The Peloponnesian War is Still Our War

There is the general perception in the modern media that technology has completely rewritten the book on warfare. I disagree! The Peloponnesian War existed in the perfect political and social environment to capture the basics of human social behavior. This has allowed a careful reading of the work to permit scholars and military cadre to predict the behavior of various political units. The interconnectedness of the global markets requires governments to maintain stability despite conflict and reduce the risk in competition creating an environment where Archidamus probably would have thrived.

The Peloponnesian War contains elements of “the Hobbesian human nature, the anarchical international system, the self-preservation concern, the security dilemma and the charismatic leadership” (Dobra, Page 89). All of these elements make it relatable to current scholars and experts on international relations enabling the work to be applied.

Hobbesian human nature refers to the selfishness and ambition that is supposedly inherent in all people. I would suppose that this would also be accurate to present times. It is largely a subjective and philosophical judgment, however, so I am not fully behind this argument. One could argue that the various charities and other non-governmental organizations represent a non-Hobbesian social behavioral pattern. This groups including not for profits, conduct activities that may not be considered self serving as a whole. One could certainly argue that the individuals involved in these organizations might be involved for selfish reasons but it still leaves the purpose of the organizations counter to this philosophy.

The anarchical international system is certainly still in place. The United Nations in theory provides order to the chaos, however it is not structurally sound enough yet to serve that function. In fact, I would say that the Security Council of the United Nations actually serves to further the anarchy, as it gives the historically powerful nations leverage over competitors preventing the system from equalizing. It is now as it was in Greek times, that all political bodies strive without authoritative check to gain dominance and resources. In this way we can consider the Thucydian model to be both useful and accurate. As has and will be discussed of course, with some technical differences.

The self-preservation concern certainly is also present. We have seen this most starkly with the development of technology. The advances the led to the industrial revolution gave states a vast new capacity to protect their territories and resources as well as launch attacks against their enemies. Mostly, these factors were comparable to the capabilities of the Greeks. They were exaggerated in scale on all fronts but ultimately did not change the overall strategies of war, similarly inscribed in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, that deserve further consideration. Technologies such as flight, electronic communications, and weapons of mass destruction all seem to have the theoretical potential to alter the playing field to one that would be unrecognizable by Thucydides.

The invention of flight and subsequent use in warfare removed much of the power of land armies. If an opposing force has air superiority but a much smaller army it unquestionably has the upper hand in any conflict. The ability to deliver devastating destruction to ground forces with minimal comparable risk or loss makes air power a necessity for any nation that wishes to be a world power. If, for example, Sparta was the air power of Greece and Athens still the naval power, Sparta would sink Athens’ navy, bomb its ports and cities, and march in to all of its holding unopposed. It is clear that this changes the dynamics of warfare as they had been (in a near state of stasis) for thousands of years- but does it make The Peloponnesian War obsolete? This dynamic causes the militaries of competing states to look similar, but it does not necessarily change the ideologies or need for resources of those states- which ultimately leaves the basic valuable tenets of The Peloponnesian War intact.

Electronic communications such as cell phones, the internet, and the media all give the first impression of creating a world starkly different from the one that Thucydides knew. These technologies make everyday life unrecognizable and the same goes for entertainment. However, when closely examined, it becomes clear that will things have become wildly changed on the outside- the fundamentals remain intact. For example, the United States uses many communications tools, especially the media, to maintain control over its empire. Both Athens and Sparta could have done the same, and did to an extent. When they would sent envoys such as Alcibiades to different cities and colonies to convince them to join their cause, it would seem to be the ancient equivalent to a propaganda campaign. Similarly, while electronic messaging and calling allows for instantaneous communication, it does not change the nature of communication. In this way we see that, once again, changes in technology have simply magnified the effects of technology rather than changing them.

The question of nuclear politics and weapons of mass destruction seemed the most likely cause of the antiquation of Thucydides ideas. After the first use of nuclear weapons we definitely see a change in politics: “The ‘Long Peace’ among the great powers after 1945 is more recognized and is widely attributed to the nuclear factor, a decisive factor to be sure, which concentrated the minds of all the protagonists wonderfully” (Gat, page 152). Many guessed that nuclear technology might signify and end to war, and it looked as though that might be true for several years. However, what we have seen is that hot wars continue, just not between nuclear powers. In addition, we have seen a new type of war, the cold war, between states with nuclear capabilities. While there is a definite lack of the traditional large scale battles that humanity had been accustomed to for thousands of years, there was still the same destructive armed competition between two states, with an eventual winner. The United States showed that through military might and a capitalist imperial economy it could drive a competitor into the ground without firing a single missile.

It is certainly true that during the time of Thucydides, no state had the power to destroy the entire world in event of a catastrophic loss. There are a number of states now that posses enough nuclear weapons to accomplish this, but so far it has turned out that no government has the stomach to carry out such an act. A desperate Soviet government definitely had the power to do this as a last hurrah but did not.  There was a study that showed that “among those Americans who  think a nuclear war is likely in the next ten years  (47 percent  of Americans in 1981),  most (62 percent  in that survey)  think their chances of  living through it are “poor.”  In the United States, as elsewhere, these pessimistic expectations are  especially prominent among young people, who otherwise would have the  longest  future to which they might  look forward” (Russet, page 263). This, combined with the behavior of governments over the last 60 years, leads me to believe that while governments technically have the power to use nuclear weapons, they will not on an apocalyptic scale. This means that once again the interplay between governments is still comparable with the time of the Peloponnesian War. While it is true that one atomic weapon is vastly greater than any weapon during Greek times, it is still only a change in capacity and not one in effect. The Greeks themselves had their own limited form of weapons of mass destruction: Greek fire. This napalm equivalent was both feared and allows for the incorporation of technological advances in Thucydides based tactical thinking.

The security dilemma is as ever present as it was; perhaps even more so in contemporary times. We saw that the naval strength of Athens and the strength of the phalanxes of Sparta both proved concerning to the other, and drove them to take actions against each other politically, economically, and ultimately militarily. It seems as though the Peloponnesian War may have been one of the first detailed examples of the security dilemma at work, and it very much still applies in every way. I cannot think of a dynamic that has changed, although this may simply be due to the broad nature of the concept. If anything, the security dilemma has probably increased for states who now have to worry about added soft power capabilities such as cyber warfare and media control.

Charismatic leadership is as an important factor in politics and warfare as ever. Across history and the world we see any number of examples from George Washington, Adolf Hitler, and Margaret Thatcher, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and David Patraeus. These individuals have had easily palpable impacts on their states and societies in a way comparable to the greats from the Peloponnesian War such as Alcibiades, Nicias, and Pericles.  “Thus [Pericles] confronted political necessity with a triumphant surrender for ‘even if now, in obedience to the general law of decay, we should ever be forced to yield, still it will be remembered that we held rule over more Hellenes than any other Hellenic State, that we sustained the greatest wars against their united or separate powers, and inhabited a city unrivaled by any other in resources or magnitude” (Brown, Page 15). Pericles words were not just important to his own people but have rung down through history for thousands of years. There are patterns of behavior and personality types that can be very telling in The Peloponnesian War and can be used to predict the behavior of similar individuals. I could write a paper just on this so I will not go into too much detail. Never the less, easy comparisons come to mind such as Alcibiades and Hitler, Pericles and Napoleon, amongst others. Certainly the comparisons are not perfect but much can be learned if one frames the context properly.

It is apparent, then, that there have been many changes since the time of Thucydides in terms of military capability through massive increase in capacity on all fronts. “This limit makes that The Peloponnesian War cannot constitute a prescriptive theory of international relations, but rather a guide” (Dobra, Page 92). These changes have altered the pace of warfare and some of the variables involved in political decisions. It is still possible to use Thucydides’ work to guide both decisions and predictions regarding international relations. For example, The Peloponnesian War shows us that the key to sustaining an empire is maintaining its flow of resources, and that if these resources come from diverse political entities they can be turned to an opposing side and the resources can be cut off. Therefore, we can see empires afterword attempting to homogenize the populations of regions that provide high levels of resources. Some have done this through race, such as the Nazi’s in Europe and the Chinese in Xinjiang province. Other empires, such as the American empire have used the media to homogenize the ideas of populations.

Through observations gleaned from and understanding of The Peloponnesian War “this text is a technical instrument, which allows the discernment of the required frames for a regulated anticipation” (Dobra, Page 92). What this means is that the lessons of Thucydides’ work can be reframed to apply to a given context. However, one must know how to reframe it or predictions and plans will be wildly inaccurate. A given military or political context, especially since the recent massive developments in technology, has vastly different dynamics. In ancient Greece, one had weeks and even months for troop movements to occur. If one just blindly used this information to plan a modern campaign the consequences would be catastrophic. However, picking up on the fact that a conservative and defensive leader will probably not execute an effective offensive campaign could be very useful in large scale strategic planning.

As we discussed, addressing this topic to the plays that we read could have produced another paper, minimally of equal length. However, it is vital for the purposes of the class to acknowledge that the theatre inspired by the same events that captivated Thucydides speaks relevancy of these events to the human condition, and explains the longevity of all of the works. As I conclude my exploration of this topic and discover that The Peloponnesian War has been confirmed in my mind as a vital learning tool, I find that I rather wish I had taken this class earlier in my academic career. If, in addition to this paper, I had then been able to pursue one on “Herakles Gone Mad” I think I would have found it both highly therapeutic and useful in interacting with my various friends with post traumatic stress disorder. Thucydides paints us a vivid and explicit picture of the breakdown of community through strife and warfare but the plays tell a broad story about the first steps towards healing and I feel like I’m ending only halfway through the journey.


Brown, I. (1981). THUCYDIDES, CHANCE AND THE DILEMMA OF IMPERIALISM. History Today, 31(3), 10.

Dobra, A. (2010). Thucydides: An Author Still Relevant for the Contemporary Analysis of International Relations?. Alternatives: Turkish Journal Of International Relations, 9(2), 88-93.

Gat, A. (2013). Is war declining – and why?. Journal Of Peace Research, 50(2), 149-157. doi:10.1177/0022343312461023

Meagher, Robert. (2013). Chaos and Catharsis: War and Theatre in Ancient Athens. Class lectures 1/22/13-4/30/13.

Russett, B., & Lackey, M. (1987). In the Shadow of the Cloud: If There’s No Tomorrow, Why Save Today?. Political Science Quarterly, 102(2), 259.

Strassler, Robert. Landmark Thucydides, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0684827905


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