What is remarkable about the book is that it is so modern. The events recorded cover a period in which Athens, mostly from sheer hubris, went from Empire to defeat. As such there are interesting parallels with the present situation in which the oligarchical Brexiteers hark back to the days of the British Empire in order to persuade the citizens of Britain to take risks. Let us hope that the results are not as devastating for the British as they were for the Athenians.
Thucydides has a very modern point of view. He is realpolitikal:
- “Men secure peace by using their power justly but by making it clear that they will not allow others to wrong them.” (1.71)
- “It has always been a law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” (1.76)
- “Where force can be used, law is not needed.” (1.77)
- “Bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority.” (3.37)
- “Ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows.” (3.37)
- “Three failings most fatal to empire - pity, sentiment, and indulgence.” (3.40)
- “The question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength ... the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.” (5.89)
But he is also good at the psychology behind democratic politics:
- “Men seem to resent injustice more than violence; the former is regarded as unfair advantage taken by an equal, the latter is compulsion applied by a superior.” (1.77)
- “It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter.” (1.78)
- “Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking.” (book 2)
- “Villainy is sooner called clever than simplicity good, and men in general are proud of cleverness and ashamed of simplicity.” (3.82)
- “The secret of this was the general extraordinary success, which made them confuse their strength with their hopes.” (4.65)
- “It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use reason arbitrarily to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” (4.108)
The battle tactics include a perceptive observation about:
- How men fight:because the shield was held on the left arm making the right side more vulnerable the hoplite armies tended to swerve towards the right; this, he suggests, was because the man on the extreme right tended to move right leaving his neighbour's right exposed so he moved right, and so on.
- Disinformation: “Fire-signals of an attack were also raised towards Thebes; but the Plataeans in the town at once displayed a number of others, prepared beforehand for this very purpose, in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible, and to prevent his friends getting a true idea of what was passing.” (3.22)
- Geophysics: “About the same time that these earthquakes were so common, the sea at Orobiae, in Euboea, retiring from the then line of coast, returned in a huge wave and invaded a great part of the town, and retreated some of it still under water, so that what was once land is now sea; the inhabitants who could not reach the higher ground in time were drowned.” (3.89)
Other great lines:
- “My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession, not the show-piece of an hour.” (1.22)
- “They [Athenians] were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.” (1.70)
- “We are wise because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them.” (1.84)
OK, it got a bit tedious when there was yet another battle in a place whose name I failed to recognise but this is a problem I have with all war histories. Otherwise it was surprisingly readable.
March 2019; I read it on holiday in Greece travelling from Athens to Delphi, Olympia, and Nafplion; it was a little disappointing to drive past Sparta but at least I was on the Peloponnese.