundabout excursuses into seemingly unrelated areas and time periods.


Another distinctive feature of the work is Thucydides' inclusion of dozens of speeches assigned to the principal figures engaged in the war. These include addresses given to troops by their generals before battles and numerous political speeches, both by Athenian and Spartan leaders, as well as debates between various parties. Of the speeches, the most famous is the funeral oration of Pericles, which is found in Book Two. Thucydides undoubtedly heard some of these speeches himself while for others he relied on eyewitness accounts. Some of the speeches are probably fabricated according to his expectations of, as he puts it, "what was called for in each situation" (1.22.2).

Neutral point of view

Despite being an Athenian and a participant in the conflict, Thucydides is often regarded as having written a generally unbiased account of the conflict and all the sides involved in it. In the introduction to the piece he states, "My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever" (1.22.4). This conclusion is not unchallenged, however; some scholars such as Ernst Badian argue vociferously for Thucydides' unremitting pro-Athenian bias.[3]

Role of religion

The gods play no active role in Thucydides' work, unlike the many appearances they make in the writings of Herodotus (and their near ubiquity in the poems of Homer). Instead, Thucydides regards history as being caused by the choices and actions of human beings.

Subject matter of the History

The first book of the History, after a brief review of early Greek history and some programmatic historiographical commentary, seeks to explain why the Peloponnesian War broke out when it did and what its causes were. Except for a few short excurses (notably 6.54-58 on the Tyrant Slayers), the remainder of the History (books 2 through 8) rigidly maintains its focus on the Peloponnesian War to the exclusion of other topics.

While the History concentrates on the military aspects of the [Peloponnesian War]], it uses these events as a medium to suggest several other themes closely related to the war. It specifically discusses in several passages the socially and culturally degenerative effects of war on humanity itself. The History is especially concerned with the lawlessness and atrocities committed by Greek citizens to each other in the name of one side of another in the war. Some events depicted in the History, such as the Melian dialogue, describe early instances of realpolitik or power politics. The History is preoccupied with the interplay of justice and power in political and military decision-making. Thucydides' presentation is decidedly ambivalent on this theme. While the History seems to suggest that considerations of justice are artificial and necessarily capitulate to power, it sometimes also shows a significant degree of empathy with those who suffer from the exigencies of the war.

For the most part, the History leaves matters like art and architecture untouched.

Some difficulties of interpretation

Thucydides' History is extraordinarily dense and complex. This has resulted in much scholarly disagreement on a cluster of issues of interpretation.

Strata of composition

It is virtually certain that Thucydides died while still working on the History, leaving it ending in mid-sentence. However, there is greater deal of uncertainty whether he intended to revise the sections he had already written. Since there appear to be some contradictions between certain passages in the History, it has been proposed that the conflicting passages were written at different times and that Thucydides' opinion on the conflicting matter had changed. Those who argue that the History can be divided into various levels of composition are usually called "analysts" and those who argue that the passages must be made to reconcile with one another are called "unitarians". This conflict is called the "strata of composition" debate.


The History is notoriously reticent about its sources. Thucydides never names his informants and alludes to competing versions of events only a handful of times. This is in marked contrast to Herodotus, who frequently mentions multiple versions of his stories and allows the reader to decide which is true. Instead, Thucydides strives to create the impression of a seamless and irrefutable narrative. Nevertheless, scholars have sought to detect the sources behind the various sections of the History. For example, the narrative after Thucydides' exile (4.108ff.) seems to focus on Peloponnesian events in greater amounts than the first four books, leading to the conclusion that he had greater access to Peloponnesian sources at that time.

Frequently, Thucydides appears to assert knowledge of the thoughts of individuals at key moments in the narrative. Scholars have asserted that these moments are evidence that he interviewed these individuals after the fact. However, the evidence of the Sicilian Expedition argues against this, since Thucydides discusses the thoughts of the generals who died there and whom he would have had no chance to interview. Instead it seems likely that, as with the speeches, Thucydides is looser than previously thought in inferring the thoughts, feelings, and motives of principal characters in his History from their actions, as well as his own sense of what would be appropriate or likely in such a situation.


Thucydides' History has been enormously influential in both ancient and modern historiography. It was embraced by the author's contemporaries and immediate successors with enthusiasm; indeed, many authors sought to complete the unfinished history. For example, Xenophon wrote his Hellenica as a continuation of Thucydides' work, beginning at the exact moment that Thucydides' History leaves off. His work, however, is generally considered far inferior in style and accuracy compared with Thucydides'. In later antiquity, Thucydides' reputation suffered somewhat, with critics such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus rejecting the History as turgid and excessively austere. Lucian also parodies it (among others) in his satire The True Histories.

Method of citation

Most critics writing about the History, including this article, use a standard format to direct readers to passages in the text: book.chapter.section. For example, the notation that Pericles' last speech runs from 2.60.1 to 2.64.6, this means that it can be found in the second book, from the sixtieth chapter through the sixty-fourth. Most modern editions and translations of the History include the chapter numbers in the margins, though some omit the section numbers, notably Rex Warner's translation published by Penguin Classics.

Outline of the Work


  1. [1] - J.B. Bury, History of Greece, 4th ed., (New York 1975), p. 252.
  2. [2] - W.R. Connor, Thucydides, (Princeton 1984), pp. 231-2.
  3. [3] - Ernst Badian, "Thucydides and the Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. A Historian's Brief" in Conflict, Antithesis and the Ancient Historian, ed. June Allison, (Columbus 1990), pp. 46-91.

References and further reading


  • Richard Crawley, 1874: full text
  • Benjamin Jowett, 1881: full text
  • Edgar C. Marchant, 1900
  • Charles Forster Smith, 1919
  • Rex Warner, 1954
  • John H. Finley, Jr., 1963

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