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History of the Peloponnesian War

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History of the Peloponnesian War
By Thucydides. Translated into English by Richard Crawley. (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York: 2004. Pg. x, 422. Maps.) ISBN: 0-486-43762-0.

Reviewed by Simon Bonim - January 28, 2005

Richard Crawley's 1876 English translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War is precise and written in flowing narrative style that will makes this text well suited for the modern readers. Originally written in Greek by Thucydides, the History of the Peloponnesian War chronicles the 27-year civil war (431 B.C.E. - 404 B.C.E.) that was fought between the various Greek City-States with most factions aligning themselves with either the Athenian League or the Spartan Alliance. Thucydides was a failed Athenian general who was banished from Athens - giving him the opportunity and the freedom to write a history of the war that cost him is career. His former position enabled Thucydides to provide the reader with an insider's insights and with an eyewitness' precision.

Evidence exists that Thucydides understood the vast significance of the war early on and began, from the start, to gather information for the history of the war he planned to 'eventually' write. His failure to relieve the city of Amphipolis in, what his commanders deemed a reasonable time resulted in him being exiled from Athens, and which provided him with the opportunity to not only write his history, but also to watch the end of the war from the sidelines and spend his time gathering his research materials. The end result was a book that was as vast in scope as was the conflict. In addition, Thucydides' narrative is so riveting and unforgettable that you will need to remind yourself that you're reading a historical text! (Although I will admit that some passages are a bit dry, despite this excellent, modern translation of the text.)

Like a good historian, Thucydides provides background information that explains what he feels were the root causes of the conflict, how he evaluated the evidence he worked from, and why he felt that Athens was a great democracy. Thucydides is honest about being biased in favor of Athens. With this in mind, he consciously endeavored to provided as balanced an overview of the war, from all sides, that he could. Unlike many authors from this period, Thucydides took pains to ensure that his history was free of references to myth and non-historic literary episodes. In addition to a straight historical narrative and ongoing analysis, Thucydides' work also includes many marvelous speeches, such as the moral boosting speech given by the Athenian general Pericles.

The History of the Peloponnesian War is one of those perennial classics that should be read by everyone, both as a historical document and as an outstanding example of Western literature. It is also one of the few surviving records of this momentous period in Greek history. It is also mandatory reading for anyone with an interest in military history - ancient or modern. A word of warning, however, is required. Thucydides never finished his monumental history of the war. His book ends in the midst of the twenty-first year of the war. Why he did not finish the book is unknown. Ill health may have been a factor, or it is equally possible that he did finish the book, but the rest did not survive. It is unlikely that we will ever know the cause. Even the exact date of Thucydides death is not known. He is believed to have died around 400 B.C.E., and he was probably in his sixties at the time of his death. For those that 'must know the ending' - the Spartan's won, defeating Athens in 404 B.C.E.

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