“They declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right”: Thucydides on the use of force among states





When we think of the contributions made by the ancient Greek, the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, the plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, or the historical thinking of Herodotus and Thucydides may come to or minds. Between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, Athens set the stage for unprecedented cultural developments in the history of humankind. However, we sometimes forget that the historical period in which these authors lived and produced their masterpieces was also a time of war and plague. Some way or other, all these authors participated in the Peloponnesian War. And the Athenians, who were a major power at the beginning of the conflict, emerged as the defeated party in the end.

The main source of information we have about the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ work known as the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides took an active part in the war as a general on the Athenian side. But after failing to protect a city, of strategic value for the Athenians, he lost his position as a general and was forced into exile. It is in the exile, then, that Thucydides writes the Peloponnesian War, seeking to take into consideration the accounts provided by all parties involved in the conflict. The text, though, remained unfinished. And it is unclear whether the order of chapters, as displayed in most modern editions, matches Thucydides’ original plan. It is not my intention here to examine the structure of the Peloponnesian War as a whole. My goal is far more modest: I intend to focus only on a few specific passages in which Thucydides discusses the causes of war and the reasons for violent conflict among human beings.


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