Thucydides and Us

“You Americans, all you do is talk and talk, and say ‘let me tell you something’ and ‘I just wanna say.’ Well, you’re dead now, so shut up.”
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Twenty-five centuries ago, history’s greatest historian wrote his masterpiece. The Peloponnesian War—late fifth century BC—initiated the Western tradition of analyzing the deeper causes of military conflagrations. When we consider the tectonic forces that drove the religious, revolutionary, and totalitarian wars of the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, we’re working in the shadows of Thucydides. In this sense, he anticipated the likes of Sallust, Tacitus, Mariana, Gibbon, Tocqueville, and Halévy.

What makes Thucydides great, however, are the uncanny ways he describes our own experience. If we look coldly at the tides of human events and beyond history as a chronicle of dates, places, battles, and personalities, then there’s nothing new under the sun after Thucydides. He even signals freedom and commercial exchange as the proper priorities for heads of state. He isn’t just history’s greatest historian; he’s history’s greatest political philosopher. As Leo Strauss insisted, Aristotle and Plato dug up truths already unearthed by Thucydides.

As a sampling of his sophisticated observations, I offer four thematic pairings that make Thucydides relevant today. I wager they’d also make him relevant for any future or past world humans inhabit. I pair them because Thucydides does. Also, to the degree these are familiar, they’re accurate, inevitable, and universal—i.e., true.

It’s the nature of war—domestic or international, hot or cold—that each side confirms the worldviews of its enemies and exiles.

(1) Plagues and Broken Rituals

Historians’ doubts about the plague Thucydides uses to contextualize Pericles’s funereal speech (2.47–54) suggest poetic license. Can writing history involve poetic license? It’s a composite. Thucydides’s point is that crisis sows fear—phobos—which drives social behavior. A war is the natural result of an anxious population. The menacing presence of Persian satraps and the occasional earthquake, drought, famine, eclipse, or storm add to this sense of geopolitical aggression as a response to exogenous shocks (cf. 1.23.3).

The internal signal of this view of group violence—i.e., as induced or released—appears in the two perversions of sacrificial rituals that Thucydides describes at Sparta and Athens (1.126–128). For their part, the Spartans betray some rebellious slaves—helots—who take refuge in a sanctuary. They promise them fair treatment, lure them outside, and kill them. It shouldn’t surprise us that an earthquake marks the event. Thucydides sees the blind spot at the epicenter of the social contract that sustains Sparta’s agrarian caste system.

A shared fear of slave revolts generally incentivizes the Peloponnesian League’s aristocratic alliance. And the slaughter of slaves not only displays cruelty and fear at Sparta; it clarifies the pull of democratic Athens. The latter thrives as a haven for slaves and others cast off by the neighboring network of agrarian elders.

Meanwhile, a complementary shock occurs in Athens. An internal power struggle discloses a paradox: Athens’s popular appeal makes her dangerous and hated.

Rebels within Athens make a bad tactical decision about which ritual fulfills a political prophecy. This again leads to killings that defile a sacred space. Thucydides articulates their choice with precision: an Athenian rite versus a universal one that’s “held outside the city” and at which “they offer their sacrifices as a whole people, many of them making not the normal sacrifices of animals but offerings of local origin.” The rebels choose the more chauvinistic ritual, causing their bloodshed. This shows that the advantage of Athens is her flaw. Athenians are radical cosmopolitans when tendering citizenship, but that makes them aggressive toward the neighboring cities from which many of them have flown. And Sparta is an ally of such cities.

The failed rites cause curses. Two sources of human gravity lock onto each other and are doomed to collide. A pirouette of social plagues. Rival societies’ “demands and counter-demands” drag them into mutually reinforcing political differences. Mediocre historians insist the Peloponnesian War wasn’t a civil war. Yet, each league feeds off the other’s existence the way the North and South did in America circa 1860. Even antagonisms that seem more external—Marxist Russia versus Weimar Germany before WWII or the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East—pit universal radicalism against regional autonomy.

It’s the nature of war—domestic or international, hot or cold—that each side confirms the worldviews of its enemies and exiles.

(2) Language and Sexuality Adrift

As the Peloponnesian War waxes and wanes, language and sexuality manifest additional signs of societal decay. These, too, are reciprocal to the degree they represent betrayals and deflations of confidence amidst the fighting. One famous passage resonated with Cervantes and Hobbes. Language games in the public plaza signal what Thucydides calls stasis or civic strife: “Men assumed the right to reverse the usual values in the application of words to actions” (3.82.4).

Alongside this linguistic trickery, Thucydides narrates a sexual melodrama, and both are political. The social rules underwriting interpersonal relations lose their effectiveness in the public square: “the ties of family became less close than those of party since party members had no inhibitions about any venture” (3.82.7). Later, he describes the same problem at the war’s turning point. Military overreach on Sicily, which marks the beginning of the end for Athens, coincides with a homosexual rivalry that triggers an assassination attempt as revenge for the humiliation of an unshared lover’s sister.

This madness is pivotal and deliberate. Thucydides takes pride in squaring the record about what happened at Athens (1.20; 6.56–57). Sexuality intensifies with power. Thucydides’s larger point, however, is that when sexuality breaks family bonds and burns social bridges, then we’re distracting ourselves from greater glory. Plato reworked the theme in The Symposium, tarring with lasciviousness Alcibiades, the same general recalled from Sicily to face trial at Athens for the hot mess detailed by Thucydides. Plato tells us Alcibiades failed to seduce Socrates. Gadflies, like saints, avoid what Machiavelli might have called the “reason of sex.” But these exceptions confirm the tragic rule of the violence that’s invited by a society’s decadence.

When the rules of language and sex begin to unravel, something wicked this way comes.

Most Americans don’t read the classics. They can’t see how ancient wisdom could possibly illuminate their circumstances. It’s paradoxical because the idealism that fuels our free market and democratic republic is rooted in these historical insights.

(3) War or Trade?

Thucydides established the inverted intimacy of trade and war early on. “These, then, were the navies of the Greeks,” he says, as a thalassocracy emerges from Crete. In the wake of Minos’s suppression of piracy and imposition of a merchant empire across the Aegean, Athenians are the first to achieve “a more relaxed and comfortable lifestyle” (1.1–15). However, this connection between raw power and commercial wealth requires us to read The Peloponnesian War as a tragedy—i.e., a failure to escape from humanity’s labyrinth of violence and infidelity.

When military things fall apart on Sicily in concert with sexual dissolution at Athens, Thucydides supplements the martial and marital decay with two betrayals of the mercantile spirit. First, sacred monuments to Hermes, the god of commerce, are defiled (6.27–29) just before the passions at Athens and the disaster on Sicily. Second, Greek soldiers break into a marketplace at Catana, ruining an otherwise successful “hearts and minds” campaign along the coast north of Syracuse. The vitality of commerce abandoned in favor of coercion parallels a rebellious speech delivered within Syracuse by Athenagoras, a fictional character whose name alludes to the goddess of wisdom and the marketplace (Athena + Agoras). An eerie reflection of Pericles, Athenagoras is among Thucydides’s most substantial poetic statements (6.35–51).

Historians view WWI and WWII as bloodbaths unleashed by governments that tried to diffuse domestic unrest with protectionism, industrial planning, and foreign-policy scapegoats. Thus, liberal economists naturally bemoan the current trade war between China and the U.S. Putting trade at the crux of international relations threatens to limit wealth creation. The risk is that armies instead of businesses will cross frontiers. Frédéric Bastiat once asked rhetorically: “What possible similarity can there be between a warship that comes to vomit missiles, fire, and devastation on our cities and a merchant vessel that comes to offer us a voluntary exchange of goods for goods?” (Economic Sophisms 1.22). What they share the most is their absolute dissimilarity from each other. Thucydides saw this same dynamic.

(4) Factions and Individuals

Thucydides’s political philosophy centers on his contrasts between elites and masses. The rise of factional politics among Athenians signals their fading interest in social cohesion, and vice versa; brief social harmonies achieved by the art of politics only emerge from shared desperation. Even so, obvious external threats often fail to overcome reciprocating resentments. In the famous passage where language breaks down during the advent of stasis, Thucydides notes our brutal emotions as part of the same phenomenon: “To get revenge on someone mattered more than not being hurt in the first place oneself” (3.82.7).

Let me just say I’m not satisfied English or French political philosophers had much to do with the origins of the greatest political treatise of modern times. It was Thucydides who most animated The Federalist Papers (1787–88). The schism Americans dodged in 1789 looked like another Peloponnesian War. Few Americans read our founding document; fewer understand it. That’s why Yankee historians remain enamored of Morris and Hamilton and detest Jefferson and Madison. But Athenian Northerners and Spartan Southerners were destined to hate each other long before 1861. Thankfully, our worst war ended contrary to the one described by Thucydides. This time, democratic Athens won, not aristocratic Sparta.

Similarly, in 1981, at the end of the Cold War and before the Falklands War (1982), two members of Oxford College—Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste. Croix and Antony Andrewes—defended opposing theories about what caused the Peloponnesian War. It seems their difference hinged on Thucydides’s last authorial statement: “And for the first time in my life at any rate, the Athenians appear to have enjoyed good government, with a moderating balance between the few and the many, and this was the thing that first began to lift the city out of its sorry state” (8.97.2).

What makes a nation’s hotheaded democrats fall in love again with her phlegmatic aristocrats, factions so inclined to loathe one another? The answer appears in the dynamics of the American War of Independence and the Falklands War—i.e., an external menace represses internal tensions between Jefferson and Hamilton or Andrewes and Ste. Croix.

Nothing buries our hatchets for us so much as a common enemy.

However, as the triangular situation of Sicily, Sparta, and Athens implies, whenever a nation unites to go to war, others might coordinate against her. Could Syracuse count on Spartan support? Or would Sparta demur because an Athenian collapse might bring about another Thermopylae? Before the Guerra de las Malvinas, could England be sure the U.S. wouldn’t invoke the Monroe Doctrine as it had against Spain in 1898? Reagan hesitated. Mrs. Thatcher—recalling Suez?—is reported to have said two words, “Diego García,” referring to the militarized atoll in the Indian Ocean thought critical to countering communist Russia.

“President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom reviewing troops on the South Lawn during the arrival ceremony” — November 16, 1988 — Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, I sometimes think Ronaldus Maximus was too enamored of the Iron Lady. Weren’t England and Argentina compelled to distract their domestic populations during dark times? Argentina was also fighting communists—i.e., doing the right thing, given the revolutionary spirit that haunted Latin America. Maybe she deserved more from us. Then again, America couldn’t abandon her “Special Relationship” with the mother country while facing down Russia. Thucydides shows that societies are sometimes fated to fight.

You might ask, dear reader, how can we exit history’s binary mazes? It’s not as easy as it looks. After Socrates and Christ—maybe only after Petrarch, Ficino, and da Vinci—the West tries to put its faith in individuals. Thus, mobs, mass movements, and tribal killing sprees seem foreign to many of us. Thucydides foreshadowed this. Unwilling to choose between Brasidas—a Spartan aristocrat, “the few”—and Cleon—an Athenian demagogue, “the many”—he had a meltdown before the Battle of Amphipolis. He then went into exile on the Peloponnese (4.102–109; 5.26.5).

Writing history’s greatest history required an individual unmoored from a whirlpool of competing loyalties.


Most Americans don’t read the classics. They can’t see how ancient wisdom could possibly illuminate their circumstances. It’s paradoxical because the idealism that fuels our free market and democratic republic is rooted in these historical insights. If only people could be both naïve and realistic at the same time. But even then, someone would object. This brings us back to Athens and Amphipolis’s high and low factions. A circular truism: we want calibrated republics so that liberated individuals can emerge to sustain opposing worldviews. If either side wins out, the negating logic of liberty gets crushed, and then we’re stuck with no way forward.

In most wars, we prefer one side, but if there’s to be hope for humanity, we should favor the side that maximizes opportunities for the most individuals. Liberty works as an antifragile vaccine against the idiocy of crowds (see Jefferson, Query VI). Unthinking mobs go to war. Hobbes wrote that his mother gave birth to twins as the Spanish Armada approached: “myself and fear.” A devotee of Thucydides, he saw the phobos that drifts through The Peloponnesian War bubbling to the surface again in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). When a requisition officer for the Armada Invencible, an ex-slave named Cervantes, indicated commerce as the solution to the ethnic labyrinth of Southern Spain (see DQ 1.44–45), he too had Thucydides in mind.

Today, as Argentina struggles to extricate herself from decades of collectivist insanity, the Anglo-Hispanic world must welcome her back into a liberal order that values individuals. We should also reflect on her example if we’re to avoid our own decline. This last point is urgent, given the waves of fury now aimed at sacred monuments in the West. Therefore, I want to ask you a question, dear reader. Have we forgotten our rites? Rule of law, freedom of movement of people and capital, a single currency, and no tariffs are the ways forward.

Photo by Chris JL — Flickr


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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