Thucydides and the Inseparable Union of War and Human Nature

Without humans, war would be a relatively straight-forward affair.  Thucydides explores the dynamics of human interaction in his account of the Peloponnesian War; both how humans affect, and are affected by war.  He presents us with a number of key propositions about war and human nature, perhaps most strikingly, the motives for war; “fear, honour, and interest”.[1] These three motives suggest that war is not a product of careful calculation, but rather reflects the intangible and ambiguous nature of human interaction.  This article will explore two useful dichotomies presented by Thucydides that portray human qualities and their role in the war; indulgence versus restraint, and ambition versus survival.

First, Thucydides establishes the dissonance of indulgence and restraint between the Spartan King Archidamus, his people, and Sparta’s allies.  While Archidamus urged restraint and patience, the Spartan population and the city’s allies indulged in their passions and eagerly called for war.  This is followed by the discord between the Athenian general Pericles and the people of Athens.  Pericles advocated for restraint through the adoption of an indirect strategy, while the people of Athens sought to indulge in direct action after war had been declared.

Second is the contrast between ambition and survival, which Thucydides explores at the national and individual levels.  The Melian dialogue in 416 BC demonstrated a clash of collective human ideals; Athenian ambition pitted against failed Melian attempts to survive.  At the individual level, Thucydides provides us with an examination of the gifted yet ostentatious Athenian general, Alcibiades.  His switching of sides between Athens, Sparta, and Persia suggests that he pursued his own interests by placing supreme importance on survival.  Ultimately, Thucydides shows us that war is about humans and that it is the unknown or unknowable constituents of war’s nature that are the final arbitrators, not logic, not reason, not fairness.

Indulgence versus Restraint

“Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most”.[2]

Charles Forster Smith

The actions of the Spartan king Archidamus demonstrate the importance, and the difficulty, of showing restraint as opposed to giving in to indulgence when deciding to wage war.  The Macquarie Dictionary defines restraint as “an unemotional, dispassionate, or moderate behaviour of self-control” and its antonym; indulgence as “allowing oneself to satisfy a desire”.[3] Archidamus pleaded with his people to avoid recklessly indulging in a war the Spartans were not fully prepared for.  He understood the Athenian position and clearly articulated the strengths and weaknesses of his foes, as well as those of Sparta.  Perhaps most chilling was his accurate prediction that the war would last long enough to bequeath to their children.[4]  In a display of wisdom and foresight, he correctly hypothesised that a war with Athens would be difficult, long, and exhausting.[5]  It was his deep understanding of what was to come that drove his desire for restraint.

Given his foresight, Archidamus advocated strongly for a conservative and deliberate approach to military planning.  War for the Spartans was not taken lightly; it was historically used only to achieve objectives of great value.[6]  Archidamus thought that the Athenians were likely to indulge in war to achieve limited objectives.[7]  He saw the use of restraint as a potential advantage for the Spartans in contrast to the Athenians, as Thucydides notes in his record of Archidamus’ speech to the Spartan assembly in 432 BC:

We are not carried away by the pleasure of hearing ourselves cheered on to risks which our judgement condemns…  We are both warlike and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so.[8]

Therefore, it is clear that Archidamus understood the nature of war, as well as the unique character that the impending war with Athens might bear.  His argument was not that the Spartans should avoid war, but rather that they should proceed with caution.  Indeed, he stated that the Spartans must “not omit preparation for war”, thus ensuring they were fully prepared to fight – so long as they understood the potential risks and benefits.[9]

As Archidamus called for restraint, he faced opposition on two fronts; from Sparta’s allies and from the youth of Sparta, who Thucydides tells us were enthusiastic towards indulging in war – a problem shared with the Athenians as all Greek youths became carried away with the romantic notions of war.[10]  Thucydides provides us with an insight into how the temptation of indulgence for war was too great for the young men of Greece:

Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking; and on this particular occasion the Peloponnesus and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms.[11]

Notwithstanding the internal opposition to restraint was being demonstrated by the civil population, external pressure was also mounting on Sparta by her allies.  Chief among the protagonists were the Corinthians who accused Sparta of inaction and lethargy.  Their frustrations were evident in their speech to the Spartan assembly in 432 BC:

Spartans, you still delay and fail to see that peace stays longest with those who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice… there is promptitude on [the Athenian] side against procrastination on yours.[12]

In persuading the Spartans to engage in a war against Athens, the Corinthians portrayed Spartan restraint as a weakness and contrasted it with the audacity of Athens.  The Corinthians, as a middle-power, had little to lose by encouraging indulgence and opposing restraint.

Regardless of the pressure from Sparta’s allies, Archidamus held true to the virtue of restraint.  He continued to reiterate the absolute necessity to exercise patience and temperance in the decision to go to war.  In his speech in 432 BC, Archidamus declared:

We must not be hurried into deciding in a day’s brief space a question which concerns many lives and fortunes… but we must decide calmly.[13]

Despite his calls for restraint, the temptation of the Spartan people, and perhaps more importantly – the ephors, ultimately became too much and they gave in to indulgence by declaring war. This demonstrates how, if given the opportunity, humans naturally resort to fulfilling their desires ahead of their needs. Archidamus, as a leader, tried to act in the best interests of the state and apply restraint, resisting the forces of human nature.

In contrast to Archidamus, the Athenian general Pericles’ first speech to his assembly in 432 BC accepted war as inevitable.  He declared the war “a necessity” but urged the assembly to adopt an indirect strategy; one that required patience, perseverance, and restraint in its execution.[14]  He sought to have Athens avoid becoming engaged against Spartan military strength on land and accepted that Attica would be ravaged.  He warned his people to be patient and described what they could expect from the strategy:

If they march against our country we will sail against theirs, and it will then be found that the desolation of the whole of Attica is not the same as that of even a fraction of the Peloponnesus.[15]

Thus, his appeals for restraint were not about the decision to go to war – this was a foregone conclusion – rather they were about how best to wage war and achieve a long-term victory over Sparta.

To achieve a comprehensive victory, Pericles advocated for a logical strategy where Sparta’s power would be contested by Athenian strength at sea.[16]  He understood that the Athenian population would be tempted to defend their lands against Spartan raids, but he urged restraint in order to allow his indirect approach to work.  He warned:

We must forego our properties in Attica and, viewing ourselves as islanders, value most our sea power and its ability to provide us resources from our empire.[17]

The execution of this indirect strategy would require strategic patience and, in some cases, accepting tactical defeat to ensure Athenian strengths could be preserved.  Pericles had a sound and logical strategy, but its success hinged on the military and the population showing restraint.

After the outbreak of war Pericles delivered a moving funeral oration focusing on the greatness of Athens, reiterating the need to show restraint during hard times.  But the terrible conditions caused by the plague, and the Spartans ravaging Attica for a second consecutive year in 420 BC, led to the people of Athens rejecting Pericles’ strategy and attempting to sue for peace.  Pericles continued to call for stoicism and restraint in the face of adversity. Addressing the assembly, he reaffirmed the strength of his strategy and scolded those who did not support it.  He demanded that the people overcome their “private griefs” and contribute to the “safety of the commonwealth” by resisting the urge to take easy, comfortable options.[18]

Thucydides presents the case that both Archidamus and Pericles advocated for different types of restraint in the face of indulgence.  Archidamus through his calls to proceed with caution when deciding to go to war, and Pericles through his plan for the adoption of an indirect strategy.  In both cases, it is clear that the overwhelming force of human nature disrupted the ability to apply reasonable, mature, and logical thought. The cruel temptation of indulgence undermined the virtuous necessity for restraint.

 Ambition versus Survival

“War is sweet to those who have no experience of it, but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach”.[19]


In the same way that indulgence and restraint are polarising human qualities in conflict with one another, so too are the human qualities of ambition and survival.  Each constantly usurping the other for primacy in the human decision-making cycle. The Macquarie Dictionary defines ambition as “an earnest desire and determination to achieve success”

and survival as “the act of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances”.[20]  These qualities manifest as a strange, yet very human combination of bravery, prudence, cowardice, and shame.  Thucydides provides us with a fascinating dichotomy between ambition and survival to suggest that both human qualities dilute the purity of war.  When forced to decide the crucible of war, humans by their very nature, will act in the interests of their objectives; ambition, or in the interests of themselves; survival.  This interplay of human nature will manifest differently at the national and individual level.

To illustrate the interplay between ambition and survival at the national level, Thucydides points to Athens’ ruthless dealings with the small neutral city of Melos in 416 BC.  Athens demanded that Melos submit to their empire despite Melos wanting to remain “friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side”.[21]  Athens responded to Melian pleas for fairness by coldly declaring that “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must”, before annihilating the city and settling it for themselves.[22]  Athenian ambition clouded their judgement and made them act in ways contrary to the core democratic values that Pericles had declared so fervently in his funeral oration in 421 BC. In contrast, the Melians, who were given ample opportunity to submit to the Athenians, chose not to act in the interests of their own survival but instead placed their fate in the hands of the gods, or perhaps their distant Dorian cousins in Sparta.  Their collective survival instinct was impeded by a strong belief in the virtues of fairness and righteousness. But, for the Melians, war was not fair or righteous, and this resulted in their destruction.

Thucydides’ record of the Melian dialogue demonstrates how ambition and survival worked as opposing forces, drawing humans away from strategically logical or rational decisions.  Humans are incapable of acting without emotions and feelings and consequently decisions about war are made with a cognitive bias favouring either ambition or survival.[23]  When it comes to human nature, the Greeks were no different to modern societies.  Their militaries rewarded bravery and heroism and sought to avoid shame and embarrassment.  Despite the necessities of war, the actions at Melos in 416 BC demonstrate that human nature had a destabilising effect on the course of the war.

While the ambitions of Athens and (lack of) survival instincts of Melos were demonstrated in the Melian dialogue, Thucydides examines the effects of these human qualities at the individual level through his record of the Athenian general and statesman, Alcibiades.  Alcibiades was deeply ambitious and possessed a strong survival instinct that saw him consistently place his own interests ahead of others.  Thucydides portrayed Alcibiades as a gifted orator who demonstrated a clear skill for strategy, but was ostentatious, flamboyant, and self-serving.[24]  Of all characters recorded in Thucydides’ texts, Alcibiades provides the richest contrast between ambition and survival.

The most telling example is in the speeches of Nicias, a prudent and cautious Athenian general, and the seemingly ambitious Alcibiades as they argue the utility of the Sicilian expedition to the Athenian assembly.  Nicias strongly opposed the expedition and appealed for Athens to consolidate its power rather than risk over-reach.  Nicias stressed that the expedition was “untimely” and would not be easily accomplished.[25]  He gave a scathing assessment of Alcibiades by claiming that his intentions to lead the expedition were for his own personal benefit rather than for the good of Athens.[26]  Despite Nicias’ open hostility towards him, Alcibiades masterfully turned the argument around and convinced the assembly that Nicias should himself lead the operation.  The expedition to Sicily was ultimately a catastrophic failure and resulted in Nicias’ death along with seven thousand Athenian captives.[27]  But Alcibiades, true to Nicias’ prediction, did indeed act in his own interests and defected to Sparta.

After his arrival in Sparta, Alcibiades gave an impassioned speech to the somewhat dubious Spartan assembly in 415 BC to convince them of his position not as a traitor of Athens, but as a man of legitimacy who genuinely loved his country:

…I am an outlaw from the iniquity of those who drove me fourth… my worst enemies are not you who only harmed your foes, but they who forced their friends to become enemies; and love of country is what I do not feel when I am wronged, but what I felt when secure in my rights as a citizen.  Indeed I do not consider that I am now attacking a country that is still mine; I am rather trying to recover one that is mine no longer [28]

Despite him winning the trust of the Spartans and asserting that he acted as a man of virtue, Alcibiades’ later actions proved that he placed emphasis on survival over legitimate ambition.  Less than three years later, in 412 BC, he defected to the Persians and less than a year after that, he had set the conditions to return to Athens and be elected general once again.


Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War provides an insight not only into war, but into the unique humanness it possesses.  Humans are unpredictable, inconsistent, and impulsive; prey to passion, prone to self-delusion.  War in its purist form, deprived of human input and emotion, is nothing more than a series of mathematical equations designed to achieve military superiority on the battlefield – but to what end?  It is the existence of these qualities that give character to the distinctive humanness of war.   The dichotomies of indulgence and restraint, ambition and survival presented by Thucydides serve as rich examples of the interplay between human nature and war.  In both examples discussed in this article, human emotion took primacy over what appeared to be logical or rational decision making.  The leaders of Athens and Sparta struggled to convey to their people the necessity for restraint over the temptation of indulgence.  The Athenian destruction of Melos serves as a lesson for how the collective ambitions of a nation can impede judgement and lead to brutal and wicked actions.  Melian pleas for reason in the face of Athenian ambition demonstrated too much faith in virtue; a mis-judgement that lead to their demise.  Finally, Alcibiades’ actions illustrated how a strong sense of survival, coupled with greed and self-indulgence served the ambitions of one man during the war at the expense of many others.  Thucydides shows how human nature underpins the complexities of war.  Sparta may have won the Peloponnesian War, but ultimately it resulted in the collapse of both empires. This proved that, as Carl von Clausewitz declared more than 2,200 years later, “the result in war is never final”.[29]

Notes/ References:

[1] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Richard Crawley (New York: Free Press, 1996). 1.76

[2] Charles Forster Smith, ed. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War (Cambridge MA Harvard University Press., 1921).

[3] Macquarie Dictionary Website, “Restraint and Indulgence,” in Macquarie Dictionary (Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, 2017).

[4] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.81

[5] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.81[6]

[6] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.19

[7] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.83[2]

[8] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.84[2]-1.84[3]

[9] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.85

[10] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 2.8

[11] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 2.8[2]

[12] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.70[4]

[13] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.84

[14] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.144[3]

[15] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.143

[16] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.142[8]

[17] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 1.143

[18] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 2.614

[19] G.  S. Conway, and Richard Stoneman., ed. Pindar: The Odes and Selected Fragments (1997). 377.

[20] Macquarie Dictionary Website, “Ambition and survival,” in Macquarie Dictionary (Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, 2017).

[21] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.94

[22] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.89

[23] Thomas M Dolan, “Emotion and Strategic Learning in War,” Foreign Policy Analysis 12, no. 4 (2016). 571

[24] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 6.11 – 6.17

[25] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 6.10

[26] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 6.13

[27] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 7.87

[28] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. 6.92[3] – 6.92[4]

[29] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989). 80.

One thought on “Thucydides and the Inseparable Union of War and Human Nature

  1. Thankyou, that is a well-written and erudite reflective piece. Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War provides ample factual context with which to furnish your thesis concerning the diversity of human imprudence. While I don’t doubt that the emotional fallibilities (of human beings, quite simply, being human) lead us into all manner of unnecessary adversarial engagements, what might also be of interest to us all is to consider the underlying dynamics of such behaviours and circumstances.

    If competition and adversarial conflict exists in some regards as an inevitable and extended consequence of sociobiological imperatives, it probably serves a broader purpose in regards to the ongoing evolutionary metamorphosis of complex system dynamics. Historical cycles and geopolitical oscillations follow a general tendency of self-replicating recursion – political and ideological systems are effectively and constitutively self-propagating systems (reference: solitons, Von Neumann Universal Replicators) biased towards their own continuity and tenure.

    As in the procedural generation of evolutionary difference through random genetic mutation, gradual (and occasionally abrupt) inflections of sociological drift and change incurred by conflict serve as a selection test or mechanism through which technological and Civilisation-scale metamorphosis is embodied. Viewed as a gestalt information- and energy-processing system, a history of human entropy-as-conflict indicates that, just as with the human genome, the environmental pressures of adversarial and competitive inter-tribal turbulence find themselves encoded (or perhaps – mischievously – encrypted) into the subjective-nodes-as-individuals, ideologies and integrated, networked technological artifacts of ideological, military and geopolitical reality.

    Conflict and adversarial turbulence provides, for better or for worse, the sociological equivalence of random genetic mutation. It is not the only selection pressure on political and sociological systems but it may be one of the most dramatic. Emotional fallibility serves an unacknowledged (or at least epistemologically opaque) purpose of ensuring that human beings will continue to make rash decisions, thus ensuring an ongoing and reflexive evolutionary selection mechanism for adaptation, change and innovation.

    Emotional and intellectual imprudence are themselves key components of the continuing systemic tenure of self-replicating ideological and political differences in this hyper-inflating technological space we inhabit. Our contemporary world is merely a more complex iteration and cascading logical shockwave of the self-same sociological selection tests undergone by Ancient Greek Civilisation.


    Liked by 1 person

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