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date: 26 March 2017

Thucydides on the Causes and Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War

Abstract and Keywords

Thucydides repeatedly explains that the Peloponnesian War arose not simply from the specific grievances of this or that state but from a longer process of growing Athenian power that inspired fear among the Spartans, making the war inevitable. Thucydides’ balanced and richly detailed account has not convinced everyone, however. Many scholars investigating the war’s causes have disagreed with Thucydides’ thesis, typically using the historian’s own narrative to fix primary blame for the war on the Athenians or the Spartans, or more rarely casting the war’s outbreak in broader terms, with varying degrees of success. This chapter validates Thucydides’ explanation and shows that alternative modern explanations are unsatisfactory.

Keywords: Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, causes of war, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Megarian Decree

Thucydides speaks clearly and forthrightly about what he sees as the causes of the devastating war starting in 431 bce between the Athenians and the Spartans (what we call the Peloponnesian War). He declares as follows at 1.23.5–6:

διότι δ᾽ ἔλυσαν, τὰς αἰτίας προύγραψα πρῶτον καὶ τὰς διαφοράς, τοῦ μή τινα ζητῆσαί ποτε ἐξ ὅτου τοσοῦτος πόλεμος τοῖς Ἕλλησι κατέστη. τὴν μὲν γὰρ ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν, ἀφανεστάτην δὲ λόγῳ, τοὺς Ἀθηναίους ἡγοῦμαι μεγάλους γιγνομένους καὶ φόβον παρέχοντας τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις ἀναγκάσαι ἐς τὸ πολεμεῖν.

To the question of why the Athenians and the Peloponnesians broke the treaty, I answer by placing first an account of their grounds of complaint and points of difference, that no one may ever have to ask the immediate cause which plunged the Hellenes into a war of such magnitude. However, the real cause, though the least spoken of, I consider to be the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm this inspired in Sparta, which made war inevitable.

(Crawley translation in Strassler 1996, modified.)

The context is significant. Thucydides has just finished introducing his history and arguing that, compared to earlier times and conflicts, this war was the greatest ever fought by Greeks. He is about to begin his narrative of the events leading up to the war’s outbreak. But before he does so, he wants to make sure his readers do not confuse the upcoming description of “grounds of complaint and points of difference” (τὰς αἰτίας … καὶ τὰς διαφοράς) with what he judges to be the true, underlying cause of the war (τὴν … ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν). So he spells it out here, emphasizing the combination of the growth of Athenian power and the fear this inspired among the Spartans in compelling the participants to war.

(p. 116) But this prominent declaration was not enough for Thucydides. Later in the same book, after he has narrated the various flashpoints of conflict in the mid-to-late 430s bce and reached a climax with the war debate in Sparta in 432, Thucydides inserts this brief reminder, at 1.88:

ἐψηφίσαντο δὲ οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τὰς σπονδὰς λελύσθαι καὶ πολεμητέα εἶναι οὐ τοσοῦτον τῶν ξυμμάχων πεισθέντες τοῖς λόγοις ὅσον φοβούμενοι τοὺς Ἀθηναίους μὴ ἐπὶ μεῖζον δυνηθῶσιν, ὁρῶντες αὐτοῖς τὰ πολλὰ τῆς Ἑλλάδος ὑποχείρια ἤδη ὄντα.

The Spartans voted that the treaty had been broken, and that war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of their allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them. (Crawley translation)

Still not done with the question, Thucydides moves directly from this statement to the so-called Pentecontaetia, his summary narrative of the growth of the Athenian Empire and Athenian interactions with the Spartans in the decades following the Persian Wars of 480–479 bce. Immediately after this disquisition, at 1.118.2, Thucydides restates in even greater detail his thesis on the true causes of the war:

…ἐν οἷς οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι τήν τε ἀρχὴν ἐγκρατεστέραν κατεστήσαντο καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐπὶ μέγα ἐχώρησαν δυνάμεως, οἱ δὲ Λακεδαιμόνιοι αἰσθόμενοι οὔτε ἐκώλυον εἰ μὴ ἐπὶ βραχύ, ἡσύχαζόν τε τὸ πλέον τοῦ χρόνου, ὄντες μὲν καὶ πρὸ τοῦ μὴ ταχεῖς ἰέναι ἐς τοὺς πολέμους, ἢν μὴ ἀναγκάζωνται, τὸ δέ τι καὶ πολέμοις οἰκείοις ἐξειργόμενοι, πρὶν δὴ ἡ δύναμις τῶν Ἀθηναίων σαφῶς ᾔρετο καὶ τῆς ξυμμαχίας αὐτῶν ἥπτοντο. τότε δὲ οὐκέτι ἀνασχετὸν ἐποιοῦντο, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπιχειρητέα ἐδόκει εἶναι πάσῃ προθυμίᾳ καὶ καθαιρετέα ἡ ἰσχύς, ἢν δύνωνται, ἀραμένοις τόνδε τὸν πόλεμον.

During this interval the Athenians succeeded in placing their empire on a firmer basis, and themselves advanced their power to a very great height. The Spartans, though fully aware of it, opposed it only for a little while, but remained inactive during most of the period, being of old slow to go to war except under the pressure of necessity, and in the present instance being hampered by wars at home. Finally, the growth of the Athenian power could no longer be ignored as their own confederacy became the object of its encroachments. They then felt that they could endure it no longer, but that the time had come for them to throw themselves heart and soul upon the hostile power, and break it, if they could, by commencing the present war. (Crawley translation)

Let us take note of some key features of Thucydides’ striking thesis. First, as many have remarked upon, the historian explicitly contrasts the “truest” (ἀληθεστάτην) causes of the war with other, more frequently and openly alleged ones. It is not that the “grounds of complaint and points of difference” are without explanatory value for him. Thucydides surely would not have bothered with his lengthy accounts of the prewar affairs at Epidamnus, Corcyra, and Potidaea if it had been all meaningless. Rather, he wants his readers to understand that the deeper, underlying causes that he has identified (p. 117) mattered even more. This is a momentous contrast to draw. As Simon Hornblower (1991, 65) says, “the explicit formulation of a distinction between profound and superficial causes is arguably Thucydides’ greatest contribution to later history-writing.”

Other important features of his thesis are its balance and lack of moralizing. In each of the three statements quoted above, Thucydides carefully balances the parts played by Athens and Sparta. Athens’ fearsome imperial power looms large as a driving force for war, but equally prominent and inextricably connected is Sparta’s bellicose reaction. Nor does any bitterness or sense of blame attach to Thucydides’ pronouncements. In none of the three statements or their immediate context does he cast aspersions on one side or the other for their behavior. Elsewhere in his history Thucydides shows himself quite willing to apply a strong moral conscience to his story (e.g., on Athenian failings after Pericles’ death at 2.65, or the evils of civil war at 3.82–84), but he holds it in abeyance here.

Finally, and related to this last point, is Thucydides’ emphasis on the inevitability of the war. His Greek at the end of 1.23.6 resists easy translation into English because Thucydides has failed to provide a direct object for the verbal phrase “compelled to war” (ἀναγκάσαι ἐς τὸ πολεμεῖν): we expect to see “the Spartans” or “the Athenians and the Spartans” or even just “them,” and if we had such a supplied direct object we could emphasize the actions of a particular city or cities in initiating the conflict. By not providing a direct object for “compel” (ἀναγκάσαι), Thucydides instead emphasizes the compulsion itself—that is, his own abstract formulation that the twinned forces of growing Athenian power and an alarmed Sparta together forced the war to happen (Ostwald 1988, 2–4).

Scholarly Controversies

Thucydides’ direct statement (and repeated restatement) of his carefully considered thesis has not prevented scholars from disagreeing heatedly about the war’s causes and the proper interpretation of Thucydides’ views on the matter. Indeed, according to Martin Ostwald, “it is difficult to think of any single passage in ancient Greek literature that has given rise to more intense controversy than Thucydides’ statement on the causes of the Peloponnesian War” at 1.23.6 (1988, 1).

In times past the arguments often pivoted around the issue of the manner of composition of Thucydides’ history (Romilly 1963, 3–10, 370–72; Andrewes 1959). Was the statement at 1.23.6 (and the other two that follow) later insertions into a text a younger Thucydides had started to prepare before the result of the war was known? If so, how should this affect our valuation of one or the other line of thinking? But from the last half of the twentieth century forward, scholars have moved on from the old clash of “Analysts” and “Unitarians.” The latter (those who wish to treat the history as a unity, not a collection of clearly separable “strata”) seem to have prevailed, both regarding this issue and more generally in Thucydidean studies (see Hornblower 2008, 1–4). Thus (p. 118) more recent scholars, while willing to admit that different parts of the history very likely were composed at different times, regard Thucydides’ thought and method as comprehensible in toto and prefer not to create multiple Thucydides-es to argue with and over.

The main question remains, then: is Thucydides’ stated thesis correct? If not, what really caused the war?

Interestingly, most of those who have tackled this question have ended up rejecting Thucydides’ explanation, or at least significantly changing its emphasis. (An exception: Cawkwell 1997.) This common scholarly move is possible only because of the wealth of information about the war and its buildup that Thucydides himself provides—his account is so rich and detailed that many have sought to use it to contradict the author’s own thesis. There are other, briefer, sources of information as well, of course: Diodorus’ centuries-later universal history devotes the better part of two books to the conflict; a number of Plutarch’s Roman-era biographies of Greek statesmen bear directly upon it; from contemporary authors the comedies of Aristophanes occasionally provide useful bits of evidence, including on the question of the war’s outbreak; and, naturally, there are many inscribed documents from the second half of the fifth century that directly or indirectly bear on the war, especially as concerns Athens. All of these sources (and others) provide additional information that scholars have used to help build new interpretations. But none comes close to Thucydides in terms of depth of attention or weight of authority brought to the question of the war’s onset.

Various alternative causes have been alleged over the years, with greater or lesser success. For a time in the twentieth century, for example, it was popular to point to economics and trade as having driven the participants to battle. Whether the thesis involved greedy merchants in the Piraeus, grain-hungry Peloponnesians, or a trade competition between Corinth and Athens, each suffers from a decided lack of evidence and few if any adherents nowadays (for a critical overview, see Kagan 1969, 347–49).

In contrast, condemning Athenian policies has proven to be an enduringly popular approach. Whether because of Athens’ long-standing imperial expansion (everywhere from the Aegean to Thrace to Boeotia to Aegina to southern Italy), or the actions of Pericles and others in the years immediately prior to the war, or both, many scholars have fingered the Athenians as chief culprits (e.g., Rhodes 1987; Badian 1993; Kagan 2009, 35–74) This diverges from Thucydides’ thesis because of the stress the ancient historian laid on the balanced role of Athens and Sparta remarked upon above. Nevertheless, it arguably represents the smallest departure from the author’s statements. After all, even in Thucydides’ formulation, the growth and exercise of Athenian power is necessarily prior to any Spartan reaction to it. And Thucydides certainly expends much effort in his history forwarding the issue of Athenian imperialism both before and during the war (Romilly 1963). Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing in the first century bce, summarized Thucydides as having said that the growth of Athenian power was the true cause of the war (Thucydides 10). To blame Athens primarily, then, is to take a relatively small step from Thucydides’ stated view.

So what suggests Athenian culpability beyond the empire itself? One can start with the fact that many contemporary Athenians blamed Pericles and his policies for the war. (p. 119) Thucydides indicates as much at 2.59.2, when he says “the Athenians” blamed Pericles for persuading them to go to war, which matches his presentation of Pericles’ convincing his fellow citizens not to cave in to Spartan demands with his speech at 1.139–45. Further evidence for Athenian blame of Pericles can be found using non-Thucydidean sources. In two different wartime comedies Aristophanes makes jokes showing that some Athenians, at least, held Pericles at fault for starting the war, most particularly by promoting the Megarian Decree (Acharnians 515–39; Peace 601–27.) Congruent points of view are reflected in later authors (Plutarch, Pericles, 31–32; Diodorus 12.38–39).

Central to this line of argument is the Megarian Decree. The Athenians issued this decree (or decrees, on which see Brunt [1951] 1997, with Hornblower 1991, 110–112) in the years before the war in order to punish the Sparta-allied Megarians by denying them access to the markets and ports of Athens and its allies. This amounted to a primitive sort of trade embargo, the first of its kind, and one that had painful effect if we can believe the implications in Aristophanes’ Acharnians and in Thucydides. (For a famously heterodox view of the decree, see de Ste. Croix 1972, 225–89). It was a clever device to use because a novel act like a trade embargo can hardly have been envisaged by the Thirty Years’ Peace, which guaranteed protection of the allies of each side only from actual attack. But perhaps it was too clever: while the Megarian Decree surely represented no technical violation of the treaty, it did violate its spirit, which made the move highly provocative.

Modern historians have often remarked that Thucydides seems to want to downplay the significance of this decree. He never discusses the circumstances of its enactment, and he barely mentions its existence until 1.139, where he reveals that during final negotiations the Spartans offered to back off from war if Athens revoked this single decree—a striking admission of its importance. The natural supposition is that Thucydides wished to say as little as possible about the Megarian Decree because it seems to undermine his claim that the long-standing growth of Athenian power and Spartan fear of it caused the war, not the complaints of allies over a grievance like this. If so, he was right to be concerned: the decree represents a powerful reason to doubt Thucydides’ thesis.

Connected to this line of argument is the general level of provocation and intransigence displayed by the Athenians and, above all, Pericles, on the eve of the war. Donald Kagan has argued persuasively that, for all the brilliance of Thucydides’ insight into long-term versus immediate causes, the truth is that the war was not inevitable. The Thirty Years’ Peace was thoughtfully negotiated and meant to last; episodes following it (like Athens’ Panhellenic foundation of Thurii and Corinth’s argument to leave Athens undisturbed as it quelled the Samian rebellion) show that the treaty was working, and that it was possible, in ancient Greece as in more modern times, for peace between hostile states or alliances to endure and not end in world-destroying war. If Pericles and the Athenians of the late 430s had better gauged Peloponnesian reactions to provocative moves like the Megarian Decree, Athens’ Corcyrean alliance, and its ultimatum to Potidaea, or had shown a willingness to compromise at the very end, war could have been avoided. (Kagan 1969; 2009, 23–74)

Scholars usually make these kinds of arguments for Athenian culpability while accepting the basic reliability (though not perfection) of Thucydides as a reporter. Ernst (p. 120) Badian, however, takes a radically different view in arguing for Athenian guilt: for him, Thucydides shows himself to be an entirely biased reporter, one who distorts events and twists motives, disregarding truth whenever he can get away with it, in order to promote a pro-Athenian agenda and make it seem that the Spartans, jealous of Athenian power, ruthlessly started the war. Badian sees signs of this agenda (signs all previous Thucydides scholars somehow completely missed) in the portrayal of the Spartans as feckless and dishonest, in the suppression of damaging information like the exact terms of the Thirty Years’ Peace, and misrepresentation of events like the Spartan vote in 432, which was surely just a vote that Athens had violated the treaty, not a vote for war (Badian 1993).

Scholars have rightly challenged many aspects of Badian’s approach (e.g., Meyer 1997, 35–39). Among its problems is his selective and unpersuasive reading of the tone of Thucydides’ account. For example, Badian sees a blatantly partisan portrayal of the Spartans as devious and untrustworthy, but fails to acknowledge that Thucydides often goes out of his way to show the Athenians behaving as badly or even worse (e.g., 1.72–86; 1.90–92). Of course it is true that Thucydides argues for a thesis and sometimes arranges events and speeches conveniently to support that thesis. But such does not render him a fiendishly biased reporter/historian bent on exonerating his homeland. Indeed, we know what Thucydides’ text looks like when he engages in a hatchet job (see his treatment of fellow Athenian Cleon, especially in Book 5): it bears no resemblance to his discriminating picture of Athenians and Spartans provoking and responding to each other as tensions built over time.

As popular as it has been to find fault with Athenian prewar policies, some scholars have, on the contrary, identified the Spartans as bearing chief responsibility for the war. The most prominent of these is G. E. M. de Ste. Croix. His monumental tome The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (with its forty-seven appendices [!], 1972) engages in an exhaustive, step-by-step refutation of points used to blame the Athenians for the outbreak of hostilities. Athens’ decision to ally with neutral Corcyra fell within its treaty rights even as Athens bent over backward to avoid trouble with Corinth as a result of it; Corinth, not Athens, was the provocateur in the events at Corcyra, and was again when it sent military aid to Potidaea (which, though a Corinthian colony, had been a member of Athens’ empire for years and “must certainly” have been listed as such in the Thirty Years’ Peace, 79); nor did the Megarian Decree in any way violate the treaty. Thus Athens acted repeatedly and consistently within its rights. In contrast, the Spartans, egged on by their allies, shattered the terms of the peace by refusing to submit their differences to arbitration and instead invading Attica. Indeed, as de Ste. Croix emphasizes, Thucydides shows that years later the Spartans believed themselves to have been more at fault for causing the war: “They considered that the offense had been more on their own side” (Crawley translation, 7.18.2; … ἐν γὰρ τῷ προτέρῳ πολέμῳ σφέτερον τὸ παρανόμημα μᾶλλον γενέσθαι …).

De Ste. Croix attributes the Spartan zeal for war to a number of factors, including their mistaken belief that they would win easily (Thuc. 4.85.2, 5.14.3, and 7.28.3), and, even more, Sparta’s unique vulnerability as a polity: its massive slave population of helots. Because of the potential for a crippling helot rebellion, Sparta “could not take (p. 121) risks which an ordinary Greek State might afford: she could not allow another city to reach a position of power from which it could threaten either herself or her allies” (291). Thus, according to de Ste. Croix, Thucydides was right to emphasize Sparta’s fear in causing the war, though we must understand Sparta’s own culpability in creating that fear: “The Helot danger was the curse Sparta had brought upon herself, an admirable illustration of the maxim that a people which oppresses another cannot itself be free” (292).

Moralizing aside, de Ste. Croix is right to highlight the confidence many Spartans felt about winning the war they were starting, and the special problem the helots represented. Corinth’s threat to spark secessions from the Peloponnesian League if Sparta failed to act to defend its allies (a threat acted upon years later, 5.27–38) would have weighed especially heavily on the Spartans because of the way they relied on the League to shield their land, with its restive slave population, from outside incursion. And the emphasis De Ste. Croix places on Sparta and its allies’ direct responsibility for beginning the hostilities, when they could have sought arbitration according to the treaty or further negotiations, seems justified. On the other hand, his lengthy attempt to dismiss the significance of the Megarian Decree fails to convince. Whatever one makes of de Ste. Croix’s grand and tortured argument about the purpose of the decree (it was not about commerce at all, but merely aimed at humiliating the Megarians), it fails to remove the force of Thucydides’ statement at 1.139 that in Sparta’s final negotiations with Athens, the decree was the only real sticking point—and thus that an Athenian concession here would have prevented the war. Periclean and Athenian intransigence on this point is just as striking as before.

In the end, one might well judge that the chief accomplishment of De Ste. Croix’s defense of Athenian policy and impugning of Sparta’s has been not to remove Athens from the hot seat, but to restore an almost Thucydidean balance to the issue—de Ste. Croix has made it harder to ignore the very real Spartan bellicosity that turned allies’ grievances and mutual tensions into open warfare in 431 bce.

But might one see chief culpability lying with a third party? Corinth’s provocative behavior in the years leading up to the war has certainly drawn attention, both by Thucydides and by scholars seeking to unravel the war’s true causes (e.g., Tritle 2010, 11–43; Kagan 1969 [“Theirs is the greatest guilt…” 354]). The Corinthians, who Thucydides claims conceived a “bitter hatred” (τὸ σφοδρὸν μῖσος) for Athens during the “First” Peloponnesian War (1.103.4), precipitated the crises over Corcyra and Potidaea and played the leading role in goading their ally Sparta into confrontation with Athens, especially if we can believe the two speeches Thucydides has them deliver at the two meetings of Spartans and allies right before the war. Perhaps Corinth’s constant stirring of the pot of war deserves the greatest censure.

One might argue, however, that the sort of blame game we have seen scholars engage in—the Athenians were the evildoers! No, the Spartans were worse! No, it was the dastardly Corinthians!—not only becomes tiresome, but also is unworthy of the sophisticated historical account Thucydides has given us. Perhaps we should look to different, less accusatory approaches to the issue.

(p. 122) Victor Davis Hanson (2005, 8–16) offers one such broader view. For him the buildup to war and the rising fear felt by the Spartans had less to do with specific Athenian transgressions than it did the nature of Athens itself: “Athenianism” represented not just imperialism, he claims, but a new force for “globalization” driven by Athens’ “proselytizing and expansionary” democracy (13–14). This revolutionary democratic ideology was poison to staid, conservative Sparta, which saw itself losing out to Athens’ new kind of society and power. The Spartans reacted emotionally and violently against it, bringing on the war.

Part of what animates Hanson’s thinking is his explicit linking of the modern United States of America, a globalizing democracy to be sure, with ancient Athens (8–9). Whatever one thinks of this comparison, the main drawback to Hanson’s claim about the war’s cause is the complete lack of evidence for it: nowhere in Thucydides or any other ancient source is it even hinted that Athenian democracy drove the Spartans or their allies to war, as opposed to manifest Athenian power or provocative policies. Nor do the flashpoints of the late 430s (the Corcyrean alliance, Megarian Decree, Potidaea) have much to do with constitutional conflict. Moreover, the idea (simply assumed by Hanson) that Athens was driven to spread democracy with a kind of messianic zeal becomes impossible to maintain after careful consideration of the evidence (see Robinson 2011, chapter 4).

A fresh approach with more promise comes from J. E. Lendon. In Song of Wrath (2010; see also Lendon 2007) Lendon argues that the confrontation between Sparta and Athens that ultimately exploded into war amounted to a classic dispute over rank. Sparta had long held the top position among Greek states, a primacy secured through its superior hoplite soldiers and domination of the Peloponnesian League, and signaled clearly to all by Sparta’s consensus selection as leader of the Greeks banding together to resist Persia in 480. Athens was of old a secondary power at best, but one whose status rose precipitously during and after the Persian Wars. With the glory it earned in that conflict and the burgeoning power it showed in mastering an Aegean empire, Athens had ascended to the point where it could now challenge Sparta’s hegemony. This way of thinking about the rivalry of Sparta and Athens was natural for the notoriously competitive ancient Greeks, steeped as they were in classics like Homer’s Iliad in which such rank-consciousness is pervasive.

Lendon fruitfully reviews the history of Spartan-Athenian relations from the Persian Wars down to 431 by using the lens of rank and shows how well it explains otherwise curious situations and behaviors, like the odd combination of Athenian subservience to Spartan leadership with prickly resentment of other rivals for positions of honor (Syracuse, Tegea) during the Persian Wars; compare this with the fierce resentment imperial Athens later showed when, bypassing an opportunity to lord it over Sparta during the helot rebellion of the 460s, it followed Cimon’s plea to aid its rival—only to be humiliatingly snubbed. This ultimately resulted in the First Peloponnesian War. Lendon’s thesis is also aided by the language that Thucydides puts in Pericles’ mouth during the speech he gives to dissuade the Athenians from giving in to Sparta’s final demands: Athens simply must reject them, because “a firm refusal will make them (p. 123) clearly understand that they must treat you as equals (ἀπὸ τοῦ ἴσου)” (1.140.5, Crawley translation). The whole speech reeks of the notion that Athens was past bowing before Spartan superiority, and would (indeed, must) go to war before doing so again.

Lendon’s recasting of the outbreak of the war as a contest of rank offers a new and useful way to frame the conflict. That Thucydides does not present things in such a way himself is no impediment: as scholars have long perceived, Thucydides consciously offers a revisionist opinion of the war’s causes with his highly abstracted notion of Athenian power triggering Spartan fear to compel war. Moreover, a rank-based approach can explain the otherwise bizarre Periclean (and Athenian) intransigence at the end, when a small concession over the Megarian Decree could have averted war. This came not from mindless provocation or pride: the Athenians made their stand for the reasons Pericles gives, that the manner of Sparta’s demand (an ultimatum) made it impossible for Athens to back down and retain what it saw as its fully merited equal standing relative to Sparta.

Of course, one can find ways to criticize the “contest of rank” thesis. Thucydides’ language given to Pericles at 1.140 may suit the idea very well, but what of other occasions? The one Athenian speech and two Spartan speeches delivered during the Spartan war congress (Thuc. 1.73–86) presented excellent occasions to reveal a status rivalry—and yet they do not. The Athenian speaker seems at pains to justify the Athenian Empire’s existence and warns of the danger of war; King Archidamus notes the difficulties the Spartans would have in making an immediate attack and advises caution; the ephor Sthenelaïdas scratches his head at the Athenian speaker’s fancy, boastful words and urges war as the only honorable course to protect their allies. None of the speakers paints the conflict as one over status, or even references the rank of one side or the other. Nor do the non-Thucydidean sources (Aristophanes, Diodorus) hint at an overarching status rivalry lying behind the war’s outbreak. Thus, as intuitively appealing as the rank theory is, one cannot help noticing how much reading it back into the sources is necessary to see it in operation.


It is hard not to admire the beauty and force of Thucydides’ formulation of the war’s causes. The notion that the growth of Athenian power alarmed Sparta to the point where the two juggernauts were set on a deadly collision course is thoughtful and elegantly neutral, and accords well with what we know of fifth-century history. One may reasonably disagree with Thucydides, of course, as many modern scholars have. And yet, when they do so, Thucydides’ own rich account usually figures prominently in their crafting. Those who see Athenian misbehavior driving the war’s outbreak can make a powerful case, but this is in large part because Thucydides is complicit in its making, with his relentless focus on the creation and maintenance of an aggressive Athenian Empire. Those putting primary responsibility on the Spartans or Corinthians lean heavily on Thucydides’ narrative of the final few years of tension and the Peloponnesian decision (p. 124) to launch the war. New theories such as Lendon’s contest of rank face the difficult task of being judged against Thucydides’ persuasive and inevitably better documented thesis.

Scholars will no doubt continue to seek more satisfying answers to the tantalizing question of what caused the Peloponnesian War. In developing these ideas they will have as both essential resource and formidable hurdle the account of the war’s first historiographical interpreter.


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