Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

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From past to present, there were unending wars that has happened with all cost. Most of the time, these costs were loss of life, land and money. Many weapons were used in wars stones, swords, rifles and so on. And What were these wars for? Was the reason for these wars to survive or to lead a better life? Besides all these, people have had experienced to pass their life in different forms of societies. Empires, City states and Nation states, these are all form of primary units that societies live in. Because the war that will be examined is the Peloponnesian War, the unit that should be examined is Greece City states.

From 2000 BC the city states, called “Police”, emerged in ancient Greece and the Aegean. The most popular ones are the city states such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Larissa and Megara. Aegean, Greek civilization, colonial activities and easy transportation facilities have helped to develop social, political and cultural relations between the West and Asia. Due to its geographical location, its problems and its neighbors, it has always been a problematic region. Land and maritime trade were the most important element in that period. If a country has a good location for trade, this country could be the target. In this questionable area, there were always a war whether it is civil or between the states. The most important one was the Peloponnesian War. It was a very bloody war that has happened between two of the biggest states of the Hellas, nowadays it is known as Greece, Sparta and Athens. The most important source of the war was an ancient Greek historian, Thucydides.

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The person known by the name Thucydides; He is a famous ancient Greek historian and an Athenian general. Thucydides, who lived between 460 and 400 years before Christ, is one of the famous historians of that time. After the war that took place between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides passed away in 400 BC. In 424 BC, Thucydides, who was appointed as commander. The colony of Amphipolis, one of the most important colonies of Athens, was given the task of ensuring the security of Brasidas, a very famous commander from Sparta, against the armies. He failed to show the desired success in the war. When Thucydides did not show the desired success, he went into exile with his own volition without requiring his superiors to do anything. Thucydides, who lived in antiquity, is a historian who usually deals with the political events of history. According to the logic of Thucydides, the most important part of history is its political aspects and therefore it has always examined history according to political aspects. Thucydides, the famous philosopher and writer, is a much more interesting and different historian than Herodotus, who lived in the same age. In his works he examined the events in the cause-effect relationship. Thucydides, who used an instructional language when writing his works. Also, he is known as one of the first to launch instructional history technique with this aspect. In his works, he described the Peloponnesian war that happens between the famous cities of his time between Athens and Sparta, which lasted about 30 years. When we examine his work, we can see the emphasis on courage and justice. In his work, Thucydides writes from the language of the sides of the war that the powerful do what his soul desires and that the weak are forced to admit it. So, he gets the strength he wants with the strength. If you want peace, you must be ready for war. In other words, he uses the language of strong power and if there is weak, the weak embraces concepts such as law and morality. The first member of the realist style, Thucydides, explains the Peloponnesian wars with the power struggle. And there is a brief explanation of the war.

The foundations of war are based on Persian wars. Athens, known for its support of Persian wars and its dominance over the seas, was further strengthened compared to other Greek states. This imbalance in the Balance of Powers can be called the first sparks of the war. (This will be explained in detail later in this article). The city of Epidamnus, which had developed into the Adriatic Sea and developed in the territory of Western Greece, had experienced a civil war, and a region of the city had asked for help from the Corcyraeans, who was also an island city state in the same region. Epidamnus who could not get the help they expected, asked the help of the Corinthians, who were connected to the Spartan Union. The Corinthians accepted it, and when the Corcyraeans learned that the Corinthians would help the Epidamnus, they sent the warships they had prepared to the region and besieged the city. At the end of mutual reconciliation, the parties to the dispute began to fight. The Corcyraeans won the war but the Corinthians wanted revenge. Concerned about this situation, the Corcyraeans wanted to form an alliance with Athens. Athens, who listened to both sides, chose the Corcyraeans, and this choice overturned all balances. Corcyra defeated the Corinthians with the support of Athens. The first war between the Athenians and the Corinthians would be the beginning of the breakdown of the Thirty Years Peace between Athens and Sparta, and the wars that would never end thereafter. The Peloponnesian Wars took about 30 years in the entire region. In addition to Athens and Sparta, other city-states in the region sometimes waged war between Sparta or Athens and sometimes between themselves. Sparta was the winner of the Peloponnesian Wars, and the Athenians were struck by wars in both the Sicilian and the Aegean seas.

When the war occurred, Athens lost and Sparta won, but there was a questionable question. Who was the reason for the war? On this paper, I will briefly explain the main reason of the war. Although the cause of the war is the civil war in Sparta, Athens or Epidamnus, it is a strong argument that it is not the main reason and that it is by nature of the Wars. There are three reason why the var was inevitable? And why Sparta, Athens and Civil war were not the main reason of the Peloponnesian War?

The first reason that proves war was inevitable, is the word “Dilemma”. Dilemma, it refers to the instability in which people choose to choose between two bad and undesirable situations. It means that someone has two option, and one of them should be choose and none of them are in favor of this person. The dilemmas in this period appeared constantly. Because of the nature of the dilemma states cannot avoid themselves from the unwanted conditions, in this case wars. Beside all these arguments there are some saying that claim Athens were guilty in this war because they claim that Athens broke the Thirty Years' Peace rules. In contrast there are some strong arguments that shows this claim is not that much true. There were two type of dilemmas in this context, “Security dilemma” and “Prisoners dilemma”. And How these dilemmas influence the war and Why the war was inevitable?

First reason, as a dilemma, was Security. Security is the core principle for a country. Even the slightest security concern can do anything to a country. Security dilemma, in political science, a situation in which actions taken by a state to increase its own security cause reactions from other states, which in turn lead to a decrease rather than an increase in the original state’s security (Wivel, 2019) . If a state perceives and fires a threat from another state, it means that the perceived state responds in the same way. In this case, both states were armed against each other, which resulted in a huge burden on both the economy and the military.

Security dilemma first seem at the Epidamnus Problem. The city of Epidamnus experienced a civil war and the city had asked for help from the Corcyraeans, who were the island city states in the same region. Epidamnus, who could not get the help they expected, asked the Corinthians which is under the Spartan league to help. The Corcyraeans besieged the city to protect when the they learned that Corinthians would help the Epidamnus. When these moves taken to protect the Epidamnus by the Corcyraeans were perceived differently by the Corinthians, these conditions undesirably caused the war to begin. This was the trigger of the Peloponnesian wars that would lead to larger destruction.

The second reason was Prisoners dilemma. In its most general sense, the prisoner's dilemma is the conscience of the prisoner in the two separate interrogation rooms on their behalf unaware of each other. If one of the prisoners speaks about the other and the other is silent, the prisoner who is witness to his testimony will be released, and the detained prisoner will be tried with a 10-year prison sentence. If both prisoners are silenced, they will be sentenced to 1 year each. If they talk to both prisoners as a last chance, they will both get 5 years in prison. The main problem here is lack of confidence and not knowing what the other person thinks.

As Joseph S. Nye Jr. and David A. Welch (2014) stated “The Athenians position in 432 looks very much like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the middle of the century, the Athenians and Spartans agreed they were both better off having a truce” (p. 27). On the other hand, If Athens makes an alignment with the Corcyra, they will break the rules but if they did not make alignment, other side can do it and Athens may become alone. Suspicion of being weak and alone pushed the Athens to choose such a way. That’s why Athens had no any other choice rather than doing this.

An example of the chaos caused by the Security Dilemma is the Cold War between 1947 and 1991. The foundation of the problem is based on the Second World War. The fragile alliance, which was formed during the Second World War, has been lost because of the mutual distrust that resulted in the victory of the war. The United States and the Soviet Socialist Republics have become two superpowers due to the victory of the war. The dispute between them on many issues caused the two sides to polarize against each other. In the bipolar system that dominated this period between the US and the USSR, one of the winners of the Second World War, the parties increased their search for mutual power and entered a period of arms race. When the confidence in each other gradually decreased, the security dilemma of the US and the USSR had worsened the situation. The first action that they take was the nuclear deterrence. US military use of nuclear weapons in the second world war has worried the USSR and Soviet went to nuclear. This was the only one example of security dilemma in Cold War. And it can prove how actions that was taken by one state can be misunderstood by another one.

The second reason why the Peloponnesian War was inevitable, is that Civil war did not cause the war. For the wars to start, there must always be a chaos that ignites the event. But the main point to be considered, would there be big wars without this type of small chaos? According to many views, civil war in the Epidamnus cause Peloponnesian War. In contrast, this argument is not that much true. Before the starting analyses it is important to know the civil war in the Epidamnus.

As Joseph S. Nye Jr. and David A. Welch (2014) mentioned “In Epidamnus, the democrats fought with oligarchs over how the country would be ruled. The democrats appealed to the city-state of Corcyra, which had helped establish Epidamnus, but were turned down. They then turned to another city-state, Corinth and the Corinthians decided to help. This angered the Corcyraeans, who sent a fleet to recapture Epidamnus, their former colony” (p. 24) After this Conflict, war has started between Corcyra and Corinth. And then, it has expanded to the Athens after that, it leaped to the side of Sparta. If there was no civil war, would the war begin? There is a counterfactual that how the direction of the war can change, if one event change?

Counterfactually, one war possible again but it can start in different way. Before the civil problems in Epidamnus, there was a bigger and ongoing problem between Corcyra and Corinth. Thucydides (2017) has mentioned this conflict in his book in a few sentences; Corcyra was the colony of Corinth. But the Corcyra people did not show the necessary respect to the Corinth. At that time, colonies had to give the first products of the animal sacrifice ceremony, to the state which they were attached. In other words, the Corcyraeans did not do what other states did. On the other hand, the Corcyraeans underestimated the Corinth because they have become very rich. In addition, the Corcyraeans developed very well on maritime. The diplomatic problems between these two city states was the core reason of the Corinth-Corcyra War that will gets bigger afterwards like an avalanche. Civil war has only accelerated the situation. The almost same situation has also been experienced in the recent past.

In the WW1, as many people assumes, one of the main reasons for the beginning of the war is the civil war in the Hungarian empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is killed by Serbian young who is the member of Young Bosnian movement. The reason behind this assassination was creating the chaos and separating the South Slavic regions from Austria-Hungary and adding them to the Kingdom of Serbia. After this assassination the war the conflict in Austria-Hungary has expanded to all Europe. But again, the main cause of the WW1 is not the civil war in Austria-Hungary Empire. There are so many reasons behind the WW1 such as spread of nationalism, harshness of German policy, etc. The world was ready for a battle and only a spark was expected. Civil wars have always been a spark of great wars.

The third reason why the Peloponnesian War was inevitable, is the loss of balance of power. Balance of power is an understanding that aims to maintain a balance between countries, not allowing a country to take control of everything that is military, political and economic. According to some views the real cause of Peloponnesian War was Sparta because of its aggressive policy against Athens. In contrast, the situation is not what it seems. The Athenians were very powerful, and this made the Spartan uneasy. The deterioration of the power balance between the Greek city-states means that a state has a voice over others. And this was not welcomed by the Spartans. Also, as Thucydides (2017) stated that “But the main reason nobody could admit was that the Athenians became extremely powerful and the Spartans were afraid of them” (p. 17). To understand the how the balance of power has collapsed, it is important to know How has Athens become so powerful?

“Sparta was a conservative, land-oriented state that turned inward after the victory over Persia; Athens was a commercial, sea-oriented state that turned outward”. Athens had a good location for the sea trade and based on their strategy they are open to trade and was seeking to develop. Also, Athens had an organization called Delian League. Athens was not afraid to enter the war. If they felt like they were going to fail in a war, they attacked a few points on their way back to overcome the battle with minimum loss. On the other hand, the Spartans were only interested in observing the events because The Spartans were not a pro-war society. They would fight when they had to. The aim for this alliance was to protect states against the Persia and Athens were collecting taxes from states who wants to join this league. These taxes that they pay were very high so that Athens become so powerful comparing to Sparta.

The power balance policy is that, in a geography, a country creates an open threat and other states make alliances and take a stand against it. Athens become stronger than other city states and Sparta has begun to make alliances with other city states. Sparta already had alliances with city states in the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The Corinthians were angry with the Athens because Athens chose Corcyra in the problems in the Epidamnus. Therefore, Corinthians were not happy because Spartans were passive against the Athens. Although the strategy is opposite, unbalanced distribution of power pushed the Spartans to the war. In addition, balance of power theory includes a conflict that can be seen in the Peloponnesian war too. “Balance of power theory, however, predicts that a state will join whoever seems weaker, because states will act to keep any one state from becoming preponderant”. It the theory, this is the case but in real life it is vice versa. For instance, in the early day of the conflicts, the states were trying to join stronger side instead of weaker one. The Corcyraeans and Corinthians have spent many hours in parliament to be allied with a strong state Athens. In contrast to the theory, states that want to be in favor of the powerful have both caused the Spartan to be in a difficult position, and the balance of power has become worse. But why the states had decided to join stronger side instead of weaker one? It is called Bandwagoning. This defines the weak states decided to be with the powerful ones because of some reason such as lack of alternatives etc. This was the same as the Peloponnesian.

More powerful examples are available that shows how has changes in balance of power cause the war? For instance, again WW1 is the basic example. Before the First World War, the balance in Europe began to deteriorate. As Joseph S. Nye Jr. and David A. Welch (2014) stated “German heavy industry surpassed that of Great Britain in the 1890s, and the growth of German gross national product at the beginning of the century was twice that of Great Britain’s”. France and Britain wanted to stand against this rapid growth of Germany. And same situation has happened as Peloponnesian war.

According to the realists, interstate relations are not a harmony or harmony relationship, but a conflict. Each state will keep its own interest ahead. Realists believe that human nature is bad and that it is impossible to bring peace. According to Thucydides, one of the first representatives of the realist view, the state was the main actor in international relations and international interest is in the forefront. States are in search of power and therefore wars are inevitable for some reason that were mentioned above.

In my analysis, I have tried to focus on how the wars were inevitable by giving example from the history. Dilemmas was the first reason because one of the two negative choices should be selected in the dilemmas. The cold war was the main example of security dilemma. During the Cold War, the concept of security dilemma was always interpreted and perceived as predicting negative results. In this case, the power race between the two superpowers has revealed. The result of this competition was negative for both sides. The biggest reason for this is that each step in the name of security gives rise to insecurity for the other party. The second reason was a false inference “The civil war in the Epidamnus caused the Peloponnesian war”. It was not logic that millions of people to die because of an assassination. This example was from WW1. Small events only accelerate the process. As I mentioned before “Civil wars have always been a spark of great wars.” Third reason was the imbalances in the distribution of power. As this happened before the WW1, if one state starts to have superiority over others, it may cause a conflict because others worry about crushing at the bottom. All in all, it is an inevitable fact that wars are harmful and cost millions of people's lives and property, but it has been a controversial question that whether we can prevent the wars or not. However, at this point, even if not wanted, battles emerge.

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Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/thucydides-and-the-peloponnesian-war/
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