Thucydides

The Greek historian Thucydides (ca. 460-ca. 401 B.C.) wrote on the Peloponnesian War. The greatest ancient historian, he is in a real sense the creator of modern historiography.

Little is known about the life of Thucydides Most modern scholars place his birth between 460 and 450 B.C., with a preference for the earlier date. Thucydides was from the deme of Halimus and was the son of Olorus and Hegesipyle. He is thus to be distinguished from a contemporary of the same name, the son of Melesias, who led the opposition party against Pericles. The historian's family was wealthy from the possession of gold mines in Scapte Hyle on the Thracian coast opposite Thasos. Thucydides may have been related to a Thracian prince whose daughter married the famous Athenian general Miltiades and became the mother of the general and statesman Cimon. The grave of Thucydides was located near that of Cimon in a place named Koile, southwest of the Athenian Acropolis, where Plutarch saw it.

About Thucydides's education we know practically nothing. He is reported to have studied oratory under Antiphon and philosophy under Anaxagoras. There is little doubt that he was a product of the Sophistic movement. He was well acquainted with his predecessors in the field of Greek history, and he is said to have burst into tears when he listened to Herodotus recite his History.

Thucydides caught the plague during the epidemic of 430-427 and was among the lucky few who recovered. In 424 he was one of the Athenian generals operating in the Chalcidice during the Peloponnesian War (431-404). Through a miscarriage of planning, Amphipolis was captured by the Spartan general Brasidas, the greatest general of the war. Having failed to relieve Amphipolis, Thucydides was exiled for 20 years. It is said that the demagogue Cleon was instrumental in bringing about his exile. Thucydides spent his exile on family estates in Thrace. This enforced leisure gave him the time to observe critically the course of the war. It is considered certain that he returned to Athens after the war. He apparently lived there, utterly forgotten, until his death sometime toward the beginning of the 4th century.

Thucydides writes of himself in the third person in his History. He relates that he was a general at the age of 30 (4.104); indicated that he was of the age of discretion during the entire war (5.26.5); expresses his pride as a soldier and his devotion to Pericles (2.31); defends the generals at Megara (4.73.4); reveals that he owns property in the mining district in Thrace (4.105.1); and relates the fact of his exile and the circumstances surrounding it (5.26).

Advertisement

His Work

The only extant work by Thucydides is the incomplete History of the Peloponnesian War in eight books. The History practically covers the major portion of the Peloponnesian War: the First Phase (431-420 B.C.)—the Archidamian War; the Second Phase (415-413)—the Sicilian Expedition; and the Third Phase (413-404)—the lonian, or Decelean, War. He apparently did not live to complete the final section. The text of Thucydides has come down emended by editors, and it is difficult and oftentimes obscure. It is important to note that no Attic prose was taught prior to Thucydides, so he had to create a prose style of his own.

Thucydides is the first historian in the modern sense— that is, he strives for accuracy and impartiality. His accounts of military campaigns and battles show this and point up the fact that he himself was an experienced military man. He reveals a reluctance to accept unsupported statements, and he carefully weighs and sifts the statements of others. He consulted actual documents and even inserted them into his text. This scholarship and meticulousness were obviously a result of Sophistic influence and training.

Thucydides had been familiar with the work of his predecessors in Greek historiography, though nowhere does he mention anyone by name except for Hellanicus of Mitylene, and he criticizes Mitylene severely for his lack of chronological exactitude in his account of the period between the Persian and the Peloponnesian wars. Of his predecessors in general, Thucydides was highly critical because they accepted traditions without validating the veracity of them (1.20) and because they were too willing to please rather than be critical (1.21). Also, he pointed out that his predecessors did not exclude myths from their histories (1.22.4).

Although Thucydides at no time mentions his great predecessor Herodotus by name, he does correct a number of passages in Herodotus's History; for example, 1.126.7 is an expanded and corrected version of Herodotus 5.71; 1.1.20 clarifies Herodotus 9.53; and the so called Pentecontaetia (1.89) commences where Herodotus left off. The famous Thucydidean remark that he intended his work to be a possession forever seems to echo Herodotus's opening remarks about the Persian War.

Thucydides is responsible for making history much more comprehensive than it had ever been. The chain of cause and effect was elaborately worked out. Thucydides is no mere writer of history; he is a philosopher of history. There are no divine or supernatural forces at work in his History. All phenomena are explained in human terms, in terms of cold political power. Power politics and the inhumanity of man to man are devastatingly observed by Thucydides as the real factors of history. Real issues and causes are never avoided.

There is a philosophic strain in the History, but there is a patriotic one as well. Thucydides remembered and admired the greatness of Pericles and the Athens with which he is so closely and so gloriously associated to the end. Even though he tried to be impartial, Thucydides believed Athens would be triumphant in the end, but he was fair to Sparta and careful to point out the inadequacies and deficiencies of Athens.

In addition to narrative, which he employs with great facility and clarity, Thucydides dramatizes history through speeches put directly in the mouths of those who need never have spoken them. These speeches are rhetorical devices, fictional in presentation but factual in their content. Each speech is the kind of thing the particular speaker would probably have said. The speeches show Thucydides's amazing use of antithesis and the antithetical technique, which, though undoubtedly inherited from the Sophists, was greatly developed by Thucydides himself. The whole History is a study in antithesis. Thucydides himself does not conceal the fact that the speeches are merely literary devices, with his own best literary efforts concentrated there. He even personified different peoples by differing speech. Fine rhetoric, striking phrases, nice distinctions in meaning, and wonderful periodic sentences (again showing Sophistic training and influence) characterize his speeches.

Though recent scholarship has looked at Thucydides with a good deal of critical acumen and has delighted in being able to correct him in some details, he still ranks as one of the greatest historians of all time. He introduced to history the objective, critical approach which generations of historians followed. He was ahead of his time not only in methodology but also in his interest and emphasis on the development and exposition of a philosophy of history.

Advertisement

Further Reading on Thucydides

Modern works on Thucydides are plentiful and of high quality. The following should be consulted: F. M. Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907); J. B. Bury, The Ancient Historians (1909); G. B. Grundy, Thucydides and the History of His Age (1911); W. R. M. Lamb, Clio Enthroned (1914); C.F. Abbott, Thucydides: A Study in Historical Reality (1925); B.W. Henderson, The Great War between Athens and Sparta (1927); C. N. Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History (1929); A. W. Gomme, Essays in Greek History and Literature (1937); and John H. Finley, Jr., Thucydides (1942). In addition, Finley's Three Essays on Thucydides (1967) is important for seeing the unity of the History and the fact that Thucydides wrote from personal knowledge of the full 27 years of the Peloponnesian War.

H.D. Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (1968), is an outstanding study of the leading individuals in the History, and his Essays on the Greek Historians and Greek History (1969) deals primarily with specialized topics in Thucydides. A very exciting book is A. Geoffrey Woodhead, Thucydides on the Nature of Power (1970). It demonstrates that Thucydides's interpretation of power is relevant to modern discussions of power politics.