Thursday 27 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VIII

Isle of Chios
Frederic Leighton
source ArtUK

History of the Peloponnesian War

Book VIII:  While Athens is paralyzed in disbelief about the catastrophic Sicilian expedition, Sparta takes advantage of their weakness and begins to foment strife among Athenian allies.  They instigate revolts in Chios and Miletus, as well as other areas that pay tribute to Athens.  The Athenians fight back with some success.  Various battles and political strategems abound, with Alcibiades coming to the forefront, inciting unrest and disagreement wherever he goes, a result of his selfish manipulations.  Finally the Peloponnesians suspect him of subterfuge as he is now tight with the Persian, Tissapherne, and the Athenians mistrust him as well.  It is unclear as to whether Alcibiades' urging is the main catalyst, but suddenly Athenian groups break from their beloved democracy and revolt against it, sending envoys back to Athens to overthrow the democracy and establish oligarchies along the way.  Their actions are so ill-planned that the areas they convert are so intoxicated with their new freedom that they begin self-government and the intended plan of the reform set to them by the Athenian envoys is completely ignored.  Sparta and Persia form an alliance and Alcibiades is up to his usual no-good, playing off Sparta and Athens against each other with the help of Tissapherne, the corrupt Persian governor.  

In Athens, mistrust and subterfuge is rampant as no one knows who to trust and any opponent of oligarchies is murdered.  A “party” named the Four Hundred overthrows the democracy in Athens and takes control, and another oligarchic party in Samos plans the same, but they are thwarted by a number of pro-democratic Athenians who vow to have nothing to do with the oligarchs in Athens, intending to restore democracy by fighting on their own.
Eretria, Euboea, Greece
Edward Lear
source Wikiart
Alcibiades begins to pander to the Athenians again and Sparta is concerned about desertion if they do not win a decisive battle.  Meanwhile, back in Athens there is discontent and people are now jockeying for position if the oligarchy falls.  The oligarchs send an envoy to Sparta asking for peace and indeed, these cowardly oligarchs would have rather lost their liberty and their country than see a return to democracy.  Murders and unrest abound and people are so panicked that some call for rule under the Five Thousand even though there is no proof that that body even exists.  A Spartan fleet reaches Eretria in Euboea and the Euboeans revolt from Athens which promotes panic in the city but the Spartans are too obtuse to sense this opportunity, or so our learned author claims.  Athens quickly disposes of the oligarchs, installs the Five Thousand, enacts new reforms and recalls Alcibiades.  A victory for the Athenian fleet at the Hellespont restores their confidence.

The Acropolis of Athens (1883)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Finally Thucydides' narrative breaks off in the middle of the 21st year of the war in 411 B.C., and we learn no more directly from the author.  The war ended in 404 B.C., so we miss seven more years of fighting, political posturing, strife and discontent.  Among the war incidents not disclosed, we miss two partial Athenian victories at Cyzicus and Arginouse and her final defeat by the famous Spartan commander Lysander at Aegopotami, where he captured almost the entire Athenian fleet in the Hellespont.  After this embarrassment, Athens had but no choice than to sue for peace.  Sparta decided to allow Athens to remain as a city, but demanded her fleet, the demolition of the Walls protecting her, and freedom for all states that were once part of the Athenian empire.  From a powerful, vibrant democracy to a broken, isolated dependent, the loss of freedom must have been heavy indeed to this once great city.

This final chapter though was quite riveting and exposed the perils and weaknesses of human nature like no other has done so far. 


  1. I know I haven't been commenting on these, but I just don't have anything to say. I guess I'll wait until you start another book :-D

    1. Ha ha! I'm going to probably put a number of you to sleep again, as I start the Republic. The good news is that I'm reading other books in between so HOPEFULLY, I'll throw in a couple of reviews on those before long!

    2. I thought Book VIII was a bit harder to follow, maybe because there's less dialogue/rhetoric than in earlier parts of the book. One of the interesting bits of this section, though, is Thucydides's description of "the line of conduct so surely fatal to oligarchies that arise out of democracies." In these governments the oligarchs pretend to be more than political equals: each thinks himself "the chief and master of his fellows" and will not easily accept political defeat. In democracies, on the other hand, the democratic process means that the outcome of elections is largely a matter of chance, so defeat is not really a cause for humiliation.

      The hardest parts of reading Thucydides were probably getting started and finishing, but I enjoyed most of the middle and overall it was quite powerful.

    3. So interesting ..... I loved Book VIII because I thought it really highlighted the defects of human nature in more condensed (events) and yet a little more detailed fashion: the attacks and manipulations and changing alliances and chaos and short-sightedness, etc. I was sad when it ended.

      I wonder though if the Greeks set up true oligarchies as a fair comparison. It sounded like a bunch of people wanting to try something new that was influenced by a complete Narcissist (Alcibiades) and then went about it in a haphazard fashion.

      It's interesting that Thucydides targets "oligarchies that arise out of democracies" You'd think if the new rulers had been in a democracy, they would have been used to "sharing" and not on such big power-trips. It is clear however, that Thucydides values democracy.

      I'm glad to have you reading along with us! You're often ahead of me and sometimes it seems we're the only ones who finish, with the exception of perhaps, Ruth. I hope you continue on with the list!