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 was known for its vigorous martial training, expert especially in land battles and Athens, very much a centre of high culture and known for successful sea battles - the combination proved crucial in defeating the Persian invasion 50 years earlier. 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 - though it is replete with other important details including portraits and speeches of key figures such as Pericles (the funeral oration given to mark the dead in the first year of the war) and the controversial Athenian general Alcibiades. But Thucydides also describes the destructive effect of war on ordinary citizens, the atrocities committed by both sides, disease, the effect of rain and storms, the influence of power blocs, military overconfidence and political decisions made well behind the battle fronts which interfered with the progress and success of the war.
He recounts the disastrous Sicilian Expedition where a strong Athenian force was virtually destroyed at Syracuse. Thucydides’ History, divided into eight books, ends abruptly in 410 BCE, six years before the conclusion of hostilities, suggesting his 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.