Sunday, November 20, 2016

TFBT: Review of Thucydides

At the Kosmos Society 1 the Attica Greek study-group is translating excerpts of Xenophon’s 
Anabasis .2  The book is about the campaign of Cyrus the Younger, to wrestle the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II.  Meanwhile the Book Club this month is Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. Both books cover the same historical period and often the same characters.  Thucydides loses by this comparison.

Thucydides briefly describe the fifty years between the end of the Persian Wars and Peloponnesian War. As I am reading his rapid description of who attacked whom when, I thought, “Are these people crazy?” But then I recalled Nestor’s speechs about the war at Pylos and with the Amazons. Thucydides people sound like and behave like Thucydides. Of course Nestor is a better story teller.

The whole war started with a civil strife in the community of Potidaea.  It was sort of the Archduke Ferdinand of the Peloponnesian War. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy with the Athenians and Potidaea.  Worried that the Potidaeans might revolt, the Athenians demanded they tear down their walls, so the Potidaeans had to revolt and ask Sparta for help.

The Spartans visit Delphi and ask about attacking Athens. The god says yes, and that he will be with them. Pericles gives an incredibly vain and arrogant eulogy.  Apparently he did know about hubris or knew about the opening of the Iliad and anger   Apollo. The Spartans enter Attica and Apollo’s bow starts shooting shafts of plague into the city.  Within the year of Pericles famous speech he, all his family and a large portion of the Athenians were dead by Apollo's shafts. 


  • “Spartan feeling was at that time very friendly towards Athens on account of the patriotism which she had displayed in the struggle with the Mede.”  What's Patriotism mean here?
  • General Pausanias, Sparta Governor of Byzantium and brutal liberator of the Ionians was charged with many things.  “The charge of Medism formed one of the principal, and to all appearance one of the best founded articles against him."  So what does Medism mean?

Interesting tid-bits:

  • So, according to Xenophon, 80 years after the fall of Troy the Dorians and Heraclides became masters of Peloponnesia
  • There were no navies of any account in Hellas until the expedition of Xerxes
  • Sparta had the same government for 400 years
  • The statue of Athena in the Parthenon contained forty talents of pure gold in her jewelry and it was all removable.”

Our Book Club is studying the first two books of Thucydides history.  I won’t be reading any further.


  1.  Formerly Hour 25, but still an online community for classical studies
  2. From  John William White's  First Greek Book) 



  1. Agatha Christie once wrote that two people rarely see the same thing. Reading your verdict over Pericles' eulogy, I think that two people also rarely read the same text :-).

    I do not see the eulogy vain or arrogant. (It has nasty bits about women, but we could hardly expect more from an Athenian of that age.) I see the words of a leader reminding his people about their common values, in perfect awareness that neither he nor any member of his audience had much chance of survival. It is good that Thucydides wrote it down for readers of later ages who would share some of the same values.

    For the record, the war did not end with the death of Pericles but lasted for a quarter of a century more, and Spartans eventually won only by making a despicable alliance with the Persians. As for Potidaea - from Wikipedia: "The Athenians retook the city in 363 BC, but in 356 BC Potidaea fell into the hands of Philip II of Macedon. Potidaea was destroyed and its territory handed to the Olynthians." What did the Potidaeans think, that Sparta would always be there with nothing else to do than babysit them? (Modern Europeans have the same delusion about America.)

    I think that Athens was making clumsy efforts to create an empire - or maybe a nation state - by forcibly incorporating "allies" and imposing on them taxation without representation. I suppose it could be successful after all, had there been no Sparta.

  2. Until quite recent times, cultural development offered no protection from the shafts of Apollo and even increased vulnerability by increasing population density. Every major outbreak killed disproportionately agricultural and urban communities. Of course, war only made things worse. But I do not think Athens could have peace - peace, like tango, requires two. Even Thucydides, who is clearly biased against Athens, thinks that it was impossible to preserve peace because Sparta feared and envied Athens.

  3. Maya,

    "Dense Unsanitary Population = Plague" How come it takes people so long to figure that out?


  4. It's more complex.
    Dense population brings plague, but sparse population brings worse, that is, enslavement or extermination by dense populations.
    Greeks did what they could to prevent water-borne infections by mixing water with wine. Better sanitation would be hardly possible at that time, and even if it were, it would be a double-edged sword. In modern times before the polio vaccine, sanitation made polio worse by delaying the first encounter with the virus.
    Disinfection and pest control require chemistry. I do not know whether ancient Greeks even had a concept and word for chemistry. My characters call it "transformation of substances".

    1. Maya,

      In Pericles case, the population density was caused by brining everyone (and their sheep) into Athens. Letting everyone stay on their farms and confronting the Spartans in the field might have been a better choice Regardless hiding behind the walls was a losing strategy.


    2. But, if I have understood correctly, Athenians had no army that could be a match to the Spartans on dry land. They relied on their navy.

    3. Maya,

      On several occasions Athens and company won lands battles (not the war or the battle the next day) but I find no numbers listed. All the boats were filled with soldiers who could have been defending Athens if they chose the strategy. Thucydides says the Athenanians were most affected by the plague with little affect on anyone else. Nor does Thucydides mention Sparta suffering from attacks on its helot farmers


  5. I came across your relevant comment at the Hour25 forum ("I just read the famous eulogy by Pericles. Apparently the boy didn’t know about hubris. Look what happen to him shortly thereafter!").
    I hadn't look at things from this angle. I thought that, to any American reader, Pericles' eulogy would resonate with "...of the people, by the people, for the people...". (Of course, Lincoln can also be accused in hubris and also didn't end well.)

    Pericles has much right to glorify Athens. Homer aside, it is mainly the Athenian culture that interests people to this day. Do you think that boasting is always hubris, even if 100% true? Did Achilles commit an unforgivable offense by claiming to be the best warrior among the Achaeans? Did Ajax the Great deserve his death from the moment when he applied for the prize? Did Niobe doom her children by praising them, before even mentioning Leto?

  6. Maya,

    My opinion on Hubris has little significance. It is what the gods think is that hubris is unforgiveable. You don't want to make the gods envious! Achilles brag is acceptable because they built him to be the best. Niobe bragging about her children all the time probably irritated everyone around for miles.. Remember, lghtning only hits the high places.


  7. "It is what the gods think is that hubris is unforgiveable. You don't want to make the gods envious!"

    Maybe Pericles, like many other Athenian intellectuals of his time, was an atheist and didn't care about the envy of gods. He may actually have been a better atheist than me, because I fear bragging about my children (and, to a lesser extent, other good things I have).

  8. Maya,

    You are so smart, you learned from Niobe's mistake.