Sunday, June 11, 2006

Book Review: History of the Peloponnesian War

I have read two things today which I strongly recommend. One described a current set of problem and the other covered a set of events nearly two and a half thousand years ago, but both are very relevant today. The first was Bryan Appleyard's superb assessment of the climate change debate for which see my next post. But I have also been reading Thucydides "The History of the Peloponnesian War".

So why am I risking my street cred by plugging a book written more than 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ ?

Who do I think would benefit by reading this book?

Anyone who wants to understand how free societies can descend into tyranny -

Anyone who does not realise that merely holding free elections is not enough to preserve a society worth living in, especially if you don't combine democracy with the rule of law -

Anyone who needs to understand how two or more nations can stumble into a war devastating to both -

Anyone who imagines that genocide and ethnic cleansing were limited to our own era -

Anyone intersted in reading one of the first works of true history ever written.

If I had to nominate one historical work for my son and daughter to read, I would think carefully between this volume, Suetonius's "The 12 Caesars", and Herodotus's "Histories", but Thucydides "History of the Peloponnesian war" would edge it.

There are many editions of the book, and I have been reading the Wordsworth Classics version which was translated by Richard Crawley and has an excellent introduction by Lorna Hardwick.

You cannot take every word in this book for granted, but Herodotus and Thucydides came closer to an objective search for truth than any writer whose works survive and was writing before them or for centuries afterwards.

The story of the tragic wars, initially between Athens and Sparta, which decimated Greek civilisation between 431BC and 404 BC is absolutely gripping, and Thucydides brings the story to life for me.

The most irritating thing about Thucydides' book is that it stops suddenly in the middle of a sentence in 411 BC, shortly after the overthrow of democracy in Athens and the Athenian naval victory at the Dardanelles. E.g. well before the actual resolution of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, let alone the subsequent struggle between both cities and Thebes.

If, like me, this leaves you wanting to learn more about what happened next, your best bet is to read Xenophon's "A history of my times" which was deliberately written to follow on from Thucydides, to such an extent that it actually starts with the words "And after this."

The reputation of Xenophon among historians as a reliable source has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, and he is undoubtedly not in the same class as Thucydides as a historian, but he is in the same class as a storyteller and he does complete the story of the war.

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