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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reading List: The Peloponnesian War, Vol. 1

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

Posted at May 10, 2008 18:23