Tobias Joho on the Peloponnesian War

Tobias Joho
Picture: Yulia Babenko

This past November, the ECLA community was glad to welcome Tobias Joho from the University of Chicago for two guest lectures on Thucydides’ text, The Peloponnesian War.

 Currently a PhD candidate with a BA in Literae Humaniores from Oxford and an MA in Classical Languages and Literatures, one of his main research interests includes Thucydides, especially his style of writing and the way certain terms are used in his text.

In his lectures, Joho introduced us to the author’s intellectual profile and the historical features of the Peloponnesian War. He also acquainted us with the differences between Spartan and Athenian modes of life and political organization, and explained to us how ‘Eros’ is considered by Thucydides to have effected changes in Athenian statesmanship; that transition from Pericles to Alcibiades.

Thucydides was born around 460 BC and died leaving his great work unfinished in the 390s BC. He was an Athenian citizen who experienced the war as a general in the Athenian army–sent into exile after he failed to save Amphipolis. He is widely regarded as the founding father of scientific historiography as we know it today.

Living just after Herodotus, who had written the Histories, an account of the Persian Wars describing how Athens acquired a degree of power to rival Sparta’s, Thucydides strove to understand and provide an objective account of the past of a kind that had never been seen before. Throughout his text, he continuously draws attention to his careful scrutiny of his own method and presents himself as a thorough investigator.

To Thucydides, everything is based on the human motivation of power and self-preservation, in contrast to Herodotus’ account, which emphasizes the importance of splendour, fame or god-like heroes.

In eight Books, Thucydides describes the different stages of war and peace between the Athenians and the Spartans between 431 BC – 404 BC. In this world of city states and multipolarity, several different regimes had formed. The two main opposing camps in this war were the Peloponnesian League, comprised of Sparta and her allies, and the Delian League, an empire under Athenian rule.

Those two regimes were utterly different in their structure and mindset. The Spartans, ruling all of the Southern Peloponnesus, were famous for their strict and conservative attitude. Sparta’s citizens spent their entire adolescence training for warfare, and as soon as they reached the age of 20, they lived together in small groups and focused on keeping the political order intact. It was a city of collectivism and obedience—an oligarchy.

Athens could not have been more different. Given that it was a democracy, the assembly of the people was seen as the most important political body. Its citizens being free, a tolerant attitude prevailed. Pericles’ funeral speech, in “Book II”, Chapters 36 – 46, is the most famous celebration of classical Athens, and portrays the city as possessing qualities that should be mutually enhancing, like political equality and individual excellence.

Having provided us with this historical background, Joho went into more detail on Thucydides’ treatment of Eros in his second lecture, exploring how the historian believed this force to have precipitated a change of government and a political downfall, causing Athens to lose its entire army at the end of the war and surrender to the Spartans in 404 BC. Pericles, an Athenian general who had been elected by the Athenian people and held his post for fourteen consecutive years, is accorded high respect by Thucydides in the text.

He is an intelligent man, who bases his opinion on sound insight, and is the mastermind behind the building of the defensive walls around Athens. He is the symbol for imperialism but restrains himself from wild excesses. The political situation changes as Pericles’ sense of right proportion is lost and Alcibiades comes to power. Alciabiades personifies a seductive access to desire and an inability to make profitable decisions for the city.

Pericles’ sense of the balance of power and self-restraint is tipped when the idea of conquering Sicily emerges and Alcibiades takes on a tyrannical character. These developments led the Athenians to a defeat, and their city would never again be as splendid as previously.

Tobias Joho was kind enough to join us for the seminar discussions following his lectures. We were delighted to be able to have the benefit of his expertise on this challenging and fascinating work.

by Johanna Fürst (AY’12, Austria)

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