Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.