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.

This online course, led by Professor Jakub Grygiel, will focus on Thucydides’ masterpiece, The Peloponnesian War, and examine a series of strategic challenges, and responses to them. Fellows 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.

Images: Thermopylae – Monument of Leonidas by Ava Babili, Flickr | Monument of the Unknown Soldier on Syntagma Square in Athens by Vassilis, Flickr

Jakub Grygiel on Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus


Jakub J. 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


  • Thucydides, Book 1–1.146 (pp. 3–85)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Great power rivalries inevitably lead to war. Is Thucydides correct?
  2. 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?
    1. Question A: Why should the Athenians vote in favor of Corcyra?
    2. Question B: Why should the Athenians vote in favor of Corinth? What is the importance of allies for the S.?


  • Thucydides, Book 1–2.103 (pp. 89–156)

Discussion Questions:

  1. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between a sea power (Athens) and a land power (Sparta).
    1. Question A: Argue for a “seapower advantage” using Athens.
    2. Question B: Argue for a “landpower advantage” using Sparta.
  2. Archidamus and Pericles formulated their own strategies to deal with each other.
    1. Question A: Argue for the superiority of Archidamus’s strategy.
    2. Question B: Argue for the superiority of the Periclean strategy.
  3. What strategy should the S. pursue against its continental rivals (China, Iran, Russia)?


  • Thucydides, Book 1–3.86 (pp. 159–202)
  • Thucydides, Book 84–5.116 (pp. 350–57)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you deter rebellions? If so, how?
    1. Question A: Cleon is right: firmness awes opponents.
    2. Question B: Diodotus is right: deterrence is difficult, perhaps impossible.
  2. Justice and power are often in tension. What is justice? What is power?
    1. Question A: You are Melian: Why should you not surrender to Athens?
    2. Question B: You are Athenian: Why should you conquer Melos?
  3. How does internal cohesion (or lack thereof) affect foreign policy?
  4. What is the appeal of demagogues?


Thucydides, Book 6:

  • 6.1; 6.6–6.26 (pp. 361; 365–76)
  • 6.46–6.53 (pp. 387–90)
  • 6.75–6.88 (pp. 403–12)
  • 6.89–6.93 (pp. 412–16)

Thucydides, Book 7:

  • 7.3–7.30 (pp. 429–45)
  • 7.42–7.87 (pp. 451–78)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Pericles warned against ambitious power The Athenians went to Sicily and failed miserably. Are distant expeditions doomed?
    1. Question A: Nicias was a brilliant strategist as seen in his debates with Alcibiades. His strategy was superior.
    2. Question B: Alcibiades was far superior to Nicias.
  2. Was it a strategic blunder—or a strategically bold move but executed poorly?
    1. Question A: The fault lies with Nicias and his generalship.
    2. Question B: The fault lies with the whole idea of going to Sicily, and thus it lies with the Athenians writ large.

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