What Should Everyone Learn From Thucydides

Classical antiquity seems to be a long-forgotten era from our time’s memory. Indeed, about 2.400 years have passed since the times of the Peloponnesian War, but since we are in the era of information and technology, we are – or rather should be – forbidden by nature to forget the knowledge of our classics.

Discussing Thucydides must include discussing his masterpiece History of the Peloponnesian War; a book that describes the war between Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) against Delian League (formed by Athens) between 431-404 BC. The war led to great losses for both sides and eventually the Spartans and their allies won the war.

painting of peloponnesian war

Painting of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is known as being the first „war correspondent” and one of the founding fathers of science. The book gathers along with descriptions of events, analysis, and other related information. One important thing to mention is that his work does not present any trace of God-work, therefore History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the first scientific works written in the history of mankind.

Today’s readers (including me) might find it difficult to read the ancients. Fortunately, there are several ways to introduce yourself to the greatness of Thucydides’ world.
In the following section, I will describe two important chapters from his writing and what I think is important for us to keep in mind from them in our everyday life.

First, let me introduce you to the Melian dialogue. Geography matters. Or, rather more significant, in Ancient Greece it was really (I mean really) important.
As I said earlier, we have Sparta versus Athens and its allies. Sounds familiar? We talk about a bipolar „international” system just as we saw in the 20th century between the USA and the USSR.
Not convinced? You can effectively swap Athens with the USA since both developed maritime military power while the USSR, just as Spartans did, focused on infantry and land military.

This point is decisive for understanding the importance of the Melos island: being Dorians (ethnically closer to Spartans rather than Athenians), they weren’t eager to go to war, but to preserve their neutrality.
Athenians, on the other side, were skeptical about their wish and tried to persuade Melians to accept surrender. The islanders were foolish enough to believe in the power of arguments instead of the power of facts. They tried to persuade Athens to leave them be, but their arguments were not realist and they had no chance to survive an invasion.

Melos was just too small and had too little military power to be able to keep its neutrality. After the argument was put on the table in such a rough manner, Melians called for justice and equality, but there cannot be equality between the two states.
As Athenian ambassadors said: „the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. In a rather proud and egotistical manner, Melians denied any further discussions and refused to surrender without a fight, hoping that they might have a slight chance of survival. But there was none, and the Spartans were practical enough not to interfere in the fight since they had no interest in it and Athens possessed better navy.

Then there is Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the speech that Pericles delivered at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War.


Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852)

In Ancient Greece, tradition demanded a great Athenian personality to give a speech about the glory and courage of the lost ones. Pericles was the one to give out the speech. It is highly unlikely that Thucydides wrote Pericles’ speech exactly in his words, but it is believed that he wanted to keep the essential parts of it alive.

Interestingly as it seems, Pericles also targeted women in his speech. Unlike our modern era, women had a hard life and they were seen generally as being equivalent to slaves.
In Ancient perception, women should keep their mouth shut and focus on their basic and daily activities while the great deeds are to be done only by men. Pericles told women that their lost children were unique and what was done couldn’t be undone, but they should make other children and give their attention to the ones who are still alive.

Pericles’ speech was motivational even though today it is hard to see it as such.
The ideas that he portrayed seem so basic when compared to Winston Churchill’s speeches, for example, but then again, we need to bear in mind that it was such a long time ago!
Indeed, when he tried to speak to women he did not treat them as equal to men, but including women in his speech is still an important matter, as it gives some insight into the fact that he was really trying to motivate the population of Athens and did everything he could to win the war.

But everything was in vain since Athens lost the war against Spartans.
What remained alive even nowadays is Thucydides’ work and there are some conclusions that can be drawn from it. Domination of the strongest is still a part of every aspect of our lives and, in order to become equal to them, one should always avoid idealism and hope for their arguments and actions. Equality cannot be obtained simply through the means of social norms or laws when there’s always one eager to put his „army on the table” to dominate them all.

Of course, things have changed a lot since the antiquity from our times, and progress is still desirable.
Today, women around the world have great significance in societies and there are international institutions that are protecting citizens from the „strong” ones. But, in my opinion, you should never start with „how things should be”, but always with „how things are”. To accept reality is to proceed with caution and with effective moves and strategies.

Domination is not meant for states only, but for our everyday life and I hope this short lesson will enlighten most of the readers and will change their perspective (a little, or a little more) into developing a greater and more effective attitude in their daily deeds.

Mircea Anghel
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