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).
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.
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. □
The Lonely Historian.
Thucydides occupies a lonely place in the pantheon of historians. He is regarded as one of the world's greatest, yet he had no followers to mimic his sort of history. His plan was to write an accurate history of the Peloponnesian War, the struggle that divided the Greek world at the end of fifth century b.c.e., stretching over the years 431 to 404 b.c.e. He intended to produce a "possession for all time" which future generations might consult if they found themselves in situations resembling the Peloponnesian War. Unlike Herodotus, he did not write with a pleasant, readable style. He was austere and distant, treating the war like a doctor observing a sick patient. This was the period when the medical school on the island of Cos, founded by the great diagnostician Hippocrates, was collecting descriptions of diseases so that doctors could make correct diagnoses, and Thucydides was influenced by the approach of this medical school. Among ancient Greek critics, Herodotus had a reputation—which he did not deserve—as a teller of tall tales, whereas Thucydides had the reputation of a truthful reporter of what actually happened, which he did not entirely deserve, either. His bias can be readily seen in his admiration of the Athenian democracy under Pericles, which was not truly a democracy, for Pericles dominated politics to such a degree that the democracy was really the rule of one man. The historian's admiration of Pericles did not extend to his successor, Cleon, the son of a leather-maker who was a favorite of the masses in the Athenian assembly. In reality, Cleon was a better administrator than Thucydides admits in his writings, but Thucydides favored Cleon's rival, Nicias, a conservative man who feared the gods but whose incompetence nearly brought Athens to her knees. For the most part, however, Thucydides played the part of an unprejudiced reporter very well.
The Peloponnesian War.
The so-called Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 b.c.e., was fought between Athens on one side, which had built up an empire in the years following the Persian War, and Sparta, which headed an alliance of states centered in the Peloponnesos, the region of Greece south of the Isthmus of Corinth. There was a brief break after the first ten years of war, which are sometimes called the "Archidamian War" after the Spartan king Archidamus who commanded the Peloponnesian forces in the early years of the war. The Archidamian War ended with a peace treaty which was never accepted by some of Sparta's allies, and during the brief period when hostilities ceased, Athens launched an expedition against Sicily with the intention of extending her imperial reach there, and her expeditionary force was completely destroyed in 413 b.c.e. In the final years of the war Persia intervened, and supplied Sparta with a subsidy with which to build a Spartan fleet, and when the war ended with the surrender of Athens, Sparta and Persia divided the Athenian Empire between them. The slogan of Sparta and her allies when the war began was "Liberation for the Greeks"—that is, liberation from the Athenian Empire—but at the war's end, the slogan was forgotten.
The Downfall of Athens.
Thucydides began his history with the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The underlying cause was the fear which Sparta and her allies had of Athenian imperialism, though Thucydides pinpointed three immediate causes. First, Athens became embroiled in a struggle between Corinth, a member the Spartan alliance, and Corinth's former colony, Corcyra (Corfu, nowadays called Kerkyra), and Corinth appealed to her allies. Second, a tributary state of the Athenian Empire, Potidaea, rebelled against Athens and Corinth sent help to Potidaea. Finally, Athens placed an embargo on trade with her neighbor Megara, which was a Spartan ally. Pericles had a strategy to win the war for Athens that capitalized on her strength. Athens had a powerful fleet made up of galleys called triremes, rowed by well-trained crews of Athenian citizens. On land, however, she was no match for Sparta and her allies, and so when the Spartan-led army invaded Athenian territory, the Athenians evacuated their farms and took refuge behind their great city walls. Long walls fortified the road between Athens and her port of Piraeus so that Athens could access the sea and use her fleet to make commando raids on Peloponnesian territory. This would be a war of attrition—each side would try to wear the other down—and Pericles believed that Athens would last longer than Sparta. But an unexpected event upset his calculations. In the second year of the war, the Athenians were smitten by a plague described by Thucydides in clinical detail. Pericles himself took ill, recovered, but died shortly afterwards. The first ten years of war ended with a peace treaty in 421 b.c.e., but the result was to exchange a hot war for a cold one. Athens, ever ambitious to expand her empire, dispatched an expedition to the neutral territory of Sicily in 415 b.c.e., in the hopes of conquering its leading city, Syracuse. To Thucydides, who was familiar with the plots of the tragedies staged in Athenian theater, the Sicilian expedition must have seemed like a protagonist's act of arrogance preceding his downfall in a tragic drama. The attempt to conquer Syracuse failed, and Athens lost all the ships and men she had dispatched to Sicily. The powerful prose of Thucydides' description of the last, desperate battle in the harbor of Syracuse provokes our emotions because it is outwardly unemotional. The Athenians, having lost their best warships and troops, were in desperate straits, bankrupt, and facing revolts in their empire, but they did not give up. For reasons unknown, when Thucydides reached 411 b.c.e. in his narrative, he broke off in mid-sentence and left his history unfinished. It may have been sudden death; he was reportedly drowned at sea. All that is certain is that he clearly knew that the war ended with the defeat of Athens, and he intended to finish the story.
More than one author endeavored to continue Thucydides' work. Two historians, Theopompus and Cratinus, individually took up the story where Thucydides broke off, and they continued until 394 b.c.e., ten years past the year of Athens' defeat. Athens by 394 b.c.e. was about to rise again, and thus the tragic vision of Thucydides is given a happy ending. A scrap of papyrus discovered in 1906 at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt has some 900 lines of a continuation that was clearly written by an able historian, and many scholars attribute it to Cratinus. The lack of concrete evidence to support this supposition, however, forces the more generic authorship of "The Oxyrhynchus Historian," or the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. The one continuation that we do have, the Hellenica, was written by Xenophon, a onetime disciple of the philosopher Socrates. The Hellenica of Xenophon took up Greek history where Thucydides left off and continued it to 362 b.c.e. None of those who continued the work of Thucydides, as far as we know, brought their histories to a close with the Athenians' capitulation to Sparta in 404 b.c.e.
Charles Norris Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1929).
W. Robert Connor, Thucydides (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
J. H. Finley, Thucydides (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942).
Simon Hornblower, Thucydides (London, England: Duckworth, 1987).
Jonathan Price, Thucydides and Internal War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
c. 460 b.c.e.–c. 400 b.c.e.
One of Greece's Greatest Historians.
Thucydides, who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War between the two power blocs led by Athens and by Sparta (431–404 b.c.e.), is considered by most scholars to be the greatest historian that Greece produced, though some would give first place to his earlier contemporary, Herodotus. Yet we are not well-infomed about his life. What we know about him comes from the sparse autobiographical scraps he includes in his History and a brief, unreliable Life written by someone called Marcellinus. From these sources we can infer a birthdate and date of his death, which was probably sudden and unexpected, for his History breaks off in mid-sentence in the winter of 411 b.c.e. He belonged to the upper crust in Athens, and his family had an interest in a mine in Thrace which brought him a regular income. When plague smote Athens in 430 b.c.e. he took ill, but recovered and used the experience to write a clinical description of the disease. In 424 b.c.e., he was elected one of the ten generals whom the Athenians chose each year, and thanks in part to his failure of leadership, the strategic city of Amphipolis in northern Greece fell to Sparta. He was exiled from Athens for his nonsuccess, and remained in exile until the war between Athens and Sparta ended. Though his exile removed him from Athens, it gave him a better opportunity to collect information from the rest of Greece. His standards for source evaluation were high—if he did not witness an event himself, he sought reliable eyewitnesses. He lived to see the end of the war, but he left his work unfinished, and parts of it unrevised. The circumstances of his death are unknown. He was, however, buried in the family vault of the Athenian statesman Cimon who was Pericles' conservative rival at the start of Pericles' career. Despite his familial association with the anti-Periclean camp, he became a supporter of Pericles in his mature years because he admired his ability to hold the radical elements of the Athenian democracy in check.
Wrote on the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides states in the introduction to his History that he realized at the start of the Peloponnesian War that it would be the greatest war that Greece had ever known, surpassing the Trojan War and the war against Persia. Both the adversaries were at the height of their power, and before the war ended, it involved both Sicily and Persia. Yet the war was to prove that unexpected events could upset the best plans. The plague that smote Athens in 430 b.c.e. sapped her strength. The great Athenian leader, Pericles, took ill, and though he survived the immediate onset of the plague, he died of its aftereffects in 429 b.c.e. Thucydides recognized his death as a turning point in Athens' fortunes, for none of the politicians who followed him enjoyed the broad measure of support that he did. In fact, there is a subtle anti-democratic bias in Thucydides' History; he clearly doubted the ability of a government to conduct war wisely when an assembly of all the citizens made the decisions, as was the case in Athens. Yet he admired the indomitable spirit of Athens. After the Athenians suffered a disastrous loss of their entire expeditionary force in Sicily in 413 b.c.e. in their campaign to conquer Syracuse (modern Siracosa), they still fought on, and might still have won if Persia had not supplied Sparta with the funds to build a fleet. Thucydides clearly intended to finish the story, but his History ends abruptly in 411 b.c.e. Various reasons have been suggested to explain why the History is incomplete, but the most likely one is that he died suddenly. Someone took the unfinished work and published it after Thucydides' death. It is a profound study of war and the effect of the stress of war upon civil society. There are also overtones of tragedy to it. Like a protagonist (chief player) in a Greek tragedy, the Athenian democracy entered the war, overconfident, and was brought low by a number of ill-considered moves. Yet the workings of fate also lurked behind the defeat of Athens. Not even the best-laid plans could have foreseen the plague and the death of Pericles.
W. R. Connor, Thucydides (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Simon Hornblower, Thucydides (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
Clifford Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Dennis Proctor, The Experience of Thucydides (Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1980).
A. G. Woodhead, Thucydides and the Nature of Power (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).
Circa 455-Circa 395 b.c.e.
Historian and general
Great Work . Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general, wrote History of the Peloponnesian War, which is widely regarded as the greatest historical work of the ancient world. He was born of a wealthy family with strong Thracian connections, but became a strong supporter of Pericles, the democratic leader whose figure overshadows all subsequent Athenian politicians in Thucydides’ work. Thucydides caught the plague that ravaged Athens early in the war, but recovered. He was elected general but in 424 b.c.e. failed to prevent the Spartan general Brasidas from taking Amphipolis in Thrace. Exiled for this failure, Thucydides returned to Athens at the end of the war and seems to have died shortly afterwards.
Deeds and Words . Thucydides’ account of the war is unfinished and ends in mid-narrative, describing the events of 411 b.c.e., but there are references in the work to Athens’ ultimate defeat. Thucydides tells the reader that he began keeping notes from the war’s outbreak, but the order and date of the composition of the various parts have been subject to endless scrutiny. As the work stands, it is divided as its author stated into deeds and words: the narrative description of the events of the war, and the various speeches of a highly concentrated and abstract nature, supposedly reporting the words of important players in the conflict: a Spartan envoy, an Athenian in the assembly, a general before a battle, and so on. The style of these speeches is exceptionally bracing and difficult (and was found so by Greek scholars in later antiquity), so it is hard to believe that anything in such a style could have been delivered before large audiences; but at a more basic level it is quite unclear whether it was Thucydides’ intention to present what was actually said or what the most powerful argument on any occasion would have been. Either way, the speeches are amongst the finest documents to survive in Greek for their combination of intellectual rigor and passion, above all in Pericles’ famous defense of Athenian democracy in his Funeral speech. The narrative of events, often written with an almost clinical detachment and absence of moral judgements, also manages to focus our attentions on human psychology and suffering in a way that shows the clear influence of tragedy. Indeed, for all the undoubted influence of contemporary intellectual forces such as scientific medicine and rhetoric on his work, the overwhelming influence of myth has been detected in its structure and story.
Mortimer Chambers, “Thucydides,” in Anicent Greek Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 176, edited by Ward W. Briggs (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Detroit: Gale Research, 1997), pp. 381-389.
K. J. Dover, Thucydides (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).