Are allies costly or beneficial to a great power? Do they enhance its security or drag it into peripheral and unnecessary wars? What are the advantages and risks of a maritime power? Does a sea power need allies more than a land power? How should it compete with a continental rival?  What is the impact of a prolonged conflict on an already fragile social order of a polity? These questions characterize our current debates on U.S. strategy, but they are not new. More than two thousand years ago, Thucydides described with great lucidity the strategic challenges facing a maritime great power, Athens – and they are remarkably relevant to today’s U.S. security dilemmas and strategic choices.

The course will focus on Thucydides’s masterpiece, The Peloponnesian War, and examine a series of strategic challenges, and responses to them. During the weeklong seminar, students will read extended excerpts from Thucydides, focusing on key speeches and moments in the conflict. The course requires careful reading of the text but is not a history class. Rather, by placing themselves in the position of the Thucydidean characters, students will discuss recurrent principles of strategy and the dilemmas facing leaders.

Image: “Slab of the Amazonomachy frieze” by Carole Radato | Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Jakub Grygiel on the geopolitics of Europe


Jakub Grygiel

Jakub Grygiel is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America. From 2017–18, he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. His most recent book is Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. Great powers fear “entrapment” (being dragged into small and peripheral wars by their allies) while their allies fear “abandonment” (being left alone by their distant security patron). How can these fears be mitigated? Do they reflect the reality of international politics?
  2. What is the importance of allies for the U.S.?



Discussion Questions:

  1. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between a sea power (Athens) and a land power (Sparta). What are the features of such a conflict? What are the differences in how they conduct war?
  2. How did the strategy of Archidamus differ from that of Pericles?
  3. What strategy should the U.S. pursue against its continental rivals (China, Iran, Russia)?

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