AT the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. Thucydides began to write a history of the conflict. His History in eight books gives an account of the hostilities to 411 B.C., but the war, a twenty-seven years struggle between Athens and Sparta for the hegemony of the Greek world, did not end until the surrender of Athens to Lysander in 404. The work is remarkable chiefly for its analysis of the causes that underlay the events recorded. In this respect Thucydides was the first and remains the greatest of philosophical historians. His History contains some fine descriptive passages, and in the substantially authentic summaries of speeches attributed to various prominent men on both sides, some magnificent declamations.
I--THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR
I have written the account of the war between Athens and Sparta, since it is the greatest and most calamitous of all wars hitherto to the Greeks. For the contest with the Medes was decided in four battles; but this war was protracted over many years, and wrought infinite injury and bloodshed.
Of the immediate causes of the war the first is to be found in the affairs of Epidamnus, Corcyra and Corinth, of which Corcyra was a colony. Of the Greek states, the most were joined to either the Athenian or the Peloponnesian league, but Corcyra had joined neither. But having a quarrel with Corinth about Epidamnus, she now formed an alliance with Athens, which enraged the Corinthians.
They then helped Potidaea, a Corinthian colony but an Athenian tributary, to revolt from Athens. Corinth next appealed to Sparta, as the head of Hellas, to intervene ere it should be too late and check the Athenian aggression, which threatened to make her the tyrant of all Greece. At Sparta, the war party prevailed, although Archidamus urged that sufficient pressure could be brought to bear without hostilities.
The great prosperity and development of Athens since the Persian war had filled other states with fear and jealousy. She had rebuilt her city walls and refortified the port of Piraeus after the Persian occupation; Sparta had virtually allowed her to take the lead in the subsequent stages of the war, as having the most effective naval force at command. Hence she had founded the Delian league of the maritime states, to hold the seas against Persia. At first these states provided fixed contingents of ships and mariners; but Athens was willing to accept treasure in substitution, so that she might herself supply ships and men.
Thus the provision of forces by each state to act against Persia was changed in effect into a tribute for the expansion of the Athenian fleet. The continuous development of the power of Athens had been checked only momentarily by her disastrous Egyptian expedition. Her nominal allies found themselves actually her tributary dependencies, and various attempts to break free from her yoke had made it only more secure and burdensome.
Hence the warlike decision of Sparta was welcomed by others beside Corinth. But diplomatic demands preceded hostilities. Sparta and Athens sent to each other summons for the 'expulsion of the curse,' that is of all persons connected with certain families which lay under the curse of the gods.
In the case of Athens, this amounted to requiring the banishment of her greatest citizen and statesman, Pericles. To this the Spartans added the demand that the Athenians should 'restore the freedom of Hellas,' and should specifically remove certain trading disabilities imposed on the people of Megara.
At this crisis Pericles laid down the rules of policy on which Athens ought to act-rules which required her to decline absolutely to submit to any form of dictation from Sparta. When a principle was at stake, it made no difference whether the occasion was trivial or serious. Athens could face war with confidence. Her available wealth was far greater-a matter of vital importance in a prolonged struggle. Her counsels were not divided by the conflicting interests of allies all claiming to direct military movements and policy. Her fleet gave her command of the sea, and enabled her to strike when and where she chose. If Peloponnesian invaders ravaged Attica, still no permanent injury would be done comparable to that which the Athenians could inflict upon them. The one necessity was to concentrate on the war, and attempt no extension of dominion while it was in progress.
War was not yet formally declared when the Thebans attempted to seize Plataea, a town of Boeotia, which had long been closely allied to Athens. The attempt failed, and the Thebans were put to death; but the Plataeans appealed to Athens for protection against their powerful neighbour, and when the Athenian garrison was sent to them this was treated as a casus belli.
PREPARATIONS were urged on on both sides; Sparta summoned her allies to muster their contingents on the Isthmus for the invasion of Attica, nearly all the mainland states joining the Peloponnesian league. The islanders and the cities in Asia Minor, on the other hand, were nearly all either actually subject to Athens or in alliance with her.
As Pericles advised, the Athenians left the country open to the ravages of the invading forces, and themselves retired within the city. In spite of the resentment of those who saw their property being laid waste, Pericles maintained his ascendancy, and persuaded the people to devote their energies to sending out an irresistible fleet and to establishing a great reserve both of ships and treasure, which were to be an annual charge and brought into active use only in the case of dire emergency. The fleet sailed round the Peloponnese, and the ravages it was able to inflict, with the alarm it created, caused the withdrawal of the forces in Attica.
In that winter Pericles delivered a great funeral oration, or panegryic, in memory of the Athenians who had so far fallen gloriously in defence of their country, in which he painted the characteristic virtues of the Athenian people in such a fashion as to rouse to the highest pitch the patriotic pride of his countrymen, and their confidence in themselves and in their future.
Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I