Why do nations go to war? Do shifts in the balance of power between rising and status quo powers inevitably produce conflict? What challenges are democracies likely to face in fighting a long war against a determined, ideologically hostile adversary? Is there a “Thucydides Trap,” and if so, can we avoid it?

Thucydides wrote that his history was for “those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future.” In this seminar, distinguished Yale historian and classicist Donald Kagan will reprise one of his most popular courses – a close study both of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ account of it, with a view toward elucidating the fundamental and recurring problems of geopolitics at all times and places.

Photo by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash

Donald Kagan on war and human nature


Donald Kagan

Donald Kagan was the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History at Yale University. His four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War is the leading scholarly work on the subject. He was also the author of many books on ancient and modern topics, including On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


Essay Topics:

  1. Evaluate the Spartan strategy. Can you suggest a better one?
  2. Evaluate the Athenian strategy. Can you suggest a better one?
  3. The situation in 430: Why was there no peace? Why was Pericles condemned? Why was he reelected?
  4. Thucydides’ account of the plague. Compare it with his account of the civil war in Corcyra. What is his method, his purpose, his message?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the turning point in the war? Why did Sparta win the war?
  2. Why did Athens lose?
  3. What did Thucydides think? (2.65)

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Foundations of Grand Strategy

Assess grand strategic theory and practice in Thucydides and Plutarch.

Statesmanship: Plutarch & Lincoln

Examine the idea of statesmanship, through a classic text and the statecraft of Abraham Lincoln.

War Studies Program

Learn the theory, practice, organization, and control of war and military forces.

World Order & American Foreign Policy

Explore the nature of the world order and America’s role in shaping it.

Plato’s Republic

Study Plato’s Republic, perhaps the greatest work of political philosophy ever written.