Thucydides Biography

Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
ph_0111205895-Thucydides.jpg Thucydides Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)