Feverish City

An Interview with Tom Holland

Octavian Report: Who was Thucydides and why do we still read him?

Tom Holland: Thucydides was an Athenian general, which means that he had been elected by the Athenians to lead them in the war against Sparta which had begun in the year 431. Holding public office in Athens was often exceedingly dangerous because if you messed things up, you could end up being sent into exile. Which is what happened to Thucydides. He led a military expedition that didn't go well, so he ended up being sent into exile. This was bad for him, but good for us because in that time he set himself to writing a history of what he called the Peloponnesian War, the war against Sparta, the main city of the Peloponnese (a fork of land that is attached to the mainland of Greece).

His history is regarded as an epochal work because it takes forward what Herodotus had begun. Herodotus had begun the process of trying to apply a kind of Ionian method of enlightened analysis of the way that the world operates to the past. Thucydides focuses this process even more tightly. Herodotus's range had covered almost everything. It wasn't just what we would call history. Herodotus had looked at natural history. He'd looked at geography. He'd looked at ethnography and, notoriously, he was very prone to reporting often very tall stories.

Thucydides was much more focused. Thucydides focuses pretty much entirely on military and political matters. The one major exception to that is his recounting of the plague which hits Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, the year 430 BCE. Thucydides says of this plague that it was essentially the event that did the most damage to Athens. Over the course of his history, he writes about many other Athenian defeats, many other reverses, but the reason that he includes the account of the plague is that he says that this — perhaps more than any other episode in the history of the war — had a greater impact on the ultimate result which was the defeat of Athens. And for that reason, just as Thucydides's history is the primal account of a war, of political dynamics, so also his account of the plague that hits Athens is the primal account of a great epidemic. Whenever an epidemic hits, whenever people contemplate the havoc that disease can wreak on a society, people's thoughts tend to turn back to Thucydides.

OR: What was happening in Athens and more generally in the war on the eve of the plague?

Holland: The backdrop to this is the fact that the two allies in the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 and 479, Athens and Sparta, over the decades that followed had begun to fall out. This is a process that's been in the news a great deal recently because people have talked about there being a “Thucydidean trap.” Thucydides explains the origins of the war in the fact that Sparta as the established great power was nervous and suspicious of the rise of Athens as the new superpower on the block, and politicians have applied this with reference to the relationship of the United States to China and they back-project as well to the relationship between the United Kingdom and Germany in the buildup to the First World War. Essentially, this is what Thucydides is so good at — establishing frameworks to understand politics that supposedly are universal.

Now, that perhaps is pushing it too far. But it's certainly the case that he fixes on something that is very clear in the buildup to the outbreak of what he calls the Peloponnesian War which is indeed that Sparta — xenophobic, landbound, suspicious, and a completely menacing military machine which over the course of the previous century and more had established a kind of hegemony over much of the Peloponnese — is the superpower. Sparta is the greatest city in Greece. Athens on the back of the Persian Wars had seen first her warriors defeat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 and then her fleet take the lead in defeating the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480. The prestige that accrued to Athens as a result of this combined with their restless trade policy, naval policy, and imperial policy enables them to establish an empire that comes to rival that of Sparta.

The difficulty for both the Spartans and the Athenians is that their power is focused in different dimensions. It's the war between the elephant and the whale. Sparta is preeminently a military power. Athens is preeminently a naval power. So in 431, when war finally breaks out, the strategy pursued by the Athenians (guided by its greatest and most influential leader Pericles) is essentially to cede even the land of Attica itself, the fields and villages that surround the city of Athens, to the Spartans.

The reason they can do that is twofold. First, they have a fleet so they can supply themselves and they can maintain their empire which is scattered across the islands of the Aegean without needing to send soldiers out of the walls. The walls are a second reason why they're able to do this. The Athenians have a port called Piraeus that's about five miles from the city of Athens. They have built what are called long walls: an entire circuit of fortifications enclosing Piraeus and Athens and the five miles between Athens and Piraeus. This is an expansive fortification larger even than the famous walls that will come to surround Constantinople centuries later.

When the Spartans invade in 431, under Pericles's guidance everybody in the countryside around Athens comes into the city and they hunker down. The Spartans burn a few olive groves, torch a few farms, but they can't really get to grips with Athens because everyone is behind the walls. So the Spartans then retreat and the campaigning season is over and it seems like a deadlock. The following year, the same thing happens. The Spartans invade and this time, we're told, they stay longer. The reason that they end up retreating is because news comes to the Spartans that something terrible is happening in Athens —  the plague has arrived.