This is the best book on geopolitics ever written. It’s very difficult, too. His style isn’t that difficult and the subject matter is straightforward. The difficulty, as the school of Leo Strauss would later point out, is a dialectic between a surface reading and a deeper reading.
Part of the book’s popularity is the parallel to the American Empire, prompting such devices as a “Thucydides Trap.” Will American overextend itself and force China to attack it? I think that line of questioning is wrong, but the parallels remain. America, like Athens, is a sea-based power (in the classical Halford Mackinder sense). America, like Athens, believes in spreading Democracy by force whether others want it or not. America, like Athens, doesn’t really practice democracy.
We also see in Athens the “rhetoric of empire.” We must rule you because if we don’t someone will rule us.
The fatal moment for Athens is the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Syracuse.
The first set of causes is the Corcyraen and Potidean affairs. This put Athens in a bind. On one hand, they were bound to a peace treaty and couldn’t get involved by helping Corinth. They decided to risk open confrontation because they couldn’t risk Sparta’s allies gaining that much power (I.44ff). Corinth, Sparta’s ally, saw this as Athen’s breaking a peace treaty (56).
Thucydides gives a penetrating analysis of Athenian democracy. He points out that democracy and empire are connected. In the aftermath both sides then recruit their vassals and allies to prepare for war against the other.
Key idea: “War is not so much a matter of armament as of the finance which gives effect to that armament, especially when a land power meets a sea power” (83). Sparta fears that Athens is getting too powerful and has to act before it is too late (118). Athens, on the other hand, knows (or at least believes) that it can “outspend Sparta to death.”
Platea was hostile to Thebes, so the Thebans launched a pre-emptive strike to seize the key ground (II.2). Athens saw this action as breaking the peace treaty, so she began preparing for war.
The highlight of the first year of war is Pericles’ speech to the Athenians (II.35). It’s beautiful, but whitewashed, since his noble talk of democracy doesn’t include slaves or women.
Sections 48ff show the effect of plague upon the war. It hampered Athens’ war effort, but more importantly it illustrated the social decay. In times of plague and crisis, men reduce to their natural levels (II.53).
The book ends with Athens in chaos. Sparta could have really exploited the situation and conquered most of Greece. Unfortunately, they didn’t. The democracy in Athens begins eating itself, which I suspect is the nature of democracy.
Pericles is the main figure of this narrative. He is honest about empire. Athens is an empire. We shouldn’t be fooled by silly talk about democracy. The danger with empire is that when you lose it, your enemies smell blood. Pericles notes: “The empire you possess is now like a tyranny–dangerous to let go” (63).
Later on Athens is even more crass (but honest) in its desire for empire. She tells the Melians: “If the independents survive, it is because we are (perceived) as too frightened to attack them….It is particularly important that we, as a naval power, should not let islanders get away from us, especially you in your weak position” (V:97).
If that leaves it in any doubt, Athens goes on to say, “We dominate people at home so that others should not control us” (VI:87).
It’s hard to overstate this book’s importance. It isn’t simply military history. It explores what happens to a society during war time. Social morals often reflect external situations.