Thucydides Essay - Critical Essays



Thucydides c. 455/460 B.C.-c. 399 B.C.

Greek historian.

Thucydides' reputation as a primary historian of the ancient world derives from his one work, the History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides began compiling his work at the onset of the war in 431 B.C., becoming one of the earliest historians to write contemporary history, and he continued to record the events of the war as it unfolded. The work chronicles most of the war, although Thucydides died before its conclusion; his account ends at 411 B.C., seven years before the war ended in 404. His dedication to an accurate and impartial presentation sets him apart from his contemporaries, in whose works supernatural events and moral purpose typically play a greater role. He attempted to eschew "fable" and bias in his work, as he explained: "Of the events of war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; I have described nothing but what I either saw myself or learnt from others, of whom I made the most careful and particular inquiry." His method became known as "scientific" history because Thucydides drew on developing scientific knowledge in his environment—such as Hippocrates' then novel treatises on medicine—and applied it to the study of history. This fact also caused subsequent historians to claim him as the father of modern history. In the mid-eighteenth century, philosopher David Hume declared that "the first page of Thucydides is the commencement of real history."

Biographical Information

Thucydides was the son of an Athenian, Olorus, who was most likely a grandson to the Thracian King Olorus. Thucydides may also have been related to Cimon, another grandson to the king, and a leading Athenian statesman. Judging from the breadth of knowledge displayed in the History, historians surmise that Thucydides received his education in Athens, although he held property including gold mines in Thrace. In 424 B.C. he was elected as a general to protect the region; however, when he failed to defend the coveted Athenian colony of Amphipolis from Sparta, he was sent to trial, convicted, and subsequently exiled from Athens until the war ended in 404 B.C. While in exile he traveled extensively, making connections with sympathizers from both sides of the conflict and collecting eyewitness accounts of the war. He also did most of his writing at this time, having begun at the war's onset in 431 B.C., before his exile, and apparently leaving the work unfinished on his death in 399 B.C. He died shortly after his return to Athens and was buried in Cimon's family vault.

Major Works

The History of the Peloponnesian War, comprised of eight books, presents the war's duration through accounts of events and speeches, a device Thucydides adopted from the Greek historian Herodotus. In Book 1 Thucydides stated as his objective to give an accurate account of the war he deemed the most consequential in human history, and to provide knowledge that he hoped would instruct and guide future readers. In a preamble to the Athenian conflict with Sparta, he briefly summarized early Greek history and described the key military incidents that provided an environment for the growth of Athenian power. Books 2-4 chronicle the main events in the first part of the Peloponnesian War known as the Archidamian War, including the Plague and the Funeral Oration (Book 2), the revolt of Lesbos (Book 3), the Athenian victory at Sphacteria, and the fall of Amphipolis to Brasidas (Book 4). Book 5 tells of the deaths of Brasidas and Cleon, the Peace of Nicias, and Mantinean War, and the subjugation of Melos. Books 6 and 7 describe Nicias' illfated expedition to Sicily, and the unfinished eighth book describes the revolt led by the Athenian allies and the naval warfare near Asia Minor. Scholars consider the last book unfinished since it both lacks the speeches found in the first seven books and stops at the year 411 B.C., well before the end of the war in 404 B.C. Not only do speeches constitute a sizable portion of the preceding books, but the History generally treats speeches as an intregal part of the political scene; the Funeral Oration by Pericles, in which Thucydides recalled an idealized Athens, has received considerable critical attention as an important text in itself. The History is also studied for its portraits of certain key players in the historical events, including Pericles, a highly influential Athenian statesman; Cleon, the statesman who inherited Pericles' position of influence; and two Athenian generals, Nicias and Alcibiades.

Textual History

While critics generally agree that Thucydides must have collected the material for and composed his history throughout the duration of the war, dating the various portions of the work has produced considerable debate. Efforts at dating must proceed largely from the History's internal evidence, since the earliest known manuscript dates to the tenth century. Fifty such manuscripts exist in libraries across Europe, many dating from the eleventh and twelth centuries. Translations into English proliferated in the nineteenth century, the most authoritative generally thought to be Benjamin Jowett's 1881 edition.

Critical Reception

Thucydides was largely unknown as a historian during his lifetime, possibly due in part to his lengthy exile. Substantial appreciation first came in the second century B.C. from the Greek historian Polybius and in the first century A.D. from Roman authors Caesar and Sallust. He also wielded a significant influence on subsequent Greek historians, including Dexippus (third century), Procopius (sixth century), and Critobulus (fifteenth century). Later political philosophers Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian statesman, and Thomas Hobbes, the English writer, admired his analytical methods, and Thomas Jefferson mentioned him favorably in an 1812 letter to John Adams. Nineteenth-century classicists have also admired his work, praising both his methods of composition and his apparently impartial approach to history; their studies generally consisted of painstaking, line-by-line analyses, often for the purpose of determining when Thucydides wrote each part of the history, an issue about which there has been much debate.

Twentieth-century classicists have moved away from this kind of analysis to more broad-based concerns, especially embracing the History during the major military conflicts of the century. In general, their theses about Thucydides range between two extreme positions, one of which finds the historian a wholly objective and accurate recorder of facts, while the other views him as a politically engaged man who necessarily conveys the biases of his own age and viewpoint. In an essay that dubs Thucydides "The Modern Spirit," G. F. Abbott has characterized the historian as a "student who cares for historical facts and who knows that historical facts can only be ascertained, if at all, by sceptical inquiry—by that close and cold scrutiny which nips like a frost the fables dictated by ignorance or interest and fostered by credulity."

The common characterization of Thucydides as the precursor of modern history is based on his significant differences from other historians of his age, as demonstrated in the work of Charles Norris Cochrane. Cochrane maintains that while the supernatural—specifically the will of the gods—plays a central role in most ancient histories, Thucydides keeps an unusually persistent eye on the natural, precisely in the "scientific" manner Hippocrates was developing in his medical treatises. Cochrane and like-minded critics have studied Thucydides's portraits of individuals and groups (nations, armies, etc.) for their unusually modern, psychological analyses of human nature, which ultimately suggest that Thucydides attributes historical events not to the gods but to human nature.

Counter to the approach Abbott and Cochrane typify stands a line of thought initiated in 1907 by Francis MacDonald Cornford's Thucydides Mythistoricus, in which the author argues that Thucydides, despite his intentions, embedded his own ideas about history in general and specifically about the war through which he lived in his chronicle. W. P. Wallace's 1964 essay represents the culmination of this extreme; the critic not only argues that Thucydides invested the History with his own perspective, but also concludes that "it is somehow not quite respectable to give one's reader's as little choice as Thucydides gives his."

Most criticism falls somewhere between these two poles. Some schoalars have suggested, for example, that Thucydides's notion of history may itself have allowed for a sense of accuracy not at odds with bias. Along these lines, most critics agree that Thucydides presents his readers with two causes of the Peloponnesian war, one of which he considers superficial and the other, "real." While there were a series of diplomatic exchanges between Athens and Sparta regarding the allegiance of certain city-states that led up to the conflict, Thucydides suggests that the larger force at work was Sparta's fear of Athens' imperial expansion. Much of his analytical method and his careful accuracy is aimed, as most critics agree, toward uncovering this underlying cause, so that the image of a "scientific" Thucydides is often synonymous with the image of a Thucydides committed to a particular view of history. Moreover, some scholars contend that Thucydides' objectivity necessarily had certain viewpoints built into it, since the very definition of "history" in his era is based on certain assumptions about which there is still debate.

Principal English Translations

Thucydides (the Loeb edition, translated by Charles Forster Smith) 1930-35

Thucydides (translated by Benjamin Jowett) 1881

The History of the Peloponnesian War (translated by Rex Warner) 1972

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Dionysius of Halicarnassus (essay date 8 B.C.?)

SOURCE: "Translation of Usener-Radermacher Text of De Thucydide," in Dionysius of Halicarnassus: On Thucydides, translated by W. Kendrick Pritchett, University of California Press, 1975, pp. 1-46.

[A Greek who taught rhetoric in Rome, Dionysius was a prominent literary figure and the author of Roman Antiquities, a history of Rome from its origins to the First Punic War, and Scripta rhetorica, a collection of letters and essays on literary criticism valued for its thorough analysis and comparative method. In the following excerpt from his On Thucydides, Dionysius comments on what he views as some positive and negative attributes of the historian's style. Since the...

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Thomas Hobbes (essay date 1629)

SOURCE: "To The Readers," in Hobbes's Thucydides, edited by Richard Schlatter, Rutgers University Press, 1975, pp. 6-9.

[Hobbes was an eminent English philosopher best known for his Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), in which he presented his theory of social contract. In the following preface to his 1629 translation of Thucydides's History, Hobbes praises the historian's objectiveness and vivid, descriptive style.]

It hath been noted by divers, that Homer in poesy, Aristotle in philosophy, Demosthenes in eloquence, and others of the ancients in other knowledge, do still maintain their primacy:...

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Richard Jebb (essay date 1880)

SOURCE: "The Speeches of Thucydides," in Essays and Addresses, Cambridge at the University Press, 1907, pp. 359-443.

[Jebb was a Scottish-born classicist, translator, and author of numerous works on ancient literature, and the founder of the Cambridge Philological Society, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, and the British School of Archeology in Athens. In the essay excerpted below, originally published in 1880 in Hellenica: a Collection of Essays on Greek Poetry, Philosophy, History, and Religion, Jebb approaches the speeches as a vital part of the History for their "light on the inner workings of the Greek political mind, … on the whole play of feeling and...

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Frank Byron Jevons (essay date 1886)

SOURCE: "Thucydides," in A History of Greek Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Demosthenes, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900, pp. 327-48.

[In the following excerpt from his monograph written in 1886, Jevons maintains that Thucydides sought "to give a strict and faithful account of the facts" of the Peloponnesian War and demonstrates the importance of the War to Western history.]

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another. He began to write when they first took up arms, believing that it would be great and memorable above any previous war. For he argued that both states...

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Francis MacDonald Cornford (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "Mythistoria and the Drama," in Thucydides Mythistoricus, 1907. Reprint by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965, pp. 129-52.

[Cornford was an English classicist whose books include From Religion to Philosophy (1912), Greek Religious Thought (1923), and Before and after Socrates (1932). In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1907, Cornford argues that— despite the historian's intentions to "exclude the mythical"—Thucydides "unconciously" fitted his History to the structure of Greek drama.]


The epithet 'dramatic' has often been applied to Thucydides' work; but...

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Charles Norris Cochrane (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "Thucydides," in Thucydides and the Science of History, Oxford University Press, 1929, pp. 14-34.

[In the following excerpt, Cochrane identifies Thucydides as a "scientific" historian, demonstrating that "Thucydides adapted the principles and methods of Hippocratic medicine to the interpretation of history" and further asserting that therein lies his "power and originality. "]

Ideas such as those enunciated by the Hippocratic school were unquestionably floating about in the Hellenic world as early as the middle of the fifth century B.C. Herodotus, for example, was well aware of the requirements of a genuinely scientific hypothesis, as he showed by his refusal...

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John H. Finley Jr. (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "The Plan and Methods of the History," in Thucydides, The University of Michigan Press, 1963, pp. 74-110.

[Focusing on the opening chapters or "archeology" of the History in the following excerpt from his 1942 monograph, Finley asserts that the material reveals Thucydides' "belief that history is both useful and scientific. "]

[The] transition from Thucydides' age to his work is necessarily abrupt, because it is impossible to follow his development step by step as Plato's, for instance, can to some extent be followed. Thus one is confronted, on the one hand, with many facts of his life and many tendencies of his age which have an obvious bearing...

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A. W. Gomme (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "What Thucydides Takes for Granted" and "Thucydides' Self-imposed Limitations," in A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1945, pp. 1-25, 25-29.

[Gomme, a scholar of Greek letters, was the author of Essays in Greek History and Literature (1937). In the following excerpt, he first describes the economic, military, and political contexts and assumptions of Thucydides' work and then documents what the historian elected to exclude.]


Thucydides was well aware of the importance of the economic factor in history. In his sketch of the early development of the Greek states in his...

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G. B. Grundy (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Thucydides and the Philosophy of History," in Thucydides and the History of His Age, Vol. II, Basil Blackwell, 1948, pp. 28-80.

[In the following excerpt, Grundy suggests that Thucydides imbued the History with his own philosophical perspectivean "essentially practical" or cynical view-pointdespite his claims to objectivity.]


Any student or any reader who is interested in Thucydides will require as full a pro of as possible of his aim as an author. In the case of his philosophy the difficulty of acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of it is due to the fact that Thucydides...

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David Grene (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Chance and Pity" and "Beyond Necessity," in Man in His Pride, University of Chicago Press, 1950, pp. 70-79, 80-92.

[In the excerpt that follows, Grene endeavors to answer the question, "in the true domain of politics … where does Thucydides find his highest value?" In order to find an answer, he explores Thucydides 's notion of primary historical forces—particularly necessity and chance—and examines those instances where Thucydides deems it appropriate to insert moral commentary on individual behavior.]

Chance and Pity

Everybody who reads Thucydides has been struck by the sparseness of any personal moral comment on the men and...

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F. E. Adcock (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: in Thucydides and His History, Cambridge at the University Press, 1963, pp. 27-57.

[In the following excerpt, Adcock first analyses Thucydides' manner of presentation: he contends that the speeches present a dialectical movement through argument and persuasion, proceeding indirectly towards the final purpose. Adcock posits that purpose second: the history makes an ethical argument about the primacy of civic life over private life.]


Thucydides has told his readers what they are to think about the content of the speeches either in the first part or the whole of his work. When he wrote the sentence is not known for certain,...

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Michael Grant (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Speeches and Personalities in Thucydides," in The Ancient Historians, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970, pp. 88-101.

[In the following excerpt, Grant defends the "accuracy" of Thucydides's speeches, basing his argument on an examination of contemporary Greek notions of the purpose of public speech. He speculates that Thucydides believed that individuals in history were "there to reveal underlying causes " of the course of history; therefore, their speeches are not only vital to written history, but also are accurate inasmuch as they articulate those underlying causes.]

Thucydides' history would not have been at all the same without the speeches. This device, which...

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W. den Boer (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Thucydides," in Progress in the Greece of Thucydides, North Holland Publishing, 1977, pp. 21-38.

[In the excerpt that follows, den Boer enters the debate over Thucydides' views on progress as a necessary part of history—that is, whether events in time necessarily "progress" toward some higher condition. He concludes, through an examination of the opening chapters of the History and contemporary Greek thought in general, that such a notion of history did not exist for Thucydides.]

One author who was not impressed by the accomplishments of man was Thucydides. Nevertheless, in the eyes of many scholars he is one of the champions of progress. "More...

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W. Robert Connor (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Narrative Discourse in Thucydides," in The Greek Historians: Literature and History—Papers Presented to A. E. Raubitschek, Anma Libri, 1985, pp. 1-17.

[In the following excerpt, Connor argues that the predominant critical examination of Thucydides as a political scientist and a historical scientist neglects the strength of his narrative technique—and consequently misses "the pleasure of reading" his History.]

There are today many signs of a sea change in our understanding of the relationship between literature and history and hence in our understanding of the historians of the past and of historical writing in the present. Lawrence Stone drew attention to...

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Further Reading

Abbott, G. F. Thucydides: A Study in Historical Reality, George Routledge & Sons, 1925.

Argues that Thucydides' approach to historical writing breaks from the conventions of classical history and anticipates modern styles.

Connor, W. R. "A Post Modernist Thucydides?" The Classical Journal 72, No. 4 (April-May 1977): 289-98.

Reviews modern criticism on Thucydides's History, remarking in particular on recent pronounced shifts in critical opinion.

De Romilly, Jacqueline. Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963, 400 p....

(The entire section is 520 words.)