The Plague and the Peloponnesian War
As the world endures a pandemic, we look to a plague of the past: that which struck Athens early in the Peloponnesian War. And we do so with the aid of Neville Morley, professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter. Where did the plague come from? How did it affect the war? How did it change Athenian society? We explore these questions and more in a fascinating extended conversation. Neville is the perfect guide for these matters, having written many books and articles on different aspects of ancient history and its modern influence, including Roman imperialism, ancient trade, and the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.
- Neville Morley, A User’s Guide to Thucydides, Parts One and Two
- Thucydides (trans. Jeremy Mynott), The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians
- Thucydides (trans. Martin Hammond), The Peloponnesian War
Ryan: What was the Peloponnesian War and how do we know what we know about it?
Neville: The Peloponnesian War is a big conflict, or at least it’s the big conflict if you’re Greek at the end of the 5th century BCE. It’s between on the one hand the Athenians and their empire… it’s an empire that claims to be an alliance against the Persians, but by this point essentially it’s an empire… and on the other hand, you’ve got Sparta and their allies, mostly based down in the Peloponnese, so down in the big lump to the southwest of Greece, whereas Athens is very much a naval power spread over most of the Aegean. The vast majority of the Aegean Islands are part of its empire.
Neville: By the time the war breaks out, the powerful sense is that this is pretty well inevitable; Sparta was a well-established power but always rather a paranoid one. The particular way that the Spartan society is set up is that they depend on keeping control of a Greek people known as the Messenians, who are labeled as helots. They’re more or less slaves working for the Spartans. The Spartans have a permanent fear of a helot revolt, so they’re permanently on the lookout for any power which might start undermining them. And the Athenians are simply expansionist. The Athenians are quite clearly seeking to expand further. This simply creates a situation where tensions become more and more obvious and war comes to seem on both sides more or less inevitable sooner or later.
Neville: The reason that we know all about this is almost entirely down to the Greek writer Thucydides. He was an Athenian. He lived through the war. He actually played a part in it at one point, and he wrote a narrative account of the events, which he says he started doing at the very beginning of the war because he had already recognized that this would be the greatest, most important event ever that needed to be recorded so that people could learn from it. We don’t have an awful lot of other sources. Certainly the literary sources we have are later. They’re not as detailed. They don’t have the same reputation as Thucydides does for accuracy and objectivity. He gets this incredible reputation as a historian who is almost modern before modernity: someone who actually is critical, skeptical, rational, and also impartial. He absolutely doesn’t favor the Athenians. He doesn’t favor the Spartans. He tries to rise above it all.
Neville: For that reason, while a lot of the time if we’re looking at the Peloponnesian War we’re looking at Thucydides’ version of the Peloponnesian War, and getting at the real events behind it can be quite difficult, it’s still the case that the majority of historians are happy to trust Thucydides at least most of the time: to take his account as basic and then speculate about how he presents events in a particular way. The assumption is that he doesn’t ever lie to us. He may not tell us everything. He gives us his version rather than the version.
Ryan: Could you tell us a bit more about Thucydides the man? Who was he?
Neville: He’s an Athenian aristocrat. We don’t actually know that much about him. In his work, he tells us that he was an Athenian, he tells us he lived through the war, And he crops up a few years later on in the middle of the narrative where for one year he’s one of the elected Athenian generals. He has command of a fleet off in the Aegean. He’s given a mission to try to relieve an Athenian allied city right up in the north from a Spartan general called Brasidas. He doesn’t get there in time. The city falls to the Spartans, and Thucydides is then punished with exile, which he uses to write his history. Suddenly he’s now got a life of leisure. He can wander around, he can talk to people on both sides, he can gather evidence, And this seems to be what he does.
Neville: We’ve got some ancient biographies, though they are of dubious quality. One of them in particular… What it tells us is that this is the sort of stuff people thought about Thucydides rather than being really accurate information about him. There is a great tendency… and we see this in the way that quite a lot of modern historians have speculated about Thucydides… to fill in the gaps: to imagine his personality from these scraps of biographical information and the impression we get from his work. One example I’ve always rather liked… the British historian Arnold Toynbee in the 20th century developed a theory that Thucydides was a broken man… someone who had been shattered by the events, shattered by the war, the destruction of his home city, and his own exile… but through sheer force of will had then pulled himself together and dedicated himself to making sense of events and had somehow reached this higher intellectual plane as a result of his suffering, as a result of his experiences.
Neville: There’s a tendency to project onto Thucydides. There are times when people have claimed he was a leading political figure, which is partly because they confused him with someone else called Thucydides who was a leading political figure. As far as we know, Thucydides was never-
Ryan: That was like John back then, right? It was just a very common name.
Neville: Actually, it’s not at all a common name, but there just happened to be two of them. One of the great rivals of Athens’s leader was Pericles. One of his great rivals was a guy called Thucydides, son of Melesias. Thucydides the historian is Thucydides, son of Olorus. If you don’t pay attention you see Thucydides and think, “Aha, he was the great rival of Pericles.” Some respectable historians have then started discussing Thucydides’ political experience on that basis, I suppose just because it gives him more authority. He does talk about politics in his book as someone who clearly has observed Athenian politics carefully and thought about it and has ideas about how it works and doesn’t work. There’s a temptation to say, “Aha, this is the voice of experience,” and equally the fact that he was a general gives him lots of extra clout. It’s kind of assumed that he knows what he’s talking about; when it comes to war, he was there. He did it. Therefore, his account is a bit like Julius Caesar. These are people whose views can really be taken seriously rather than the kind of armchair historian who’s just observing from a distance.
Ryan: Plague ends up playing a major role in the conflict. Can you give a synopsis of the conflict up until that stage?
Neville: The plague comes along in the second year, so very early on in what ends up being a 30 year conflict. It’s closely connected to the way that things start off in the war. The great strategy of Pericles, who is the dominant political figure in Athens and… you can argue… is the person who’s responsible for taking Athens into war. He recognizes that “We can’t beat Sparta on land. The Spartans are just too good. We are okay, but in a pitched battle, they’re going to win, so let’s not bother.” Athens is closely connected to the sea. It’s got walls not just around the city: it’s got walls running all the way down to its harbor.
Neville: Pericles’s strategy is, “We all go within the walls. Our supplies are guaranteed. As long as we’ve got the navy we’re in no danger whatsoever. The Spartans can invade. They can do what they like. They’ll get bored. They’ll go away again. The campaigning season is always seasonal. If they invade during the summer, they’ll then go back for the winter. Let the Spartans do what they like. They can’t hurt us. Meanwhile, we’ll send our ships round to hit them all over the place. We can strike all round the Mediterranean, or at least all round the eastern Mediterranean. We can hit minor Spartan allies. We can consolidate our hold on the empire. We just sit tight. It’ll be fine.” That’s the Periclean strategy.
Neville: That’s how the first year of the war plays out. The Spartans invade. They don’t find anything. They burn a few crops, they leave. Athenian ships dominate the sea. The Spartans and their allies don’t dare face them. There are Athenians who die. There’s a big set piece speech at the end of the first year. It’s the famous funeral oration by Pericles, which still gets quoted in the U.S. Senate for stirring sentiments of, “This is democracy, this is what we fight for, this is what we’re prepared to sacrifice ourselves for.” Immediately after this big statement from Pericles about, “We are Athens and we’re going to win,” the plague arrives, and Thucydides’ narrative goes straight into the plague. It’s a plague that ends up lasting on-and-off about four years, but he focuses on the first year to give us the sense of quite how devastating it is.
Ryan: Do we know anything about where this plague came from? Had it been an illness that the Greeks were familiar with? Was it something entirely new to them?
Neville: On the basis of what Thucydides tells us, it’s totally new. He really emphasizes that this is something that no one has seen before. It’s tempting to say yeah, because the way that it actually sweeps through the Athenian population very strongly suggests that no one has got any immunity at all. This is not something that anyone has encountered. Thucydides tells us that it started in Ethiopia. Whether that’s true, it’s presumably what he believed. It’s certainly plausible that something like this could’ve started further south in Africa. He says it spread up into Egypt and then along the African coast westwards into Libya. These aren’t the modern names; these are what he thinks of. Egypt is Egypt. Libya is bits of Egypt, bits of Libya, bits of Tunisia: the whole stretch. He also says it devastated the land of the great king, in other words Persia. The disease is then traveling eastwards. How far we don’t know.
Neville: And then it comes to Athens. It spreads over the Aegean. We hear of at least one island which suffers from it while it’s en route, but it’s pretty well inevitable that it would get to Athens precisely because Athens is connected. Athens is a major trade center. There are ships going in and out. Lots of areas of Greece could remain relatively isolated, relatively immune. We hear that the Spartans and their allies end up being relatively little affected by the plague. It just doesn’t hit them. But with Athens, you’re connected to the outside world, you’ve got a big population, and the population is concentrated inside the city walls. It’s more or less set up for the outbreak of disease. It’s the outbreak of an unfamiliar disease from abroad rather than all of the usual things you would expect in a city under siege.
Ryan: What were the symptoms like?
Neville: Copious would be one way of putting it. It’s one of the problems that modern historians and medical historians have had in trying to work out what this might’ve been. Thucydides gives us way too many symptoms. He gives us absolutely everything. It’s not the way that a modern doctor would try to diagnose. He doesn’t distinguish between diagnostic symptoms and everything else. He just chucks it all in there, which means there is no known disease which fits all of the symptoms. There are lots of diseases which fit some of them. You can pick and choose. Basically, it starts with fever, then people start to sneeze. They get a hoarseness in their throat, then they get a violent cough. At this point people are maybe feeling slightly nervous about the resemblance to COVID-19, but there you go.
Neville: Anyway, it starts in the throat and then moves down into the lungs and stomach. People start spewing out bile. They suffer from empty retching and violent spasms. It goes on for quite a long time. Their skin becomes reddish with small pustules and ulcers and they have a sensation of burning so that they can’t bear the pressure even of the lightest clothing or sheets but want to hurl themselves into cold water. They have an insatiable thirst, desperate restlessness, insomnia, and then if the disease carries on long enough it starts affecting extremities: possibly some sort of gangrene of the fingers and toes and genitals. And heavy ulceration and liquid diarrhea and… yeah.
Ryan: If they’re lucky enough to survive that long, then they basically get even worse symptoms.
Neville: Some people do survive. Actually, Thucydides got the plague and survived, so he really speaks with authority here. But yes, it’s one of the things that seems to be most terrible about this disease: it just keeps going. It’s not one thing: it’s a succession of things. Thucydides says that one of the effects of this is that people who’ve got it just give up. They conclude that there’s absolutely no hope for them. Medicine does absolutely nothing. No one manages to find any sort of cure, and certainly no one manages to find a cure that works for everyone. The implication is that some people find something that relieves their symptoms and you try it on the next person and it doesn’t work, which obviously is disconcerting. Meanwhile the doctors are catching the disease more often than anybody because they are treating the sick, and religion doesn’t work. People go to the temples. They offer sacrifices. They consult oracles. None of that has any effect whatsoever. The net result is that virtually anyone who catches this just gives up and doesn’t fight, which from a modern perspective decreases their chances of survival even more.
Ryan: How did the Athenian authorities try to tackle this from a public health perspective, or what we would now call a public health perspective? How long did it take them to start taking action? You say it lasted four years. How does this play out from that perspective?
Neville: Certainly Thucydides doesn’t tell us that they did anything. Generally speaking, the ancient response to plague is to offer sacrifices. The basic assumption of the vast majority of the population is that plague has been sent by the gods. Epidemic disease is Apollo firing his arrows down at you. The beginning of Homer’s Iliad has a plague in the Greek camp which is specifically blamed on Apollo, who is angry because Agamemnon pissed him off and so forth. That’s repeated. If you take something like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the city there is being struck by plague because the gods are angry that Oedipus has killed his father. The assumption of the vast majority of people is that something like this must be the action of the gods. All that you can do then is try to appease the gods: offer them sacrifices or identify what is making them angry and deal with that.
Neville: We get some suggestion through Thucydides that at least some people are casting around for that explanation. They identify oracles which could be interpreted as implying that this is something that’s been brought down by the gods. I think we can assume that people were offering sacrifices but that doesn’t seem to have worked. As far as the authorities are concerned, there are no hospitals. There is no national health service. There’s no medical insurance. The authorities’ main concern, we would guess, would simply be disposing of the dead. What we hear from Thucydides is that breaks down. It’s one of the consequences of this plague: that people aren’t even treating their dead properly. There are stories that say people don’t want to give a proper funeral. They would find someone else’s funeral pyre and stick their corpse on top of it, or they’d even find a burning funeral pyre and chuck their corpse onto it. Thucydides doesn’t mention this, but archeologists have found mass burials dating to exactly this period from down in the Athenian port area. Whether it’s the authorities doing this or just individuals we don’t know.
Neville: The main focus seems to be keeping the war going. They don’t try to make peace. They don’t alter their strategy at all, or at least they don’t do that until Pericles himself catches the plague and dies. You could almost say it was a significant absence. Thucydides doesn’t tell us what the Athenian authorities do. We can almost take that to mean they’re not doing anything. They are as helpless as everybody else.
Ryan: How long did it take for Pericles himself to get ill and die?
Neville: I think it’s the second year of the plague. We don’t hear very much about it. Thucydides gives us the devastating description of the first year and then goes on to say, “Pericles himself…” He gets to give another speech in which he defends his strategy against the criticisms which some Athenians are leveling against him and then he quite simply gets the plague and dies and we get a bit of a eulogy, or at least an epitaph, from Thucydides talking about his rule.
Ryan: So the first and second year of the plague the Athenian strategy remains the same. The Spartans go home in the winter and the Athenians try to recoup their strength while they’re not under siege. What happens after Pericles dies? What’s the reassessment?
Neville: The reassessment is actually that the Athenians get more aggressive. The sense that Pericles’ strategy had been, “We sit back, we take it, we just strike elsewhere,” had become unpopular, or quite possibly it had been unpopular to start with. At this point we’re very much dealing with Thucydides’ depiction of Pericles where he says, “At this time Athens is by name a democracy but it’s actually the rule of the first man.” Pericles is so dominant as someone who can persuade the citizens and has their trust that essentially he tells them what to do and they do it. After Pericles’s death, no one else has that kind of authority, so what the Athenian people want to do is charge into action: engage with the Spartans, especially as you’ve got a significant number of people who are sitting in the city watching their crops being devastated, being told, “Don’t worry, it’s for the greater good.”
Neville: The Athenian strategy simply becomes more ambitious, more daring. They still stay within the city walls. They don’t go out and tackle the Spartans on their lands, but they start looking for more places that they can try to hit the Spartans and their allies. Within the broader context of the conflict, this is actually a turning point, certainly as far as Thucydides wants us to see things: that it’s the Athenians’ ambitious strategy which initially brings them considerable success. They have a series of victories. They manage to capture a whole bunch of Spartan hoplites and take them hostage. In a lot of ways, they get the upper hand, but eventually they overreach themselves. They get too cocky and launch an expedition which is then completely catastrophic.
Neville: Part of Thucydides’ view of the war is at the least the suggestion that Pericles’ death makes a difference: that the Athenians, without his moderating hand, can then be carried away by their own ambition and anger. This is partly that Thucydides is at best skeptical of democracy precisely because of the idea that a mass of ordinary citizens isn’t going to be able to deliberate rationally. They’re going to be inclined to get carried away with their emotions, get carried away with hope and expectation and so forth. A democracy that isn’t being held back is likely to do unwise things.
Ryan: Why didn’t the plague spread to the Spartans at all or their allies? You mentioned that it really just affected the Athenians. Presumably there were these expeditionary operations and there were definitely opportunities for it to spread. Do we know anything about that?
Neville: We don’t. We’ve just got the claim that it affected them very little. It could be partly to do with the fact that Sparta itself is deliberately isolationist. The Spartans don’t do trade. As far as possible, they’re self-sufficient. You encounter Spartans if you’re fighting them on the battlefield. You don’t encounter them very much in the markets of the Aegean. It may simply be that: they don’t have much contact with the outside world. It doesn’t entirely explain things, because among the Spartan allies are the Corinthians, who are a naval power and a trading power, and at least according to Thucydides they don’t suffer anything like as much either.
Neville: It’s difficult to say. Our impression is that it’s not only the Athenians who get this but the Athenians get it much worse than anyone else. Thucydides doesn’t give us an explanation and you could almost say he can’t really give us an explanation because he hasn’t got one. He doesn’t believe this is the anger of the gods. His account is implicitly rationalist. He notes the fact that other people believe this is the gods. He very clearly distances himself from any such idea. But he doesn’t have anything else to offer. He certainly doesn’t have a modern theory of infection. For him, this is something that has just come out of the blue and happened. It’s one of those chance events which you can’t anticipate and that’s why it’s dangerous to be too confident and too optimistic because history throws things at you unexpectedly.
Ryan: Do we know much about what the Spartans thought about the outbreak of plague among the Athenians? Presumably if the Athenians thought it was punishment by the gods, the Spartans must’ve thought it was favor upon them by the gods.
Neville: They might’ve done. We don’t get told that. We’re told that the Spartan troops that have invaded Athenian territory hear about the plague and they see the burning of the funeral pyres and they sensibly keep their distance. That’s it. They might well have thought that because certainly the Athenians are thinking things along those lines. I mentioned that there are oracles from before the war that Thucydides says some people now started digging out and saying… It always happens with Greek oracles. They are incredibly vague and you can reinterpret them. But he says there’s one oracle which says war with the Spartans will come and with it a great loimos. It’s either loimos or limos, and this is the point. If it’s loimos, it’s a plague, so one reading of the oracle is that the plague was predicted. But Thucydides says the original wording was limos, which means dearth or famine. He’s offering this as an example of people reinterpreting things in the light of events and then claiming that they were predicted, but certainly there is this suggestion that the Spartans were prophesied victory and clearly this is the prophecy coming true.
Ryan: What else does Thucydides tell us about how this affected the Athenians socially and psychologically?
Neville: Arguably, that’s what he’s most interested in and concerned about: it’s how people responded to the plague. Basically, Athenian society falls apart: traditional values, traditional social ties. It’s not that everyone behaves in the same way. We’re given the impression that there are people who then simply shun their friends, shun their family, will not have anything to do with them for fear that they’ll catch the plague as well. And there are people so dedicated to honor that they keep visiting the sick until they finally become sick themselves. Normal social ties don’t carry the same force. The idea that your basic duty is to look after your family, look after your neighbors, that seems to go out of the window.
Neville: There’s an awful lot about the idea that people who catch the plague frequently just fall into complete despair. People lose any sort of faith, either in medicine or in the gods. The basic conclusion is that none of these things are helping so what’s the point. Those who survive the plague, Thucydides suggests, almost start thinking of themselves as immortal, or at least that they’re not going to catch any other disease. They got through this so they’ll be absolutely fine. Some of those then do go and tend to the sick because they feel they’re safe. But what a lot of people do is live for the moment. He suggests that people conclude that there is no moral order in the universe. You see the rich and the prosperous dying. You see poor people suddenly inheriting their fortunes and then dying as well. It really does become “Live for the moment. Tomorrow you’re going to get the plague and die.” The suggestion is that everyone dedicates themselves to pleasure and ignores law and convention and morality; what matters is that you make the most of the time you’ve got left.
Neville: It’s kind of society falling into a short-term hedonism: the sense that you might as well spend it because money isn’t going to last and life isn’t going to last. There’s no longer any concern with honor because of the sense that it takes too long. If you’re going to live a life of honor, well you probably haven’t got very much life left, so why bother? Instead, pleasure becomes the chief value regardless of fear of god, regardless of human law, regardless of whether you’re a pious person or an impious people. It’s not going to make any difference. It’s almost the sense that this disease coming out of nowhere has stripped away people’s belief in their traditions and their values. Everything becomes about living for the moment.
Ryan: When this eventually does pass, how do they look back on this period of suffering? How has the war progressed at this point? What position do they find themselves in?
Neville: In a lot of ways, it makes much less difference than you might expect. There are historical accounts which would say that this is the moment that Athens loses the war. There are some very inflated estimates of the death toll: the suggestion that this might’ve killed 25% or more of the Athenian population. It’s always the case in ancient sources that the figures are always very unreliable. Thucydides doesn’t give us a death toll. There is a later outbreak of plague just in a detachment of the Athenian military forces which carries off about a third of their hoplite forces, so people have taken that and then extrapolated with the… It must be said that the idea of a disease with a 25% mortality rate is not plausible except in the most extreme circumstances.
Neville: I think that we can assume that the Athenians do lose a lot of people, but it doesn’t seem to affect their ability to fight. As I said, the passing of the Periclean strategy brings them success. They end up concluding a peace treaty with the Spartans which is very much to their advantage because they’ve got a bunch of Spartan hostages and the Spartans want them back. Whereas the Spartans had gone to war to try to dismantle the Athenian empire, this first phase of the war ends up with the Athenians happily sitting there with their empire not a serious problem.
Neville: It’s during the lull that we get the famous attack on Melos. The Melian dialogue is probably familiar to most people who’ve come across Thucydides. Melos being neutral wasn’t bound by the treaty, so Athens is using the cessation of hostilities with Sparta to basically throw its weight around elsewhere. They squash Melos and they then develop this idea of intervening in Sicily. Partly it’s presented by Thucydides as a sign of this is how overconfident and arrogant they’ve got. They genuinely think that they can send an expeditionary force way off into the unknown on the basis that a couple of dissatisfied Sicilians have said, “Come and fight Syracuse for us. You’ll be welcomed with open arms.” It’s a sign of massive overconfidence that the Athenians think that this a good idea. They don’t all think it’s a good idea, but enough of them do to vote for it. It’s also a sign that they can’t have been seriously weakened. Whatever losses they had in the plague, they’re still entirely capable of going toe-to-toe with the Spartans and their allies and plotting this ambitious expansionist policy.
Neville: It’s at all not clear that the losses from the plague make much of a difference. Certainly Thucydides doesn’t suggest that they do. It’s rather the suggestions in his account that what makes the difference firstly is the loss of Pericles and so Athens starts being dominated by much more uncontrolled, ambitious, aggressive, unscrupulous figures; basically populist demagogues, and that leads to bad strategy. There may be a suggestion that the Athenians letting go of their values and traditions is also a contributing factor: that if they’re not being bound by traditional notions of piety, that’s when you get something like the Melian dialogue; essentially, people are saying, “Forget the gods, it’s about power and strength. We are bigger than you, therefore you do what we say”… could arguably be partly a product of the fact that they’ve simply abandoned a lot of traditional beliefs about how a state ought to behave.
Neville: From my personal point of view, the plague is really interesting as… It’s one of the set piece passages in Thucydides that lots of people read and lots of people then draw conclusions about what kind of writer he is, so building this image of an ideal Thucydides who is the man who knows everything and understands everything. It feeds into that fact that today, he’s one of the most cited ancient authors as someone who can supposedly help us understand present day events. A lot of the time that’s focused on the international relations side of things, so the idea that Thucydides as the first capital R realist, the idea of the Thucydides trap of rising tensions between great powers. Actually, you can look at the plague narrative and say that this gives us an image of what Thucydides is about as a writer, because it’s about this completely calm objective recounting of horrible events: that his drive is to set down what happened as accurately as possible, not to offer judgment or theories but just to say, “This is what happened. This is what I experienced so that people could read this and learn from it.”
Neville: Exactly what we’re supposed to learn is open to debate. The problematic thing about Thucydides is that he never tells us. He opens his history saying, “This is intended to be a possession forever. Read my work. Understand events in the past and you will then be able to recognize similar events in the present and future.” The idea that this is something we should learn from… but he never tells us what we should be learning from it, so you end up… The international relations theorists tend to say, “What he wants us to do is learn the basic principles of international relations.” The historians say, “Aha, what he wants us to do is learn the key principles of being a critical historian.” You can find what you want in Thucydides because there’s so much of it.
Neville: Personally, I find it’s the interest in how people behave and how they behave under conditions of stress. It’s the focus on the breakdown of social norms; what happens when a society is put under severe pressure partly becomes a way of understanding humans in general, but it certainly also becomes a way of thinking about if we can learn from that. Can we draw conclusions about what Thucydides refers to as the human theme, which some people translate as human nature but it’s literally the human theme. He’s sort of… “Okay, this is what people are like,” and it is how far people are sometimes rational, sometimes not: how far people stick to their traditions except when they don’t. He doesn’t give us a hard and fast rule that this is what will always happen; this is how people will always behave. But it’s a sense of the possibilities and it’s this slightly emphasized… It’s not quite a caricature, but it’s put in sharp relief that these are the things to pay attention to: these are the broad tendencies in events that we need to be aware of.
Ryan: If any of our listeners are inspired by this episode to read Thucydides and his history, what translation would you recommend and where in the book can we find the passage about this period in the war?
Neville: You’ve got a choice of a number of good translations. To some extent, it depends what you want. In terms of the quality of the translation and the accuracy, I would recommend either the fairly recent Cambridge translation by Jeremy Mynott or the Oxford World Classics translation by Martin Hammond. They are both really good renditions of what Thucydides actually says, at least insofar as anyone who works on Thucydides is going to be completely satisfied. The Hammond one is probably slightly more accessible, but it’s a matter of taste. There are other translations that are in some ways more readable but less accurate. The Penguin one by Rex Warner is the one I grew up on, so I still have a lot of affection for it, but it does get a bit imaginative in places.
Neville: I always find this one difficult. There’s the Landmark Thucydides, which as an introduction is great. It’s got some great historical material at the beginning. It’s got superb maps, so for making sense of some of Thucydides battle scenes having the maps is invaluable. The problem for me is that the translation is a revised version of a 19th century translation by a guy called Richard Crawley, which is very readable but frequently very imaginative. Crawley’s Thucydides is full of snappy one liners. The one thing we know about Thucydides is that he did not write snappy one liners. The Landmark I always feel mixed about. It’s probably a good introduction but you’re not getting exactly what Thucydides said a lot of the time.
Neville: The other thing that I’d say is that there’s an awful lot of it. This is probably heresy as far most of my classical colleagues are concerned, but I’m going to say it’s entirely reasonable to skip the boring bits where troops are maneuvering around the place. Some of the battle scenes are superb, some of them not so much. A degree of picking and choosing… at least start with some of the big set piece passages, so the opening, Pericles’ funeral oration, the plague, the civil war in Corcyra, things like that.
Neville: The plague itself is found in the middle of book two. It starts about chapter 47 in book two. It’s not that long of a passage, in some ways. It comes immediately after the funeral oration; that’s certainly worth looking at as a kind of before and after. It’s one of these big dramatic switches: the wonders of Athens under Pericles immediately being undercut by the arrival of the plague.