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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

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...

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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 throughout the centuries to the present time; take for example his words about fanaticism:

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.

With both sides battered by war and revolution, leaders of Athens and Sparta negotiated a shaky truce in 421, but resolved none of the larger issues. The first war had revealed something basic about human affairs, Thucydides believed. The Athenians had told the Spartans before the war opened that always the weak had been subject to the strong. When the Spartans raised questions of right and wrong, the Athenians answered: “Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”

War started again. The Athenians mounted a disastrous expedition to Sicily. Soon, Thucydides wrote, the Athenians, intending to enslave, were totally defeated and themselves enslaved. Athens was in turmoil, and oligarchic leaders overthrew its democracy. Vicious bloodletting occurred as the two sides fought for control. Disaster followed disaster, and the Athenians surrendered in 404. The Spartans forced them to renounce their empire, destroy their navy, and tear down the Long Walls.

Thucydides was himself caught up in the war. In 424, Athens elected him a general but then exiled him for twenty years when he failed to prevent the brilliant Spartan general Brasidas from taking the strategically important city of Amphipolis. Exile meant withdrawing a short distance from Amphipolis to his Thracian estate, where he had time to think, write, and talk to Brasidas and other opponents and to central figures in Athenian politics, such as Alcibiades.

Unlike his older contemporary, the great historian Herodotus, Thucydides did not leave much room for the divine in human affairs; he believed that human activities could be understood in human terms. Like Herodotus, Thucydides displayed breadth of sympathy for all sides in the conflict. He weighed his oral evidence carefully, seeking accuracy and precision. He stated his purpose eloquently:

It will be enough for me . . . 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.

Thucydides found meaning in history, evidence of a pattern or cycle. Unless human nature changed, states would continue to overreach themselves, create defensive resistance, and then decline and fall. Even the second part of the Peloponnesian War repeated the first, with new actors making much the same mistakes for the same reasons. People could, however, use their intelligence and reason. They might not escape the cycle, but some few could at least come to understand what was happening and perhaps moderate the cycle. Thucydides did not believe that cycles were endlessly repeating series of events that allowed historians to predict the future, but he thought that people could use history to interpret their times.

It is unclear when Thucydides wrote his history. Most scholars believe that changes in style and conflicting statements about events suggest that it was written in stages; Thucydides died before putting it in final form. He probably died around 402.

Significance

Thucydides and Herodotus, the first historians, retain their rank among the very greatest. Few historians who followed would equal Herodotus’s breadth of sympathy for the diversity of human culture, and seldom would they match Thucydides’ clarity and precision and his emotional and intellectual power.

Thucydides found a scholarly audience more easily than did Herodotus. Thucydides’ objective tone, rational skepticism, and focus on the military and on politics fit the modern temper. His writing on war and revolution seemed directed at the modern age. His message seemed clear, especially after World War II, when in the Cold War atmosphere it was easy for Americans to identify themselves with the free Athenians, confronting dour, warlike Spartans in the form of the totalitarian Soviets. Thucydides, viewed by some scholars as the father of realpolitik, seemed to give a clear warning: Democracies must be strong and alert in a dangerous world.

When the Vietnam War changed historians’ understanding of the Cold War, Thucydides did not drop from favor among scholars, but his message came to seem different. To some scholars, he seemed to be the first revisionist, revealing Athens for what it was: an arrogant and aggressive state aimed at dominating and exploiting the weak and inciting fear of the Spartans to help keep Athenian allies in line. Today Thucydides’ observations continue to resonate in the post-Soviet era as political and religious ideologies clash.

Changing times will continue to shed light on Thucydides’ thoughts and work. Like every genius, he speaks to some members of each generation, who find in him insights into human affairs that clarify their understanding of their own time.

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.

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, Simon. Thucydides. London: Duckworth, 1994. Places Thucydides in the intellectual atmosphere of Periclean Athens and carefully distinguishes the various influences on his thought.

Luginbill, Robert D. Thuycidides on War and National Character. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Examines Thucydides’ analysis of human character and its tendency toward war, behaviors of individuals and states in times of stress, and what lessons can be drawn by modern audiences.

Pouncey, Peter R. The Necessities of War: A Study of Thucydides’ Pessimism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. A study of Thucydides’ theory of human nature and its influence on history; Pouncey finds an “essential pessimism” that holds that human nature carries within it drives that destroy human achievements.

Price, Jonathan J. Thucydides and Internal War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Argues from internal evidence that Thucydides viewed the Peloponnesian War as an internal war, or stasis. Readable and accessible to nonscholars.

Rawlings, Hunter R., III. The Structure of Thucydides’ History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Provides insights into Thucydides based on an analysis of the structure of his work.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. This translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by M. I. Finley, is highly regarded and easily accessible.

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