The Landmark Thucydides

ISBN: 0684827905

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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20 thoughts on “The Landmark Thucydides”

  1. Great review of a TRUE classic. Reading Thucydides IS challenging but as you said worth the effort. I also recommend the audio version.

  2. There is a set of lectures on ancient greek history from yale that I really enjoyed. I believe you can only get it on itunes now.

  3. Cool review Roosh…You must then read Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire”. Historical fiction. About the battle of Thermopylae from the Spartan perspective. Read all his (Pressfield’s ) stuff.

  4. Also “The Iliad” by Homer the Stephen Mitchell translation. There are dozens of translations of this but the most recent by Stephen Mitchell is the most readable and it would qualify as a “big ass book”. Got good reviews in the WSJ i believe.

  5. I read this a few years back. I loved the Melian dialogue. Some moving words in that particular section.
    And check it out: Thucydides is #8 on the “most influential shit ever written” list.

  6. Excellent Review. I just finished reading “The power broker” by Robert Caro. That’s another big book (like 1200 pages), about Robert Moses who built a ton of public works in NY. Its pretty awesome that a man can have that much power, yet be unknown to the public (or at least until that book was published).

  7. In political science you have a theory called realism, which states that international relations it is all about power and that idealism does not really exist (or should). Well, thucydid is pretty much the founder, and the melian dialogoue exemplifies it the best: the powerfull do what they want, and the weak accepts what they must.

  8. One current writer with an excellent grasp of the politics of classical Greece and how they relate to 21st century America is Victor Davis Hansen. One of his books I admire is “The Western Way of War” that posits that the the innovations of Greece showed how to conquer and endure – because its soldiers and sailors have a personal interest in the outcome as citizens who will share in victory or defeat.
    He also did “A War Like No Other” as a commentary on “The History Of The Peloponnesian War” – he even tells you how the war ends!

  9. The Greats of the past were just incomparable to us.New Greeks are midgets compared to our ancient forefathers from every aspect.
    Thukydides writes in great style which you can appreciate if you know classical Greek language. The guy is masterclass in written speech noone comes even close in accuracy and historical objective description. I can identify with much of what he wrote about since I have been in the places.The Athenians had early discovered the benefits of free trade, naval power and promoted democratic forces compliant to them all over Greece.The Spartans on the other hand were extreme right conservatists faithful to land forces.The guys trained for war during all their lives.War was their only occupation and the productivity in their economy relied on labor of slaves.Spartans had such high ethics and morality and such aversion to material benefits that they did not allow gold and silver to enter Sparta.They used coins so big and heavy that they were impossible to carry so that corruption would be reduced to minimum.They followed the same laws written centuries ago and had oligarchy and 2 Kings.Athenians on the other hand were fully committed to material plasures and wealth and had gathered the biggest treasure of that time in Athens (10000 golden talanta, worth of billions today).Most of their wealth was gathered by contributions of their allies as obligatory tax since Athenians were supposed to protect them by their naval forces from Perses.
    The war began after Spartans and their allied promised to the Athenian allied to relieve them from tax and Athenian hegemony.
    What followed is rather interesting since it was a momental collision of:
    1.Naval superiority vs land forces superiority(same as in WW2 between Germany and
    British Empire)
    2.Democracy vs oligarchy (with few areas having still Kings as remaints of the past and still participating in the battle as ally of the one side or the other)
    3.Money and material wealth vs strong ethics, morality, physical strength (the average Spartan was able to carry a 50 Kg armour by continuous exercise and thismade him unpenetrable to the enemy)
    4.A lot of cases where city states had to choose between supporting their relatives (collonial source) vs the ones who shared more close political views or had more common interests.Typical case was Corfu which though it was a wealthy colony of Corinth which was ally of Sparta chose to ally with Athens and actually from this started the Peloponesian war since the oligarch Corfu inhabitants who were exiled called mother city Corinth for help, Corinth sent navy brought back the oligarchs and then the Democrats called Athens and Sparta intervened).
    5.The role of important individuals like Alkiviades or Brasidas who changed the course of things . Actually Alkiviades was largely responsible for the destruction of Athenian corps in Syrakusses which campaign was his idea but later caused Athenians acused him of blasphemy and did not allow him to participate in campaign as marshal went to Sparta and gave to Spartans precise advise what to do to annihilate the Athenian naval force.Alkiviades was a pupil and likely lover of Sokrates and was much popular among men and women in Athens for his appearance.
    Peloponesian war is rather interesting and its narrative by Thukydides super.The next part after Thukydides died was covered by Ksenophon and other writers but not in the same breath taking way.
    Civil war is still in the blood of Greeks.It has remained from the past.I cannot explain it but there is a desire to kill the population in your neighbour city.Greece had 3 civil wars during the 20th century and was quite a few times split.Local traditions and divisions are still strong.During revolution against Turks in the 19th century Greeks fought two wars at the same time, one against Turks and one civil war between themselves.I doubt if any other country has experienced this.As a nation Greeks are very rarely united we are always the one against the other.

  10. Why do you use BCE instead of the traditional BC? Why do you kiss YKW ass in this way? Otherwise a good review of a great book. It will be in the classics that we rediscover our collective manhood. Start with Homer.

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