Thucydides: the Reinvention of History


Essay by A.C. Grayling.

If there is a single must-read for students of history, politics, warfare, and international relations, it is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, recounting the struggle between the empires of Athens and Sparta in the last three decades of the fifth century BCE. Its modern influence reached a peak — and has remained there ever since — in the second half of the 20th century, as exemplified by Admiral Stansfield Turner’s placing it at the head of the reading list for officers at the U.S. Naval War College when he became its president in 1972. It has remained on all relevant reading lists since.

Turner was prompted to make his officer students read Thucydides by the parallels that the latter’s classic text offered. Thucydides wrote of the conflict between two great rivals who had shortly beforehand been allied against a dangerous third party — he meant Athens and Sparta against Persia; for Turner, the parallel was the U.S. and USSR against Nazi Germany. But Turner also saw a parallel between Athens’ failure in the Sicilian Expedition, launched in 415 BCE, and the bitter experience of Vietnam then still fresh in American minds. In the tensions of the Cold War it seemed to many more than Turner alone that Thucydides’ overarching view — that war is the basic condition of mankind, and that the chief motives of international action are fear and self-interest — was unimpeachably right… Read More>>

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