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The Causes of the Peloponnesian War

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The causes of the Peloponnesian War constitute such a persistent theme in discussions of fifth-century Greek history, in part because of the complexity of the aetiological view of our earliest source, Thucydides.

Critics tend to admire Thucydides’ subtle distinction between aitiai es to phaneron legomenai and alethestate prophasis, [but they are generally less comfortable with his formulation of the two sets of causes: one consisting in individual episodes of tension between Athens and Sparta’s allies, particularly Corinth, in the years leading up to the war (specifically the events of Corcyra and Potidaea); the other a process that followed immediately upon the end of Xerxes’ expedition (the growing tension between the two leading Greek cities, Athens and Sparta).

By qualifying it as alethestate, Thucydides is clearly claiming that the prophasis is more important for a correct understanding of the origins of the war. In other words, he is asserting that a proper perception of the origins of the war depends upon a consideration of the previous fifty years as well as careful attention paid both to the physis of the Athenian arche, as an ever increasing force in Greek history, and to Sparta’s phobos, as a reactive force in Greek history.

Thucydides never implies, however, that the aitiai es to phaneron legomenai are unconnected to the breakout of the war. As he himself observes: “As for the reason why they [sc. the Athenians and Lacedaemonians] broke the peace, I have written first the aitiai and the differences, so that no one should ever have to enquire into the origin of so great a war for the Greeks.” The meaning of this statement is clear: if there had been no Corcyra and Potidaea, there would have been no Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. It is obvious, then, that the relationship between aitiai es to phaneron and alethestate prophasis cannot be presented as if it were a relationship between false and true causes.

In recent years, Tim Rood has argued that the aitiai es to phaneron are deeply related to the alethestate prophasis, that they are, in fact, part of the same aetiological system. Rood’s remarks allow us to recover a unity of thought in Thucydides’ interpretation of the origins of the war. Yet, the problem remains: why does Thucydides make a distinction between aitiai es to phaneron and alethestate prophasis? I would suggest that there is something more at stake than the opposition between ‘superficial’ and ‘profound’ causes.

In his disclosure of the alethestate prophasis, Thucydides brings into play the concept of ananke, which is entirely absent from his discussion of the aitiai. In other words, he distinguishes between two sets of causes because there are two different kinds of problems to solve. The first is a problem of historical contingency and properly concerns the origin of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. How did the war actually break out? This is the problem for which the aitiai are invoked. The second is a philosophical problem and concerns the nature of the war between Athens and Sparta. Was the war accidental or necessary? This is the problem for which the alethestate prophasis is invoked. Thucydides’ answer, in short, is that the war was necessary: if there had been no Corcyra and Potidaea, there would have been no Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE; the war would instead have erupted at a different time. Without depriving the aitiai of their aetiological function, the concept of alethestate prophasis allows Thucydides to emphasize the inevitability of the war. With his alethestate prophasis, then, Thucydides tries to raise his reader’s awareness and encourage an original, philosophical vision of history.

According to Thucydides, the inevitability of the war was not a concept that common people could easily grasp (ἀφανεστάτην δὲ λόγῳ). In fact, unlike the single events that he classifies as aitiai es to phaneron, the ongoing tension between Athens and Sparta was distant in time and more complex in form. Such a relationship, therefore, can only be revealed by a master of history and politics, whose insight is particularly canny. By insight I mean control of the facts from the distant past, knowledge of the physis of man and especially, of the physis of power. In two demonstrations of Book 1, the Archaeologia and the Pentecontaetia, Thucydides gives a full display of this type of knowledge, which we may consider to be the theoretical backbone of his political science.

Naturally, we have the option of trusting Thucydides’ mastery and thus gratefully accepting his lesson about the causes of the war and its historical necessity. However, some critics have noted that Thucydides does not inquire into important events that occurred in the years immediately before the war, such as the Megarian Decree. Some have drawn our attention to the artful rhetorical construction of Book 1, or have disagreed with Thucydides’ insistence that the war was unavoidable. Some situate Thucydides’ work within the context of contemporary political debates about the responsibility for the war, debates that were quite animated during and after the Peloponnesian War; in light of this, they find Thucydides’ account unsatisfactory: in their opinion, Thucydides’ explanation is defective and, even worse, biased.

Among Thucydides’ critics is Karl Julius Beloch, who notes that the difficulties experienced by Pericles and his party in the preceding years had a direct impact on the outbreak of war. During this period, Pheidias, Anaxagoras, and Aspasia were all put on trial, incidents that are recorded by sources other than Thucydides, such as ancient comedy and—it is supposed—a pamphletistic tradition hostile to Pericles. Indeed, this is at the core of Diodorus’ account of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, the main source for which, Diodorus tells us, was the fourth-century historian Ephorus of Cyme.

Modern critics rarely praise Ephorus’ historiography. If we look at F 196, the fragment on the causes of the Peloponnesian War, we can perhaps understand why. Here, besides a reference to Pericles’ personal affairs, we find three citations from ancient comedy, apparently adduced by Ephorus as evidence. The first two, from Aristophanes’ Peace and Acharnians, clearly assert Pericles’ responsibility for initiating the war. If some critics believe that Thucydides defended Pericles too vehemently, many more contend that Ephorus preferred the silly inventions of poets and the vulgar insinuations of pamphleteers over Thucydides’ trustworthy account and subtle aetiological analysis, and that he held only Pericles accountable for the war. Such a formulation has long formed the basis for Ephorus’ supposed ignorance in historical matters.

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Among Ephorus’ detractors is Felix Jacoby. In his view, Thucydides had unduly neglected Athenian internal politics, and so Ephorus would have written an account of the causes of the Peloponnesian War better than that of Thucydides had he both paid attention to Thucydides’ text and at the same time examined Athenian internal politics without surrendering to the lethal seduction of comedy or pamphlets. I would suggest instead that, as is evident from Thucydides’ text, at the time when he was writing (after 431 BCE, at least), Pericles was commonly viewed as responsible for the war; Thucydides thus writes to counter this opinion. With regard to Ephorus, we could ask Jacoby if it would have been possible or conceivable for a historian of the fourth century to examine the internal politics of fifth-century Athens without considering the comic tradition and, more generally, the literature of the time, which was an active part of the ongoing political debate. The answer, I maintain, would be no. For modern historians too, ancient comedy (when correctly used) is a documentary source. The question, then, becomes: does Ephorus make good or bad use of ancient comedy? But there is a second question also: does Ephorus, as has been suggested, simply lay blame for the war on Pericles, thereby neglecting the wider scenario of international politics, or is his aetiological view somewhat more subtle? To answer this, we must take a closer look at F 196, and the other texts apparently indebted to Ephorus for the causes of the Peloponnesian War.

F 196 is a difficult text. Diodorus mentions Ephorus at the end of a long and seemingly lacunose account: αἰτίαι μὲν οὖν τοῦ Πελοποννησιακοῦ πολέμου τοιαῦταί τινες ὑπῆρξαν, ὡς Ἔφορος ἀνέγραψε (“Now the causes of the Peloponnesian War were in general what I have described, as Ephorus has recorded them.” 12.41.1, translation by C. H. Oldfather). By his use of the term τινες Diodorus seems to be saying that this is approximately what Ephorus said about the causes of the Peloponnesian War. But from F 196 we do learn of several matters: first, Pericles’ difficulties in giving an account of his financial administration to the demos, and his will to resolve such difficulties by means of a war; second, the trials of his associates Pheidias (charged with embezzlement of public funds that had been allocated for Athena’s statue) and Anaxagoras; third, Pericles’ involvement in these charges, which in fact masked political attacks by his opponents, and his aim to resolve these troubles with a war; and finally, the existing problem of the Megarian Decree, and the consequent debate during which Pericles urged his fellow citizens not to surrender to Sparta’s ultimatum. At the end of this account, as we have seen, the reader encounters the term τινες, and is prompted to wonder whether Ephorus actually said all of this. If so, furthermore, can we assume that he said it in this form?

Scholars of the twentieth century generally agree that Diodorus’ account is only an imperfecta imago of what Ephorus wrote about the causes of the war. In order to reconstruct what one might call ‘Ephorus’ version’, then, Diodorus’ supposed lacunae are often supplemented with information from Plutarch, Aristodemus, and from scholia of late antiquity on the works of Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Hermogenes.These texts, considered together, constitute the so-called ‘Ephorus tradition’; here, we find both more detailed information than Diodorus alone provides about the cases of Pericles’ associates (Aspasia in particular, notably absent from Diodorus’ account), and more extensive quotations from Aristophanes’ Peace and Acharnians.

Nevertheless, when we look for Ephorus in works other than that of Diodorus, a new question arises. In reading Aristodemus, we find not only information about Pericles’ private affairs, Pheidias’ trial, the Megarian Decree, and extensive quotations from Aristophanes, but also other data, including the affairs of Corcyra and Potidaea and—last but not least—the Thucydidean alethestate prophasis, here defined as aitia alethestate. Is Ephorus, then, the source only for the causes that implicate Pericles, or for all the causes named by Aristodemus? Is it possible, perhaps, that Ephorus is simultaneously considering different versions of the causes of the war, not in fact neglecting Thucydides’ version but—as is evident in Aristodemus’ account—redefining it?

This solution actually has a longer history than might appear at first sight. Meier Marx, the very first editor of Ephorus’ fragments in 1815, conjectured that Ephorus might very well have included in his history as a vulgate tradition the information about Pericles’ personal affairs that we find in Diodorus. Eduard Schwartz suspected that Diodorus rearranged various tales that Ephorus had collected. Robert Connor’s idea was in some way similar: Ephorus, in a Herodotean manner, might have collected different versions of the origins of the war, without necessarily preferring one over the others. If this were true, Ephorus would approximate the author about whom Jacoby had dreamt, a historian who could present his reader with a complete aetiological picture of the problems connected with the origins of the Peloponnesian War.

But before we draw any conclusions from Aristodemus’ text alone, we need to take a closer look at Diodorus’ account (F 196), for it is the only one in which the name of Ephorus is expressly mentioned. As we shall see, it seems possible to reach, through Diodorus, a different conclusion about Ephorus’ view of the causes of the Peloponnesian War.

The quotations from the comic poets appear only at the end of the fragment, immediately before the concluding mention of Ephorus. Here we find, together with the two quotations from Aristophanes, a quotation from Eupolis’ Demoi This quotation does not concern Pericles’ personal affairs, Aspasia, Anaxagoras, Pheidias, or the Megarian Decree, but rather his rhetorical ability:

In editing F 196, Jacoby chose to expunge the Eupolis quotation, believing it to be irrelevant to the problem of the causes of the war. Even if this were the case, it is not reason enough to reject it: we cannot ignore that it is in Diodorus’ text, that it appears immediately before Ephorus’ name, and finally, that it is not the only instance in the fragment that emphasizes Pericles’ rhetorical ability. Given that this quotation could be part of Ephorus’ original account of the causes, it would be better to take it into careful consideration.

At first sight, it would seem that by quoting all the poetic evidence at the end of his account, Diodorus gathered together miscellaneous information, thereby confusing the evidence that Ephorus had originally organized in an ordered manner. But things are probably otherwise.

Plutarch’s passage confirms our impression that Ephorus did not quote Aristophanes as an authority to be blindly followed. Ephorus felt free to craft new historical concepts by drawing on comedy’s most evocative images. In Thucydides’ view, if there had been no Corcyra or Potidaea, we would not have had the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. In Ephorus’ view, if Pericles had not resolved to uphold the Megarian Decree, there would have been no war in 431 BCE. At that time, war was still avoidable, but it was only a matter of time before tensions broke out between Sparta and Athens. Among the culprits behind the war of 431 BCE, Pericles was certainly predominant. But Sparta and Athens were both responsible for bad choices that they had previously made, when each willingly pursued political hegemony; their choices were going to be decisive. We can surmise from the reference in F 196 to the removal of the Delian League’s treasure that Ephorus considered the collapse of the Panhellenic alliance between Athens and Sparta (ca. 462 BCE) to have been a negative turning point in the fifth century.

Far from being a corrupter of the science of history, Ephorus of Cyme proves to be a very competent historian in matters of aetiology. Looking backward from the fourth century BCE, he did not believe the war of 431 was inevitable; he believed, like many modern historians, that Thucydides’ thesis of ananke was unconvincing. When addressing the much-debated question of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, he chose to consider data that Thucydides had neglected. In so doing, Ephorus conformed to the fundamental methodological principle that he had proposed for his own research, and in fact more satisfying than the one Thucydides provided. A careful analysis of Ephorus’ F 196 uncovers broader and more balanced insights into the origins of the Peloponnesian War and helps us see how, contrary to the communis opinio, fourth-century historiography is closer to the best examples of modern inquiry, both in its aetiological sensibility and its historical perspective.

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The Causes of the Peloponnesian War. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
“The Causes of the Peloponnesian War.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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