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Thucydides' Critique of Empire:
A Guide to the Key Passages

How the war begins: Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra, is pressed by its own exiled former leaders. When Corcyra refuses aid to Epidamnus, instead supporting the exiled party, theEpidamnians consult an oracle which instructs them to submit instead to Corinth, a city of Peloponnesus and the original founder of both cities. Corcyra and Corinth go to war. Both cities send envoys to Athens to request aid.
ss The true cause of the war: "War began when the Athenians and the Peloponnesians broke the Thirty Years Truce which had been made after the capture of Euboea. As to the reasons why they broke the truce, I propose first to give an account of the causes of complaint which they had against each other and of the specific instances where their interests clashed: this is in order that there should be no doubt in anyone's mind about what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes. But the real reasoning for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." Thuc 1.23.
433 Corcyraean Debate (Thuc 1.31-43); Athens decides to ally with Corcyra.
432 The Siege of Potidaea and the Corinthian Debate (Thuc 1.67-86).
Potidaea, a colony of Corinth and tributary of Athens, revolts. Athens puts down the revolt and Corinth supports it. Many cities send envoys to Sparta to denounce Athens. Corinth speaks last, and the Athenians respond, reminding Sparta of their contributions against the Persians. Nevertheless the Spartans declare war and the Thirty Years' Truce is broken. 


Second Peloponnesian War begins with war between Athenian colony Plataea and Thebes. Sparta assembles its forces. Athenians move inside their city walls under packed conditions in order to put all their resources into their fleet.[Thucydides begins his History].

Pythian Oracle. The ground lying below the Acropolis was forbidden by a curse. Oracle: "better it will be to leave the Pelasgian unworked". Thucydides interpretation: "[the god] foresaw that it would be an evil day for Athens when the plot came to be inhabited" (Thuc 2.17.2).

430 winter

Pericles' Funeral Oration (Thuc 2.34-46).

430 summer The plague devastates Athens but does not affect Peloponnesus. Athens finds fault with Pericles and tries to make peace with Sparta; the effort fails.
Two oracles apply: an old Athenian oracle, "a Dorian war shall come and with it pestilence," and a Spartan oracle assuring them the god would be with them in the war (Thuc 2.54)
430 summer Pericles' speech to Athens (Thuc 2.59-64).
429 Spartan general Archidamus appeals to the gods as witnesses in blockading Plataea. Sidalces of Thraces campaigns against Perdiccas of Macedon. Successful Athenian campaigns.


Lesbos revolts and seeks union with Mytilene. Athenians sail to Mytilene; Mytilene sends secret embassy to Sparta. Mytilene address (Thuc 3.8-14). Sparta allies with Mytilene and Lesbos. Athens blockades Mytilene.

427 Sparta sends a fleet to Mytilene. Athens retakes Mytilene and considers whether to put all male Mytilenians to death: Mytilene Debate (Thuc 3.36-48). Plataea surrenders to the Spartans. Plataean debate (Thuc 3.52-68). Thucydides on evils of revolution (Thuc 3.82-83).
427/6 Second plague and numerous earthquakes turn back Peloponnesian invasion of Attica.
426/5 Athenians purify Delos. Athenians send reinforcements to Sicily. Etna erupts.
425 Engagement at Pylos leads to armistice. Spartans address the Athenian assembly and offer Athens a peace treaty (Thuc 4.17-21). Athens looks for more concessions and the moment passes. Cleon, who opposed the treaty, brags he can take Pylos and brings it off. Civil strife ends in Corcyra by virtue of complete slaughter of one party.


Eclipse of the sun. Sicilians make peace among themselves. Boiotians defeat Athenians at Battle of Delion; [Thucydides exiled].


Peace of Nicias with Sparta. Corinthians immediately persuade Argos that Sparta intends by this to dominate the Peloponnesus. Corinth refuses to accept the treaty. Argive alliance begins.

420 Sparta makes peace with Argos. Alcibiades leads opposition to Athenian peace with Sparta; treats separately with Argos. Argos drops Sparta and makes treaty with Athens. Alcibiades tricks the Spartan embassy into discrediting themselves before the Athenians.
417 Sparta invades Argos.


Athenian expedition to Melos. Melian dialogue (Thuc 5.84-112).


Alcibiades is discredited over mutilation of Hermae at Athens


War resumes with Sparta; Spartans deal with Persians
Theodorus of Byzantium, sophist


Oligarchic coup at Athens