Thucydides, who authored the definitive account of the Peloponnesian War, started writing as soon as the conflict began, “...believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” His account has also proved valuable for evaluating ensuing conflicts through to the present day. As Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, the Peloponnesian War showed that “strategic problems remain the same, though affected by tactical difficulties peculiar to each age.” The Athenian invasion of Sicily and the American experience in Iraq were not identical, but no two wars ever are. Instead, we must look at the overarching effects the military campaigns had on political objectives.
Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War provides for a range of lessons about the nature of strategy applicable to a wide audience. The period demonstrates the inherent complexity in understanding the concept of strategy, a concept that remains devoid of a coherent, agreed, and universal definition. What the Periclean strategy does provide, however, is insight into the importance of understanding the implications of the political objective, strategy and military culture, and geography and operating environment and their influence on the nature of strategy.
The enduring importance of The History of the Peloponnesian War resides in its ability to prepare the reader to recognise historical patterns hidden in chaos regarding the human element in war. Using the model of historical study proposed by Sir Michael Howard, the span of Thucydides’ account allows the reader to study war in width and examine continuities, trends, and patterns in human behaviour in war. By incorporating both chronological events and the speeches of key decision makers into his argument, Thucydides provides an opportunity to study in depth the chaos and uncertainty inherent in war. Finally, by expanding his analysis to include the cultures of the societies participating in the conflict, Thucydides enables the reader to study the context within which the war was fought.
Reviewing the work of scholars who have examined the Peloponnesian War gives grounds for questioning not only Thucydides’s purportedly dispassionate style, but also one of his most well-known conclusions: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”