The Landmark Thucydides is a modern translation of the History Of The Peloponnesian War, written in the fifth century BCE to document the war between Athens and Sparta. This is obviously no elementary work, but the editor has included many features to help make reading this book easier, such as explanatory headers, footnotes, maps, and margin summaries for every paragraph. The book was already rather readable, but the summaries were essential to get through difficult portions.
Athenians are characterized by Thucydides as daring innovators, always ready to conquer, while Sparta as old-fashioned conservatives who simply want to maintain what they have while preventing other city-states from gaining too much power. Make no mistake that Athens was an imperial empire, subjugating people and extracting tribute. At the same time they expressed a beloved concern for justice, they happily enslaved subjects that would dare question its rule.
Sparta goes to war with Athens as a check on their unquenchable thirst for more power in what ended up being a World War of its time, involving dozens of city-states and causing massive death and human suffering for nearly 30 years. The benefit of hindsight allows you to see great folly. In this book you see it performed mostly by the Athenians, who while overstretched and short on resources, still decided on a fateful invasion of Sicily. They were blinded by possible glory and conquest.
The highlight of the book was no question the invasion of Sicily. It was a campaign of the ages that involved huge land and sea battles between the Sicilian underdog and the overconfident Athenians. You want Athens to be defeated but at the same time you feel sympathy for its soldiers, who were put into a losing predicament by superstitious generals and incompetent statesmen.
I was even more impressed with the transcribed speeches of diplomats and generals. There are no snarky sound bites here or George W. Bush moments of idiocy, but persuasive oratory that was the main way of influence during that time. More than any other parts of the book, they make you wonder how little has really changed in 2,000 years. Their pretexts for going to war is almost identical to what we use today, and they also were hampered by factors that limited their ability to amass armies, raise capital, and effectively lead men into battle. In addition, we still see the same see-saw struggle between the people (masses) and oligarchy (rich).
I especially smiled at a 1984 moment when, halfway through the war, Sparta allies itself with Athens, and then a couple years later resumes fighting against them. We were always at war with Eastasia, not Eurasia. I wonder how the citizens reacted to a surprising partnership with a city they had been fighting for a decade.
My biggest complaint of the book is that every page seemed to introduce a dozen new tribes and city-states. A billion names will be thrown at you. I gave up trying to keep track of them all and instead sought to remember if they were on the side of Athens or Sparta, though many times a city played both sides or changed them repeatedly. The book is best when it narrates the battles instead of giving details of alliances. You’ll have to endure periods of numbing boredom to enjoy the relatively exciting bits.
I read the paperback and during that time I felt like I was being exposed to something profound, secrets of humanity and man that my feeble mind could barely grasp. The book put me through an intense mental journey in which I realized that the end, which took me over 30 hours to arrive at, was not the actual end (Thucydides died before completing the history). Eventually I’ll have to read further materials before I come to understand the history of this war and the Ancient Greek people. Thucydides gives you a great overview of the war, but you will have to invest quite a bit more time to extract additional value from it.
We tend to think of ancients as primitive people, but they had a firm grasp on governance, war strategy, and human psychology. The greats of the past understand much more than the proles of today. It makes you want to think about what we have lost compared to that which we have gained.
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