Studying the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War is one of those ancient conflicts that draws the attention of many individuals. It was a series skirmishes of and battles, lasting over a period of 30 years, that became the Peloponnesian War. It was a struggle between the city-states of Athens and Sparta of Ancient Greece. Greek history and culture had a significant impact on the Western world and played an important role in the forming of Western thought. However, the Peloponnesian War itself did not have an impact that went much beyond the borders of Greece. It itself didn’t have any impact on the world at that time. It was a conflict between two backwater states in a backwater part of the world.

How can we go about studying it? Here is my method.

Why we should still study the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War is a great gateway into wider Ancient Greek history and culture. It can be the introduction into the world of Ancient Greece. The Greek world heavily influenced the Romans and through the Romans much of the Western world. Militarily, it was one step in the development of Western military thinking.

But more importantly, the Peloponnesian War is a great primer into the study of strategy. Paradox and opposing strategic interests guided the actions of Sparta, Athens, and their allies. The scope of the conflict, the high quality and quantity of source material available, and the focus of that source material on the reasoning of the main actors makes the war ripe for study from a strategy point of view.

Tools for studying

What is needed to study the Peloponnesian War and understand the underlying reasons for the decisions that were made?

For my own studies I have found four resources to be the bare minimum:

  • The Landmark Thucydides, written by the Ancient Greek historian and witness of the events, Thucydides, based on the translation by Richard Crawley, updated and commented by Robert Strassler, it is the essential source for studying the Peloponnesian War. The book itself can be dense, confusing and hard to understand at times. Studying it could take months or years. However, the real gold lies in the appendices which explain the historical and cultural context of the time. They are well written and easy to understand and worth the read.
  • Introduction to Ancient Greek History, video lectures by Yale University. These video lectures not only explain the Peloponnesian War but again give the cultural and military context that is necessary to really understand the conflict.
  • The Hoplite Experience, Penn State University. This superb website thoroughly explains Ancient Greek warfare, revealing another aspect of why military operations were conducted the way they were.
  • Polis: Fight for the Hegemony boardgame. To really understand the decisions made we have to immerse ourselves in the situation as much as possible. Boardgames are a great way of doing this. A well-designed boardgame helps us understand the constraints and motivations decisionmakers had by putting us in their seats and forcing those same constraints and motivations on us. Why did the Athenians start their expedition to Syracuse? Why couldn’t they see that that was a bad idea? It is easy for us to judge their actions in hindsight and without truly understanding the context in which they made those decisions. James Lacey, professor at the Marine Corps War College, recommends Polis for that purpose and I agree with him that it is a great tool.

Studying the war

Before diving right into the Peloponnesian War, I have to set the stage. Some background studying is necessary in order to be able to really appreciate and understand what is going on. Here, the video lectures come in handy. Videos 1-16 do a good job of giving a general overview of the time and conditions. As I am not so much the auditory learner, I listen to the videos while doing other things that don’t mentally engage me, i.e. cleaning, cooking or driving. That way I can get a general overview but don’t worry about missing things as I will come back to them in my reading.

I dedicate reading time for study. During that time, I read the appendices of the Landmark Thucydides which are really what makes the book worth reading. They do a great job of setting the context of the Ancient Greek world and the Peloponnesian War. Whereas I find the History of the Peloponnesian War as written by Thucydides really hard to read and understand due to the writing style and the great number of people involved and events taking place (and really not worth your time unless you really want to get every single detail of the Peloponnesian War), I think the appendices by Strassler are great.
I also learned how to play Polis while I was doing all the above.

After these preliminary steps, I was ready for diving into the Peloponnesian War. Listening to the appropriate video lectures gave an overview of the war. Playing Polis made it possible to deeply understand the events and challenges that decisionmakers were faced with. That way I not only read/heard about the decisions that were made and the events that took place, but I played them out myself and understood why Athens did this or Sparta did that.

What is your method of studying the Peloponnesian War?
What parts of Thucydides are important to be read in order to gain a deeper understanding?

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