The Peloponnesian War
THE LITERARY WORK
A historical essay in eight books, written in Greek c. 430-400 bce
Thucydides recounts the Peloponnesian War (431-404 bce), which was fought between Athens and Sparta but ultimately involved the entire Greek world, resulting in the defeat of Athens and dissolution of its empire.
Thucydides (c. 455-c. 400 bce) was born into an aristocratic Athenian family during the period of Athenian expansion that followed the Persian Wars (490 and 480-79 bce). Historians believe that he was related through his father to Miltiades, the general who in 490 bce had led the Athenians to victory at the battle of Marathon in the first of those wars. Thucydides’ father was Olorus, which is a Thracian name, and through him Thucydides is thought to have inherited property in Thrace, the northern region to the east of Macedonia. This is probably why in 424 bce, during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides was elected an Athenian general and assigned to protect the Thracian city of Amphipolis, which was subject to Athens. When a surprise attack by Sparta resulted in the city’s capture, Thucydides was dismissed from his command and exiled from Athens. As he tells us dryly, this left him more time to work on his history of the Peloponnesian War, which he had begun shortly after the fighting broke out. The history breaks off abruptly in its coverage of the year 411 bce. Because Thucydides refers several times to Athens’ final defeat, he must have lived past the war’s end in 404 bce. Historians believe that he died shortly thereafter, still working on the history that would forever link his name with the war and with a pivotal development in the writing of histories.
The Athenian Empire
Although the city-state of Sparta was the traditional leader of the ancient Greek world, in the early fifth century bce, Athens took the lead in defending Greece against the mighty Persian Empire. Twice, in 490 and 480 bce, the Persians launched large invasions of mainland Greece from the far western extent of their empire, the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, today’s Turkey. Both of these Persian expeditions were defeated largely through the efforts of Athens, whose role in the Persian Wars led to the foundation of an Athenian empire that challenged Sparta’s leadership. Early in The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides asserts that Sparta’s fear of the growth of Athens’ empire after the Persian Wars was the main reason for the outbreak of hostilities between the two powers.
As conceived by the Athenian statesman and general Themistocles, Athens’ defensive strategy in the second Persian War had centered on its strong navy, which was the core of the combined fleet formed by the Greek city-states. A decisive sea victory at Salamis in 480 bce was matched by a land victory the following year near Athens at Plataea. The Athenians again distinguished themselves in battle, and then led the Greek alliance that chased the retreating Persians back across the Aegean to Asia Minor.
There the Greek cities of Ionia—as the Greeks called Asia Minor’s Aegean coast—had been under Persian rule since the 540s bce. In the early 470s bce, having defeated the two attempts to extend Persian power into mainland Greece, the Athenians supported their Ionian allies in mounting a revolt against the Persian occupiers. It was not the first time they had done so, but the earlier revolt had failed. Under Athenian leadership, the Ionian Greeks now succeeded in freeing themselves of Persian rule, and the Persians mostly withdrew into the interior of Asia Minor.
Historians refer to the Athenian-led anti-Persian alliance as the Delian League, because its treasury was first located on the island of Delos (later it would be moved to Athens). The more traditional network of alliances that remained under Spartan leadership is the Peloponnesian League. Thucydides himself refers to the two groups not as leagues but simply as “the Athenians and their al-lies” or “the Peloponnesians and their allies.” (The term Peloponnesian comes from the Peloponnesus peninsula, the bottom part of mainland Greece, where Sparta and some of its major allies were located.) As for their larger culture, the ancient Greeks most often called themselves Hellenes, their land Hellas, and their civilization Hellenic.
Athens offered its allies in the Delian League the option of donating either tribute payments or ships, men, and arms. Most contributed money, which led to the growth of Athens’ navy and left the allies comparatively weaker. Even be-fore the treasury was moved to Athens (c. 454 bce), the league evolved into an Athenian empire, with Athens growing ever harsher in its dominance of the Greek city-states that were its supposed allies. Athens’ treatment of its subject city-states is a central concern of The Peloponnesian War, which repeatedly explores the moral implications of imperial power.
As Thucydides stresses, Athens’ power relied on the formidable Athenian navy and its dominance of the sea. From its subject city-states, situated al-most entirely in coastal areas and islands, Athens derived not only tribute money but also goods, including food, all of which arrived by sea. In the early 470s, Themistocles, the main architect of Athenian naval power, spurred Athens to rebuild the city’s fortified walls, which the Persians had destroyed. Later, from 461 to 456 bce, Athens built a new set of fortified walls, which connected the city to its main port, Piraeus, about four miles away. These so-called Long Walls made Athens virtually impregnable to any force besieging the city by land. About 200 yards apart, the walls further-more provided an area of refuge to the people who lived in the countryside surrounding Athens.
In his account of the half-century between the Persian Wars and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides states that the construction of the Long Walls contributed heavily to Spartan suspicion of Athenian intentions. While the Athenians claimed the walls were built to defend their city against another Persian attack, by 461 bce such an attack was clearly unlikely. Sparta, whose power came from its strength on land, correctly saw the walls as a means of securing Athens as much against Sparta as against Persia.
Thus, by the middle of the fifth century bce, the Greek world had divided itself into two mutually hostile spheres of influence. The Athenian Empire, made up of allies who sent annual tribute payments to Athens, often under threat of force, spanned most of the Greek cities of the Aegean coastline and nearly all the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Sparta, through its continued leadership of the older network of alliances, retained dominance of the mainland. By the 460s bce, however, Athens was attempting to expand its influence there as well.
The “First Peloponnesian War.”
Primary among Sparta’s mainland allies was the powerful city-state of Corinth, which lay on the southwestern edge of the narrow isthmus separating the Peloponnesus from the rest of mainland Greece. In 460 bce Corinth went to war over a boundary dispute with its neighbor Megara, an-other Spartan ally, located between Corinth and Athens. When Sparta refused a Megarian appeal for help, the Megarians turned to Athens, which sided with them and entered the war against Corinth. “It was chiefly because of this,” notes Thucydides, “that the Corinthians conceived such a bitter hatred of the Athenians” (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book 1, chapter 103). As the Athenians must have known it might, their sup-port of Megara upset the tenuous balance of power. Sparta, obliged to help its ally Corinth, soon came into direct conflict with Athens.
Called the First Peloponnesian War, this round of hostilities lasted on and off for more than 15 years and included Athenian military expeditions as far away as Egypt and Sicily. It ended inconclusively in 446 bce, after Megara returned to the Spartan alliance. Peace negotiations only just barely averted an all-out battle between the Athenians and a Spartan force that had invaded Attica, the southwest portion of central Greece in which Athens sat (an area of about 1,000 square miles, or 2,500 square kilo-meters). Though the ensuing treaty declared a “Thirty Years’ Peace” between Athens and Sparta, suspicion and hostility remained strong on both sides.
The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War
In 433 Athens intervened in a bitter dispute between Corinth and the former Corinthian colony of Corcyra, deeply offending the Corinthians by forming a defensive alliance with Corcyra. Tensions rose the following year, when Corinth struck back by assisting a city-state, Potidaea, that had revolted against the Athenian Empire. At about the same time, the Athenian assembly passed an economic sanction known as the Megarian De-cree, which banned Megarians from all harbors in the Athenian Empire and from the marketplace in Athens itself. This trade embargo against a major Peloponnesian commercial power threatened serious economic consequences for Sparta and its allies. Soon afterward, Thucydides reports, the Spartans issued an ultimatum, threatening war unless Athens revoked the decree.
The Athenian leader responsible for the Megarian Decree was Pericles (c. 495-429 bce), an unusually gifted statesman who dominated Athenian politics from the 460s until his death in the second year of the war. As a general, Pericles had led Athenian forces in numerous campaigns during the First Peloponnesian War, and he may also have been responsible for the construction of the Long Walls in the early years of that war. As a political leader, Pericles promoted the agenda of the democratic reformers who had progressively limited the power of the aristocrats over Athens since the late sixth century bce.
ATHENS AND SPARTA: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Thucydides makes the differences between Athens and Sparta a major theme in his Peloponnesian War. Athens had begun experimenting with democracy in the sixth century bce, with the democratic reforms of the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes (c, 570-508 bce). These measures were strengthened after the Persian Wars first by Ephialtes and then by Ephialtes’ protégé Pericles, who plays a central role in Thucydides’ history. By the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, all of Athens’ male citizens could vote and were eligible for public office. In contrast, Sparta had evolved a rigidly militaristic and authoritarian system, in no small part be-cause of its need to maintain the pacification of the Helots, the inhabitants of Sparta’s neighbor Messenia, which Sparta had conquered and enslaved between c. 735 and c. 715 bce,
In many ways, the Pelponnesian War was a conflict of the ideologies behind the actions of the two city-states, a point that Thucydides stresses in his history. Athens supported democratic factions in its subject city-states; Sparta generally supported the more traditional oligarchic or aristocratic factions. Thucydides also speaks of a divergence in the overall character of the two city-states, contrasting Athens’ drive and energy with Sparta’s hesitancy and stolidity. To Thucydides, Pericles epitomizes the best “Athenian” traits, Only when it produced leaders (such as Brasidas) with “Athenian” intelligence and boldness could Sparta hope to triumph over Athens.
Praising Pericles for his intelligence, dynamism, and foresight, Thucydides’ history notes that “in his leadership of the state he invariably opposed Sparta, allowing no concessions and urging Athens on to war” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.27). Pericles’ confidence rested on the naval superiority of Athens and on its fortifications, which together, he argued, would allow the Athenians to outlast any force that might besiege the city by land. His arguments, as Thucydides relays them, unfold in fine style. Athens’ democratic institutions fostered a culture that rewarded public speaking, and the speeches that Thucydides puts in Pericles’ mouth are among the best-known examples of this art, called rhetoric by the Greeks. Swayed by Pericles’ powerful rhetoric, the Athenian assembly adopted his strategy and refused to give way to Spartan demands.
MILESTONES ON THE ROAD TO WAR
- 470s bce Athens rebuilds its fortified walls,
- 465 bce Athens besieges the rebellious island of Thasos, angering Sparta, which had concluded a secret pact with Thasos, Sparta is prevented from aiding the island when an earth-quake in the Peloponnesus causes the Helots to revolt The Athenian expedition to Thasos, says Thucydides, signifies the first: open quarrel between Athens and Sparta
- 461-56 bce Athens builds the fortified “Long Walls” linking the city to its port, Piraeus.
- 460-446 bce Athens and Sparta, with their allies, fight the “First Peloponnesian War.”
- 440 bce Athens crushes rebels on the island of Samos.
- 433 bce Athens angers Corinth by interfering in Corcyra.
- 432 Athens besieges Potidaea and issues the Megarian Decree, prompting a Spartan ultimatum.
The Peloponnesian War
Hostilities began in the spring of 431 bce, with a large Peloponnesian force marching into Attica under the Spartan king Archidamus. The invaders ravaged the deserted countryside for about a month before withdrawing. Attica’s rural inhabitants took refuge behind the city’s fortifications, as Pericles had planned. For the next decade, this basic pattern of temporary Spartan invasion and Athenian withdrawal continued. Historians call this first phase of the conflict the “Archidamian War” (after the Spartan king) or, less commonly, the “Ten Years War,” since it lasted until 421 bce. At that point the two sides, exhausted by the seemingly fruitless fighting, negotiated a fragile peace, the Peace of Nicias.
By that time, however, Pericles was dead. The plague had struck Athens in 430-426 bce, and he died within a year of its onset, probably from the epidemic. Thucydides himself caught the disease, which killed off about a quarter of the city’s population. Thankfully, he recovered, going on to write a description of the disease that remains one of the best-known passages in The Peloponnesian War.
The leader who dominated Athenian politics after Pericles was Cleon, whom Thucydides characterizes as an unscrupulous demagogue. Despite Pericles’ death and the losses caused by the plague, under Cleon, the Athenians enjoyed some notable successes in the Ten Years War. They recaptured Potidaea, won several naval battles, and crushed another rebellion on the large island of Lesbos. In 425 bce the Athenians gained a valuable foothold in the Peloponnesus at Pylos, near Messenia. They established a garrison there in hopes of encour-aging a revolt by the Helots, the enslaved inhabitants of Messenia upon whose forced labor Spartan society completely depended.
This threat drove the Spartans to sue for peace in 424 bce, but the warlike Cleon persuaded the Athenians to turn down the offer. Several Spartan victories followed, including the capture of the important Athenian subject city of Amphipolis, for which Thucydides was blamed. Only then did the Athenians open the negotiations that resulted in the Peace of Nicias (421-413 bce), which called for both sides to return all territory gained during the fighting.
Technically, the peace lasted eight years, but in fact military operations continued sporadically throughout. Cleon had fallen in 422 in the fighting over Amphipolis, and Athens was now dominated by two new leaders: Alcibiades, the brilliant but unstable young ward of Pericles, and Nicias, who had helped negotiate the peace that bears his name. Soon after the peace was signed, at Alcibiades’ instigation Athens undermined it by plotting against Sparta with the Peloponnesian city-states of Argos, Elis, and Mantinea. In 418 bce, however, Sparta defeated this confederation at Mantinea. Two years later, in 416 bce, Athens conquered the small island of Melos, a Spartan ally that had refused to join the Delian League. In one of the war’s darkest episodes, Athens executed nearly all of Melos’ men and sold the women and children into slavery.
Though the peace was still technically in force, shortly after the massacre at Melos, Athens undertook the most extensive operation of the en-tire war: a massive expedition to Sicily in 415 bce. A large and prosperous island off the southern Italian peninsula, Sicily was home at the time to numerous settlements that Greeks and others had founded. The expedition from Athens was in response to a request from the small city of Segesta. It appealed for help against the larger city of Syracuse, which Athens feared might ally itself with Sparta. Promoted by the eager Alcibiades and opposed by the cautious Nicias, the Sicilian expedition was placed under the dual command of these two incompatible leaders. “Certainly,” writes Thucydides of its ceremonious launching from Athens, “this expedition … was … the most costly and the finest-looking force of Hellenic troops that up to that time had ever come from a single city” (The Peloponnesian War, 6.31).
Shortly after embarking with the expedition, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to face charges of religious impiety. He was subsequently exiled from Athens, and Nicias was left to lead an expedition he had opposed from the start. Under his indecisive command, and despite large reinforcements, in 413 bce the huge and costly expedition was defeated and destroyed. A disaster of almost unimaginable proportions, the loss left the Athenians strategically weakened and psychologically demoralized.
Alcibiades, meanwhile, went over to Sparta. On his advice, the Spartans established a garrison deep within Attica itself, at Decelea, posing a new and constant threat to Athens and Athenian territory. Sparta also formed an alliance with Persia. With virtually its entire fleet destroyed in Sicily, Athens now seemed on the verge of col-lapse. In 411 bce political unrest within Athens led to the overthrow of the democracy there and the installation of an oligarchic government, the Council of the Four Hundred. Revolts broke out throughout the Athenian Empire.
Yet somehow Athens managed to hang on for another seven years. The oligarchic government was overthrown within the year, and democracy was restored. At the same time a new Athenian fleet won a string of naval victories in the north-eastern Aegean, starting with the battle of Cynossema in 411 bce, the last event covered by Thucydides. However, Persian funds and the skilled leadership of the Spartan naval commander Lysander eventually negated the Athenian recovery. Although Athens won one last sea vic-tory at Arginusae in 406 bce, in the following year its fleet was caught by surprise and destroyed at Aegospotami, in the northeast Aegean. In 404 bce Athens, under siege now by land and sea, surrendered unconditionally, and Sparta in-stalled a puppet government. Sparta, the dominant military power, had gained control of the Greek world—only now it was a world shattered by decades of bitter warfare.
In contrast to Herodotus, who filled his history of the Persian Wars with entertaining anecdotes and digressions, Thucydides stays narrowly focused on war and politics throughout the essay. Also unlike his predecessor, Thucydides chose as his main subject events not of the distant past but of his own times. As he explains in the essay’s opening lines,
Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. My belief was based on the fact that the two sides were at the height of their power and preparedness.
(The Peloponnesian War, 1.1)
The essay’s division into eight books, or sections, was made by later commentators, not by Thucydides himself. For convenience, later scholars also assigned descriptive names to the best-known passages, which are generally capitalized.
The first such passage, the Archaeology, ap-pears at the beginning of Book 1, after the opening lines cited above. A summary of earlier Greek history, it is offered in support of Thucydides’ contention that the Peloponnesian War was larger and more momentous than any earlier war, and also stresses the importance of sea power. In a brief Preface, Thucydides then describes his methods and notes the “real reason for the war,” which was “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.23). He recounts several of the war’s immediate causes, such as the quarrel between Corinth and Corcyra and the revolt at Potidaea. Portraying a diplomatic summit at Sparta, Thucydides presents speeches by Spartan, Corinthian, and Athenian representatives, followed by Sparta’s declaration of war. The important passage known as the Pentecontaetia (”Fifty-Year-Period”) fills in the war’s deeper background, tracing the rise of the Athenian Empire in the roughly five decades between the Per-sian Wars and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. There are digressions about the Athenian statesman Themistocles and the Spartan commander Pausanias (heroes of the Persian Wars who were afterwards accused of intriguing with Persia). Clearly the Persians are involved in the deepening hostility between Athens and Sparta. Book 1 closes with Pericles’ first War Speech, giving reasons why Athens should be confident in going to war with Sparta.
Book 2 takes up the outbreak of the fighting, narrating an attack on Plataea, an Athenian ally, by a raiding party from Sparta’s ally Thebes, and going on to describe the first Spartan invasion of Attica and the first year of the war. A public funeral in Athens for those killed in the fighting provides the occasion for one of the essay’s most quoted passages, the Funeral Oration of Pericles. Calling Athens “an education to Greece,” the orator celebrates the glories of Athenian democracy:
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, bute actual ability which the man possesses. No one … is kept in political obscurity because of poverty…. Here each individual is interested not just in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well … this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
(The Peloponnesian War, 2.37)
Many of Pericles’ points about Athens are quickly undercut, however, by the account of the plague that breaks out in the crowded city in 430 bce. Claiming countless lives, the epidemic causes “unprecedented lawlessness” in Athens as its citizens selfishly disregard the city’s laws and customs in their fear (The Peloponnesian War, 2.53). Before himself falling ill, Pericles delivers his Last Speech, an attempt to stiffen the Athenians’ resolve. After reporting the statesman’s death, Thucydides offers Pericles’ Obituary, in which he praises Pericles’ foresight and leadership. He also endorses Pericles’ strategy, asserting that final de-feat came only because later Athenian leaders de-parted from it, because the city itself fell into civil strife, and because the Persians decided to fund a Spartan naval fleet. Book 2 closes with the naval victories of the Athenian commander Phormio.
Book 3 opens with Athens crushing the revolt in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Then comes the dramatic Mytilenean Debate, in which the Athenian demagogue Cleon calls for putting the rebels to death while his opponent Diodotus calls for leniency. Cleon carries the day and a ship is sent with the order to execute the rebels, but at the last minute the Athenian assembly changes its mind and a second ship is sent to overtake the first. The order is thus countermanded. A corresponding Plataean Debate oc-curs when Thebes (Sparta’s ally) captures Plataea (Athens’ ally); the debate ends less happily though; this time more than 200 Plataeans are put to death.
There follows one of the most difficult and celebrated passages in the work, as Thucydides analyzes the Civil Strife (stasis) in Corcyra between the democratic allies of Athens and the oligarchic allies of Sparta. Calling war “a stern teacher,” Thucydides describes how similar partisan strife infected other cities, leading to a breakdown in public order and the twisting of language itself:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.
(The Peloponnesian War, 3.82)
Remarkably, Thucydides’ own language here seems to break down, becoming jumbled in a way that mimics the meaning.
Book 4 covers the Athenians’ success at Pylos in the Peloponnesus in 424 bce, various campaigns on the Greek mainland, and the capture of Amphipolis by the brilliant Spartan general Brasidas. Book 5 opens with the subsequent battle around Amphipolis, in which both Cleon and Brasidas are killed, and then describes the negotiations resulting in the Peace of Nicias. Next come the Peloponnesian intrigues of Alcibiades, culminating in the Spartan victory at Mantinea in 418 bce. The book closes with the Melian Dialogue, a bleakly cynical discussion in dialogue form. The implacable Athenians converse with the hapless representatives of Melos (the small island that had refused to join the Delian League), who argue unsuccessfully that it would be in Athens’ own best interests to spare them.
Books 6 and 7 are devoted almost entirely to the Sicilian Expedition, a detailed, highly polished account ending in a final nighttime sea battle at Syracuse in which the Athenian fleet is destroyed. Book 7 also includes the fortification of Decelea, the permanent garrison in Attica that the Spartans established on Alcibiades’ advice.
Book 8 begins with the Athenians’ stunned re-action to the expedition’s fate, then moves east to cover revolts against Athens on the large is-lands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos. Thucydides also describes the beginnings of Persia’s intervention on the side of Sparta, which will ultimately prove a decisive factor in Athens’ defeat. But the bulk of Book 8 is given over to the oligarchic coup of 411 bce in Athens, whereby the Council of the Four Hundred comes to power before being replaced by the more democratic Council of the Five Thousand. Book 8 breaks off abruptly after narrating Athens’ naval victory at Cynossema in 411 bce.
The historian as objective observer
Early in The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides assures readers that he has taken great trouble over the accuracy of his information: “either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports 1 have checked with as much thoroughness as possible” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.22). He furthermore has not, continues Thucydides, embellished the facts in order to make his ac-count more entertaining:
And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.
(The Peloponnesian War, 1.22)
With this disparaging reference to “a romantic element,” Thucydides apparently intends to differentiate himself sharply from his illustrious predecessor Herodotus. Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars is replete with what can fairly be described as romance, adventure, and fable. Herodotus himself is said to have read parts of his account aloud to appreciative crowds in Athens shortly before Thucydides began his own work, which may be what provoked Thucydides’ slighting allusion to “the taste of an immediate public.” Indeed, immediately preceding the pas-sage quoted above, Thucydides has ostentatiously corrected several errors that occur in Herodotus’ text, without ever naming Herodotus. In the same breath Thucydides decries those storytellers (logographoi) “who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be checked, and whose subject matter is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.21). Then, as if to hammer the point home, right after asserting that his work is meant to stand forever, Thucydides argues that the Persian Wars (Herodotus’ subject, lost in the mists of time) are anyway less significant than the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides’ subject, ob-served and recorded as it unfolded).
Thucydides also seems to go out of his way to avoid the word with which Herodotus had described his own endeavor— historia, or “inquiry.” This is the word that has entered English as “history.” Though the modern translator uses it in several of the quotations cited in this article, Thucydides in the original Greek does not. In the essay’s opening lines, for example, he uses a phrase that might better be translated as he “wrote up the war” (synegrapse ton polemon) than he “wrote up the history of the war.” It is important to understand that “history” did not yet exist as a well-defined literary and intellectual discipline.
As Greek commentators began to define the study of history over the next century or so, Thucydides would come to be regarded as its second practitioner, after Herodotus. Yet Thucydides seems to wish to portray himself as more of an innovator than a follower, conspicuously departing from Herodotus in both subject matter and style. Instead of the irretrievable past, Thucydides analyzes contemporary events; instead of giving broad cultural and geographical information on Greece and its neighbors, Thucydides limits himself strictly to Greek politics and warfare; and instead of openly seeking to entertain his readers, Thucydides adopts an authorial pose of dispassionate objectivity.
Sources and literary context
As Thucydides tells us early in The Peloponnesian War, his main source of information was his own experience, backed by that of other eyewitnesses on whom he relied for knowledge of events that he himself did not see firsthand. In Book 5, he explains, “I lived through the whole of it [the war], being of an age to understand what was happening, and I put my mind to the subject so as to get an accurate view of it” (The Peloponnesian War, 5.26). After being exiled from Athens for his role in the loss of Amphipolis, he was in an especially good position to see “what was being done on both sides, particularly on the Peloponnesian side” (The Peloponnesian War, 5.26). Modern scholars take this to mean that Thucydides had good sources among the Spartans and their allies as well as among the Athenians and theirs. One scholar, Simon Hornblower, suggests that Thucydides
TRUE OR NOT EXACTLY?—THE SPEECHES
Despite Thucydides’ self-conscious attempts to distance himself from Herodotus on points of method and style, the general ways in which he follows the earlier writer must ultimately be counted as more telling. Like Herodotus, Thucydides regularly puts direct speech in the mouths of his characters, usually in the form of a public address. Probably no aspect of his history has aroused more interest on the part of modern scholars than these highly elaborate speeches, whose linguistic difficulty marks them off from the more straightforward narrative bulk of the work. From a historical standpoint, the biggest questions that modern scholars have about the speeches involve their veracity. How true are they to what was actually said? Indeed, can they always be taken to represent a real speech that someone actually made? in Book 1, Thucydides himself comments on the speeches, but his much discussed remarks offer only limited help:
In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what in my opinion, was called for by each situation.
(The Peloponnesian War, 1.22)
In other words, Thucydides either paraphrased the actual speakers or else he simply made up what he thought they ought to have said. Nowhere does he attempt to indicate which method he might be employing with any speech in particular. The result has been vigorous debate that promises to remain unresolved.
also had access to military reports written by commanders in the field to their superiors at home. Hornblower speculates that Thucydides’ famously terse, impersonal literary style stems from his own experience writing such reports.
As indicated, Thucydides’ predecessor Herodotus (c. 484-c.430 bce) had recorded the epic struggle between the smaller, disunited Greek city-states and the vast Persian Empire during the Persian Wars. Herodotus’ account, The Histories (also in Classical Literature in Its Times), was the first sustained attempt at a rational rather than a religious explanation of past events, and it earned Herodotus the epithet “The Father of History.” But, although he explains historical events in human terms, Herodotus still depicts divine powers as guiding the broad outlines of human history. Thucydides, however, takes Herodotus’ newborn rational approach a step further by leaving the will of the gods out of his work entirely. While he disparages Herodotus, modem scholars have concluded that Thucydides relied on the earlier writer both for specific information as well as for a general model. Thucydides also slights the Greek “storytellers,” or logographoi, declaring that his evidence for Greece’s early past is better than that of “the poets, who exaggerate the importance of their themes” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.21). Yet according to modern scholars, he relies on the poets for some of his historic information as well as for broader inspiration. The only poet Thucydides mentions by name is Homer (c. 750 bce), credited with writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epics regarded as the foundation of Greek literature (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Though scholarly opinion on the matter is divided, other genres of the time may have influenced Thucydides too, including rhetoric, Greek tragedy, and, in his descriptions of the plague, the medical writings that are attributed to his contemporary, Hippocrates of Cos (c. 470-c. 400 bce).
With one exception, Thucydides (unlike Herodotus) makes no specific mention of other contemporary prose writers or thinkers. That exception is Hellanicus of Lesbos (c. 480-c. 400 bce), a longer-lived contemporary of Herodotus whom Thucydides briefly mentions as having written a work about Attica. Hellanicus pioneered a genre that arose at around the same time as Herodotus and Thucydides were writing, and whose practitioners are called Atthidographers, after Atthis, the title ascribed to Hellanicus’ work about Attica. These writers wrote chronicles of particular places, going back to mythical times and often focusing on fable and legend. While they dealt with the past, their works lacked the thematic unity and sustained analytical quality that Herodotus and Thucydides brought to their subjects. Thucydides mentions Hellanicus only to say that his coverage of Athenian history in the period between the Persian Wars and Peloponnesian War is scanty, and that he is inaccu-rate in his dates. Again, some modern scholars have suggested that Thucydides nevertheless used Hellanicus for sections such as the Pentecontaetia. In some places, too, scholars have seen Thucydides as correcting Hellanicus’ mistakes, especially in regard to chronology. Thucydides adopts his own system of dating the events in the war by year (for example, the ninth year of the war), dividing each year into two campaigning seasons, winter and summer.
Publication and impact
While Herodotus had written his history to be read aloud to an audience, by Thucydides’ time Greece had progressed in its transition from an oral to a literate culture. Various clues in the text—not least Thucydides’ claim that his work is “meant to last forever” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.22)—make it fairly clear that Thucydides is writing for individual readers. Little is known, however, about how the unfinished work found its way into the hands of its first readers.
On the other hand, the work is known to have had a profound impact on early readers, not from any direct comments but from the other historians who soon followed in Thucydides’ wake. These historians took up the account of the Peloponnesian War where he left off. The best of them, known as the Oxyrhynchus historian, wrote a continuation that unfortunately survives only in fragments of papyrus. Another historian, Xenophon, does Thucydides the honor of beginning his continuation of Thucydides with the words, “Some days later ...” (Xenophon, p. 53). Born around the time the Peloponnesian War broke out, Xenophon is sometimes credited with having helped publish Thucydides’ work.
Thucydides’ severe, self-consciously rational approach has always impressed readers, and later ancient historians tended to take him, rather than Herodotus, as their model. Modern consensus holds that no other ancient historian came close to matching the insight, painstaking accuracy, and analytical ability of Thucydides. His reputation has been such that as late as the nineteenth century, a number of professional historians looked to him as the paragon of the scientific historian. By the end of the twentieth century, how-ever, no longer so obsessed with being “scientific,” historians had begun to question the pose of cold objectivity in his work. These historians have explored what they see as the often unexpectedly powerful emotional intensity of Thucydides, which he artfully and deliberately enhances with his terse, matter-of-fact delivery.
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