Herodotus XXIII: Herodotus, the Peloponnesian War, and Thucydides



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This lecture considers the political context in which Herodotus probably wrote the Histories and its importance for our understanding of both his work and his successor, Thucydides. During the 420s B.C.E., Athens and Sparta were at war with each other in a conflict called the Peloponnesian War; the lecture briefly summarizes the most important events of the early years of that war and discusses the questions of when Herodotus’ work was published and when he may have visited Athens and Sparta. The lecture then turns to the vexing question of Herodotus’ attitude toward Athens and discusses some of the possible interpretative implications of his treatment of these two city-states. We consider whether Herodotus was pro-Athenian, pro-Spartan, or a nonpartisan who regretted the conflict of these two great cities and hoped to remind them of their previous cooperation at the time of the Persian Wars. Finally, the lecture introduces Herodotus’ successor, Thucydides, who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War.

I. Herodotus wrote at least part of the Histories during the early years of the great conflict between Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 B.C.E. and ended with Athens’ defeat in 404 B.C.E. A. The Peloponnesian War was the culmination of antagonism between Athens and Sparta, which had built up throughout the middle of the 5th century B.C.E., particularly with the increase of Athens’ power through the Delian League. 1. Sparta, too, had alliances with other poleis, in what modern historians call the “Peloponnesian League.” 2. This was the oldest known alliance; Sparta had made its first treaties with other Peloponnesian states in the 6th century B.C.E. 3. However, Sparta never had the degree of control over allied states that Athens had in the Delian League. B. Athens and Sparta came to open war with each other in the First Peloponnesian War of 460–445 B.C.E.

II. The history of the Peloponnesian War is complex; we can only glance at the first few years, when Herodotus was writing. A. The first ten years of the war are often called the Archidamian War. B. The war began with a quarrel between Athens and Corinth. C. There seems to have been strong pro-Sparta feeling among many Greek city-states that disliked Athens’ growing hegemony. War was declared in 431 B.C.E., and the Spartans invaded Attica. D. The crowding and unsanitary conditions led to the outbreak of plague in 430, 429, and 427 B.C.E.

III. The course of the war during the 420s B.C.E. is very complicated, with victories and defeats for both sides. During this period, Herodotus was probably finishing the Histories. A. There was a one-year truce in 423 B.C.E.; the Peace of Nicias was then signed in 421 B.C.E. B. Obviously, a foremost question for Herodotean studies is how many of these events he lived to see. Unfortunately, we do not know when Herodotus began to write or when he died. C. The question of Herodotus’ publication date is significant, because one possible motivation for Herodotus’ writing the Histories was to remind the warring Greeks of a time when they had worked together.

IV. In particular, scholars have disagreed over Herodotus’ precise attitude toward Athens. Herodotus has been seen as a partisan for Pericles’ policies, as anti-Periclean, and as many things in between. In examining this issue, we must bear several points in mind. A. First, we are hampered in trying to extrapolate Herodotus’ attitude toward contemporary Athenian politics by the fact that we do not know when Herodotus began to write or where he was when he wrote most of the Histories. B. The question of Herodotus’ target audience is also important. C. Another important question is where Herodotus got his information about Athenian history. Who were his sources, and does his work reflect their bias?

V. One of the most important passages for evaluating Herodotus’ position toward Athens and Sparta occurs at Book VII.139. A. Herodotus says that he will express an opinion that he knows most people will dislike. B. It is also important to realize that although Herodotus recognized Athens’ crucial role in winning the Persian Wars, that does not mean that he either endorsed Athens’ current policies or even that he was a wholehearted admirer of democracy. C. Herodotus’ position can perhaps best be taken as one of admiration for some aspects of both Athens and Sparta and one of regret and sadness that two such cities should now be at war with each other.

VI. The Peloponnesian War was the subject of Herodotus’ first great successor, Thucydides. Thucydides is often seen as the true “father of history.” However, without Herodotus’ example, it is unlikely that Thucydides would have undertaken his own work.

—Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
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