THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
The rivalry between two of the dominant city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, erupted into a war lasting nearly 30 years and was to have a dramatic effect on the balance of power in the area. Between 431 and 404 BCE, the two cities battled it out on land and sea, aided by their alliances with neighbouring states: Athens’ Delian League vigorously opposed Sparta’s Peloponnesian League in a conflict which effectively involved the whole region. Thucydides, in his role as an Athenian general, saw the war from close quarters, and his famous account of it, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding early histories. He observes in considerable detail the way in which the fortunes of war swung one way and then another. Sparta, known for its vigorous martial training, was expert especially in land battles while Athens, very much a centre of high culture and trade, was known for expertise in sea warfare. Bringing their forces together had proved crucial in the defeat of the invading Persian army 50 years earlier. In his remarkable work, Thucydides explains what happened when these two proud states came to war: conflict became inevitable when Sparta became increasingly concerned with the growing power and dominance of the Athenian empire in the region. This is essentially a military history – tactics and armoury are much in evidence; but it is full of with other important details including portraits and speeches of key figures such as Pericles (the funeral oration given in Athens to mark the dead in the first year of the war) and accounts of such controversial figures as the Athenian general Alcibiades. He recounts the disastrous Sicilian Expedition during which a strong Athenian force was virtually destroyed. But Thucydides also describes the destructive effect of war on ordinary citizens, diseases devastating both the civilian and military populations, atrocities committed by both sides; and the effect of political decisions made far behind the battle fronts which altered the progress of the war. Thucydides’ History, divided into eight books, ends abruptly in 410 BCE, six years before the conclusion of hostilities, suggesting his sudden death. It is unlikely he ever saw the final defeat of Athens by Sparta in a naval battle, the destruction of the walls of Athens and the ultimate victory of the Peloponnesian League. Nevertheless, his History remains a vivid portrayal of a vicious and unrelenting war lasting nearly three decades between neighbouring rivals. Presented here in the classical translation by Benjamin Jowett, it is read with engaging immediacy by Mike Rogers.
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