Thucydides: General and Historian (Austin Mitchell, 2016)

Abstract: Thucydides was an Athenian general and historian who lived during the time of the Peloponnesian War. His most notable contribution to history was the book the History of the Peloponnesian War. In his book, Thucydides used his own experience as a general during the war and his knowledge of the events of the war to give an accurate and detailed account of the various conflicts of the War, such as the Sicilian Expedition. In addition, Thucydides examined the reasons for the conflict and the motivations and desires that drove each side.


Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian who lived from the 460s – 390s B.C. Thucydides was an Athenian, and, in addition to his work as a historian, he served as a general during the Peloponnesian War. His only work as a historian was the History of the Peloponnesian War, which covered the time period leading up to the war and the war itself until 411 B.C., when his account abruptly stops. During antiquity, Thucydides was renowned for his vivid and entertaining descriptions of the battles of the Peloponnesian War. While many of his mentions of battles are short and to the point, Thucydides’ descriptions of the larger, more decisive battles, especially those of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, are much more detailed and interesting. Being a general during the War, his own firsthand knowledge of battlefield tactics would have been instrumental in writing these highly vivid descriptions of battles. His descriptions of the various battles of the war help the reader determine what were, in Thucydides’ opinion, the key conflicts of the war, as well as demonstrating the resolve of the Syracusan forces and the eventual desperation of the Athenians. The Sicilian Expedition was an attempt by Athens to take full control of the colonies on the island of Sicily, specifically Syracuse, which Athens feared could potentially ally itself with Sparta. The first battle of this conflict was fought at the beginning of winter in 415 B.C. just outside the walls of Syracuse. During his account of this battle, Thucydides establishes the basic motivations for both sides during the entire course of the Expedition. He writes that the two armies moved to engage, “the 2 Syracusans to fight for their country, and each individual for his safety that day and liberty hereafter,” while the Athenians “sought to make another’s country theirs and to save their own from suffering by their defeat” (Thuc. 6.69.3). This does a good job of portraying the Syracusans as wronged and sympathetic. Thucydides’ account also provides a very in depth look at what siege warfare was like in Greece during the 5th century B.C. During the summer of 414 B.C., Thucydides writes that after securing cavalry, the Athenian forces “advanced to Syca, where they halted and quickly built the Circle or center of their wall of circumvallation” (Thuc. 6.98.2). Circumvallation is strategy that involves building a wall around an enemy city with the intention of preventing support and food from entering the besieged city, thus starving out the enemy. During the Battle of Syracuse, the Syracusan defenders attempted to prevent this process by building a series of counter walls starting from the city walls and running out perpendicular to Athenians’. The Syracusans would end up making three different attempts at building counter walls, the first two having been destroyed by the Athenians before they were completed. Thucydides’ descriptions of the various attempts by both sides to build their walls and sabotage the enemy’s provide a very entertaining description of the battle. This style of siege was not easy to combat, and the Athenians have been noted as being among the best at siege warfare among the Greek poleis. Thucydides’ account helps demonstrate how much the Syracusans valued their freedom, and how willing and determined they were to fight for that freedom. However, without the arrival of help from Syracuse’s Peloponnesian allies, the Sicilian Expedition may well have ended in Athens’ favor. 3 Thucydides’ account only gets more interesting after the arrival of the Spartan general Gylippus and a Corinthian support fleet in Syracuse. During the winter of 415 B.C., the Syracusans sent word to both Corinth and Sparta requesting aid in their fight against the Athenians. Corinth agreed to send a number of ships to aid Syracuse, while Sparta was only able to send a single general. Gylippus sailed with the Corinthian fleet to Syracuse, arriving in the summer of 414 B.C. Gylippus and his army arrived in time to rally the Syracusan defenders, who had been considering surrender after the Athenians completed the southern half of their siege wall. Under Gylippus’ command, the Syracusans and their allies were able halt the Athenian progress on the northern wall, while also beginning construction of the third and final counter wall which, when completed, prevented the Athenians from completely encircling the city (Thuc. 7.2 – 7.6). During the fighting that took place along this third counter wall, Gylippus led two different assaults on the Athenian forces. During their first engagement, Gylippus kept his troops to close to the walls, preventing the Syracusan cavalry and skirmishers from operating effectively. This allowed the Athenians to defeat the Syracusan defenders for a time. Afterward, Gylippus called together his troops and took responsibility for the loss, realizing that he had made a mistake that “deprived them of the services of their cavalry and darters” (Thuc. 7.5.3). Gylippus’ acknowledgement of his mistake is very interesting, as it helps demonstrate that while the Spartans were thought of as the masters of the battlefield, they could still make mistakes. Gylippus begs his troops’ forgiveness, and promises that he will correct his error during the next battle. True to his word, during the next engagement Gylippus moves his men away from the walls, allowing the cavalry and darters to move effectively, and the Athenians were forced to retreat. (Thuc. 7.6) 4 Later, during the summer of 413 B.C., Thucydides recounts an attempted nighttime attack on the Syracusan counter wall by the Athenian forces under the command of Demosthenes. This kind of battle carries much higher risks than regular engagements, as the lack of light results in low visibility, which makes unit cohesion and battle lines much more difficult to maintain. During this battle, Thucydides notes that the paeans, or war chants, of Athens’ Dorian allies, namely Argos and Corinth, as well as the similarity of their armor to that of the Syracusans, caused a great deal of confusion within the Athenian ranks. He writes that a number of the Athenian force ended up “coming into collision with each other in many parts of the field, friends with friends, and citizens with citizens” (Thuc. 7.44.7). This battle was a high risk, high reward gamble for the Athenians, and it ended badly for them as they mistakenly cut down many of their own men in the chaos. The fact that the Athenians even attempted an attack of this kind suggests how desperate they were to secure victory at Syracuse. Ultimately, however, the leadership of Gylippus and the resolve of the Syracusans would lead to an almost complete loss for Athens, with most of their forces being taken captive and enslaved and their fleet severely crippled by the loss of so many vessels (Thuc. 7.87.3-7). After the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition, much of the fighting of the Peloponnesian War shifted to the Aegean Sea and the Ionian coast. Most of the conflicts in this region were naval battles, which is where the Athenian military excelled. However, after the loss of so many ships in Sicily, the Athenians were forced to almost completely rebuild their navy. At the same time, with help and money from Persia, Sparta was able to build up a navy of its own. With this fleet, Sparta set out on a campaign to persuade Athens’ allies to rebel against them. Between 413 and 411 B.C., a 5 number of members of the Delian League rebelled against Athenian control, including Euboea, Lesbos, Chios, Miletus, and others. Athens became desperate for aid, having to fight multiple battles and put down revolts all across the Aegean. During this time, the Athenian exile Alcibiades managed to persuade Athens to recall him, promising that the Persian Satrap Tissaphernes would make an alliance with Athens if they recalled Alcibiades and replaced their democracy with an oligarchy. Athens was at first hesitant, but they eventually relented, and for a time the democracy was removed. This act demonstrates how desperate and afraid the Athenians were during this period, as they were willing to give up one of their most treasured institutions in the hope of receiving aid against Sparta. However, in the end, even this radical step was not enough; in 405 B.C., Sparta won a decisive battle at Aegospotami, capturing almost the entire Athenian fleet. Without its fleet, Athens was unable to prevent a Spartan blockade of the port of Piraeus, and they were forced to surrender or face starvation. Thucydides has always been renowned for the accuracy and detail with which he described the battles of the Peloponnesian War. His account of the events places emphasis on the more important battles of the War, such as the Sicilian Expedition, which he believed was “the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered” (Thuc. 7.87.5). Indeed, had the Athenians not attempted the Expedition, it is possible that they could have won the war. Instead, due to the Athenian desire for timē, the fear that Syracuse would aid Sparta, and the urging of Alcibiades, the Athenians sent their forces to Sicily, and in doing so suffered one of the worst losses of the entire war (Thuc. 6.9 – 6.24). Thucydides’ account helps convey the resolve of the Syracusan 6 defenders, even in the face of a much larger and more powerful enemy, as well as the desperation of the Athenians as they lost more and more of their empire.

-Austin Mitchell