The Athenian historian Thucydides observed and chronicled the greatest military conflict of his day: the epic contest between Athens and Sparta known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC). More than just a straightforward history, his work is a study of the struggle between democracy and oligarchy, as well as a meditation on the dangers of populism and political polarization. Perhaps for this reason, Thucydides' work has experienced a surge in popularity over recent years as polarization and civil strife have spread throughout the developed world.

In this episode we are joined by Emily Greenwood, professor of classics at Yale University and author of Thucydides and the Shaping of History. Our conversation covers Thucydides' historical context, his ambition and purpose in writing his history, his insights and blindspots, and his relevance to our world. Stick around at the end of the episode for a chance to win an autographed edition of Greenwood's book Thucydides and the Shaping of History.

The intro to this episode was provided by Dr. Greenfield and Dr. Radford of The Partial Historians podcast. Dr. G and Dr. Rad both hold PhD's in Roman history and they offer a unique take on the Roman world that combines humor, storytelling, and scholarly rigor. Check out their show at

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Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation:
The Blinded Eye: Thucydides and the New Written Word by Greg Crane (particularly Chapter 4: “Thucydidean Exclusions and the Language of Polis II: Oikos, Genos, and Polis”)

Transcript of the episode's prologue:

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides has been in the news a lot recently. Now when I say “ a lot” I don't mean—obviously—as much as the Kardashians. But compared to other ancient authors, Thucydides has been killing it.

It all started in 2012, when political scientist Graham Allison coined the phrase “Thucydides' Trap” in connection to US-China relations. He sees the US and China locked on a collision course reminiscent of the trajectories of Athens and Sparta as they headed towards war with each other 2 ½ millennia ago, as chronicled by Thucydides. Thucydides said that when a new up-and-coming power threatens to surpass the established superpower, war is often inevitable—that's the trap. So the question becomes: can the US and China avoid the kind of mutually destructive conflict that consumed Athens and Sparta? Within a year of Allison putting forth this analogy, it was picked up by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, who declared that the US and China need to work together to avoid Thucydides' trap.

Meanwhile, as the modern State of Greece was suffering an economic crisis and was forced to make humiliating concessions to the major banks of Europe, political commentators compared the EU's harsh treatment of Greece to the behavior in Thucydides' history of the ancient Athenian Empire toward the small island of Melos. Spoiler alert: when the Melians refused to give in to Athenian demands, the Athenians massacred them. This chilling episode is the source of perhaps the most famous line in Thucydides: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Meanwhile, after the 2016 US presidential election, Thucydides came up again in discussions of polarization and populism. One Columbia University professor, Edward Mendelson, wrote an article comparing our current vicious factionalism to the outbreak of civil strife in the ancient city-state of Corcyra (another famous passage in Thucydides). Fast-forward about a year later, and it was revealed that several members of Trump's cabinet were reading Thucydides and discussing Thucydides' trap.

But enough of Thucydides in the news. Who was this guy anyway? And why does his history matter?

Thucydides was an Athenian, born when Athens was at the peak of it's power. When he was about 30 years old, war broke out between Athens and its arch rival Sparta which lasted for 27 years and exhausted the power and resources of both sides. Thucydides actually fought in the war early on as a general, but he messed up an important mission, which led to his being exiled from Athens for 20 years. During his exile, Thucydides devoted himself to traveling, researching, and chronicling what he claims he knew would be a struggle of unprecedented proportions. This conflict is usually called the Peloponnesian war, sometimes the Atheno-Peloponnesian War, after the region of Greece called the Peloponnese, where Sparta is located

Now, what makes Thucydides' history of this war interesting? Well first of all, it's a fantastic read full of twists and turns, where you never really know who's going to end up on top. Cause here's the thing about the Peloponnesian War. Athens and Sparta hardly ever faced off against one another directly. Instead, they fought a long series of proxy wars through their many allies across much of the Mediterranean.

The number of allies involved was truly staggering. On the Athenian side, the number of city-states in the so-called Delian League which was like their Nato, exceeded 300 at its maximum, with an estimated total population of 2.5 million people. On the Spartan side, the so-called Peloponnesian League had over 100 city-states in it, with over 1 million people. Pretty small for today's standards, but this huge number of players made the war highly unpredictable at every turn.

There were many points during this struggle, when one side seemed on the cusp of victory, and then something happens in some far off region that shifts the balance of power and suddenly the other side is back on top. I guess what I'm saying is that HBO should totally hire me to make a multi-season Peloponnesian War Saga. #goals

Another reason why this conflict is so interesting is that, as Thucydides tells us, Athens should have won the war. On paper, they had all the advantages. They were richer, numerically superior, culturally more dominant, had a more attractive political ideology which they broadcasted throughout the Greek world with their entertainment industry. So they should've won, but they didn't. And while part of it was certainly bad luck, because it just so happened that Athens suffered a plague in the very first year of the war. But that's not enough to explain their ultimate defeat. And so Thucydides is also interested in exploring the internal politics of Athens as one of the potential causes of the downfall of Athenian Hegemony.

That, in a nutshell, is what Thucydides and his work is all about. And why he's been in the news. But what do the experts think about Thucydides, like the scholars who spend years studying the original ancient greek text and the scholarship around it? Well, today were going to talk to a Thucydidean scholar about the historian's context, his ambition and purpose in writing his history, his insights and blindspots, and his relevance to our world.