Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy; Stanley M. Burstein et al. | Go to book overview

8
THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

When war broke out between Athens and Sparta, few Greeks foresaw that it would be different from any war they had ever experienced or even imagined. The twenty-seven-year conflict cost thousands upon thousands of lives and proved a stern teacher. It enhanced many of the worst features of Greek society-- competitiveness, jingoism, lack of compassion, and gross disregard for human life. At the same time, a number of extraordinary thinkers sought to focus attention on the problems people face in their attempts to live together: the writings of Thucydides, Sophocles, and Euripides showed vigor and spirit throughout the war years, and the comic dramatist Aristophanes continued to produce enchanting plays through three decades of fighting and for a generation afterward--though a biting sorrow is often evident beneath the madcap facade. The Peloponnesian War would alter the world the Greeks knew in many respects. Comfortable assumptions about the citizen-fighter and his role in the polis would break down, and conventional morality and piety would face many challenges. Much, however, would stay the same--the polis as a political unit, the primacy of agriculture, the rivalries of the city-states, and the worship of the Olympian gods. The trauma occasioned by the war and its aftermath was also strikingly fertile, for the war supplied the impetus for many of the social, political, and intellectual changes we identify with the fourth century and the period after the death of Alexander in 323 BC that we call the Hellenistic Age.


SOURCES FOR GREECE DURING THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides writes with such eloquence and certainty that historians have had to struggle hard to challenge his conclusions and strike out on their own paths. His History is our principal source for the war. Although Thucydides tried to write each year up as it happened, understandably he began to fall behind as the war progressed, and at the time of his death around 395 BC he had gotten only as far as 411. Rumor had it that his daughter preserved the unfinished manuscript and

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