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Summary Article: Thucydides
from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
Life

Thucydides, an Athenian, composed the history of the Peloponnesian War fought by Athens and Sparta and their respective allies from 431 to 404 BCE. His father's name, Oloros, is Thracian in origin; Thucydides refers to his own influence with Thracian notables (which is significant because of the importance of this area in the northern Aegean to Athens' naval empire). Born no later than 454 (a date inferred from his generalship in 424: this office was restricted to those at least 30 years old), Thucydides intended to write the history of the entire war, but the narrative ends abruptly with the events of the summer of 410; that he lived at least to the end of the war is proven by authorial comments (for instance at 2.65.11–13 – a passage surveying the period from the death of Perikles in 429 to the end of the war and Sparta's victory, where he registers his view that the Spartan victory rested largely on Persian financing of the Peloponnesian fleet). At least three writers in the fourth century completed the account of the war, Xenophon among them.

A participant in the war, Thucydides inserts himself into the narrative infrequently. His authorial position is unusual. Himself an Athenian general and therefore writing from the losing side, he was exiled for his failure in 424 to save the important Athenian colony Amphipolis, in coastal Thrace, from falling into Spartan hands; as an author, he got to write his own defense (apologia), in which he demonstrates the impossibility of preventing the surrender of the city. In a "second preface," while introducing the narrative of the period from 421 to 404 (after the Peace of Nikias in 421), he casts his exile as a benefit, which afforded him leisure and access to Peloponnesians. Although an Athenian, he was sharply critical of Athenian politicians after Perikles' death (he was also arguably ambivalent about Perikles himself), and of Athens' democracy in general; at the same time prominent themes in his work are the Spartans' generally slow and reactive nature and their ignorance of naval warfare – the arena in which the war would be decided.

Work

The History has been read from antiquity through to our day as the authoritative source on the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides chose to organize his account (which was later divided into eight books) chronologically and, unusually, into summers – campaigning seasons – and winters. The near three-decade conflict was unparalleled in Greek experience; in explaining its causes Thucydides writes:

I have first written the accusations and the disputes that made them dissolve the [Thirty Years] treaty so that no one need investigate the circumstances that led to war of this magnitude. In fact, I believe that the real cause, though one not fully grasped, is that the Athenians' continuing increase in power instilled fear in the Spartans and compelled them to wage war. However, following is an account of the causes aired openly that led to the dissolution of the treaty and led to war. (1.23.5–6)

Significance of Thucydides' Work in Ancient Historiography

Owing much to his near-contemporary Herodotus, whose subject in the Histories' account of the Persian wars was men – not legendary heroes – and who likewise was concerned with causes, power, and human nature, Thucydides was innovative too. He systematically laid out his methodology and approach by collecting evidence and assessing its value to gain precision and accuracy, with respect not only to past and present events (erga), but also to words (logoi) – whether spoken or written. His interest in the relationship between the two is conspicuous throughout the History. The impossibility of verbatim representation meant that, as he plainly states, speeches were his own compositions (1.22); but he insists upon their anchoring in reality.

Thucydides' interest in the realm of discourse went well beyond political decisions, strategic thinking, leadership, speeches before battle – to discourses on "national character" (as in Perikles' "Funeral Oration," 2.35–46, or in the Corinthians' comparison between Athenians and Spartans, 1.70). He regarded speech as a weapon as well as a casualty of war. In an extraordinary analysis of Stasis inserted into an account of civil war on Corcyra, he noted that, in order to facilitate suspicion, form factions, and generate violence, people deliberately manipulated the evaluation of words; for example a "reckless daring" became something admirable and a "prudent hesitation" a mask for "cowardly delay" (3.82.4). In another memorable phrase he observes: "War is a 'teacher of violence' (biaios didaskalos)" (3.82.2); but it is the deterioration of society – law, customs, morality, piety – resulting from this kind of instruction that is a preoccupation of his work – as much as battlefield carnage is.

Another innovation lay in the area of historical causation. Thucydides sought to explain the causes and course of historical events thoroughly in human terms, without ultimate recourse to the gods. Finally, his explicit insistence on the value of reading his History for understanding events other than the Peloponnesian War, whenever or wherever they might occur, may be breathtaking in its boastful claim, but is serious given his view that knowledge and understanding of the past occupies a critical place in understanding one's present; the didactic purpose of his work required him to help readers think about the particular or concrete in a specific historical event and about the abstract or general in history.

The individuals in Thucydides' History are invariably concerned with power, morality, and justice in interstate relations, and self-interest; such aspects and motifs of human activity were common in Greek literature. What stands out as Thucydides' primary achievement is his insistence on explaining history in human terms. While including proper behavior toward the gods as one of the casualties of war, his treatment of causes and analysis of events is grounded in, and explicable in, human terms; such is his statement about the causes of the war noted above. By no means signaling disbelief in the divine sphere, Thucydides' History is best understood as an exposé of what humans inflict upon themselves – whether in waging war or stasis, in suffering from disease, or in increasing and losing power.

Impact

Thucydides, it must be said, was not a bestseller in antiquity. It is significant that the arbiters of the measure of success were principally literary critics like Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who castigated the historian not only for the near incomprehensibility of his speeches (even to a native Greek speaker), but also for the organization of the History. History as entertaining literature, as it was viewed through much of antiquity, made Thucydides' immediate contemporaries Herodotus and Xenophon far more popular. However, he had a decided influence on the Roman historians Sallust and Tacitus, and even on the Epicurean Lucretius, who in his philosophical poem renders in hexameter verse Thucydides' account of the devastating Plague that felled thousands of Athenians early in the war.

Thucydides' human-centered history, combined with his meticulous discussion of proper historical method, was embraced as proto-modern by scholars in the nineteenth and a good part of the twentieth century for its seeming scientific, "objective" value (and in being so treated it became central to debates about history as "science" vs. "literature"). At the same time his analyses of power, stemming from a hardened, uncompromising view of human nature, made the History the darling of analysts of power, from Machiavelli to international relations "realists" and "neo-realists." There is a fallacy here, namely that Thucydides himself believed in a "might makes right" stance as expressed by, for example, the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue – a stunning discourse on the dilemma of power. But lost in both approaches is the literary nature of the work. Awareness of this work – and of all ancient historical writing – as literary composition is now dominant, whether the work is analyzed via a narratological approach, long popular in non-historical genres, or by way of examining the work's affinity with tragedy. Interestingly, the labels given to Thucydides over time – psychologist, political scientist, philosopher, dramatist – all have their justification.

SEE ALSO:

Aegean Sea (Classical and later); Democracy, Athenian; Epicurus and Epicureanism; Historiography, Greek and Roman; Lucretius; Nikias, Peace of; Sallust; Strategoi; Thirty Years' Peace; Thracia.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Connor, W. R. (1977) "A post-modernist Thucydides?" Classical Journal 72: 289-98.
  • Connor, W. R. (1984) Thucydides. Princeton.
  • de Romilly, J. (1988). Thucydides and Athenian imperialism, trans. Thody, P. . Oxford.
  • Dewald, C. (2005) Thucydides' war narrative: a structural study. Berkeley.
  • Hornblower, S. (1987) Thucydides. Baltimore.
  • Parry, A. M. (1981) Logos and ergon in Thucydides. Salem, NH.
  • Pritchett, W. K. (1975). Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Thucydides. Berkeley.
  • Rengakos, A.; Tsakmakis, A., eds. (2006) Brill's companion to Thucydides. Leiden.
  • Rood, T. (1999). Thucydides: narrative and explanation. Oxford.
  • Stahl, H.-P. (2003) Thucydides: man's place in history. Swansea.
  • Lisa Kallet
    Wiley ©2012

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