Why I Like to Read Thucydides

There are several reasons why I especially enjoy reading Thucydides, which is true now as it was when I first read it in my freshman year at the community college. For this reading response, I want to lay out several reasons why this is the case. First, Thucydides is a major classical writer, who deliberately leaves out any grand account of gods. In comparison to the previous writers, starting with Homer and reaching to the later tragedy writers Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, one constant theme is that the gods are battling with each other and manipulate humans to also be part of the conflict. While these earlier writers do reveal very important human characteristics, one can easily confound them with higher, supernatural forces that we mortals can not easily explain. Thucydides, however, reveals to us that human conflict arises from our political and economic desires. The root of the Pelepennesian War is the conflict between conservative-aristocratic Sparta (Lacaedemonians) and imperialist-democratic Athens. Athens is described as having imperial ambitions that require the conquest and occupation of more territories, which produces conflicts with neighboring states that feel threatened from Athenian expansionism. It is human vice that stands front and center, and not the gods’ vices. This is very reminiscent to the current foreign political and military struggles that plague the world, and make Thucydides all the more relevant.

The second theme is what Ludwig von Rochau called ‘Realpolitik’. Thucydides uses both descriptive accounts of what the various actors have done to escalate the war, and speeches to amplify the prevailing moods about particular actions of war. He shows how statesmen scheme, plan and plot, in order to gain the greatest advantage to one side. But Thucydides is also not blind to the dialectics that develops in the war. Athens soon after starting the war suffered from a horrible plague. It embarked on an expedition in Sicily, only to discover failure and defeat. Sparta soon after winning the Peleponnesian War disintegrated into oblivion. Realpolitik as a theme, undergirding the policy-making process, makes human interaction on a grand scale very interesting to study. It poses possibilities for statesmen in terms of what can and can not be done. But even strict adherence to it can bring about no positive outcome, because perceived temporary advantages turn out to be long-term mistakes. Realpolitik tells us that human nature is guided by reason. But historians like Thucydides remind us that even reason can bring down empires and kill many people. The possibilities and limitations of careful state politics is revealed.

The third theme is Thucydides’ interesting approach to history. In the Oresteia and Socrates we are shown how outstanding individuals, Orestes/Agamemnon/Clytaemnestra or Socrates, play the major role and shape the narrative of either a country or a city. In Thucydides none of that exists. Of course, there are some interesting statesmen like Pericles, who led the Athenians to war and plotted their strategy. But even the most outstanding individuals are embedded in larger social, political, cultural and economic forces. Thucydides discussed themes like conflict and harmony among social classes (especially in Athens), the role of wealth creation in empire building, the inherent conflict between oligarchy and democracy, the cultural contrast between Athenian freedom and Spartan modesty, and the contrast between power and weakness. Thucydides gave later writers and historians a way of thinking about and framing important events, such as wars, or processes, such as the rise of trade and capitalism (more contemporary).

This is why I find Thucydides so interesting to study.

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