Thucydides Analysis Essay

Within the scope of this research, we will analyze and critique the arguments presented by Forde in his article, which is devoted to Thucydides’ work. According to Forde, Thucydides felt strongly that Sparta had invaded the Athenian countryside in spring 431 because “they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them”. (Forde, 1986) Of course, there were various other more immediate pretexts for war–Athens had imposed economic sanctions against Megara, a Spartan ally; both sides sought to draw a neutral island of Corcyra into their respective alliances; they each quarreled over the loyalty of the key northern city of Potidaea; the Boeotians wished to eliminate the outpost city of Plataea that brought fear of Athenian imperialism to their doorstep. And so on.

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But, as Forde suggests, Thucydides stuck to his thesis about the «clash of civilizations» believing that there were larger underlying differences between the two powers–perhaps not always perceptible to Athenians and Spartans themselves–that would ensure the more immediate and minor disagreements would eventually lead to a cataclysm. (Forde, 1986) After all, if Sparta ignored the pretexts of Corinthian and Megarian grievances, the sheer dynamism of Pericles’ imperial culture–majestic buildings, drama, comedy, intellectual fervor, an immense fleet, radical democratic government, an expanding population, and a growing overseas empire–would eventually spread throughout the Peloponnese and offer incentives to Sparta’s friends that she could not hope to match. (Forde, 1986)

Many scholars argue over Thucydides’ glum appraisal that war was inevitable and overrode what individual Spartan and Athenian leaders might do or not do in any given crisis. Yet few now question his keen appraisal that states can war over ideas, perceptions, fears, and honor as well as particular material grievances. Forde believes that Thucydides considered that Sparta’s fault in breaking the peace of 431 was not so much that it was culpable in any given context, but rather it was all too human–and thus prone to all the wild emotions that sometimes make men do what is not in either their own or the general interest.

Forde further claims that the Peloponnesian War itself proved to be a colossal paradox. (Forde, 1986) Sparta had the most feared infantry in the Greek world. Yet it was Sparta’s newly created navy that finally won the great battles of the war. Democratic Athens sent almost 40,000 allied soldiers to their deaths trying to capture far-off Syracuse, the largest democracy in the Greek world–even as thousands more of her enemies were to plunder her property with impunity less than twenty miles outside her walls from the base at Decelea. (Forde, 1986)

Alcibiades at times proved the savior of Athens, Sparta, and Persia–and their collective spoiler as well. Athens started the war off with gold piled high in its majestic Parthenon; it ended the conflict broke and unable even to flute the final columns of the Propylae, the monumental gateway to the still unfinished temples on the acropolis. Sparta fielded the most terrifying army in Greece, and yet most of its opponents fell not in pitched battle, but rather either to disease, at sea, or in guerrilla-style killing. Pericles planned the war and reminded his countrymen of what was required to see them through, but he did not even survive the conflict’s third year–a victim of a plague that he helped to induce by ordering all of Athens’s rural population to evacuate inside the crowded city’s walls.

Forde tells that philosopher Socrates had doubts about democratic Athens’s hubris and megalomania, but not enough reluctance to prevent him from fighting heroically in her cause in his potbellied middle age, while Thucydides used the broad message of the war’s senselessness to explore his bleak views about human nature, but no Athenian fought more unquestioningly and without cynicism in service to his country. (Forde, 1986)

No ancient war–not Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the grandiose invasions of Alexander the Great, or Hannibal’s romp into Italy–is more contradictory than the three decades of intramural fighting between Athens and Sparta: a land versus maritime power; the starkness of the Dorians contrasted with Ionian liberality; oligarchy pitted against democracy; ostentatious wealth set against practiced dearth; a majestic imperial city dethroned by a rural hamlet; and a humane imperialism that killed the innocent even as a garrison state championed the cause of state autonomy abroad. No wonder classicists tend to avoid it all and prefer to publish on its bits and pieces–treaties, generals, decrees, finances, rhetoric, and the like. It is all too big and confusing, and so by our experts in desperation better relegated to a single paragraph of twenty-one lines.

Forde set out to chronicle Thucydides’ argument in all its complexity. He asked practical questions about the financing of the war, criticized Pericles’ judgment, and occasionally labeled Thucydides a revisionist whose sober grand assessments did not always reflect the data of his own narrative. (Forde, 1986) Forde’s greatest achievement was to remind us of the personal element in war–what Thucydides himself called «the human thing» (Thucydides, 1954) It is not always cosmic ideas or profit and ideology that start wars, but rather very human urges of real people transferred to a grand scale–urges like honor, fear, prestige, and perceived (rather than real) grievances. The result is that his Peloponnesian War, like Thucydides’ own, serves a wider didactic purpose than the preservation of old facts and ancient men’s lives.

Forde’s argument reminds us that fickle and weak people often say one thing precisely so that they can act on another. For Forde, Sparta was no more doomed to go to war than Hitler needed Lebensraum. (Forde, 1986) Sparta went to war primarily because it thought it might win a cheap victory over an imperial Athens, and thereby increase it stature without much cost. Thebes attacked Plataea not simply because it posed a danger but because it offered an opportunity–an opportunity more psychological than material. Britain needed the Falklands no more than did Argentina, but the dictatorship of the latter saw a chance for a quick cheap victory that could placate domestic unrest, while England for its future security could not afford the dangerous precedent of letting a second-rate power attack a great nation with impunity. States then do, as Forde reminds us, fight over perceptions and professions (prophaseis)–not always for sheep and rocky windswept islands in the South Atlantic. (Forde, 1986)


Forde, S. Thucydides on the Causes of Athenian Imperialism. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 433-448.
Thucydides (Author), M. I. Finley (Introduction), Rex Warner (Translator). The History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin Classics, 1954.
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