The best books on the Peloponnesian War

9 authors have picked their favorite books about the Peloponnesian War and why they recommend each book.

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The History of the Peloponnesian War

By Thucydides,

Book cover of The History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War probably needs no introduction. It is our only primary source for the shattering conflict between Athens and Sparta, which ended the “Golden” period of Athens famous for its art, its plays, and of course, its revolutionary system of direct democracy. Beyond its value as a work of history, Thucydides provides timeless insights into the nature of humanity, conflict, and society. He remains one of the most profound writers about human nature, politics, and strategy. When I teach Thucydides, I often joke with students that whatever you are looking for, “you can find it in Thucydides.” Just thinking in terms of contemporary headlines, we might say that if you’re interested in the dynamics of great power competition, you can find it in Thucydides. If you want to explore how societies react to pandemic diseases, how democracies debate policy or how they are vulnerable to demagoguery,…


Who am I?

I'm a historian who teaches strategic studies at the National Defense University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I'm fascinated by how we write and teach history, how we interpret it, and how we use it. To use history, we have to “get it right,” but we also have to think about how the past impacts the present. One of the foremost challenges confronting historians is how to write the history of their particular subject well while making it applicable (and interesting) more universally. The following books are all particular to the region I study most closely—the Eastern Mediterranean—but their grasp of humanity is profound. Their power and perspectives ring true across millennia.


I wrote...

Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones

By Andrew R. Novo, Jay M. Parker,

Book cover of Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones

What is my book about?

In the world of strategic studies, there are few books more widely studied than Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ work is difficult to teach and study because it's long, dense, and substantive. Thucydides was ambitious in hoping that his work would be a “possession for all time.” My co-author, Jay Parker, and I tried to peel away the layers of cliché and oversimplification to get at the “real” Thucydides. Our approach was simple: read the whole book and explore Thucydides’s own time to understand both his historical context and the context of his History. The result is a book that tries to challenge preconceptions and simplified interpretations of Thucydides’s work, but also how we read any “great book” with lessons meant to satisfy existing agendas.

How to Think about War

By Johanna Hanink, Thucydides,

Book cover of How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy

Not a book about Thucydides, but a selection of the speeches – one of the most striking aspects of his approach to history is the way he includes set-piece debates, not so much as accurate transcripts of what was actually said as a means of exploring issues of war, peace, democratic deliberation and so forth. If you already own a copy of Thucydides, this may not be of much interest (unless you’re obsessive enough to compare Hanink’s translations with others), but if you’re new to the topic this may be a good place to start: the speeches are more accessible than the lengthy battle narratives, they’re the main basis for Thucydides’ reputation as a thinker about political issues, as well as the source of some memorable lines, and Hanink’s introduction does a good job of explaining all of this.


Who am I?

I’m a historian and classicist, teaching at the University of Exeter. I am equally interested in classical Greece and Rome, especially their economy and society, and in the ways that classical ideas and examples have been influential in the modern world.


I wrote...

Thucydides and the Idea of History

By Neville Morley,

Book cover of Thucydides and the Idea of History

What is my book about?

The ancient Greek writer Thucydides is widely acclaimed as a model historian, someone who managed to anticipate the key principles of studying the past objectively two and a half thousand years before the development of modern historiography. But in fact, while almost everyone praises Thucydides, they praise him for different and sometimes contradictory things - and they ignore aspects of his work that don't fit their own model of what history should be. In this book I explore the whole tradition of reading Thucydides since the Renaissance, to show how much more complex and debatable his approach to history actually was - and to reveal how it raises questions about our own assumptions about the true nature of history-writing.

Thucydides

By Thucydides, Jeremy Mynott (translator),

Book cover of Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians

Thucydides of Athens (c. 455-400 BC) was an Athenian aristocrat of supreme intelligence and a failed politician who turned his 20 years of political exile to excellent account by turning himself into the most acute analyst and historian of the great Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404. Thucydides was born within the world’s first democratic political state but was out of sympathy with the rule of the majority, the masses – except when they themselves were kept in check and did what they were advised by a superior statesman of the unique calibre of Pericles (c. 493-429).

Thucydides outlived the end of that War, which was a major defeat ultimately for his own home city by the Spartans aided financially by the old enemy, the Persians. But he did not live long enough to complete his History, which breaks off in mid-sentence in what we call the summer of 411…


Who am I?

I have studied Classics and Ancient Greek history since my teens, I read ‘Greats’ (Ancient History and Philosophy) at Oxford, completed an archaeological doctorate on early Sparta also at Oxford (1975), while spending my teaching career (1972-2014) in Northern and Southern Ireland, and in England at Warwick and Cambridge Universities. I retired as the inaugural, endowed A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture before taking up my current position as A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. I have been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of some 30 books on ancient Greek history, most recently Thebes: the Forgotten City of Ancient Greece.


I wrote...

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Among the extensive writing available about the history of ancient Greece, there is precious little about the city-state of Thebes. At one point the most powerful city in ancient Greece, Thebes has been long overshadowed by its better-known rivals, Athens and Sparta. In Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks' achievements--whether politically or culturally--and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.

The Landmark Thucydides

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Book cover of The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War

Declaring it a ‘possession for eternity’, Thucydides presented his History as a rival to Herodotus’. His account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, eschews the fantastical and divine. Part of what makes it compelling is the fact that Thucydides himself fought as a general, so he knew whereof he wrote. With brilliant digressions on topics such as the evolution of language as propaganda or set pieces describing debates and battles, for generations his apparently balanced exposition was seen as commendably objective. More recent studies have uncovered a definite agenda, revealed (for example) in his use of political speeches, not least in his celebrated version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (430 BC). To make the best sense of the narrative, readers need maps, so I’ve again chosen the Landmark edition.


Who am I?

Ever since my father introduced me to the Greeks, I’ve been passionate about the ancient world and bringing it alive. I read Classics at university and taught for eleven years, during which time I founded the award-winning theatre company, Actors of Dionysus, dedicated to performing Greek drama in translation. A highlight was staging my adaptation of Trojan Women not just in Ephesus Theatre but besides the walls of Troy. From 2010, I’ve divided my time between writing books and articles on wide-ranging classical subjects, editing Bloomsbury Academic Press’ ‘Looking at…’ series on Greek drama (which include my translations), book-reviewing, lecturing, and directing theatrical performances (most recently with Dame Sian Phillips).


I wrote...

Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

By David Stuttard,

Book cover of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

What is my book about?

Phoenix is a vivid, novelistic history tracing the rise of Athens from relative obscurity to the edge of its so-called ‘Golden Age’, told through the lives of Miltiades and Cimon, the father and son whose defiance of Persia vaulted Athens to a leading place in the Greek world.

According to author and classicist, Daisy Dunn, Stuttard writes with such passion and verve of these vibrant years in Athens's history. Such is the power of his storytelling that Miltiades and Cimon – both so often overlooked – soar as triumphantly as any phoenix from the ashes of antiquity.”

Thucydides

By Donald Kagan,

Book cover of Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

This book is important, authoritative, and compelling because it demonstrates that a conservative historian can be comfortable with revisionist history. Kagan, a Yale historian noted as a leading academic traditionalist, terms Thucydides “the first revisionist historian” not because he was like today’s leftists but because he took issue with his pioneering predecessor, Herodotus. In his great history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides threw down the gauntlet over which was the “best” and “right” way to do history. He thought its subjects should be politics, warfare, the relation between states, and—a surprise?—men. His views held the field for centuries. The Framers of the Constitution were its legatees. So were we until the late 20th century, when social and cultural subjects gained attention. This wonderful book shows why.


Who am I?

An experienced historian who’s occupied both academic and public posts and written for popular as well as academic audiences, I’ve become absorbed by what’s behind the history so many of us read for all the reasons we read it: enlightenment, pleasure, and lessons about life in a fragile world. That’s taken me to write and teach about the professional lives of historians, about some fundamental realities of historical thought, and now about historians themselves: who they are, what they do, and why they do it. It’s often said that if you wish to understand books, know the people who write them. The books I’ve recommended help do that.


I wrote...

The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History

By James M. Banner Jr.,

Book cover of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History

What is my book about?

Originating in a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, this book got caught up in controversies about “fake” news and “fake” history. Yet it’s a work of history, not politics. I start in ancient Greece, cover the Civil War, and deal with the present. I show how revisionist history is found on the Right and Left and that both “sides” win major battles over history. I make clear that the most transformative change in historical interpretation resulted from the shift from Greek and Roman pagan histories to Christian ones starting in the 4th century AD. Along the way, I show why historians change their views, that thinking about the past is always argued about, and that all historical interpretations are incomplete and subject to change.

The Peloponnesian War

By Thucydides, P.J. Rhodes, Martin Hammond (translator)

Book cover of The Peloponnesian War

Written around twenty-five centuries ago, this remains the seminal work of history, political science, man as he is, war, and diplomacy. The author expressly intended that it be “a work for all time,” and so it remains. Moreover, it serves still as an example of a civilization ruining itself, as Europe did in the Great War. Thus, it continues to warn.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by war since I was literally a toddler. True story, I was the only two-and-a-half-year-old in South Boston, Massachusetts with an adult library card. I had to get one, and to get it to prove to the librarian that I could read, in order to check out certain books that I wanted. I only recall one title, The Battle of Midway. Since then, though I’ve done other things like practice law and become a novelist, most of my adult life was still spent as an enlisted man, non-commissioned officer, and company grade and field grade infantry officer in the Army.  


I wrote...

The Romanov Rescue

By Tom Kratman, Justin Watson, Kacey Ezell

Book cover of The Romanov Rescue

What is my book about?

1918, the last year of the greatest war in human history, to date. All the belligerents stagger on their feet. Starvation and disease are ever-present realities. In Russia an imprisoned family—Father, Mother, four beautiful young girls, and a brave but sickly boy—await their own fate, shivering and hungry in the dark. Even strong fabrics have flaws. An escaped and recaptured prisoner of war might be one. An airship, at loose ends might be another. A German general, taking a wrong turn on his nightly walk would be a third.

Follow as the general gives the orders, the prisoner of war raises the men, and the airship launches itself forward, to contest fate, to tear the fabric of time, to rescue the Romanovs.

The Last of the Wine

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The Last of the Wine

The most perfect and poetic of Renault’s brilliant series of novels set in ancient Greece, which incorporates a captivating dramatization of the courting rituals surrounding the Athenian gymnasium that then leads into a lingering and lyrical love story. The whole saga is set against the historically accurate and stirring backdrop of the downfall of the Athenian Empire at the end of the 5th century BC.


Who am I?

When I voyaged into the ancient world in the readings of my youth, it led me to realize that the gay-straight divide in modern perceptions of sexuality and relationships is an artifice. It was constructed by the conceit of the ascetic religions that the only legitimate purpose of sex is the production of children within a sanctified marital relationship. In Antiquity, the divide followed a more natural course between the groups who were the sexually active partners (mainly adult men) and those who were sexually passive (mainly women, youths, and eunuchs). My hope is to disperse some of the confusion that the obscuration of this historical reality has caused.


I wrote...

Alexander's Lovers

By Andrew Chugg,

Book cover of Alexander's Lovers

What is my book about?

Alexander's Lovers reveals the personality of Alexander the Great through the mirror of the lives of his lovers, including his companion and deputy Hephaistion, his queen Roxane, his mistress Barsine and Bagoas the Eunuch. It includes all the intimate details and obscure references that standard modern accounts leave out and reveals a more convincing, realistic, and human picture of the king as opposed to the fake persona of a rampaging conqueror conjured up by many modern accounts. If you would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level, then this book provides you with a unique opportunity.

The Plague of War

By Jennifer T. Roberts,

Book cover of The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece

Roberts’ groundbreaking, game-changing story of the Peloponnesian War (really, wars) is richly detailed and comprehensive, a modernizing “leveling up” from Donald Kagan’s 2004 standard text. By centering her narrative in the impact of the war, rather than strategy and politics, Roberts brings home the terrible human cost of the conflict, and the book serves as a critical examination of what wholesale violence means to a society, from the high to the low. Roberts writes with incredible empathy, and her voice makes the book more than enlightening, it’s a deeply moving mediation on the depths of self-inflicted suffering as only human beings can engender. 


Who am I?

I’m a lifelong warfighter, law enforcement officer, intelligence officer, and emergency services worker, intimately familiar with the crisis response and what makes conflict so fascinating to students of history. I’m also a popular novelist with an in-depth understanding of story arcs and what makes great prose. I’ve previously published narrative military history myself – Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World. My short nonfiction, much of it based on military history and crisis work, has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and Ancient Warfare Magazine.


I wrote...

The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy

By Myke Cole,

Book cover of The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy

What is my book about?

The Spartan hoplite enjoys unquestioned currency as history's greatest fighting man. The last stand at Thermopylae made the Spartans legends in their own time, famous for their ability to endure hardship, control their emotions, and to never surrender - even in the face of impossible odds, even when it meant certain death. Was this reputation earned? Or was it simply the success of a propaganda machine that began turning at Thermopylae in 480 BC?

The story of the Spartans is one of the best known in history, from their rigorous training to their dramatic feats of arms--but is that portrait of Spartan supremacy true? I go back to the original sources to set the record straight.

The Plague of Athens

By Thomas Sprat,

Book cover of The Plague of Athens

Nobody can describe the plague better than... one who’s been infected. 430 BC: coming from Ethiopia through Egypt, a massive plague outbreak hits the overpopulated Athens, right in the middle of a bitter war against Sparta. Thucydides, the first Greek historian with a modern approach, witnesses the tragic days (doctors and authorities were totally unprepared) of the largest metropolis in the Mediterranean. The author himself is contaminated and later recounts his experience in this unforgettable section of his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Who are we?

We have always been fascinated by literary masterworks that stage the plague as a pivotal factor in the plot. We added the next ingredients: a whodunnit with a claustrophobic setting, the Baroque Age, a (real) financial thriller between Rome and London, and an unusual protagonist. Rita is a historian of religions, Francesco is a musicologist. After working as journalists, meeting in a newspaper bureau, and getting happily married, we started a writing career publishing 11 novels translated into 26 languages and 60 countries with more than 2 million copies sold. Our novels are a mix of literary creativity and meticulous research, characters and settings are strictly based on original documents and eyewitness accounts. 


We wrote...

Imprimatur

By Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, Peter Burnett Colquhoun (translator),

Book cover of Imprimatur

What is our book about?

September 11, 1683, Rome. In a tavern, the sudden death of an old traveller arouses suspicions. An outbreak of plague causes all the guests to be placed under quarantine. Among them is the mysterious Abbott Atto Melani, castrato and spy of the Sun King. Accompanied by the tavern’s young serving boy, Melani evades the quarantine at night to shed light on the murder case. His investigation brings to light a gigantic plot that involves the truth about a double-faced Pope and the destiny of the English Crown.

Based on original papers of the Vatican secret archives and first published in Italy to great controversy in 2002, Imprimatur became an international bestseller but soon disappeared from the Italian bookstores. Only in 2015 the novel was available again in original language.

Ancient Greece

By Thomas R. Martin,

Book cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

If Gadamer is an important guide to the hermeneutics of beginnings and the spirit of theorizing, Thomas Martin’s work is one of the most concise, readable, and comprehensive introductions to the social history of ancient Greece and the spiritual origins of Western culture. While there are many fine histories of the period, this book provides access to the whole sweep of Greek history from the beginnings of Hellenic civilization in Indo-European and Mycenaean cultures, to the Archaic age, the beginnings of democracy with the age of the city-state, the collapse of the Athenian Empire at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and the rise of Hellenistic Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms that led to the hegemony of Rome and Latin culture. The work is an exemplary form of what I would call 'configurational’ history as his narrative interweaves military, political, religious, and social history with detailed discussion of the realm…


Who am I?

I'm currently an Honorary Fellow in Social Theory at the University of York, U.K. For more than five decades I've been working to promote more reflexive perspectives in philosophy, sociology, social theory, and sociological research. I've written and edited many books in the field of social theory with particular emphasis on questions of culture and on work in the field of visual culture. Recently these have included Interpreting Visual Culture (with Ian Heywood), The Handbook of Visual Culture, and an edited multi-volume textbook of international scholars to be published by Bloomsbury, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Visual Culture. My own position can be found in my Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms.


I wrote...

Logological Investigations, Volume 1: Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason

By Barry Sandywell,

Book cover of Logological Investigations, Volume 1: Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason

What is my book about?

Logological Investigations is an ambitious, 3-volume project to rethink the nature of social and philosophical inquiry in the light of the radically reflexive nature of human action, temporality, and discursive self-formation. It makes a principled distinction between reflection and reflexivity and argues that future critical thought must develop more dialogical and communicative approaches to the tasks of radical inquiry. Volume 1, Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason explores the historical and theoretical contexts of reflexive inquiry. Volume 2, The Beginnings of European Theorizing: Reflexivity in the Archaic Age and Volume 3, Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse c. 600-450 BC trace the first beginnings and development of critical reflection to Archaic Greece and, more specifically, to the construction of early philosophical discourse over the period c. 600 to 450 BCE.

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