Tragedy and the Peloponnesian War


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and a general. He recounted the history of the war between Sparta and Athens. In his narrative, he proposed the idea that fate has many strange twists and turns, and can turn strength against the strong and bring the mighty down. So, what was the Peloponnesian War about?

Map showing the walled boundaries of Athens during the war.
The war between Athens and Sparta, and their allies, lasted for almost 30 years. (Image: U.S. Army Cartographer/Public domain)

It was a war between Athens and her allies, and Sparta and her allies, and it lasted almost 30 years—from 431–404.

The war was devastating. It enabled the spread of plagues, starvation, ruined the Greek world’s economies, several cities, and ended with the Spartans in charge of a kind of petty tyranny over much of Greece, supported by the Persians.

Thucydides’s Account of the War

A sculpture of Thucydides.
Thucydides was an Athenian general and philosopher. (Image: Kizel Cotiw-an/ Shutterstock)

Thucydides’s account bears all the marks of a work attempting to see in history a tragedy, though with some differences.

Thucydides believes in the accidental nature of things. He does not believe in determinism. Along with this, he is completely convinced that history always repeats itself, that the fundamental conditions of human interaction, the mix of motives and modes of apprehension that together make up human nature, don’t change.

This why, he says at the very beginning of his book, that he is writing to offer lessons for people who will be in the same situation as he was at some point in the future.

Learn more about Greek philosophy-human evil and malice.

Current Relevance of Thucydides’s Account

Seemingly, for this reason Thucydides’s book, even today, is taught at the Naval Academy, at West Point, and a number of people have drawn connections between the story of an empire gained by bravery being turned into something that becomes oppressive to some people.

One thing about his work that strikes as relevant is that when he talks about the idea of states’ or people’s motivations, he identifies one important theme that remains pertinent for us today—namely, the human psyche in war is slowly deformed by the pressure of constant fear.

Fear: A Common Factor

Indeed, the war itself, he thought, is caused by misunderstanding and, especially, fear. After the Persian Wars, Athens grew increasingly powerful, eventually gaining hegemony over most of the rest of Greece. The Spartans feared for their own independence, and the growing tension between Athens’s hegemony and Sparta’s fear eventually led to the war.

Once the war is started, it takes on a life of its own and begins to master the combatants. Both sides expected a quick victory, but neither gets it. Both bear with the war, however, hoping it will exhaust the other side before it exhausts their own. Neither considers the moral costs of the war—the damage and deformation it will do to their souls.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Case of Melos Island

The classic case of this is the famous story at the end of Book 5 of The Peloponnesian War. Melos was a tiny island of no strategic importance in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It was a neutral in the war. A military group of Athenians met with the leaders of Melos and asked to have control of the island, and for the Melians to ally themselves with Athens.

This was why the Athenians viewed why this should happen: If we don’t take control of your island and city, others will see our not doing so as a sign of our weakness. Indeed, if you simply declare yourselves neutral between us and Sparta, others will say, “The Athenians couldn’t get them on their side, so they must be weaker than we thought; therefore, we should try to resist the Athenians more.” Because we don’t want that you must become our allies.

The Melians’s Appeal

The Melians could see that they could not appeal to the Athenians’s sense of justice. So they appealed instead to setting a good example. They said to the Athenians, “Don’t mistreat us because what goes around comes around, and if you mistreat us, it will be done in turn to you.

To this the Athenians replied, “That’s our belief, too, but there’s no way to avoid this fate.” The key for Athenians was that might outweighs right.

Thucydides views this as that God is not fundamentally the arbiter of justice, rather God is the “patterner of power applied”.  The law, the Athenians told the Melians, is what the strong impose and what the weak must acquiesce to.

Learn more about Greece-tragedy and the Peloponnesian War.

The Aftermath of the Melians’ Refusal

But, the Melians refused the Athenians’s offer. Consequently, the Athenians besieged the Melians and took the island. The city was taken over, its men killed and women and children enslaved. With time, the Athenians replaced the Melians on the island of Melos.

After this event in Thucydides’s story, things began to get bad for the Athenians, and they suffered a string of defeats and eventually lost the war. Thucydides’s take on this is different. While other historians read the Athenians’s defeat as in some sense morally deserved by what they had done during the war, Thucydides did not.

Athens lost the Peloponnesian War. (Image: Ward/Public domain)

He does not suggest that their defeat was because of their cruelty to the Melians rather, it is that, as they predicted that cruelty was done to them, not as payback, but as the inevitable chaos and randomness of life.

Why Does Evil Happen?

Is evil or cruelty wholly a matter of circumstance and accident? The Athenians in civilian life would never have imagined that one day they would effectively exterminate an entire island’s population, not because of any strategic importance but only because of the fear of what other people would think if they didn’t do it. Yet, that’s just what they did.

Thucydides doesn’t read this as revealing some sort of absolute brutality at the heart of all humans that’s finally unleashed in situations of war. His point is that people in certain contexts will behave in certain ways. Character has little to do with it; but the necessity of a context seems to outweigh the noble sentiments of moral character.

Is Evil Accidental by Nature?

For Thucydides, the key is that when it comes to thinking about evil, there is no simple or straightforward moral order; all our moral actions are subject to dramatic reversal or deformation, and there are no guarantees that the human’s moral sincerity will not turn out to be destructive or even self-destructive.

He also introduces into the Western consciousness the idea of the accident– the possibility that evil and suffering may well have no cause at all as an intentional purposeful act, whether of a human being or of some callous divinity in paradise.

Common Questions about Tragedy and the Peloponnesian War

Q: Who fought the Peloponnesian War and when was it fought?

The Peloponnesian War was fought between Athens and her allies, and Sparta and her allies. It lasted almost 30 years—from 431–404.

Q: Who was Thucydides?

Thucydides was an Athenian philosopher and general. He wrote his account of the Peloponnesian War.

Q: Why did the Athenians want Melos to become their ally?

The Athenians wanted Melos to become their ally because if Melos stayed neutral it would taken as a sign of Athens’s weakness.

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