Thucydides Biography

Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

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Article abstract: Greek historian{$I[g]Greece;Thucydides} For the methods he employed in his account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides is considered one of the founders of the discipline of history.

Early Life

Thucydides (thew-SIHD-uh-deez) was born around 459 into a wealthy and conservative Athenian family. He grew up in Periclean Athens, an exciting place for a young, intelligent aristocrat. He followed the traditional course of education founded on the study of Homer, but leavened it with the rational skepticism of the Sophists. Thucydides could listen to the teachings of Protagoras, Socrates, Herodotus, and other major intellectual and creative figures who lived in or visited Athens.

Little is known about Thucydides’ personal life. His family was politically active and opposed the democratic forces led by Pericles, but Thucydides evidently did not involve himself in political intrigues. It is known that he inherited gold mines in Thrace and had an estate there. He married a Thracian woman and had a daughter. He seems to have been a slightly detached but observant young man, studying the social and political turbulence around him. He did not break openly with his family, nor did he enter actively into Athenian politics. Though he criticized the people when they acted as a “mob,” he did not approve of oligarchy. He respected the wisdom and moderation of Athenian leaders such as Nicias but was stirred by the boldness of Pericles, Themistocles, and Alcibiades.

When the Peloponnesian War began in 431, Thucydides perhaps first intended to record for posterity the events and the deeds of men in a dramatic conflict. He soon saw that the war provided instruction in something basic about human nature and the fortunes of nations. He started collecting material for his Historia tou Peloponnesiacou polemou (431-404 b.c.e.; History of the Peloponnesian War, 1550), at the outbreak of the twenty-seven-year conflict.

Life’s Work

A generation before Thucydides was born, the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 479 b.c.e. ushered in the golden age of Athenian history. The city’s economy flourished, its government became more democratic than in the past, its art, literature, and freedom of expression attracted creative people from throughout the Greek world, and its navy established it as a power over the Aegean Islands and many coastal cities. Though Athens and Sparta had cooperated against the Persians, they soon went separate ways. The slow-moving, conservative Spartans watched Athens build an empire and, under Pericles’ leadership, reach for more power and wealth. “What made war inevitable,” Thucydides wrote, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”

War began in 431. It opened with ten years of fighting, followed by some years of shaky truce, before fighting continued for another ten years. After Sparta established its power on land, the Athenians retreated into the city, which was joined by the Long Walls to the port of Peiraeus. The Athenians supplied themselves by sea and harassed the Spartans and their allies. The war was brutal. Besieged cities turned to cannibalism, and conquerors sometimes put defeated males to death and enslaved their women and children.

Despite Thucydides’ renowned objectivity—he was acclaimed at one time as “the father of scientific history”—later military historians have seldom matched the emotional intensity and striking visual images conveyed by his calm prose. He described trapped Plataeans counting bricks in the besieging wall to determine how high to build scaling ladders. They began a desperate dash for freedom through a dark, rainy night, each man wearing only one shoe for better traction in the mud. He gave a masterful clinical description of the plague that hit Athens and chronicled the degeneration of morale and morals as disease swept the hot, overcrowded city. People gave themselves up to lawlessness and dissipation: “No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately.” With the gods silent in the face of human tragedy and no one expecting to live long enough to be punished for violating society’s laws, people took what pleasure they could.

Revolution also spread through the city-states, with war between democratic and oligarchic forces. Brutality within cities equaled that between them. Thucydides wrote that in times of peace and prosperity most people acted decently: “But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances.” His observations have rung true...

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Thucydides Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thucydides (thyew-SIHD-uh-deez) was the son of Olorus, an Athenian citizen. The date of his birth is uncertain; it has been put as early as 471 b.c.e. and as late as 455 b.c.e. He may have spent part of his youth in Thrace, where his family owned gold-mining rights. He says that he began his history of the Peloponnesian War at the moment when the war broke out, so he was presumably living at Athens in 431. He was certainly there the following year during the plague, of which he fell ill.

In 424 he was appointed, jointly with Eucles, to defend the coastal region bordering on Thrace and was entrusted with a naval squadron. His failure to prevent the capture of Amphipolis when it was invaded by the Spartans provoked the Athenians to send him into exile. He passed his twenty years of banishment in visiting the cities of the enemy and the principal battlefields of the war and in collecting from veterans of the war the historical materials needed for his work. He returned to Athens about 403. He did not live to complete his great work—the History of the Peloponnesian War ends in 411, seven years before the peace was finally made. His death is supposed to have occurred at the hands of an assassin about 402 b.c.e. Thucydides is classified as the first scientific historian. Compared with Herodotus, his predecessor, whom Thucydides criticized for his failure to verify facts and stories before using them, he went to extremes to guarantee the accuracy of his own work.

Thucydides’ History is both highly objective and highly dramatic. In the numerous orations which he reports or constructs, he shows his precise understanding of ideological issues. His narratives are marvelously vivid; among the most memorable are his accounts of the plague in Athens and of the Syracusan campaign, which ended with the imprisonment of the expeditionary force in the rock quarries and which had a direct effect on the defeat of Athens by Sparta.

Thucydides Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Connor, W. Robert. Thucydides. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A meditation on Thucydides and an analysis of the text, especially to determine the source of Thucydides’ emotional impact on his readers.

Debner, Paula. Speaking the Same Language: Speech and Audience in Thucydides’ Spartan Debates. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Edmunds, Lowell. Chance and Intelligence in Thucydides. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. A study of Thucydides’ theory of reason and chance in human affairs and of the interplay of pessimism and optimism in his work.

Gomme, Arnold W. A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. 5 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1945-1981. Gomme’s monumental work is a classic of Thucydides scholarship.

Gustafson, Lowell S., ed. Thucydides’ Theory of International Relations: A Lasting Possession. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Essays by nine political scientists consider Thucydides as a theorist of international relations, including his concepts of how history informs modern events, realism vs. pluralism, the impact of internal events on international politics, and culture as it operates in world affairs.

Hornblower,...

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