Thucydides book 2: Echoes of 480 and Rumblings of Doom

Sophie J. V. Mills

University of North Carolina, Asheville

A major theme of Thucydides' histories is the contrast between the ideals of Athens presented, for example, in Pericles' funeral speech and Athenian behaviour. Such ideals, at least in part, were a product of the Persian Wars: had it not been for the Persian threat, the Athenians would never have needed to rise so magnificently to the occasion in the cause of fighting for freedom from Persian tyranny. Nor would Athens have become the leader and chief beneficiary of an empire under which its former allies and enemies alike were increasingly chafing. The Persian Wars are an important background to the Peloponnesian War because they represent the "good old days" of a degree of idealism and shared values against a foreign aggressor. Emblematic of the conditions of 431 is Thucydides' neutral presentation of the desire of both sides to seek help from the king of Persia (2.7.1): as Greeks attempt to enlist barbarian power to crush fellow Greeks, material self-interest has trumped the ideals of 50 years previously to such a degree that it needs no expression of shock. Greece is now looking to the Spartans for liberation from those who were Greece's liberators in 480 (2.8.4). In a sense, the Athenians "become" the Persians, and parts of Thucydides, especially book 7's account of the great battle at Syracuse, contain noticeable echoes of Herodotus.

Thucydides is a selective historian: the material on which he expands is often more than a factual record of events and serves to underline his broader understanding of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. This paper will discuss his account of the beginning of the war at the start of book 2 in the context of an implicit contrast between the Greece of 480 and that of 431. The Athenians' main justification of their possession of the empire is that they saved Greece by abandoning Athens and boarding the ships at Salamis (Thuc.1.73.4, 74.2, cf. 73.2). In contrast to the collective abandonment of Athens, each man abandoned his own city as he retreated from his deme in Attica behind the city walls in 431 (Thuc. 2.16.2). By so doing, these country-dwellers abandon a way of life dating back to Theseus' time: "more than others" (2.15.1) they had lived in the country, an apparent reference to the belief, fundamental to Athens' idealised self-image, that the Athenians were autochthonous and therefore superior to other Greeks. At 1.143.5, Pericles had advised the Athenians to treat their city as an island (cf. 2.13.2). His advice both recalls the mass exodus to Salamis and contrasts with it: this exodus is not away from the city to save Greece but within its walls to save Athens, while the treatment of the city as an island may faintly recall Xerxes' impious confusion of land and sea in the Persian Wars. The treatment of Melesippus (2.12.3) does not seem characteristic of the fearlessly open city commended by Pericles at 2.39.1. Moreover, while Thucydides minimises the religious significance of the enforced inhabitation of temples at Athens, we can suspect that many Athenians were alarmed by such an ill-omened decision: it is a telling example of the ways in which the Peloponnesian War put pressure on traditional religious beliefs. In this context, the apparently inaccurate claim that there were no earthquakes on Delos before this time (cf. Hdt. 6.98.1-3) may be interpreted, not as a criticism of Herodotus, but as a kind of amnesia arising from alarm at Greece's future, as a quaking Delos symbolises a new and alarming instability of traditional values.


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