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

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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...

(The entire section contains 98786 words.)

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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 exact date of composition for this piece is unknown, Dionysius's death date has been used as the essay date.]

[Thucydides] was unwilling either to confine his history to a single region as did Hellanicus, or to elaborate into a single work the achievements of Greeks and barbarians in every land, as did Herodotus; but scorning the former as trifling and petty and of little value to the readers, and rejecting the latter as too comprehensive to fall within the purview of the human mind, if one would be very exact, he selected a single war, the war that was waged between the Athenians and Peloponnesians, and gave his attention to writing about this. Since he was physically robust and sound of mind, living through the duration of the war, he put together his narrative not from chance rumors but on the basis of personal experience, in cases where he was present himself, and on information from the most knowledgeable people, where he was in the dark as a result of his exile. In this way, then, he differed from the historians before him, and I say this since he chose a subject which neither consists entirely of one member (monokolon) nor is divided into many irreconcilable parts. Moreover, he did not insert anything of the mythical into his history, and he refused to divert his history to practice deception and magic upon the masses, as all the historians before him had done, telling of Lamias issuing from the earth in woods and glens, and of amphibious nymphs arising from Tartarus and swimming through the seas, partly shaped like beasts, and having intercourse with human beings; telling also about demi-gods, the offspring of mortals and gods, and many other stories that seem incredible and very foolish to our times.

I have not been led to say these things by the desire to censure those writers, since, on the contrary, I have much indulgence towards them for mentioning the fictions of myths when writing national and local history. For among all men alike there are preserved some records of both national and local traditions … which children have received from their parents and have taken care to hand down to their children in turn and they have insisted that those who wished to publish them should record them as they have received them from their elders. These historians, then, were compelled to embellish their local histories by such mythical digressions. On the other hand, it was not suitable for Thucydides, who chose just one subject in which he participated, to mix theatrical enticements with the narrative, or to practice the deceit against readers which those compilations customarily exhibited, but to be useful. …

Philosophers and rhetoricians, if not all of them, yet most of them, bear witness to Thucydides that he has been most careful of the truth, the high-priestess of which we desire history to be. He adds nothing to the facts that should not be added, and takes nothing there-from, nor does he take advantage of his position as a writer, but he adheres to his purpose without wavering, leaving no room for criticism, and abstaining from envy and flattery of every kind, particularly in his appreciation of men of merit. For in the first book, when he makes mention of Themistocles, he unstintingly mentions all of his good qualities, and in the second book in the discussion of the statesmanship of Pericles, he pronounces a eulogy such as was worthy of a man whose reputation has penetrated everywhere. Likewise, when he was compelled to speak about Demosthenes the general, Nicias the son of Niceratus, Alcibiades the son of Clinias, and other generals and speakers, he has spoken so as to give each man his due. To cite examples is unnecessary to readers of his history. This then is what may be said about the historian's success in connection with the treatment of his subject-matter—points that are good and worthy of imitation.

The defects of Thucydidean workmanship and the features that are criticized by some persons relate to the more technical side of his subject matter, what is called the economy of the discourse, something that is desirable in all kinds of writing, whether one chooses philosophical or oratorical subjects. The matter in question has to do with the division (diairesis), order (taxis) and development (exergasia). …

There are many … portions throughout the whole history that one may find either to have been worked out with the most consummate elaboration and that admit of neither addition nor subtraction, or else to have been carelessly skimmed over and to present not the slightest suggestion of … skill, and this is especially true of his harangues and dialogues and other pieces of oratory. In his anxiety for these, he seems to have left his history incomplete. Such, too, is the view of Cratippus, who flourished at the same time as he, and who collected the matter passed over by him, for he says that not only have the speeches been an impediment to the narrative, but they are also annoying to the hearers. At any rate he maintains that Thucydides noticed this and so put no speech in the closing portions of his history, though there were many events in Ionia and many events at Athens that called for the use of dialogues and harangues. Certainly, if one compares the first and eighth books with each other, they would not seem to form part of the same plan nor to be the work of the same genius. The one book comprising a few, small events is full of oratory, whereas the other embracing many great events shows a scarcity of public speeches.

I have even thought that in his very speeches the man has given evidence of the same failing, so much so that in dealing with the same subject and on the same occasion he writes some things that he ought not to have said, and omits others that he ought to have said, as, for example, he has done in regard to the city of the Mytilenaeans in the third book. After the capture of the city and the arrival of the captives, whom the general Paches had dispatched to Athens, though two meetings of the ecclesia were held at Athens (Thuc. III.36), our author has omitted as unnecessary the speeches that were made by the leaders of the people at the first of these meetings, in which the demos voted to kill the prisoners and the rest of the Mytilenaeans who had reached manhood, and to enslave the women and children; but the speeches (III.36-49) that dealt with the same subject and that were delivered by the same persons at the later meeting at which the majority experienced a sort of repentance, the historian has admitted as necessary.

And as for the much talked-of funeral speech (II.35-46), which Thucydides recounted in the second book, for what reason, pray, is it placed in this book rather than in another? For whether on the occasion of great disasters that had befallen the city when many brave Athenians had perished in battle it was befitting for the customary lamentations to be made over them, or, by reason of the great services which brought conspicuous renown to the city or added to its power, it was meet for the dead to be honored with the praises of funeral speeches, any book that one might choose would be a more suitable place for the funeral oration than this book. For, in this book, the Athenians who fell during this first invasion of the Peloponnesians were very few in number, and not even these performed any illustrious deeds, as Thucydides himself writes (II.22): After first saying of Pericles that "he watched the city and kept it as quiet as possible, but he continually sent out small numbers of horsemen to keep patrols of the army from sallying forth into the farms near the city and doing damage," he says that a brief cavalry conflict took place "at Phrygia between a single squad of Athenian cavalry accompanied by Thessalians and the Boetian horsemen. In this engagement the Thessalians and Athenians were not worsted until the hoplites came to the assistance of the Boeotians and so they were put to flight and a few of the Thessalians and Athenians were killed. But the dead were recovered on the same day without a truce. And the Peloponnesians erected a trophy on the following day." But in the fourth book (cf. Thuc. IV.9-23, 26-40) the men who fought with Demosthenes at Pylos against a force of the Lacedaemonians, attacking them by land and from the sea and conquering them in both the battles, and who thereby filled the city with boasting, were far superior in numbers and worth to the above-mentioned soldiers. Why then, pray, in the case of the few horsemen who brought neither reputation nor additional power to the city, does the historian open the public graves and introduce the most distinguished leader of the people, Pericles, in the act of reciting that lofty tragic composition; whereas, in honor of the larger number and more valiant who caused the people who declared war against the Athenians to surrender to them, and who were more worthy of obtaining such an honor, he did not compose a funeral oration? To dismiss all the other battles on land and on sea, in which many perished who much more deserved to be honored with the funeral eulogy than those frontier guardsmen of Attica, amounting to about ten or fifteen horsemen, how much more worthy of the funeral lamentations and eulogies were those of the Athenians and allies who met their death in Sicily along with Nicias and Demosthenes in the naval engagements and in the land battles and lastly in that wretched flight, who numbered no less than forty thousand and who were not even able to obtain the customary mode of burial? But the historian was so neglectful of these men that he has even omitted to state that the city went into public mourning and duly made the customary offerings to the shades of those who had died in foreign lands, and appointed as the orator of the occasion the man who was the most competent speaker of the orators of that time. For it was not likely that the Athenians would go into public mourning for the fifteen horsemen, but would not deem worthy of any honor the men that fell in Sicily, among whom … [lacuna] and of the muster-roll of citizens those that perished were more in number than five thousand. But it seems that the historian (for I shall say what I think), desiring to use the personality of Pericles and to put in his mouth the funeral eulogy that he had composed, since the man died in the second year of the war and did not live at the time of any of the disasters that subsequently befell the city, bestowed upon that small and insignificant deed a praise that went far beyond the real worth of the matter. …

I am now going to speak about his style (to lektikon) in which the individuality of the author is most clearly seen. Perhaps it may be necessary in connection with this topic (idea) also, to state in advance into how many parts diction (lexis) is divided and what are the qualities it embraces; then to show without concealing anything what was the state of literary expression when Thucydides received it from his predecessors, and what parts of it were due to his innovations, whether for better or for worse.

That all diction (lexis) is divided into two primary divisions, (1), the choice of the words by which things are designated, and, (2), the composition into larger and smaller groups (lit. parts), and that each of these is subdivided into still other divisions, the choice of the elementary parts of speech (nominal, verbal, and conjunctive, I mean) into literal (kyria) and figurative (tropike) expression, and composition into phrases (kommata), clauses (kola), and periods (periodoi); and that both of these classes (I mean simple and uncompounded words and the combination of these) happen to be capable of assuming certain figures (schemata); and that of the so-called virtues (aretai) some are essential and must be found in every kind of discourse, whilst others are accessory (epithetoi) and receive their peculiar force only when the former are present as a foundation, have been stated by many before. Hence I need not now speak about them, nor state the considerations and rules which are many in number, upon which each of these qualities is based. For these matters also have been most carefully worked out.

Which of these features all of Thucydides' predecessors used and which of them they used but slightly, taking up from the beginning as I promised, I shall summarize. For thus one will more accurately recognize the individual style (charakter) of our author. Now I have no means of conjecturing what was the language used by the very ancient writers who are known only by their names, whether they used a style that was plain (lite), unadorned (akosmetos), and had nothing superfluous (perittos), but only what was useful and indispensable, or whether they employed a style that was stately (pompike), dignified (axiomatike) and elaborate (egkataskeuos) and provided with accessory embellishments (kosmoi). For neither have the writings of the majority of them been preserved up to our times, nor are those that have been preserved believed by everybody to belong to those men, among others the works of Cadmus of Miletus and Aristaeus of Proconnesus, and the like. But the authors who lived before the Peloponnesian war and survived up to the time of Thucydides, all of them as a rule followed the same plan, both those who chose the Ionic dialect which flourished more than the others at those times, and those writers who chose the old Attic dialect which showed only a few slight differences from the Ionic. For all these writers … were more concerned about the literal meaning of the words than about their figurative use, and they admitted the latter only to impart flavor (hedysma), as it were, to their style; and as to their composition all of them used the same kind, the plain and unstudied, and in the framing of their words and their thoughts they did not deviate to any considerable extent from the everyday (tetrimmene), current (koine) and familiar manner of diction (dialektos). Now the diction (lexis) of all of these writers possesses the necessary virtues—it is pure (kathara), clear (saphes), and fairly concise (syntomos), each preserving the peculiar idiom (charakter) of the language; but the accessory virtues, which to the largest extent reveal the power of the orator, are not found in their entirety nor in their highest state of development, but only in small numbers and in a slightly developed stage,—I refer to such qualities as sublimity (hypsos), elegance (kalliremosyne), solemnity (semnologia), and splendor (megaloprepeia). Nor does their diction reveal intensity (tonos), nor gravity (baros) nor sentiment (pathos) that arouses the mind, nor a vigorous (erromenon) and combative (enagonion) spirit, which are productive of so-called eloquence (deinotes). with the single exception of Herodotus. This author in the choice of words, in his composition, and in the variety (poikilia) of his figures far surpassed all the others, and made his prose utterance resemble the best kind of poetry, by reason of his persuasiveness (peitho), graces of style (charites), and great charm (hedone). In the greatest and most conspicuous qualities … [Text defective] … Only the qualities of a forensic nature seem to be lacking, whether he was not naturally gifted with these, or, whether in pursuance of a certain design he voluntarily rejected them as unsuited to history.

For the author has not made use of many deliberative or forensic speeches, nor does his strength (alke) consist in imparting the elements of passion (pathainein) and forcefulness (deinopoiein) to his narrative.

Following this author and the others whom I previously mentioned, and recognizing the qualities that each of these authors possessed, Thucydides was the first man to endeavor to introduce into historical composition a certain peculiar style (charakter) and one that had been disregarded by all others. In the choice of his words he preferred a diction that was figurative (tropike), obscure (glottematike), archaic (aperchaiomene), and foreign (xene) in the place of that which was in common use and familiar to the men of his time; in the composition of the smaller and larger divisions he used the dignified (axiomatike), austere (austera), sturdy (stibara), and stable (bebekuia), and one that by the harsh sound of the letters grates roughly on the ears instead of the clear (liguros), soft (malaka), and polished (synexesmene) kind, and one in which there is no clashing of sounds. On the use of figures, in which he desired to differ as far as possible from his predecessors, he bestowed the greatest effort. …

The most conspicuous and characteristic features of the author are his efforts to express the largest number of things in the smallest number of words, and to compress a number of thoughts into one, and his tendency to leave his hearer still expecting to hear something more, all of which things produce a brevity that lacks clearness. To sum it up, there are four instruments, as it were, of Thucydidean diction (lexis): poetical vocabulary (to poietikon ton onomaton), great variety of figures (to polyeides ton schematon), harshness of sound combination (to trachy tes harmonias), and swiftness in saying what he has to say (to tachos ton semasion). Its qualities (chromata) are solidity (striphnon) and compactness (pyknon), pungency (pikron) and harshness (austeron), gravity (embrithes), tendency to inspire awe and fear (deinon kai phoberon), and above all these the power of stirring the emotions (pathetikon). That is about the kind of author Thucydides is as regards the characteristics of his diction (lexis), in which he differed from all the other authors. Now when the author's powers keep pace with his purpose, the success is perfect and marvelous; but when the ability lags behind and the tension (tonos) is not maintained throughout, the rapidity of the narrative makes the diction obscure, and introduces other ugly blemishes. For the author does not throughout his history observe the proper use of foreign and coined words nor the limit to which he may go before he stops, though there are principles regulating their use that are good and binding in every kind of writing.

Thomas Hobbes (essay date 1629)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477

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: none of them exceeded, some not approached, by any in these later ages. And in the number of these is justly ranked also our Thucydides; a workman no less perfect in his work, than any of the former; and in whom (I believe with many others) the faculty of writing history is at the highest. For the principal and proper work of history being to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future: there is not extant any other (merely human) that doth more naturally and fully perform it, than this of my author. It is true, that there be many excellent and profitable histories written since: and in some of them there be inserted very wise discourses, both of manners and policy. But being discourses inserted, and not of the contexture of the narration, they indeed commend the knowledge of the writer, but not the history itself: the nature whereof is merely narrative. In others, there be subtle conjectures at the secret aims and inward cogitations of such as fall under their pen; which is also none of the least virtues in a history, where conjecture is thoroughly grounded, not forced to serve the purpose of the writer in adorning his style, or manifesting his subtlety in conjecturing. But these conjectures cannot often be certain, unless withal so evident, that the narration itself may be sufficient to suggest the same also to the reader. But Thucydides is one, who, though he never digress to read a lecture, moral or political, upon his own text, nor enter into men's hearts further than the acts themselves evidently guide him: is yet accounted the most politic historiographer that ever writ. The reason whereof I take to be this. He filleth his narrations with that choice of matter, and ordereth them with that judgment, and with such perspicuity and efficacy expresseth himself, that, as Plutarch saith, he maketh his auditor a spectator. For he setteth his reader in the assemblies of the people and in the senate, at their debating; in the streets, at their seditions; and in the field, at their battles. So that look how much a man of understanding might have added to his experience, if he had then lived a beholder of their proceedings, and familiar with the men and business of the time: so much almost may he profit now, by attentive reading of the same here written. He may from the narrations draw out lessons to himself, and of himself be able to trace the drifts and counsels of the actors to their seat.

These virtues of my author did so take my affection, that they begat in me a desire to communicate him further: which was the first occasion that moved me to translate him. For it is an error we easily fall into, to believe that whatsoever pleaseth us, will be in like manner and degree acceptable to all: and to esteem of one another's judgment, as we agree in the liking or dislike of the same things. And in this error peradventure was I, when I thought, that as many of the more judicious as I should communicate him to, would affect him as much as I myself did. I considered also, that he was exceedingly esteemed of the Italians and French in their own tongues: notwithstanding that he be not very much beholden for it to his interpreters. Of whom (to speak no more than becomes a candidate of your good opinion in the same kind) I may say this: that whereas the author himself so carrieth with him his own light throughout, that the reader may continually see his way before him, and by that which goeth before expect what is to follow; I found it not so in them. The cause whereof, and their excuse, may be this: they followed the Latin of Laurentius Valla, which was not without some errors; and he a Greek copy not so correct as now is extant. Out of French he was done into English (for I need not dissemble to have seen him in English) in the time of King Edward the Sixth: but so, as by multiplication of error he became at length traduced, rather than translated into our language. Hereupon I resolved to take him immediately from the Greek, according to the edition of Æmilius Porta: not refusing or neglecting any version, comment, or other help I could come by. Knowing that when with diligence and leisure I should have done it, though some error might remain, yet they would be errors but of one descent; of which nevertheless I can discover none, and hope they be not many. After I had finished it, it lay long by me: and other reasons taking place, my desire to communicate it ceased.

For I saw that, for the greatest part, men came to the reading of history with an affection much like that of the people in Rome: who came to the spectacle of the gladiators with more delight to behold their blood, than their skill in fencing. For they be far more in number, that love to read of great armies, bloody battles, and many thousands slain at once, than that mind the art by which the affairs both of armies and cities be conducted to their ends. I observed likewise, that there were not many whose ears were well accustomed to the names of the places they shall meet with in this history; without the knowledge whereof it can neither patiently be read over, perfectly understood, nor easily remembered: especially being many, as here it fallethout. Because in that age almost every city both in Greece and Sicily, the two main scenes of this war, was a distinct commonwealth by itself, and a party in the quarrel.

Nevertheless I have thought since, that the former of these considerations ought not to be of any weight at all, to him that can content himself with the few and better sort of readers: who, as they only judge, so is their approbation only considerable. And for the difficulty arising from the ignorance of places, I thought it not so insuperable, but that with convenient pictures of the countries it might be removed. To which purpose, I saw there would be necessary especially two: a general map of Greece, and a general map of Sicily. The latter of these I found already extant, exactly done by Philip Cluverius; which I have caused to be cut, and you have it at the beginning of the sixth book. But for maps of Greece, sufficient for this purpose, I could light on none. For neither are the tables of Ptolemy, and descriptions of those that follow him, accommodate to the time of Thucydides; and therefore few of the places by him mentioned, therein described: nor are those that be, agreeing always with the truth of history. Wherefore I was constrained to draw one as well as I could myself. Which to do, I was to rely for the main figure of the country on the modern description now in reputation: and in that, to set down those places especially (as many as the volume was capable of) which occur in the reading of this author, and to assign them that situation, which, by travel in Strabo, Pausanias, Herodotus, and some other good authors, I saw belonged unto them. And to shew you that I have not played the mountebank in it, putting down exactly some few of the principal, and the rest at adventure, without care and without reason, I have joined with the map an index, that pointeth to the authors which will justify me where I differ from others. With these maps, and those few brief notes in the margin upon such passages as I thought most required them, I supposed the history might be read with very much benefit by all men of good judgment and education, (for whom also it was intended from the beginning by Thucydides), and have therefore at length made my labour public, not without hope to have it accepted. Which if I obtain, though no otherwise than in virtue of the author's excellent matter, it is sufficient.

Richard Jebb (essay date 1880)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10192

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 opinion which lay behind the facts." He further applauds Thucydides's ability to balance the accuracy of the speeches with dramatic presentation.]

The famous phrase in which Thucydides claims a lasting value for his work has had the fate of many striking expressions: it is often quoted apart from the words which explain it. "A possession for ever," not "the rhetorical triumph of an hour": taken by itself this has a ring of exultation, noble perhaps, yet personal, as if the grave self-mastery of the historian had permitted this one utterance in the tone of the Roman poet's confident retrospect or the English poet's loftier hope, speaking of a monument more enduring than brass, of things so written that men should not willingly let them die. It is the context that reduces the meaning to a passionless precision. "The absence of fable in the History," he says, "will perhaps make it less attractive to hearers; but it will be enough if it is found profitable by those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all human probability will repeat or resemble the past. The work is meant to be a possession for ever, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour." That the intention of Thucydides has been fulfilled in his own sense is due largely to the speeches which form between a fourth and fifth of the whole work. It is chiefly by these that the facts of the Peloponnesian war are transformed into typical examples of universal laws and illuminated with a practical significance for the students of politics in every age and country. The scope of the speeches is seen best if we consider what the History would be without them. The narrative would remain, with a few brief comments on great characters or events, and those two passages in which Thucydides describes the moral effects of pestilence and of party-strife. But there would be little or no light on the inner workings of the Greek political mind, on the courses of reasoning which determined the action, on the whole play of feeling and opinion which lay behind the facts. …

Thucydides has stated the general principles on which he composed the speeches in his History. The precise interpretation of that statement depends, however, partly on the question—How far is it probable that Thucydides is there instituting a tacit comparison between his own method and that of Herodotus? So far as we know, the work of Herodotus was the only prose work in which Thucydides could have found a precedent for dramatic treatment applied to history. If Thucydides knew that work, it would naturally be present to his mind at the moment when he was stating the rules of his own practice. It can be shown almost certainly that a period of at least twenty years must have elapsed between the time at which Herodotus ceased to write and the time at which the History of Thucydides received the form in which it has come down to us. It was possible, then, for Thucydides to know the work of Herodotus; that he actually knew it, and that he pointedly alludes to it in several places, cannot be doubted by any one who weighs the whole evidence.

In the view of Thucydides there had hitherto been two classes of writers concerned with the recording of events. First, there were the poets, especially the epic poets, of whom Homer is the type, whose characteristic tendency, in the eyes of Thucydides, is to exaggerate the greatness or splendour of things past. Secondly, there were the prose writers whom he calls chroniclers … ; and these he characterises by saying that they "compiled" their works with a view to attracting audiences at a recitation, rather than to truth; dealing largely, as they did, with traditions which could no longer be verified, but had passed into the region of myth. Now with such chroniclers Herodotus was undoubtedly classed by Thucydides. The traits common to Herodotus and the other chroniclers, as Thucydides viewed them, were I the omission of really accurate research— the tendency to take what lay ready to the writer's hand … ; 2 the mixture of a fabulous element with history; 3 the pursuit of effect in the first place, and of truth only in the second. Probably Thucydides would have said that Herodotus was more critically painstaking and less indiscriminately tolerant of fable than most of the other chroniclers, but that his study of effect was more systematic and more ambitious. The imaginary dialogues and speeches in Herodotus would be the most conspicuous illustrations of this desire for effect. If they were not absolute novelties in the chronicler's art, at least we may be sure that they had never before been used in such large measure, or with such success.

The first aim of Thucydides in his introduction is to show that the Peloponnesian war is more important than any event of which the Greeks have record. He then states the principles on which his History of the War has been composed. "As to the various speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports. But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time, I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said. As to the deeds done in the war, I have not thought myself at liberty to record them on hearsay from the first informant, or on arbitrary conjecture. My account rests either on personal knowledge, or on the closest possible scrutiny of each statement made by others. The process of research was laborious, because conflicting accounts were given by those who had witnessed the several events, as partiality swayed or memory served them."

The phenomena of the war, then, as materials for history, are classed by Thucydides under two heads— … things said, and … , things done. These are the two elements of human agency. As regards … the deeds, he is evidently contrasting his own practice with that of the chroniclers generally. He has not taken his facts, as they did, without careful sifting … : he had formed a higher conception of his task. … In regard to the words … , he is tacitly contrasting his own practice with that of Herodotus, the only conspicuous example in this department. If his statement were developed in this light, it might be paraphrased thus:—Thucydides says: (I) I have not introduced a speech except when I had reason to know that a speech was actually made: unlike Herodotus, when he reports the conversation between Croesus and Solon, the debate of the Persian conspirators, the discussion in the cabinet of Xerxes. (2) I do not pretend to give the exact form of the speeches made: as a writer implies that he does when, without warning the reader, he introduces a speech with the formula, "He said these things," … instead of "He spoke to this effect". … (3) On the other hand, I have faithfully reproduced the speaker's general line of argument, the purport and substance of his speech, so far as it could be ascertained. Herodotus disregards this principle when he makes Otanes, Mega-byzus and Dareius support democracy, oligarchy and monarchy by arguments which no Persian could have used. And in filling up such outlines, my aim has been to make the speaker say what, under the circumstances, seemed most opportune. …

The last phrase is noticeable as marking a limit of dramatic purpose. According to the regular usage of the words … in Thucydides, it can mean only "what the occasion required"—not necessarily what was most suitable to the character of the speaker. The latter idea would have been expressed by a different phrase. … That is, in filling up the framework supplied by the reported "general sense" of a speech, Thucydides has freely exercised his own judgment on the situation. Suppose a report to have reached him in this shape: "Hermocrates spoke in the congress at Gela, urging the Sicilian cities to lay aside their feuds and unite against Athens." In composing on this theme, the first thought of Thucydides would be, "What were the best arguments available?" rather than, "What arguments would Hermocrates have used?" This general rule would, of course, be liable to various degrees of modification in cases where the speaker was well known to the historian as having marked traits of character, opinion or style.

"Set speeches," says Voltaire, "are a sort of oratorical lie, which the historian used to allow himself in old times. He used to make his heroes say what they might have said. … At the present day these fictions are no longer tolerated. If one put into the mouth of a prince a speech which he had never made, the historian would be regarded as a rhetorician." How did it happen that Thucydides allowed himself this "oratorical lie,"— Thucydides, whose strongest characteristic is devotion to the truth, impatience of every inroad which fiction makes into the province of history, laborious persistence in the task of separating fact from fable; Thucydides, who was not constrained, like later writers of the old world, by an established literary tradition; who had no Greek predecessors in the field of history, except those chroniclers whom he despised precisely because they sacrificed truth to effect? Thucydides might rather have been expected to express himself on this wise: "The chroniclers have sometimes pleased their hearers by reporting the very words spoken. But, as I could not give the words, I have been content to give the substance, when I could learn it."

In order to find the point of view at which Thucydides stood, we must remember, first of all, the power which epic poetry had then for centuries exercised over the Greek mind. The same love of the concrete and comprehensible which moved the early Greeks to clothe abstract conceptions of a superhuman power in the forms of men and women, "strangers to death and old age for ever," led them also to represent the energy of the human spirit as much as possible in the form of speech. The Homeric ideal of excellence is the man of brave deeds and wise words. The Homeric debates are not merely brilliant, but also thoroughly dramatic in their way of characterising the speakers. The Iliad and Odyssey accustomed the Greeks to expect two elements in every vivid presentation of an action—first, the proofs of bodily prowess, the account of what men did; and then, as the image of their minds, a report of what they said. Political causes strengthened this feeling. Public speech played a much larger part in the affairs of States than it now does. Envoys spoke before an assembly or a council on business which would now be transacted by the written correspondence of statesmen or diplomatists. Every adult citizen of a Greek democracy had his vote in the assembly which finally decided great issues. To such a citizen the written history of political events would appear strangely insipid if it did not give at least some image of those debates which imparted the chief zest to civic life and by which political events were chiefly controlled. He was one who (in modern phrase) had held a safe seat in Parliament from the time when he came of age; who had lived in the atmosphere of political debate until it had become to him an almost indispensable excitement; and who would feel comparatively little interest in hearing the result of a Parliamentary division unless he was enabled to form some idea of the process by which the result had been reached. Such a man would not have been satisfied with the meagre information that the Athenian Ecclesia had discussed the fate of Mitylene, that Cleon had advocated a massacre, that Diodotus had opposed it, and that the view of Diodotus had prevailed by a narrow majority. His imagination would at once transport him to the scene of the parliamentary combat. He would listen in fancy, as he had so often listened in reality, to the eloquence of antagonistic orators, he would balance the possible arguments for severity or clemency, he would conceive himself present at the moment when one uplifted hand might incline the scale of life or death, and he would feel the thrill of relief with which those who supported Diodotus found that Athens was saved at the eleventh hour—saved, if the bearers of the respite, rowing night and day, could reach Lesbos in time—from the infamy of devoting a population to the sword. When Thucydides gave in full the speeches made by Cleon and Diodotus, he was helping his reader, the average citizen of a Greek republic, to do on more accurate lines that which the reader would otherwise have tried to do for himself. Thucydides was writing for men who knew Greek politics from within, and he knew that, if they were to follow him with satisfied attention, he must place them at their accustomed point of view. The literary influences of the age set in the same direction. At the beginning of the war the Attic drama had been in vigour for more than forty years. The fame of Aeschylus was a youthful memory to men who had passed middle life; Sophocles was sixty-four, Euripides was forty-nine. Each had given great works to Athens, and was yet to give more. An age of vivid energy had found the poetry most congenial to it in the noblest type of tragedy, and this, in turn, fed the Greek desire to know character through deed and word. In the hands of Euripides tragedy further became the vehicle of dialectical subtleties and the dramatic mirror of public debate. At the same time Attic oratory was being prepared by two currents of influence which converged on Athens—the practical culture of Ionia, represented by the Sophists, and the Sicilian art of rhetoric.

If the speeches in Thucydides were brought under a technical classification, the Funeral Oration would be the only example of the "panegyrical" or epideictic class; the pleading of the Plataeans and Thebans before the Spartan Commissioners might possibly be called "forensic"; and all the other speeches would be in some sense "deliberative." But such a classification, besides being rather forced, does not correspond to any real differences of structure or form. If the speeches are to be viewed in their literary relation to the History, it is enough to observe that the addresses of leaders to their troops may be regarded as practically forming a class apart.

The right of an adult citizen to attend the debates of the Ecclesia must have been acquired by Thucydides many years before the war began. From its very commencement, as he says, he had formed the purpose of writing its history. There is every probability that he had heard most or all of the important discussions which took place in the Ecclesia between 433 and 424 B.C. It was in 423 B.C., or at the end of the year before, that his exile of twenty years from Athens began. Thence we can name some at least of the speeches to which he probably refers as heard by himself … and not merely reported to him. Such would be the addresses of the Corcyrean and Corinthian envoys, when they were rival suitors for the Athenian alliance in 433 B.C.; the speeches of Pericles; the debate on Mitylene in 427 B.C.; and the speech of the Lacedaemonian envoys in 425 B.C., making overtures of peace to Athens. If he was not present on all these occasions, still, as a resident citizen, he would have exceptional facilities for obtaining a full and accurate account. Taking this group of speeches first, then, we may consider how far they are apparently historical in substance, or show traces of artificial treatment.

After giving the addresses of the envoys from Corcyra and Corinth in 433 B.C., Thucydides notices the course of the debate in the Ecclesia. Two sittings were held. At the first, he says, the Athenians inclined to the arguments of the Corcyreans, and were disposed to conclude an alliance both offensive and defensive; at the second they repented of this, but decided to conclude a defensive alliance. The considerations which prevailed with them were, that war was unavoidable in any case; that the Corcyrean navy must not be allowed to pass into the hands of the Corinthians; and that Corcyra was a useful station for coasting voyages. These three arguments are just those on which the Corcyrean speech, as given by Thucydides, chiefly turns. The circumstantial account of the debate in the Ecclesia cannot be treated as fictitious. Either, then, Thucydides has given the substance of the arguments really used by the Corcyreans, or he has ascribed to them arguments used on their side by Athenian speakers in the Ecclesia. Now the speech of the Corinthian envoys has at least one mark of substantial authenticity: the references to benefits conferred on Athens by Corinth in the matters of Samos and Aegina would certainly have occurred to a Corinthian envoy more readily than to an Athenian writer. In both the Corcyrean and the Corinthian speech it seems probable that Thucydides has given the substance of what was really said, though he may have added touches from his recollections of the subsequent debate in the assembly. Similar is the case of the speech made by the Lacedaemonian envoys at Athens in 425 B.C. The historian's comment on it is as follows: "The Lacedaemonians spoke at such length [i.e. for Spartans], in the belief that the Athenians had previously desired a truce, and had been hindered only by Spartan opposition; so that, when peace was offered, they would gladly accept it, and restore the men." This clearly implies that the speech ascribed to the envoys—which Thucydides may well have heard—is historical in substance.

The Thucydidean speeches of Pericles raise three distinct questions:—How far do they preserve the form and style of the statesman's oratory? how far do they express the ruling ideas of his policy? and how far do they severally represent what he said on the several occasions?

As Thucydides must have repeatedly heard Pericles— whom he describes as the first of Athenians, most powerful in action and in speech,—it would be strange if he had not endeavoured to give at least some traits of the eloquence which so uniquely impressed contemporaries. Pericles is said to have left nothing written: but Aristotle and Plutarch have preserved a few of the bold images or striking phrases which tradition attributed to him. Several examples of such bold imagery occur in the Thucydidean speeches of Pericles, and it can hardly be doubted that they are phrases which have lived in the historian's memory. But the echo is not heard in single phrases only. Every reader of the Funeral Oration must be aware of a majesty in the rhythm of the whole, a certain union of impetuous movement with lofty grandeur, which Thucydides has given to Pericles alone. There is a large alloy, doubtless, of rhetorical ornament in the new manner of overstrained antithesis: but the voice of the Olympian Pericles is not wholly lost in it. There can be no question, again, that the speeches of Pericles in the Ecclesia accurately represent the characteristic features of his policy at the time. But how far do they severally represent what Pericles said on the several occasions? Thucydides makes Pericles use different topics of encouragement at three successive stages.

In 432 B.C. Pericles emboldens the Athenians to reject the Peloponnesian demands by a general comparison of the resources and prospects on either side. In 431 B.C., when Archidamus is about to invade Attica, Pericles repeats his former exhortations, but supplements them by a detailed exposition of Athenian resources, financial and military. In 430 B.C., after the second invasion of Attica, when the land had been devastated and while the plague was raging, Pericles convened a special meeting of the Ecclesia, with the twofold purpose of reassuring his countrymen and of allaying their resentment against himself. "As to the prospects of the war, you may rest satisfied," he says, "with the arguments by which I have proved to you on many other occasions that you have no cause of uneasiness. But I must notice a special advantage which the scale of your empire confers,—one, I think, which has never occurred to you,—which I have not mentioned in addressing you before, and which I should not have noticed now—as the claim implied might seem too arrogant—did I not see you unreasonably dejected. You think that you rule your allies alone. I tell you that of the two fields open to human action, land and sea, the latter is under your absolute dominion, not merely to the extent of your actual empire, but as much further as you please. While you hold the sea in your present naval strength, you cannot be resisted by the Persian king, or by any nation on earth." Thus, as the pressure on the Athenian spirit becomes more and more severe, the exhortations of Pericles go on from strength to strength, until, at the darkest hour of all, they culminate in a triumphant avowal that the naval empire of Athens is not relative but absolute, is not an empire over a limited confederacy but a boundless supremacy on the sea. If this ascending scale, so fitly graduated, was due to the invention or arrangement of Thucydides, it was a dramatic conception. But it seems more probable that the topics really used by Pericles on these three occasions were substantially those given by the historian. It is difficult otherwise to justify the emphatic clearness with which the special theme of the second speech is distinguished from that of the first, and that of the third, again, from both. On the other hand, the first speech of Pericles betrays some remarkable traces of manipulation by the writer. Earlier in the same year the Corinthian envoy at the Peloponnesian congress had given several reasons for believing that the Peloponnesians were likely to prevail in the war. With help from the sacred treasuries of Delphi and Olympia, he had said, they might lure away the foreign seamen of Athens by offering higher pay. They could acquire naval skill by practice. And among the possibilities of the war he suggests the occupation of a fortress in the enemy's country. The speech of Pericles answers these arguments point by point. But the correspondence is not merely in the topics. The very phrases of the Corinthian speech are repeated by Pericles in his reply. Similar parallelisms may be traced between the Corinthian speech and that delivered by the Spartan Archidamus on the occasion of the former congress: one with which the Corinthians cannot be supposed to be acquainted in detail, since it was made to the Spartans only, after strangers had withdrawn. The fact is that the eight speeches recorded by Thucydides as delivered at Athens or Sparta before the commencement of the war form, for his purpose, a group by themselves. In these he has worked up the chief arguments and calculations which were current on either side. Collectively, they are his dramatic presentation of the motives at work, the grievances on each side, the hopes and fears, based on a comparison of resources, with which the combatants entered on the struggle. At the end of his first speech Pericles says: "I have many other reasons to give for hoping that we shall prevail; but these shall be given hereafter as the events arise …"—thus foreshadowing the speech of which an abstract is given on a subsequent occasion. In this particular case, as we have seen, the disposition of topics may well be authentic in the main. But the composer's phrase is significant. It suggests the habit of selecting from a certain stock of available material and disposing the extracts with something of a dramatist's freedom.

In the Funeral Oration there is nothing, apart from the diction, which distinctly shows the invention of Thucydides. At first sight there is some plausibility in the view that such an oration would probably have contained allusions to the heroic legends of Attica, and that the mind of Thucydides is to be traced in their suppression. But the argument may be turned the other way. The very absence of mythical embellishment, it might be urged, is rather a proof of the fidelity with which Thucydides has reported a speaker who, regardless of the vulgar taste, was resolved to treat a well-worn theme in a new and higher strain. One or two passages, indeed, have been supposed to hint at the moral deterioration of the Athenian democracy in the years which followed the death of Pericles; but the supposition seems gratuitous.

It remains to notice the debate in the Ecclesia on the punishment of Mitylene. Cleon urges a massacre, Diodotus opposes it. "These views," says Thucydides, "having been stated with nearly balanced effect, the assembly came after all to a division; and on a show of hands the parties proved nearly equal, but the view of Diodotus prevailed." The words can only mean that, in the speeches of Cleon and Diodotus, Thucydides has given the real substance of the arguments which were found to be so "nearly balanced," and which led to so close a division. Cleon's speech has one striking characteristic. In several places it echoes phrases which occur in the speeches of Pericles. But, with these verbal parallelisms, there is a pointed contrast of spirit. As Pericles describes the good side of the intellectual Athenian nature, Cleon brings out its weak side. As Pericles insists on the Athenian combination of intelligence with courage, Cleon declares that this intelligence leads men to despise the laws, and prefers ignorance combined with moderation. Pericles is gone: Cleon echoes the words of the statesman as whose successor he poses, at the very moment when he is contradicting his principles. It may be observed that when Thucydides reports the speech of the Syracusan demagogue Athenagoras, he marks his manner by a certain violence of expression. Cleon, whom Thucydides calls "most violent," has no violence of expression. Probably this abstention from vehemence of the demagogic type, this superficial imitation of Pericles, are traits in which the Cleon of Thucydides is historical.

This closes the series of those seven speeches, delivered at Athens, for which Thucydides probably derived the "general sense" either from his own recollection or from the sources accessible to a resident citizen. The only one of these which exhibits distinct traces of artificial dealing with subject matter is the first speech of Pericles. And in this the only traces are, first, a certain adjustment of the language to that of the Corinthian speech made earlier in the same year; and, secondly, a phrase by which the composer prepares the reader for a subsequent speech of Pericles. …

The expression of character in the Thucydidean speeches has the same kind of limitation which was generally observed in Attic tragedy. It is rather typical than individual. Thucydides seizes the broad and essential characteristics of the speaker, and is content with marking these. We are sometimes reminded of the direct simplicity with which the epic or tragic heroes introduce themselves: "I am Odysseus, the marvel of men for all wiles, and my fame goes up to heaven." "I am pious Aeneas, renowned above the stars." "You voted for war," says Pericles, "and now you are angry with me,—a man who deems himself second to none in discerning and expounding the right course,—a man devoted to his country and proof against corruption." These were salient points in the public character of Pericles as conceived by the historian, and accordingly Pericles is made to say so. The fate of Nicias seemed to Thucydides a signal example of unmerited misfortune, since Nicias had been remarkable throughout life for the practice of orthodox virtue. And so, in his speech before the retreat from Syracuse, Nicias says, "The tenor of my life has been loyal to the gods, just and without offence among men." In the debate at Athens on the Sicilian expedition Alcibiades is introduced by a prefatory sketch of his position and character. Thucydides notices his ambition, his magnificence, especially in the matter of horses and chariots, the licence of his private life, his insolence, his public efficiency, his personal unpopularity. Then Alcibiades speaks, and begins by saying in so many words that he has a better right than others to high command; he boasts of having entered seven chariots at Olympia; he avows that he does not regard his fellow-citizens as his equals; he asks whether his personal unpopularity interferes with his administrative capacity. The speech is merely the sketch developed. It is the character of Alcibiades, as Thucydides saw its salient points, condensed in a dramatic form; but it is not such a speech as Alcibiades could conceivably have made on this occasion, or indeed on any. Thucydides has given us distinct portraits of the chief actors in the Peloponnesian war, but these portraits are to be found in the clearly narrated actions of the men; the words ascribed to them rarely do more than mark the stronger lines of character; they seldom reveal new traits of a subtler kind. The tendency of Thucydides was less to analyse individual character than to study human nature in its general or typical phenomena. His observation was directed, first, towards motives and passions which may be considered, in regard to practical politics, as universal influences: next, towards the collective attributes which distinguish whole communities from each other. Thus the normal Spartan character is exhibited in its merits and its defects. The political character of the Athenians is arraigned and defended; their intellectual character is illustrated in its strength and its weakness. And Thucydides shows a desire to comprehend these conceptions of national character in formulas, which he gives as epigrams to his speakers. The Spartan disposition, says an Athenian, might be described as one which regards everything that is pleasant as honourable, and everything that is expedient as just. The Athenians, says a Corinthian, are, in brief, men who will neither rest nor allow others to rest. Athens, says Pericles, might be described as the school of Greece, and the Athenian nature as the most gracefully versatile in the world.

Those cases in which Thucydides gives merely a brief summary of a speech or debate suggest how slight the materials may often have been which he worked up in the oratorical form. The political or ethical reflections with which the meagre outlines were filled up were doubtless supplied in large measure by Thucydides himself. The speeches, taken altogether, are pervaded by certain general conceptions, expressed in formulas more or less constant, which indicate unity of authorship. But it cannot be said, in the same sense, that they bear the stamp of one mind. They do, indeed, suggest certain intellectual habits, but it is seldom possible to distinguish between opinions or modes of thought which were in the air, and such as may have been proper to Thucydides. Nor would much be gained if we could. The real interest of the speeches in this aspect is something more than biographical; it is their interest as a contribution to the intellectual history of a transitional period in an age of singular mental energy. The age of faith was passing by, and a rational basis for ethics—which were then included in politics—was only in process of being sought.

Thucydides is here the representative of a time which, for the most part, could no longer believe with Herodotus, but which had not yet learned to bring a Socratic method to bear on generalisations. He appears—so far as he is revealed at all—as a thinker of intense earnestness, with a firm and subtle apprehension of his chosen subject, alike in its widest bearings and in its minutest details; and of profound sensibility in regard to the larger practical aspects, that is the political aspects, of human destiny. He has neither a dogmatic religion nor a system of ethics. He cleaves to positive fact; his generalisations rarely involve a speculative element, but are usually confined to registering the aggregate results of observation upon human conduct in given circumstances. In the spirit of a sceptical age he makes his speakers debate questions of political or personal morality to which no definite answer is offered. In Plato's Gorgias Callicles distinguishes between "natural" and "conventional" justice, contending that "natural justice" entitles the strong to oppress the weak, and that "conventional justice" is merely a device of the weak for their own protection. In the Republic Thrasymachus defends a similar doctrine, namely, that "justice is another's good and the interest of the stronger, and that injustice is a man's own profit and interest, though injurious to the weaker."

The sophist Hippias, in Xenophon's Memorabilia, argues in a like strain that justice and law are merely arbitrary and conventional. This, no doubt, was one of the commonplaces of sophistical dialectic in the time of Thucydides. The Athenian speakers in his History defend the aggressive policy of Athens by arguments which rest on substantially the same basis as those of the Platonic Callicles and Thrasymachus. But the historian is content to state their case from their own point of view; he does not challenge the doctrine—as the Platonic Socrates does—by comments of his own. The victims of aggression, indeed, the Plataeans or Melians, appeal to a higher justice than the right of might, and Thucydides hints that his sympathies are with them; but that is all. The abstention is characteristic. On the whole, it may be said that he evinces a personal liking for moral nobleness, but refrains from delivering moral judgments, as if these would imply laws which he was not prepared to affirm or deny. But he insists on discovering a rational basis for action. If a man or a State pursues a certain line of policy, there must be some intelligible reasons, he feels, which can be urged for it.

This desire to enter into the mind of the actors—to find the motive behind the deed, and to state it with all possible logical force—is the mainspring of the oratory in Thucydides, in so far as this is his own creation. It is an element of dramatic vividness; sometimes also of dramatic untruth, when the reasonings supplied by the historian to his actors are subtler than would probably have occurred to the speakers or commended themselves to the hearers. Thucydides is a philosophical historian, in the sense that he wishes to record the exact truth, in a form which may be serviceable for the political instruction of mankind. But he has not, in the sense of Plato or Aristotle, a theory of ethics or politics. Thucydides groups the observed facts of practical politics, but without attempting to analyse their ultimate laws. It might be possible to piece together Thucydidean texts and, by filling up a few gaps, to form a tolerably coherent system of doctrine; but the process would be artificial and delusive.

Possibly a Shakespeare might re-create Thucydides from the fragments of his personal thought, but the breath of life would be the poet's gift; the broken lights are all that really remain. The paradoxes of one age are said to be the truisms of the next, but the violent contrast suggested by the epigram is hardly the important point to seize if we desire to trace the growth of opinion. There was a moment when the so-called paradoxes were neither paradoxes nor as yet truisms, but only rather new and intelligent opinions, seen to be such against the foil of notions which were decaying, but had not quite gone out. For instance, when Thucydides makes his speakers say, as he so often does, that the future is uncertain, we do more justice to the originality of the remark if we remember that in the time of Thucydides there were those who thought that the future was very frequently indicated, at great moments, by signs from the gods. Herodotus, for example, would have disputed the statement that the future is uncertain, if it had been placed before him as an unlimited proposition covering such crises as the Peloponnesian war.

The same consideration applies to many of the political or moral aphorisms, which may be regarded as those of Thucydides himself. They are in silent controversy with some unexpressed dissidence of contemporaries. The principle of tacit contrast pervades the whole History, as in the Funeral Oration the picture of Athens requires to be supplemented by a mental picture of the Sparta to which it is opposed. This was of the inmost nature of Thucydides: the reluctance "to speak at superfluous length" was deep in him. His general views must be measured both by the credulity and by the higher scepticism of a näive age; so gauged, they are never commonplaces, but, at the least, hints for a part of the history which he has not told in words, because he did not distinctly conceive that it could ever need to be told. "Fortune" … is the name by which he usually designates the incalculable element in human life; but this "fortune" is no blind chance; it is, as he once explains it, "the fortune given by heaven" … , the inscrutable dispensation of a divine Providence. The course of this fortune not only baffles prediction, but is sometimes directly opposed to the reasonable beliefs of men concerning the source which dispenses it. Thrice only in the long tragedy of the war, as Thucydides unfolds it, do men appeal expressly to the gods, invoking the name of religion, in their agony, against tyrannous strength; thrice the power behind the veil is deaf, thrice the hand of the avenger is withheld, and the miserable suppliant is struck down by the secure malignity of man. The Plataeans appeal to the altars which had witnessed the consecration of Greek liberty, and the Spartans kill them in cold blood. The Melians are confident against the Athenians as the righteous against the unjust; their city is sacked, their men are slain, their women and children enslaved. Nicias, after the great defeat at Syracuse, believes that the jealousy of the gods must now be exhausted, and has a firm hope, based on a good life, for himself and his followers; but the wretched remnant of his defeated army are in great part butchered as they slake their thirst with the bloody water of the Assinarus; he himself is put to death lest he should tell tales under torture, and the survivors pass into a horrible slavery. Thucydides feels that the ways of Heaven are hard to understand, but he does not complain of them; they are matters not for reasoning but for resignation. He regards the fear of the gods as a potent check on the bad impulses of men, and notices the loss of this fear as a grave symptom of moral anarchy. As to omens, oracles, and similar modes of seeking miraculous light or aid, he nowhere denies the possibility of such light or aid being occasionally given, though his contempt is excited by the frequency of imposture; this, however, he would affirm—that such resources are not to be tried until all resources within human control have been tried in vain. There is one way only, Thucydides holds, by which man can certainly influence his own destiny, and that is by bringing an intelligent judgment … to bear on facts. Some have traced the influence of Anaxagoras in the prominence which Thucydides gives to the intellectual principle; but no such prompting was needed by a strong understanding of sceptical bent, and it may be observed that Thucydides has at least not adopted the language of Anaxagoras. It is the peculiar merit of the Athenian character, as portrayed in Thucydides, to recognise intelligence as the true basis of action and the true root of courage, instead of regarding mental culture as adverse to civic loyalty and warlike spirit. If soothsayers cannot give us prescience, reason well used can enable such a man as Themistocles at least to conjecture the future. In a trial of human forces the chances baffle prediction, but superiority in ideas … is a sure ground of confidence. Yet the man of sound judgment will not presume on this confidence, for he will remember that the other element, "fortune," is beyond his control. Justice, rightly understood, is the "common good," and is identical with true self-interest. As the remorseless exaction of an extreme penalty, "justice" may be opposed to "equity"; or as a moral standard, it may be opposed to "self-interest" in the lower sense. And self-interest, when thus opposed to justice, can appeal to "the immemorial usage," believed to obtain among the gods, and so certainly established among men that it may plausibly be called a sort of natural necessity,—that the stronger shall rule the weaker. No speaker in Thucydides goes quite so far as Callicles in the Gorgias, or proclaims this to be "natural" as distinguished from "conventional" justice. It is not said to be just, but only natural and not unreasonable. The argument against capital punishment, which is put into the mouth of Diodotus, rests on the observation that no restraints have yet been devised which can be trusted to keep human passions in check. Legislators have gone through the whole list of possible penalties, and even the prospect of death is found insufficient to deter those who are goaded by want or ambition, and tempted by opportunity. The friendship of men and of communities must be founded in the first place on a persuasion of mutual benevolence, and on some congeniality of character; but in the long-run the only sure bond between States is identity of interests. The Peloponnesian league is loose just because the interests diverge. In default of a common interest, the only guarantee for an alliance is balanced fear. Similarly, in the relation of the citizen to the State, patriotism is enforced by the dependence of private on public welfare. Pericles even says that no fair or just legislation can be expected from citizens who have not such a stake in the country as is represented by the lives of children. The distinctive merits of an oligarchy—always provided that it is constitutional, and not of the narrow type which Thucydides calls a "dynasty"—are fairly recognised in the History. Archidamus and Brasidas claim stability, moderation and disciplined loyalty for the Spartan State. A true democracy is pictured as one in which three elements work together for the common good: the rich are the guardians of property, the able men offer counsel, and the mass of the citizens decide on the opinions laid before them. Democracy was the form of government under which Athens had been greatest and most free: and the best phase of the Athenian democracy in his recollection, Thucydides says, was just after the Revolution of the Four Hundred, since then the oligarchic and popular elements were judiciously tempered. Destiny may alter the part which a State is called upon to perform, and its institutions may require to be modified accordingly. Thus the Corinthians say to the Spartans, "Your system is out of date if you are to cope with Athens. In politics, as in art, improvements must prevail. Fixed institutions are best for a city at peace. But the call to manifold enterprise imposes the need of manifold development. Hence—owing to their varied experience—the Athenians have been greater innovators than you." The analogy suggested here between politics and a progressive art is the more significant when it is remembered what the historian's age had seen accomplished in sculpture, architecture and drama. It is also worthy of remark that the only unqualified censures of democracy which occur in Thucydides, and the only protests against change as such, are ascribed to the "violent" Cleon and the "licentious" Alcibiades.

The choice of moments for the introduction of speeches is not, with Thucydides, a matter of rhetorical caprice, but has an intelligible relation to the general plan of his work. A speech or debate reported in the direct form always signalises a noteworthy point in the inner or mental history of the war, as distinguished from the narrative of its external facts: it announces thoughts and arguments which exercised an important influence, and which therefore require to be apprehended with the utmost possible distinctness. The event which furnishes the occasion for inserting a speech need not be of first-rate importance in itself, if only it is typical of its kind, and therefore suitable for the dramatic exhibition of reasonings which applied to several similar cases. The destruction of Plataea by Sparta was an impressive event; but its effect on the general course of the war would scarcely have warranted the amount of space devoted to the Plataean and Theban pleadings, if the occasion had not been a typical illustration of Spartan and Theban policy. Such, again, is the case of Mitylene, viewed as exemplifying the relation between Athens and her subject allies; and the dramatic form is given accordingly, not merely to the Athenian debate on Mitylene, but also to the appeal of the Mityleneans at Olympia. The speech of Brasidas at Acanthus is given in the direct form as a specimen of his persuasive diplomacy in dealing with the cities of the Chalcidic peninsula. The rival overtures of Athens and Syracuse to Camarina have a similarly representative character in relation to the wavering neutrality of the Sicilian cities, and accordingly the direct form is given to the arguments of Euphemus and of Hermocrates. The absence of speeches in the Eighth Book has been reckoned among the proofs that this book had not received the author's last touches. There can be no doubt that Thucydides was prevented by death from completing or revising the Eighth Book: but if his general practice is considered, the argument from the absence of speeches will appear questionable. Much of the Eighth Book is occupied with negotiations, either clandestine or indecisive, or both; and in a period of similar character which fills the greater part of the Fifth Book Thucydides nowhere employs the dramatic form. It cannot surprise us that Thucydides has not given a dramatic emphasis to the mere misrepresentations by which Alcibiades and Chalcideus prevailed on the Chians to revolt. The Revolution of the Four Hundred certainly afforded opportunities for the insertion of speeches made in debate. But that Revolution was primarily concerned with the form of the Athenian constitution; its special importance for the history of the war lay in the use which Alcibiades was making of it to procure his own recall. This is perhaps the only point in the extant part of the Eighth Book at which the usual practice of Thucydides would lead us to expect the dramatic emphasis; and just here it is found. Peisander brings his opponents to admit that the case of Athens is desperate without the help of Persia. "This, then," he says, "we cannot get, unless we adopt a more temperate policy, and concentrate the administration in fewer hands, so as to secure the confidence of the king, … and recall Alcibiades, the only man living who can gain our end." In a revision of the book Thucydides would possibly have worked up the speech of Peisander at greater length.

As regards the language of the speeches, Thucydides plainly avows that it is chiefly or wholly his own. The dramatic truth, so far as it goes, is in the matter, not in the form. He may sometimes indicate such broad characteristics as the curt bluntness of the ephor Sthenelaidas or the insolent vehemence of Alcibiades. But, as a rule, there is little discrimination of style. In all that concerns expression, the speeches are essentially the oratorical essays of the historian himself. At the end of the war, when he composed or revised them, the art of Rhetoric was thoroughly established at Athens. The popular dialectic of the Sophists had been combined with lessons in the minute proprieties of language. Protagoras taught correctness in grammatical forms, Prodicus in the use of synonyms. The Sicilian Rhetoric had familiarised Athenian speakers with principles of division and arrangement. Gorgias, with his brilliant gift of expression, had for a while set the fashion of strained antithesis and tawdry splendour. It might have been expected from the character of his mind that Thucydides would be keenly alive to what was hollow and false in the new rhetoric. Several touches in the History show that he was so. Citizens in grave debate are contrasted with men who play audience to the empty displays of sophists. A contempt for rhetorical commonplace is frequently indicated. Thus Pericles declines to dilate on the legendary glories of Athens or on the advantages of patriotic fortitude, and Hermocrates begs to be excused from enlarging on the hardships of war or the blessings of peace. On the technical side, however, Thucydides shows the influence of the new art. This often appears in his method of marshalling topics and in his organisation of the more elaborate speeches. It is seen still more clearly if his style is compared with that of the orator Antiphon. The extant work of Antiphon as a writer of speeches for the law-courts falls in the years 421-411 B.C. The warmth of the terms in which Thucydides describes him as "a master of device and of expression,"—a phase identical with that which is ascribed, as a definition of statesman-like ability, to Pericles—testifies at least to an intellectual sympathy. There is, however, no evidence for the ancient tradition that the historian was the pupil of the orator. Thucydides and Antiphon belong to the same rhetorical school, and represent the same early stage in the development of Attic prose. Both writers admit words of an antique or a decidedly poetical cast. Both delight in verbal contrasts, pointed by insisting on the precise difference between terms of similar import. Both use metaphors rather bolder than Greek prose easily tolerated in its riper age. On the other hand, there are three respects in which the composition of Thucydides may be contrasted with that of Antiphon. First, Thucydides has a pregnant brevity which would not have been possible in such measure for a practical orator, since no ordinary hearer could have followed his meaning with full comprehension. Secondly, Thucydides often departs not only from the natural but from the rhetorical order of words, in order to throw a stronger emphasis on the word which is the key-note to the thought; and in this again he is seen to be writing for readers, not for hearers. Thirdly, the strings of clauses, forming periods of a somewhat loose and inartistic kind, are longer with Thucydides than with Antiphon, and this because Thucydides is striving to express ideas of a more complex nature. The originality and the striking interest of the historian's style consists, in fact, in this, that we see a vigorous mind in the very act of struggling to mould a language of magnificent but immature capabilities. Sometimes the direction of the thought changes in the moment that it is being uttered. Then arise obscurities which have their source in the intense effort of Thucydides to be clear at each successive moment—to say exactly what he means at that moment. The strong consciousness of logical coherence then makes him heedless of formal coherence. The student of Thucydides has one consolation which is not always present to the student of a difficult writer. He knows that he is not engaged in the hopeless or thankless task of unravelling a mere rhetorical tangle. Every new light on the thought is sure to be a new light on the words. …

Thucydides set the first great example of making historical persons say what they might have said. The basis of his conception was common to the whole ancient world: it was the sovereign importance of speech in political and civic life. But in Thucydides the use of the licence is dramatic—that is, conducive to the truthful and vivid presentment of action. In most of the later Greek and Roman historians it is either rhetorical—that is, subservient to the display of the writer's style—or partly dramatic and partly rhetorical. The art of rhetoric passed through two stages of educational significance in the ancient world. In the first stage, with which Thucydides was contemporary, rhetoric meant a training for real debate in the assembly or the law-courts. Then, as Greek political life died down, rhetoric came to mean the art of writing or declaiming. The speeches in Thucydides have the dramatic spirit, and not the rhetorical, because, although the art of rhetoric has helped to make them, they are in direct relation with real action and real life. The rhetorical historians of the ancient world represent the second stage of rhetoric: their speeches are only more or less possible declamations. The modern writers who attempted to revive the practice were in a lower deep still, since for them rhetoric was not even a living element of culture. But it may be well to consider a little more closely how far and in what sense Thucydides can be called dramatic. The epithet "dramatic" is sometimes applied to narrative when no more is apparently meant than that it is vivid or graphic. In the proper sense, however, a narrative is dramatic only when it elicits the inherent eloquence of facts. Thucydides is dramatic, for instance, when he places the Melian dialogue immediately before the Sicilian expedition. The simple juxtaposition of insolence and ruin is more effective than comment. The bare recital, thus ordered, makes the same kind of impression which the actions themselves would have made if one had immediately succeeded the other before our eyes. It might not be difficult, with a little adroitness, to represent Thucydides as a conscious dramatic artist throughout his work; and an ingenious writer has actually shown how his History may be conceived as a tragedy cast into five acts. But it would perhaps be truer to say that the war itself presented striking contrasts, analogous to those which a dramatic poet contrives: the dullest writer could not have wholly missed these contrasts; and if Diodorus had been the historian, his work, too, might have revealed the five acts; but Thucydides was peculiarly well fitted to bring out these contrasts with the most complete effect. He was so, because he felt the whole moment and pathos of the events themselves; because he saw them with the distinctness of intense concentration; and because, partly under the influence of language, he had even more than the ordinary Greek love of antithesis. It is obvious that the Peloponnesian war, as a subject for history, may be said to have dramatic unity in the sense that it is a single great action: as, by an analogous metaphor, the subject of Herodotus may be said to have epic unity, because the various parts, though they cannot be brought within the compass of one action, can be brought within the compass of one narrative. And, apart from this rudimentary dramatic unity, the Peloponnesian war has a further analogy to a drama in presenting a definite moment at which the cardinal situation is decisively reversed—as it is reversed in the Oedipus Tyrannus, for instance, when the king discovers that he is an incestuous parricide. That moment is the Sicilian expedition. The supreme test of "dramatic" quality in a history of the Peloponnesian war must be the power with which the historian has marked the significance of the Sicilian expedition as the tragic "revolution" (peripeteia), the climax of pity and terror, the decisive reversal. Thucydides has devoted the whole of his Sixth and Seventh Books to the events of those two years, thus at once marking the significance of the expedition as the turning point of the war. And every reader knows with what tremendous effect he has traced its course, from the moment when the whole population of Athens was gathered at the Peiraeus in the early midsummer morning to see the splendid fleet sail for Sicily, and the trumpet commanded silence while the whole multitude joined in prayer, and wine was poured from vessels of silver and gold as the paean arose, down to that overthrow of which he writes that they were destroyed with utter destruction, and that few out of many came home. Here, at the point in his story which supplies the crucial test, Thucydides shows that he possesses true dramatic power. By the direct presentment of the facts, not by reflections upon them, he makes us feel all that is tragic in the Sicilian disaster itself, and also all that it means in relation to the larger tragedy of the war. The same power is seen in many particular episodes of the History: for example, in the self restrained majesty of Pericles, the great protagonist of the opening war, whose courage, amidst havoc and pestilence, ever rises as the Athenian courage declines; or in the first appearance of Alcibiades on the scene, with his brilliant versatility and his profound lack of loyalty, with his unmeasured possibilities for good or evil, just when the Sicilian project is trembling in the balance. Without pressing the parallel between the History and a work of dramatic art to any fanciful length, it may be said with a definite meaning that Thucydides has not merely the inspiration of action, but often also the spirit of the noblest tragic drama.

It is natural to regret his silence in regard to the social and intellectual life of his age. The simplest explanation of it is that he did not conceive such details as requisite for the illustration of his purely political subject. The art and poetry of the day, the philosophy and the society, were perhaps in his view merely the decorations of the theatre in which the great tragedy of the war was being played. Though he wrote for all time, he did not conceive of an audience who would have to reconstruct this theatre before they could fully comprehend his drama. No writer has ever been at once so anxiously careful and so haughtily improvident of the future. His characteristic dislike of superfluous detail seems to have been allied with a certain hardness of temperament, such as is indicated by the tone of his reference to the poets. His banishment may also have infused something of bitterness into his recollections of the Athenian life, with all its gracious surroundings, with all its social and intellectual delights, from which he was suddenly cut off, so that he should know them no more until he came back in his old age and found them changed. No one can tell now how the memories of early sympathies may have grouped themselves in his mind as he looked out in later years from his home in Thrace on the sea over which he had sailed on the long past day when he failed to save Amphipolis; but at least there is a twofold suggestiveness in those passages which touch on the glories of Athens. There is the feeling of the man who has never lost his love and admiration for the Athenian ideal; and there is also a certain reluctance to translate this ideal into concrete images, as if, in the words of Oedipus after his ruin, it were sweet for thought to dwell beyond the sphere of griefs. Perhaps in this very reticence the modern world may find a gain when it views his work from the artistic side. Thucydides must always hold his fame by a double right; not only as a thinker who, in an age of transitional scepticism, clearly apprehended the value of disciplined intelligence as a permanent force in practical politics, but also as a writer who knew how to make great events tell their own story greatly; and the dramatic power of the immortal History is heightened by its dramatic reserve.

Frank Byron Jevons (essay date 1886)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9226

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 were then at the full height of their military power, and he saw the rest of the Hellenes either siding or intending to side with one or other of them. No movement ever stirred Hellas more deeply than this; it was shared by many of the barbarians, and might be said event to affect the world at large." These are the words with which Thucydides begins his history. He was born in the Athenian deme Halimus, belonging to the tribe Leontis, on the coast between Phalerum and Colias. His father, Olorus, was related, though in what degree we do not know, to the Thracian Olorus, whose daughter married the famous Miltiades, and was mother of Cimon. At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war in B.C. 432, when Thucydides, as he himself says, began to write, he was probably about forty years of age. The first twenty years of his life were spent under the administration of his great relative Cimon, and the next twenty under that of the man for whom Thucydides had such admiration, Pericles. About Thucydides' early life and education we have no direct information. We may, however, fairly assume that he met and learned from all the great men who at this time lived in or found their way to Athens. The philosopher Anaxagoras, who has left traces of his influence even on Herodotus, may be credited with having contributed to the formation of the mind of Thucydides, whose views on natural science and on religion are more closely connected with those of Anaxagoras than are even those of Herodotus. The orator Antiphon, whose style resembles that of Thucydides—both are classed by Dionysius as belonging to the "severe style"—may have been Thucydides' literary model, and was certainly in other relations known to and studied by Thucydides, as is shown by the manner in which he speaks of Antiphon. The sophist Protagoras, Gorgias the rhetorician, and Prodicus, have all left marks of their influence on the style of Thucydides. At Athens, though not at Olympia, he in all probability, when about twenty-five years of age, heard Herodotus read portions of his history. Æschylus he may well have seen; Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Phidias he must have met. Poetry, architecture, science, philosophy, and rhetoric all found in Athens, or sent there their best exponents; all helped to shape the citizens of Athens, and to make it right for one of her sons to say, "We are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy." With these convictions Thucydides could not but "fix his eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until he became filled with the love of her, and impressed with the spectacle of her glory."

Educated in this city and by these means, and endowed with an originality and energy of mind which have elevated him to the level of the greatest minds the world has produced, Thucydides began in B.C. 432 to write the history of the Peloponnessian war, then commencing. Possessing extensive property and the right of working gold-mines in Thrace, and being consequently one of the leading men in Thrace, Thucydides must have spent a certain part of every year there. But the larger part of his time he passed in Athens. The speeches of Pericles he certainly heard; his admiration for Pericles' statesmanship is shown by what he says of it; and he may have been among the personal friends of Pericles. In B.C. 430 the plague, which wrought great harm to Athens, nearly deprived the world of Thucydides' history. He was, he says, himself attacked, and witnessed the sufferings of others. The celebrated debates on the fate of the Mitylenæans in B.C. 427, and the Spartan proposals for peace in B.C. 425, in consequence of the affair of Pylos, he was present at; and he may have taken part in some of the military operations of the earlier years of the war. At any rate, in B.C. 424 he acted as strategus, being one of the two Athenian generals intrusted with the protection of Thrace. He allowed, however, the Spartan Brasidas to occupy Amphipolis, the key to the whole of that country; the result of this serious disaster being that Thucydides was an exile from Athens for twenty years. That this was a heavy punishment to him it is impossible to doubt; but so far from its injuring the prosecution of his work, it had the opposite effect. It set him free from other claims on his time and attention; his work probably became the sole palliative to the exile's grief; and his enforced absence from Athens gave him the opportunity he could not have otherwise enjoyed of visiting the Peloponnese, and seeing the war from both sides. He says, "For twenty years I was banished from my country after I held the command at Amphipolis, and associating with both sides, with the Peloponnesians quite as much as the Athenians, because of my exile, I was thus enabled to watch quietly the course of events." He seems to have visited the places affected by the war not only in Greece, but, as his acquaintance with the topography and early history of Sicily shows, in Sicily and Italy; and everywhere he sought out eyewitnesses, "of whom," he says, "I made the most careful and particular inquiry." At length, in B.C. 404, he returned after his protracted exile to his country, six months after the destruction of the walls of Athens by Lysander. How long he lived after this is uncertain. He perhaps died before B.C. 396, for he says, when mentioning the eruption of Etna, which took place in B.C. 426, that only three eruptions were known to have taken place "since the Hellenes first settled in Sicily." and this statement was not true after the eruption of B.C. 396. But he may have lived after B.C. 396 and not revised the passage in question. Nor will a passage, in which he is supposed to imply that Archidamas at the time of writing was dead, bear much pressing. In fine, we do not know when he died, or where or how, though tradition says he was killed by a robber in Thrace. He lived long enough after the end of the war to put into shape most of the history which he began to write at the beginning of the war, as is shown by various passages, such as the reference in the first book to the destruction of the walls of Athens by Lysander, or the analysis in the second book of the causes which led to the final defeat of Athens, passages which can only have been written at the end of the war. On the other hand, he did not live long enough to complete his history, for the last book does not seem to have received the author's final revision, and instead of coming down to the end of the war, brings us only down to B.C. 411, the twenty-first year of this seven-and-twenty years' war.

Thucydides began to write the history of the Peloponnesian war, "believing that it would be great and memorable above any previous war." "No movement," he says, "stirred Hellas more deeply than this." The importance of the war, long as it was, and great as the sufferings it caused, is not to be measured by its length or destructiveness. It was, on the whole, a struggle between the two great Greek races, the Ionians and the Dorians, and between oligarchy and democracy. On the issue of the war it depended whether Athens, which was in possession of the intellectual supremacy of Greece, was also to hold the political; or whether the Spartans, who knew how to fight but not how to live, were to be at liberty to plant rapacious and irresponsible oligarchies in the cities that they conquered. These issues, and they were momentous enough, Thucydides saw; one other consequence, and that an inevitable one, Thucydides must have seen, though he could not know how soon it was to become in its turn a cause and produce other consequences—the necessary exhaustion of Greece, after so long a struggle, that led to the ruin of Greece. Two generations after the end of the Peloponnesian war, Greece lost her political liberty, and with it her literary genius, for want of the strength which had been wasted in the war of which Thucydides wrote.

If these, the political, results were all that is to be learnt from the story of the Peloponnesian war, it would have perhaps an interest for the students of history only. But for those who view the history of Greece from the standpoint of Athens—and erroneous as, for the purposes of history, this view may be, it is the view which gratitude for the art and literature we have inherited from Athens inclines most of us to take—the tale of this war must have, independent of its consequences, something of the fascination which the war itself had for such an onlooker as Thucydides. The hopes and fears with which such a spectator witnessed the successes and disasters of Athens as they followed on one another we who read of them do not feel, for we know from the beginning the result. But notwithstanding, as we read, our hearts are stirred by admiration for the courage with which the Athenians rose above each new disaster, and by regret that so much courage should be doomed only to aggravate their suffering. Still, as we read of each new chance of peace offering itself, now after the success at Pylos, now at the one year's truce, now when Cleon and Brasidas, the two obstacles to peace, are gone, we sigh that the opportunity should be lost, that Athens should persist in treading or be forced along the path of destruction. We watch her with a regret more intense than that with which we watch, impotent to help where we fain would save, the errors of some hero of fiction or the drama; for this is truth and that is fiction; the one is the story of a single imaginary sufferer, the other of the very sufferings of a nation.

Were this the only hold which the history of the Peloponnesian war has upon our interest, it would be enough to earn eager readers for Thucydides in all ages. But this is not all. The losses in wealth and blood, the material disasters and the political humiliation of Athens, which at first sight seem to make up the cost of the war, though they constitute claims on our sympathy for Athens, are not the whole price which Greece or Athens paid for this great and memorable war, as they are not that in the war which touches us most deeply. What touches us most closely is not the sufferings—great as they were—bravely borne by the Athenian people, but Athens' moral fall. That the Athenians, who abandoned hearth and home to the Persian invader for the common good, whose self-sacrificing devotion to the national cause of Hellas put them far above, not merely the craven Greeks who joined the Persians, but far above the selfish indifference of the Peloponnesians to anything but the safety of the Peloponnese; that the Athenians who saved Hellas should have grasped at empire, should have become a menace to Greece, and brought about the war which two generations after gave the independence of Hellas over into the hands of the Macedonian conqueror— this we feel is "the pity of it." As we trace in the pages of Thucydides the course and causes of this falling off, we begin to understand that the fear and pity which it is the function of tragedy to inspire may be excited by the historian as well as the poet, by the actual events of history when told by a great historian, as well as by the creations of a poet's mind. The story of Œdipus, as Sophocles, the contemporary of Thucydides, tells it, fills us with pity for the man "more sinned against than sinning," and with fear for ourselves when, seeing how every step which Œdipus takes to avoid the crimes he is fated to commit only leads him inevitably to commit them, we become possessed with a sense of the ruthless power of Heaven, and the fearful catastrophes to which the slightest deviations from the paths of righteousness may lead. The same sentiments are aroused by the history of the Peloponnesian war as Thucydides tells it. It was her very patriotism and self-sacrifice which led to the moral fall of Athens. Not only of our vices, but of our virtues do the gods make whips to scourge us. The services of Athens to the national cause made the Greeks look up to her as their leader; she was placed by them at the head of the confederacy of Delos; her energy in prosecuting the war, and the indolence of the allies who allowed her to do the fighting against the Persians, converted her leadership practically into empire. "That empire," as the Athenians said to the Lacedæmonians in B.C. 432, shortly before the outbreak of the war, "was not acquired by force; but you (the Lacedæmonians) would not stay and make an end of the barbarians and the allies came of their own accord and asked us to be their leaders. The subsequent development of our power was originally forced upon us by circumstances." And the Athenians go on to say, "An empire was offered to us; can you wonder that, acting as human nature always will, we accepted it, and refused to give it up again?" The excuse may be accepted, but excuses, even when accepted, cannot prevent our actions from producing their consequences; and the consequence of the Athenian acceptance of empire was the Peloponnesian war. Thucydides says, "The real though unavowed cause [of the war] I believe to have been the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedæmonians and forced them into war." The war once begun, the next result of empire was the impossibility of withdrawing from the war. When the Athenians, overwhelmed by the unexpected disaster of the plague, were inclined to peace, Pericles put before them, in B.C. 430, the simple truth, which admitted of no reply: "Once more, you are bound to maintain the imperial dignity of your city, in which you all take pride, for you should not covet the glory unless you will endure the toil. And do not imagine that you are fighting about a simple issue, freedom or slavery; you have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you. Neither can you resign your power, if, at this crisis, any timorous or inactive spirit is for thus playing the honest man. For by this time your empire has become a tyranny which, in the opinion of mankind, may have been unjustly gained, but which cannot be safely surrendered. The men of whom I was speaking, if they could find followers, would soon ruin a city, and if they were to go and found a state of their own, would equally ruin that." The principle which Pericles thus laid down, Cleon, in B.C. 427, proceeded to put into application. The Mitylenæans, who had originally joined the confederacy of Delos, and now found themselves belonging to the Athenian empire, withdrew. They were, however, attacked as rebels, and conquered by the Athenians; and the Athenians decreed that every man in Mitylene should be killed and the women and children enslaved. As Cleon said to the Athenians, "If they were right in revolting, you must be wrong in maintaining your empire. But if, right or wrong, you are resolved to rule, then rightly or wrongly they must be chastised for your good. Otherwise, you must give up your empire, and, when virtue is no longer dangerous, you may be as virtuous as you please." The same year as that in which the Mitylenæans suffered was to show that the consequences of our actions cannot be limited to ourselves, and that the innocent pay the penalty as well as the authors of a misdeed; for in this year the Platæans, who had stood a rigorous siege with remarkable bravery, succumbed, and thus the war brought it about that the Spartans, who had defeated the Persians at Platæa with the aid of the Platæans, were about to slaughter the Platæans, and raze to the ground their city, memorable for the defeat of the common foe of Hellas. The pity of it is summed up in one sentence of the Platæans' appeal to the Spartans. "The Platæans, who were zealous in the cause of Hellas even beyond their strength, are now friendless, spurned, and rejected by all. None of our old allies will help us, and we fear that you, O Lacedæmonians, our only hope, are not to be depended upon." The imperial position of Athens, which in this year necessitated the slaughter of a thousand Mitylenæans, whose offence was struggling for their freedom, produced more fruit eleven years later; for as the necessities of empire made it impossible for Athens to retire, so they offered her every inducement to advance. "The Melians," says Thucydides, "were colonists of the Lacedæmonians, who would not submit to Athens like the other islanders. At first they were neutral, and would take no part; but when the Athenians tried to coerce them by ravaging their lands, they were driven into open hostilities." The Melians, therefore, being weak, were to be crushed, and the conscience of Athens, having adapted itself to its imperial position, felt no need of excuses. "We Athenians," said they to the Melians, "will use no fine words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule because we overthrew the Persian, or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did. … You and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must." Melos was annexed, and Athens continued to advance, whereby she not merely left the question of justice behind, but also neglected the advice which Pericles had given her twenty years before, "Not to seek to enlarge her dominion while the war was going on." Sicily was next attacked. "They virtuously professed that they were going to assist their own kinsmen and their newly-acquired allies, but the simple truth was that they aspired to the empire of Sicily," says Thucydides, an Athenian. The Sicilian expedition failed disastrously, and contributed more than any other error on the part of Athens to her fall. And it, too, was recommended by arguments drawn from the imperial position of Athens. "We cannot," said Alcibiades, "cut down an empire as we might a household; but having once gained our present position, we must keep a firm hold upon some, and contrive occasion against others; for if we are not rulers, we shall be subjects."

It is this tale told in detail, with no striving after effect, but with a calm and cold veracity which imprints the story with painful distinctness on the imagination and the mind, that makes Thucydides as interesting as Sophocles, and the fate of Athens a moral study as absorbing as that of Œdipus. One difference, however, will strike those who read both authors. Destiny, which is the eventual source of all Œdipus' actions, plays no part in Thucydides. How universally useful destiny might be to the historian, Herodotus had already shown. It was a key to which no lock could fail to open. If a storm wrecked Persian ships, this was "in order that" the Persian fleet might not be larger than the Greek fleet. If Xerxes made a mistake in his campaign, this was because destiny had decreed his defeat. But this crude use of destiny could have as little attraction for Thucydides when applied to the solution of historical problems, as for Sophocles when applied to moral problems. Sophocles uses it more sparingly and more effectively. As far as Œdipus is concerned, fate only interposes directly once; in the oracle warning him of the crimes he will commit—and granted but this one interposition, all the actions of Œdipus flow naturally and inevitably. But Thucydides knows not even this refined form of destiny. To Thucydides, a man's own actions are his fate; they are a man's destiny, which decrees what he shall do and what he shall be. The absence of any other kind of destiny from the history of Thucydides does not prove that Thucydides had no belief in destiny. Its absence is satisfactorily accounted for by its being no part of Thucydides' design to entertain theological considerations. His object was to set down only facts, which admit of closer proof than destiny is susceptible of. It will help to the understanding of this and other points to read his own words:—

"Of the events of the 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. The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other. And very likely the strictly historical character of my narrative may be disappointing to the car. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten."

The object of Thucydides, then, was to give a strict and faithful account of facts. He had no preconceived theory to prove, no "notion of his own" which his history was to establish. The actual facts, free from the distortions of inaccurate memories or of prejudiced eyes, once established, his history would be an everlasting possession for the guidance of future generations. To the actual facts, then, he confines himself, without moralising and without theorising. For instance, in his great description of the plague he says: "No human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, inquiries of oracles, and the like, they were utterly useless, and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up." What he himself thinks on the objective utility of prayer he does not say; he simply notes the fact that in this case supplications were useless, with the same abstention from theorising as he notes, in the next chapter, that the disease after attacking the throat moved down to the chest. Moral disorders he treats in the same positive way as he describes the plague; he notes that a symptom of extreme demoralisation is disregard of law, human and divine. In the same way he records both that Brasidas thought that he captured Lecythus by supernatural aid, and that when Lecythus was attacked the walls happened to be accidentally deserted. So, too, he notes that the Spartans celebrated their religious festivals regardless of the military situation, and that their enemies profited by the fact. The Lacedæmonians, in accordance with their tradition, consulted oracles, but did not guide their policy by them—e.g. they consulted Delphi at the beginning of the war as to whether they should declare war or not, but they left the decision to the general meeting of their allies; and the Corinthians used the oracle to silence scruples as to the justice of the war, but trusted to grounds of policy as the means of convincing their hearers. The Spartans also employed the imputed "pollution" of Pericles, not from religious motives, but for purposes of policy; as they and other Greeks regularly appealed to the gods rather from wont than conviction. Amongst the Athenians the religion of their forefathers was held in no better esteem. They purified Delos conventionally. The celebrated affair of the Hermæ was a religious offence, but was converted into political capital. Even for their unjustifiable attack on the Melians, the Athenians count on the approval of the gods. And Thucydides recounts all these things with no comment and no expression of his own opinion: he gives the facts. With regard to oracles and portents he is equally reserved. He observes that in times of excitement everything of the nature of a portent is curiously noted; and he records that after the failure of the Sicilian expedition the Athenians were furious "with the soothsayers and prophets, and all who by the influence of religion had at the time inspired them with the belief that they would conquer Sicily." He is aware that ambiguity is of much virtue in an oracle: he says of the Athenians during the plague, "In their troubles they naturally called to mind a verse which the elder men among them declared to have been current long ago:—'A Dorian war will come and a plague with it.' There was a dispute about the precise expression; some saying that limos, a famine, and not loimos, a plague, was the original word. Nevertheless, as might have been expected—for men's memories reflected their sufferings— the argument in favour of loimos prevailed at the time. But if ever in future years another Dorian war arises which happens to be accompanied by a famine, they will probably repeat the verse in the other form." The vagueness of another oracle—"Better the Pelasgian ground left waste"—allows him to say for it, "The oracle, without mentioning the war, foresaw that the place would be inhabited some day for no good." Though whether the foresight of the oracle is to be regarded as human or divine, he does not say. When an oracle is fulfilled he notes the fact; in estimating the length of the war he says, "He who reckons up the actual periods of time will find that I have rightly given the exact number of years. He will also find that this was the solitary instance in which those who put their faith in oracles were justified by the event. For I well remember how, from the beginning to the end of the war, there was a common and often-repeated saying that it was to last thrice nine years. I lived through the whole of it, and was of mature years and judgment, and I took great pains to make out the exact truth." This being so, the Athenians had grounds, therefore, it would seem—whether the fulfilment of this solitary oracle was supernatural or casual—for advising the Melians not to have recourse "to prophecies and oracles and the like, which ruin men by the hopes which they inspire in them."

In the same way as he thus prefers to record historical facts without having recourse to any theory, whether of destiny or divine intervention, he records such natural phenomena as were considered portentous, and what was known about them. Thus he duly narrates how when the Athenians were about to leave Sicily, the occurrence of an eclipse of the moon terrified them into delaying their departure, and thus brought about the destruction of them all. But he also notes elsewhere, with regard to solar eclipses, that it is apparently only at the beginning of the lunar month that they are possible. In one place he observes that during a battle in Sicily, "as is often the case in the fall of the year, there came on a storm of rain and thunder, whereby the Athenians were yet more disheartened, for they thought that everything was conspiring to their destruction." Of another engagement he says, "During the battle there came on thunder and lightning and a deluge of rain; these added to the terror of the inexperienced who were fighting for the first time, but experienced soldiers ascribed the storm to the time of the year, and were much more alarmed at the stubborn resistance of the enemy." The plague was considered by many people to be a fulfilment of the promise of Apollo to assist the Spartans. Thucydides says, "The disease certainly did set in immediately after the invasion of the Peloponnesians, and did not spread into the Peloponnesus in any degree worth speaking of, while Athens felt its ravages most severely, and next to Athens the places which were most populous." But he had a few chapters before said, "The disease is said to have begun south of Egypt in Æthiopia; thence it descended into Egypt and Libya, and after spreading over the greater part of the Persian empire, suddenly fell upon Athens." He records all the facts, but does not express "any notion of his own."

The determined resolution of Thucydides to adhere to the facts of the war has materially influenced the form of his work. Having no preconceived theory of his own, no philosophy of history from which to deduce the facts of the war a priori, Thucydides follows, not a logical, but a strictly chronological order. The events of each year are ranged under that year. The story of a siege, for instance, such as that of Platæa, which lasted three years, is not told in one continuous section, but what happened in each year is told under the head of that year, and thus the story of the siege is twice dropped and twice picked up again. The adoption of this annalistic method by Thucydides is the more noteworthy because there were no annalists in Greece. The materials out of which annals sprang in the Middle Ages, lists of magistrates, festivals, &c., and family records, existed in Greece; but before annals could be developed out of them, Thucydides produced history. To us this chronological method of Thucydides seems, as it is, somewhat clumsy. It fetters the historian without apparently affording any compensation. But it must be remembered that in the time of Thucydides there was no uniform system of chronology current throughout Greece. Later, the method of reckoning years by Olympiads, i.e. by the recurrence of the Olympic games every four years, was universally adopted by the Greeks. But in the time of Thucydides each state had its own mode of reckoning, and commenced its civil year, not on the same day as any other state, but when its own chief magistrate entered on office, or on some other such principle. This latter difficulty Thucydides evaded by disregarding the civil year and following the natural year, which he divides into summer and winter. This procedure had this advantage, that it suited admirably a record of military operations, which, in the case of the Greeks, ceased in the winter and were carried on only in the summer. The other difficulty which arose in the absence of a uniform chronology, that of specifying the year, Thucydides got over as best he could by counting from the date of some well-known event, and by reference to the chronological system of various states. This, for instance, is his way of specifying the year in which the Peloponnesian war began: "For fourteen years the thirty years' peace which was concluded after the recovery of Eubæa remained unbroken; but in the fifteenth year, when Chrysis the high-priestess of Argos was in the forty-eighth year of her priesthood, Ænesias being the Ephor at Sparta, and at Athens Pythodorus having two months of his archonship to run, in the sixth month after the engagement at Potidæa, and at the beginning of spring," &c. We, with our fixed system of chronology, say "in B.C. 431." Modern historians, who can specify the date of an event with three strokes of the pen, may arrange events in any order they think most lucid; but Thucydides, having once specified his year, had good reason for adhering to the chronological order of events. The annalistic method might fetter the historian, but it secured his chronology, which other wise might have fluctuated.

Beyond this division into summers, winters, and years, no other seems to have been designed by Thucydides. The division into eight books, as we have his work, though made early, was not made by Thucydides. There are traces in the scholiasts of a division into thirteen books, and Diodorus mentions a division into nine books. But these divisions are probably later even than the one we have. Thucydides, however, does sometimes speak of "the first war" or "the ten years' war," and of "the Sicilian war," and the "Ionic war"; and so it has been conjectured that he intended a division into five parts—the introduction, the ten years' war, the period before the Sicilian expedition, the Sicilian war, and the Ionic war. But the narrative flows on without regard to the subdivisions; the references which Thucydides makes to them are few, and they exercise no influence on the form or matter of his work. Indeed, he seems to have neglected any attempt to break up his work into sections possessing balance, symmetry, proportion, or form, with as much contempt as he disclaims any design of making his history pleasing to the car. The division into years is "strictly historical." Nothing more is aimed at. At any rate, the notion that Thucydides' history is composed on the analogy of a drama, and is arranged in a prologue and five acts, is purely fanciful, and as grotesquely incongruous with Thucydides' conception of the functions of the historian as any piece of "subjectivity" could be. Of all manifestations of power, self-restraint impresses men most, partly because it is the form which power least often takes; and there is scarcely a page of Thucydides that does not exemplify his strength in this respect. Where strong expression seems justifiable, where even it seems demanded, Thucydides contents himself with a sober statement. Events which call aloud for some expression of pity or of horror he leaves to speak for themselves, without a word from him. Where the temptation to any other writer to comment or to moralise would be irresistible, Thucydides resists it. He places before the reader the agonies of a nation, as in his account of the Sicilian expedition, or the presence of death, as in his description of the plague, with grave silence.

Problems of political morality, which he had studied for years and in which his keen intellect took the profoundest interest, he states so far as they were debated or exemplified in the war; but he is not betrayed into speculation; he confines himself to facts. On the great problems of life it is sometimes said that it is impossible for a man to hold his judgment in perpetual suspense; but Thucydides seems to have had them perpetually present to his mind, and to have perpetually regarded the material before him as inadequate for the formation of a decision. It is this habit of never going beyond his facts, of never losing sight of his purpose to ascertain and record facts, this self-restraint which never relaxes, that makes the reader respect and marvel at the power of Thucydides. It creates absolute confidence in him, in his will and his power to record the plain truth. It makes his very silence eloquent, and his least word weighty beyond the superlatives, the exclamations, or asseverations of other writers. This, however, is only the negative side of his power. His silent self-restraint prepares us to be impressed by his words, but his words also impress us. His facts are more valuable than others' comments, and for this there is a reason. In Thucydides' history we have the facts of the war as Thucydides saw them; and the difference between his work and that, say, of Xenophon, who continued Thucydides' incomplete work, is much the same as that between what a geologist and a navvy see in a railway cutting, or a botanist and a ploughboy see in a hedge-bottom, or between what Shelley and a farmlabourer hear in a skylark's song. That is to say, Thucydides had a knowledge of what happened in the war comparable to the geologist's or botanist's knowledge of his science, and he further had, like Shelley, the genius to transmute what he heard into words more precious than gold. Beyond this, in the way of analysis, it is not possible to go far. The intimate acquaintance which he gives us with the Peloponnesian war is proof of the clearness and grasp with which he realised all the details and the whole significance of the war; but to ask how this clear sight was acquired or conveyed is folly. It is better to try and profit by than spy into genius.

The genius of Thucydides is seen in the way in which he not only conveys to the reader his own clear perception of the facts and the course of the war, but also arouses in the reader the emotions with which he himself followed the various incidents of the struggle. In other words, Thucydides' literary genius is as great as his historical genius. Over the literary as well as the historical difficulties involved by his chronological method of relating facts he rides triumphant. It is said that his work is without a plan, and this is true; there is no more plot or plan in his annals than there would be in a diary of the war. But this defect is rather apparent than real. Every incident is viewed by Thucydides in the light thrown on it by the whole war, and thus its importance and position is assigned to it as unerringly and as clearly as though all the other events narrated by Thucydides had been grouped with the purpose of giving this one incident its proper literary value. But although Thucydides disdains to strive after the external balance and harmony which he might have obtained by articulating his history, and by grouping his facts so as to reach the consummation of a culmination, still this is, from a literary point of view, even more than compensated for by the internal proportions of his work, in virtue of which each incident receives its proper amount of attention and receives light from and throws light on every other incident and the whole course of the war. But although everything which belongs to the narrative of the war fits in with the narrative harmoniously, there are various digressions having nothing to do with the war, e.g. that about Harmodius and Aristogiton, which, however valuable in themselves, absolutely spoil the form of the work, as they also constitute an undeniable exception to the strictness with which Thucydides otherwise excludes all matter which does not bear directly on his subject. Whether this is due to simple neglect, or to absolute contempt for literary form, may be doubted. Errors of taste are to be found in Thucydides—they occur precisely when, abandoning his general principle, he strives after effect—and these digressions may have been inserted by him under the impression that a history to possess literary form must have episodes, since they were to be found in Herodotus and the logographers. At the same time, though his annalistic method involves literary disadvantages, it also brings with it some compensating advantages. The system of dropping one thread of the narrative when the end of a year is reached, and then taking up the narrative of the other events of the year, though it sometimes, as in the case of the Sicilian expedition, interrupts with foreign matter the main narrative, yet elsewhere and more generally affords a welcome relief, and a variety such as is attained in a drama by means of a secondary plot.

But it is in the matter, not in the manner, of his work that Thucydides' literary greatness makes itself most felt. And here it is difficult to determine what department and what quality in his work claims our greatest admiration. For the political philosopher of all ages, and for the student of Greek thought, the speeches will ever rank as the greatest work of "the greatest historian that ever lived" [Life of Lord Macauley.] And it is a pardonable error if, in the luminous profundity of the thought contained in them, we lose sight of "the antitheses, the climaxes, the plays of words, the point which is no point," that mar the speeches as literature. It is rather to the narrative that we must look for the literary perfection of Thucydides; and there we must turn, not to the philosophical disquisition—great and justly famous as it is—on the effects of civil war, but to the description of the plague, which has had many and able imitators, from Lucretius onwards, but none to approach Thucydides; or to the seventh book, the retreat from Syracuse, of which Macaulay said, "There is no prose composition in the world, not even the De Corona, which I place so high," and Gray, "Is it or is it not the finest thing you ever read in your life?" Macaulay speaks of the "intense interest," the "magnificent light and the terrible shade of Thucydides;" and these words apply not only to the Sicilian expedition, but to the whole narrative. In some instances they apply also to the speeches. The speeches are not in all instances devoted wholly to political wisdom. Characters are drawn, as, e.g. in the speeches of Alcibiades, Nicias, Archidamus, and Pericles. While in other Speeches, e.g. the funeral oration, the appeal of the Platæans, the final speech of Nicias to his men, the light is as magnificent and the shade as terrible as in any part of the narrative.

The language of Thucydides is often considered obscure and difficult. Obscure, in the sense that he does not quite know what he wishes to express, he certainly is not. With regard to the difficulty of his style, it is necessary to draw a distinction. When he is narrating events, his style is simple, powerful, and beautiful. When he begins to philosophise and to generalise, he begins to be difficult to understand. But here again we must distinguish. The philosophical reflections of Thucydides are contained mostly in the speeches, and it is in the speeches that he most conspicuously departs from his resolve to describe the simple facts of the war without any attempt to please the ear. It is in the speeches that Thucydides deliberately makes an attempt at form, and whereas when he makes no effort he does attain form, he as signally fails when he is faithless to his principle of not seeking after effect. Doubtless, in throwing his own recollections or the reports of others into the form of direct speeches, Thucydides was practically obeying necessity. To the Greek, in whose life, from the time of Homer, public speaking occupied a large place, to the Athenian above all, whose main occupation in time of peace was the making and hearing of political speeches, a history which contained no speeches would have been no faithful reflection of political life. Thus Thucydides felt himself to a certain extent constrained by his desire to write a faithful history to introduce direct oration; and thus he was constrained to strive after form; for to merely reproduce by an act of memory the original form in which the speeches were delivered was, as he tells us, impossible. In this attempt at form Thucydides allowed himself to be guided by the precept and the example of the early rhetoricians, who, though they helped to lay the foundations of Greek oratory, were immeasurably removed from even the natural ease and grace of Lysias, much more from the perfection of Demosthenes. Thus the mistakes of Thucydides are the mistakes of his masters, not his own, and their mistakes were incidental to and inevitable in the earliest attempts to form artistic prose. The florid rhetoric of Gorgias appears in bad taste to us, but to the Athenians of his time it was a revelation. It showed that beauty was possible in prose as well as in verse. Its principal defect—that it ignored the difference between poetry and prose—we, who have great prose-writings to compare with it, can readily see. But Thucydides, who had to create prose, may be excused for joining the rest of Athens in admiration of the rhetoricians. Thus the conceits of Thucydides, to which his difficulty is partly due, are owing to the early stage of development to which prose and oratory in his time had reached.

A second cause is to be found in the undeveloped stage of the language. Although there seems no reason to doubt that thought is to a limited extent possible without language, no considerable or continuous advance of thought is so possible. An idea, once cap-tured and imprisoned, so to speak, in a word, is thence-forward available to succeeding generations. Thus the child in learning the meanings of words is storing its mind with ideas. By means of language the child, as with seven-leagued boots, traverses large spaces in the realm of thought, which its ancestors took years to subjugate by means of language, and which are still firmly held by the words they planted there. We at the present day inherit a language the total number of whose words is several times greater than the number any single one of us uses; while though there are many words—technical ones—which the majority of us do not even know the meaning of, we can, when necessary, acquire that knowledge by a reference to a dictionary. It is, therefore, hard for us to realise a stage of language in which there were more ideas than there were words to express them, and in which there was not only no dictionary to explain the meaning of words, but the very idea that it was possible to define the meaning of a word was a new and startling conception, which was used by Socrates, the originator thereof, as long as he had a monopoly of it, to the utter discomfiture of all who came in argument against him. Yet this was the state of the language by means of which Thucydides had to convey ideas that the world had yet never conceived of. Further, at the present day our linguistic conscience permits us to take a word wherever we find it if we want it, or, indeed, if we do not much want it. From naked savages on opposite sides of the world we take the words "palaver" and "taboo," as readily as we appropriate a technicality from languages that are dead. But Thucydides borrowed neither ideas nor the words to clothe them in. He writes pure Attic.

Hitherto we have spoken as though the lack of a vocabulary were the only difficulty with which Thucydides had to contend; but a still more serious difficulty was that the language had as yet no settled or recognised grammar. By this is meant not merely that some centuries had yet to elapse before Dionysius Thrax was to make the first attempt to throw together a body of rules which may be regarded as the beginning of Greek grammar. People may and must speak grammatically before the principles on which they—or those best worth attention—speak can be observed and noted in a grammar. But Thucydides belongs to a time when people did not, even unconsciously, systematically follow the same analogies or the same principles under similar circumstances. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at if, in the absence of grammatical moulds to receive it, the thought of Thucydides should overflow in some sentences, or solidify into some shape for which later literature has no parallel or only a distant analogy. Nor is it strange if, under the weight of Thucydides' thought, which would have strained the strength of a more developed language, Attic in its then cartilaginous and plastic condition should have sometimes yielded, and have sometimes betrayed the weight thrown on it.

It has been the custom to institute comparisons between Thucydides and other historians, mainly, one would suppose, because Thucydides is by far the greatest of historians. Between him and Herodotus or Xenophon the comparison must be one of contrast, and is one which the reader may be left to draw out for himself; but on the comparison between him and Roman historians a word must be said. In the first place, in any such comparison it should be noticed that Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, whatever the differences between them, all belong to a literature which is essentially original and creative; whereas the Roman historians belong to a literature which is not original or creative. In the next place, the three Greek historians belong to the best period of Greek literature, but the Roman historians do not belong to the golden age of Latin literature. As to the comparison between Thucydides and Sallust, what resemblance imitation could produce there is; but genius cannot—certainly that of Thucydides cannot—be imitated. Between Thucydides and Tacitus there are some points of resemblance. Both are great historians; both have a profound knowledge of human nature; and both take somewhat pessimistic views of human nature and of life. As to style, both possess great power; both are difficult at times to understand, and brevity is one of the characteristics of each. But to imagine that to Thucydides in his own line it is possible to compare Tacitus, great as he is, is a mistake. The first quality demanded of a historian is credibility; and whatever conclusion we may come to about the credibility of Tacitus, it is impossible to maintain that his reputation stands as high as that of Thucydides in this respect. Thucydides laid the foundations of scientific history, but Tacitus has built elsewhere. Both historians draw largely on oral testimony; but whereas Thucydides understood that the historian should go only to witnesses of the events he wished to record, and that their evidence, and even his own recollection of what he has himself seen, require testing and corroborating, Tacitus was content with hearsay evidence at third or fourth hand. When Thucydides had recourse to documentary evidence, it was, as far as we can discover, to official documents that he went; or, if he has occasion to refer to other histories, it is in a way which shows that he criticised them closely. Tacitus, on the other hand, has as little notion of criticising documentary as oral testimony, and relies on partisan memoirs as though they were wholly true.

We expect in a historian not only capacity to ascertain facts, but impartiality in stating them; and this quality no historian possesses so eminently as Thucydides. He writes an impartial history of a struggle in which he himself was one of the combatants. Tacitus writes a partial history of events from which he was so far removed in time that we might have reasonably expected from him an unbiased history. Thucydides' love for his native country—and it was great—never leads him to exaggerate the successes or minimise the defeats or the defects of Athens. Tacitus shares the weak amiability of Livy in never admitting a Roman defeat if it is possible to close his eyes to it. In politics there is the same distance between the two historians. Thucydides had political views, but he was a moderate politician, and his views were such that they rather assisted him than prevented him from comprehending the standpoint of others. Tacitus, on the other hand, shared the yearning of his order after a state of things which it was impossible to restore—yearnings which the nobility of Rome expressed the more virulently because they were conscious that they had not the energy or the courage to do anything to get what they sighed for. Tacitus was, on the whole, hostile to the political régime which he undertook to portray.

Let us now consider Tacitus and Thucydides, not as historians, but from the literary point of view. Both suffer from the inconveniences entailed by their following the annalistic method; but these inconveniences are felt much more strongly in Tacitus than in Thucydides. It is no depreciation of Tacitus to say that, great as is the interest with which we read him, it is not the intense interest which Thucydides inspires. The power of Tacitus as a writer is great and undeniable, and he is a master of light and shade, but it is not the magnificent light and the terrible shade of Thucydides. Both writers have the power of brevity, and this is frequently considered to constitute a great resemblance between them; but there is no difference between them so great and so characteristic as this supposed point of resemblance. Where the sentences of Thucydides are brief, it is because they are surcharged with thought; they are weighty with wisdom, and they sink into the mind. The sentences of Tacitus are brief because ejaculatory, exclamatory, abjurgatory. The one is the brevity of condensation, the other of amputation. Thucydides' is the brevity of dignity, Tacitus' the brevity of breathlessness. In fine, Tacitus is a "stylist," Thucydides is none. Thucydides is a perpetual demonstration that there is a higher art than that of concealing art—the art of dispensing with it.

Francis MacDonald Cornford (essay date 1907)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7835

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 usually nothing more is meant than that he allows his persons to speak for themselves, and presents their character with vividness. The dramatization which we have pointed out in the treatment of Cleon is a very different thing; it is a principle of construction which, wherever it operates, determines the selection of incidents to be recorded, and the proportions and perspective assigned them. In this chapter we shall attempt to describe and analyse the type of drama that we have to do with, and to trace the literary influence under which Thucydides worked.

We ought first, perhaps, to meet a possible objection. It may be urged that Thucydides in his preface expressly excludes anything of the nature of poetical construction from his literal record of what was said and what was done. He criticizes the methods of poets and story-writers, and warns us that, at the cost of making his story 'somewhat unattractive', he intends to exclude 'the mythical'.…

He cannot, therefore, it might be inferred, have done what we have thought we found him doing. But we would ask for a careful examination of the passage in question. What was in Thucydides' thoughts when he wrote it, and above all, what precisely did he mean to exclude when he banished 'the mythical'?

The words occur towards the end of the introduction, which is designed to establish Thucydides' belief that the Peloponnesian war was the most memorable of all that had ever been in Greece. The possible rivals, he points out, are the Trojan war and the Persian invasion. For the first of these events the only literary evidence we have is that of the epic poets, and chiefly of Homer, whose record cannot be checked by direct observation, while much of his theme through the lapse of time has passed, or 'won over', into the region of the mythical and incredible. The only tests we have are certain indications in the existing condition of Greece which seem inconsistent with the past state of things as represented by the literary authorities. With these indications we must be content; and they suffice to show that the epic poets embellished their tale by exaggeration. The story-writers, again, on whom we depend for the history of the Persian wars, were not bent upon accurate statement of truth;—witness the carelessness of Herodotus about points of detail. Their object was rather to make their recitations attractive and amusing to their audience; and if we discount their evidence accordingly, we shall find, going by ascertained facts alone, that the Peloponnesian war was the greatest ever seen.

Thucydides next passes abruptly to the formulation of his own method; he intends to record what was said and what was done as accurately and literally as possible. The result, he then remarks, will probably be somewhat unattractive to an audience at a recitation, because the facts recorded will have nothing 'mythical' about them; he will be content, however, if they are judged useful by people who wish to know the plain truth of what happened.

The phrase 'winning over into the mythical' is illuminating. It suggests the transformation which begins to steal over all events from the moment of their occurrence, unless they are arrested and pinned down in writing by an alert and trained observer. Even then some selection cannot be avoided—a selection, moreover, determined by irrelevant psychological factors, by the accidents of interest and attention. Moment by moment the whole fabric of events dissolves in ruins and melts into the past; and all that survives of the thing done passes into the custody of a shifting, capricious, imperfect, human memory. Nor is the mutilated fragment allowed to rest there, as on a shelf in a museum; imagination seizes on it and builds it with other fragments into some ideal construction, which may have a plan and outline laid out long before this fresh bit of material came to the craftsman's hand to be worked into it, as the drums of fallen columns are built into the rampart of an Acropolis. Add to this the cumulative effects of oral tradition. One ideal edifice falls into ruin; pieces of it, conglomerates of those illassorted and haphazard fragments, are carried to another site and worked into a structure of, perhaps, a quite different model. Thus fact shifts into legend, and legend into myth. The facts work loose; they are detached from their roots in time and space and shaped into a story. The story is moulded and remoulded by imagination, by passion and prejudice, by religious preconception or aesthetic instinct, by the delight in the marvellous, by the itch for a moral, by the love of a good story; and the thing becomes a legend. A few irreducible facts will remain; no more, perhaps, than the names of persons and places—Arthur, Caerleon, Camelot; but even these may at last drop out or be turned by a poet into symbols. 'By Arthur,' said Tennyson, 'I always meant the soul, and by the Round Table the passions and capacities of man.' The history has now all but won over into the mythical. Change the names, and every trace of literal fact will have vanished; the story will have escaped from time into eternity.

When we study this process, we seem to make out two phases of it, which, for the criticism of Thucydides, it is necessary to distinguish. The more important and pervasive of the two is the moulding of fact into types of myth contributed by traditional habits of thought. This process of infiguration if we may coin the word may be carried to any degree. Sometimes the facts happen to fit the mould, and require hardly any modification; mere unconscious selection is enough. In other cases they have to be stretched a little here, and patted down there, and given a twist before they will fit. In extreme instances, where a piece is missing, it is supplied by mythological inference from the interrupted portions which call for completion; and here we reach the other phase of the process, namely invention. This is no longer a matter of imparting a form to raw material; it is the creation of fresh material when the supply of fact is not sufficient to fill the mould. It leads further to the embroidery of fabulous anecdote, which not only has no basis in fact, but is a superfluous addition, related to fact as illustrations in a book are related to the text.

The process, in both its phases, can be illustrated from the version preserved by Thucydides of the legend of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the tyrant-slayers. Harmodius' sister, whom the tyrant insults, makes her first appearance in this account. She is superfluous, since the murderers had already a sufficient private motive arising out of the love-quarrel. That is not in itself an argument against her historical character, for superfluous people sometimes do exist; but other circumstances make it not improbable that she owes her existence to the mythical type which normally appears in legend when tyrants have to be slain. The two brothers, or lovers, and the injured sister, or wife—the relationships vary—are the standing dramatis personae on such occasions. Collatinus, Brutus, and Lucretia are another example from legend; while the purely mythical type which shapes such legends is seen in the Dioscuri and Helen. The suggestion is that Harmodius and Aristogeiton were identified with the Heavenly Twins. If there is any truth in the story of how Peisistratus was conducted back to Athens by a woman dressed as Athena and accepted by the citizens as the goddess in person, it is not surprising that the next generation of Athenians should have recognized the Dioscuri in Harmodius and his friend. Given that identification, the injured sister is felt to be a desirable, if not indispensable, accessory; she is filled in by inference, and she becomes a candidate for the place of 'basket-bearer' in the Panathenaic procession, at which the murder took place. Thus, the legend of Harmodius illustrates both the phases of the process we described: first, it is moulded on the mythical type of the Heavenly Twins, and then invention supplies the missing third figure.

Mythical types of this sort can be discovered and classified only after a wide survey of comparative Mythistoria; for we all take our own habits of thought for granted, and we cannot perceive their bias except by contrast. The Greek who knew only Greek legend could not possibly disengage the substance from the form; all he could do was to prune away the fabulous and supernatural overgrowths, and cut down poetry into prose. It is thus that Thucydides treats myths like the story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela; he rationalizes them, thinking that he has reduced them to history when he has removed unattested and improbable accretions, such as the transformation of Tereus into a hoopoe. But history cannot be made by this process (which is still in use); all that we get is, not the original facts, but a mutilated legend; and this may very well be so mutilated that it is no longer possible to distinguish the informing element of fiction, which was discernible till we effaced the clues.

The phenomenon that especially concerns us now is some thing much wider than the mythical infiguration of a single incident here or there, such as the legend of the Tyrantslayers. It is the moulding of a long series of events into a plan determined by an art form. When we set the Persians of Aeschylus beside the history of Herodotus, we see at once that the tragedian in dramatizing the events of Xerxes' invasion, some of which he had personally witnessed, has also worked them into a theological scheme, preconceived and contributed by his own mind. Further we remark that Herodot-us, although he is operating in a different medium and writing a saga about the glory of Athens, uses the same theological train of thought as a groundwork, and falls in with the dramatic conception of Aeschylus. This is a case of the infiguration of a whole train of events by a form which is mythical, in so far as it involves a theological theory of sinful pride punished by jealous divinity, and is also an art form, by which the action is shaped on dramatic principles of construction, involving such features as climax, reversal, catastrophe. The theory and the form together provide the setting of the whole story—the element which makes it a work of art. This element is so structural that it cannot be removed without the whole fabric falling to pieces, and at the same time so latent and pervasive, as not to be perceptible until the entire work is reviewed in its large outline. Even then it can be detected only by a critic who is on his guard and has not the same scheme inwrought into the substance of his own mind; for if he is himself disposed to see the events in conformity with the scheme, then the story will answer his expectation and look to him perfectly natural.

When Thucydides speaks of 'the mythical', it seems probable from the context that he is thinking chiefly of inventive 'embellishment'. The accretions of fabulous anecdote are comparatively easy to detect; they often bring in the supernatural in the forms of vulgar superstition, and being for this reason improbable, they require better evidence than is forthcoming. Also, poets tend to magnify their theme for purposes of panegyric, flattering to their audience; they will, for instance, represent Agamemnon's expedition as much larger than it probably was. It is on these grounds that Thucydides objects to the evidence of Ionian Epos and Herodotean story-telling. He warns us against the faults which struck his notice; and he was on his guard against them, even more than against the popular superstition and dogmatic philosophy of the day, which he tacitly repudiates. But there was one thing against which he does not warn us, precisely because it was the framework of his own thought, not one among the objects of reflection,—a scheme contributed, like the Kantian categories of space and time, by the mind itself to whatever was presented from outside. Thucydides, like Descartes, thought he had stripped himself bare of every preconception; but, as happened also with Descartes, his work shows that there was after all a residuum wrought into the substance of his mind and ineradicable because unperceived. This residuum was his philosophy of human nature, as it is set forth in the speech of Diodotus,—a theory of the passions and of their working which carried with it a principle of dramatic construction presently to be described. That he was not forearmed against this, he himself shows when, in attacking Herodotus, he accuses him of trivial errors of fact, and does not bring the one sweeping and valid indictment which is perfectly relevant to his own point about the embellishment of the Persian War. The dramatic construction of Herodotus' work, which stares a modern reader in the face, apparently escaped the observation of his severest ancient critic.

Another proof can be drawn from Thucydides' own account of a series of events which he evidently believed to be historical, the closing incidents, namely, of Pausanias' career. He shows us the Spartan king intriguing with the Persian, and 'bent upon the empire of Hellas'. Pausanias commits certain treacherous acts; boasts of his power to the Great King; 'intends, if the king please, to marry his daughter'; is so 'uplifted' by the king's answer that he can no longer live like ordinary men; behaves like an oriental; cannot keep silence about his larger designs; makes himself difficult of access, and displays a harsh temper. We know all these symptoms well enough, and we foresee the end. Pausanias is recalled, but the evidence against him is insufficient. He writes a letter betraying his designs and ending with an order for the execution of the bearer. The messenger, whose suspicions are aroused, opens the letter and shows it to the authorities at Sparta. The ephors arrange that they shall be concealed behind a partition and overhear a conversation between the king and his treacherous messenger, who contrives to draw from Pausanias a full and damning avowal. The end follows in the Brazen House.

This is not the sort of thing that Thucydides objects to as 'mythical'; it is not 'fabulous', not the embroidery of mere poetical invention; and so he reports it all in perfect good faith. What does not strike him, and what does strike us, is that the story is a drama, framed on familiar lines, and ready to be transferred to the stage without the alteration of a detail. The earlier part is a complete presentation of the 'insolent' type of character. The climax is reached by a perfect example of 'Recoil' …, where the hero gives the fatal letter to the messenger, and thus by his own action precipitates the catastrophe. The last scene is staged by means of a theatrical property now so cheapened by use as to be barely respectable—a screen! The manner of the hero's death involved sacrilege, and was believed to bring a curse upon his executioners. Could we have better proof that Thucydides was not on his guard against dramatic construction, and was predisposed to see in the working of events a train of 'causes' which tragedy had made familiar?

When we are alive to the dramatic setting, we can infer with some certainty the stages through which the Thucydidean story of Pausanias has passed. The original stratum of fact must have been that Pausanias somehow misconducted himself, was recalled, and put to death in circumstances which were capable of being used by superstition and policy against the ephors. These facts worked loose into a legend, shaped by imagination on the model of preconceived morality and views of human nature. The mould is supplied by drama; and meanwhile fabulous invention is busy in many minds, embroidering the tale with illustrative anecdotes. Thucydides brushes away these extravagant and unattested accretions, and reduces the legend again to what seemed to him a natural series of events. It is only we who can perceive that what he has left is the dramatized legend, not the historical facts out of which it was worked up. It is not wildly paradoxical to think that the historian who accepted the legend of Pausanias might frame on the same pattern the legend of Cleon. Not that Thucydides invented anything; all that was needed was to select, half unconsciously, those parts of his life which of themselves composed the pattern.

We must now come to closer quarters with the epithet 'dramatic'. It is worth noting, at the outset, that in the mere matter of external form, the history seems to show the influence of tragedy,—a fact which need not surprise us, if we remember that Thucydides had no model for historical writing. The brief abstract of the annalist was a scaffold, not a building; and Thucydides was an architect, not a carpenter. Chroniclers and story-writers like Herodotus had chosen the lax form of epic, congenial to ramblers; but whatever the history was to be, it was not to be like Herodotus, and it was to draw no inspiration from the tradition of Ionian Epos. So Thucydides turned to drama—the only other developed form of literature then existing which could furnish a hint for the new type to be created. The severe outline and scrupulous limitations of this form satisfied his instinct for self-suppression. The epic poet stands before his audience and tells his own tale; but the dramatist never appears at all: the 'thing done' … works itself out before the spectators' eyes; the thing said comes straight from the lips of the actors.

Best of all, to Thucydides' thinking, if we, of after times, could ourselves have watched every battle as it was won and lost, and ourselves have heard every speech of envoy and statesman; we should then have known all, and much more than all, this history was designed to tell. But as this cannot be, we are to have the next thing to it; we shall sit as in a theatre, where the historian will erect his mimic stage and hold the mirror up to Nature. Himself will play the part of 'messenger' and narrate 'what was actually done' with just so much of vividness as the extent of his own information warrants. For the rest, the actors shall tell their own tale, as near as may be, in the very words they used, 'as I heard them myself, or as others reported them.'

Speeches are much more prominent in Thucydides' history than they are in that of Herodotus. The change seems partly due to the later historian's preference for setting forth motives in the form of 'pretexts', instead of giving his own opinion; but it is also due to his being an Athenian. Plato similarly chose to cast his speculations in the dramatic form of dialogue, allowing various points of view to be expressed by typical representatives, without committing himself to any of them. Even oratory at Athens was dramatically conceived; the speech-writer did not appear as advocate in court; he wrote speeches in character to be delivered by his clients. It has often been remarked that the debates in Thucydides resemble in some points of technique the debates in a Euripidean play. There is moreover in one respect an intellectual kinship between Thucydides and the dramatist who was contemporaneously moulding the form of tragedy to the strange uses of realism, and working away from Aeschylus as Thucydides had to work away from Herodotus. The two men are of very different temperaments; but in both we seem to find the same sombre spirit of renunciation, the same conscious resolve nowhere to overstep the actual, but to present the naked thoughts and actions of humanity, just as they saw them. No matter how crude the light, how harsh the outline, so that the thing done and the thing said shall stand out as they were, in isolated sharpness, though

Mist is under and mist above,…
And we drift on legends for ever.

These considerations, however, touch only the question of external form: they show why so much that we should state directly is stated indirectly by Thucydides, in speeches. The choice of this form is consistent with a complete absence of plot or of dramatic construction: otherwise Thucydides could not have chosen it at starting; for at that moment the plot lay in the unknown future. We mention the point only because evidently it was somewhat easier for an historian who consciously borrowed the outward form of tragedy, to take unconsciously the further step, and fall in with its inward form and principle of design. It is this which we now wish to define more closely. The type of drama we have detected in the history is not the Euripidean type; it will be found, on examination, to show an analogy with the older form existing in the tragedies of Aeschylus.

The resemblances are reducible to two main points. The first is an analogy of technical construction, seen in the use and correlation of different parts of the work. The second is a community of psychological conceptions: a mode of presenting character, and also a theory of the passions which has a place not only in psychology, but in ethics. We shall begin by studying the structure; but we may bear in mind that this structure is closely involved with the psychological theory.

An art form, such as the Aeschylean drama, shapes itself as a sort of crust over certain beliefs which harden into that outline. When this has happened, the beliefs themselves—the content of the mould—may gradually be modified and transmuted in many ways. Finally, they may melt and almost fade away, leaving the type, which is preserved as a traditional form of art. This survival of an element of technical construc-tion may be illustrated by the instance of 'reversal'.… A 'reversal of fortune' is the cardinal point of primitive tragedy; and it originally means an overthrow caused by an external supernatural agency—Fate or an angry god. When the belief in such agencies fades, 'reversal' remains as a feature in drama; but the change of situation is now caused by the hero's own act. The notion of 'recoil' comes in: that is to say, the fatal action itself produces results just the opposite of those intended—a perfectly natural occurrence. In this way a piece of technique outlasts the belief which gave rise to it.

The Aeschylean drama appears to us to have gone through a process of this kind. The structure, as we find it, seems to imply an original content of beliefs in some respects more primitive than those explicitly held by Aeschylus himself, but surviving in his mind with sufficient strength to influence his work. Similarly, as we hope to show, in transmission from Aeschylus to Thucydides, the dramatic type has again outlasted much of the belief which informed it in the Aeschylean stage. It is the artistic structure which is permanent; the content changes with the advance of thought. Hence, if we point to Aeschylean technique in Thucydides, we are not necessarily attributing to him the creed of Aeschylus.

We must first attempt to describe the structure of Aeschylean tragedy. In order to understand it we must try to imagine a yet more primitive stage in the development of the drama than any represented in extant Greek literature, a stage which the earliest of Aeschylus' plays has already left some way behind. A glance at the development of modern drama may help us.

Certain features which survived in Greek tragedy suggest that we should look back to a type somewhat resembling the mediaeval mystery and some of the earliest modern dramas, such as Everyman, which are like the mystery in being religious performances and in the element of allegorical abstraction. Their effect, due in part to each of these features, may be described as symbolic. Everyman is a sermon made visible. To watch it is like watching the pastime called 'living chess', in which the pieces are men and women, but the man who is dressed like a bishop is nothing more than a chessman who happens to be automatic. He has not the episcopal character; his dress is a disguise with nothing behind it; his words, if he spoke, would be the speech of a parrot. And so it is with Everyman. The persons are not persons at all, but personae, masks, symbols, the vehicles of abstract ideas. They do not exist, and could not be conceived as existing, in real space and time. They have no human characters, no inward motives, no life of their own. Everyman, as his name is meant to show, is in fact not a man, but Man, the universal.

The main development of modern drama shows, in one of its aspects, the process by which this symbolic method gives way to the realistic. The process consists in the gradual filling in of the human being behind the mask, till the humanity is sufficiently concrete and vital to burst the shell and step forth in solid flesh and blood. The symbol comes to contain a type of character; the type is particularized into a unique individual. The creature now has an independent status and behaviour of its own. Every gesture and every word must be such as would be used by an ordinary human being with the given character in the given situation. Once created, the personality is an original centre; it cannot be made to do what we please or to utter our thoughts. In some such terms as these a modern novelist or playwright will speak of his characters; and it is thus that they appear to us.

Now we can observe a certain intermediate stage in which these two methods, the symbolic and the realistic, are balanced in antagonism, so as to produce a curious effect of tension and incoherency. A good instance is Marlowe's Faustus. Faustus himself occupies the central plane; he is a living man, but still imprisoned in a symbolical type. The intrusion of humanity has gone far enough to disturb the abstract effect, and it reacts on some of the persons in the play who ought to be purely symbolic. Lucifer, it is true, is kept apart and remains non-human; but Mephistophilis oscillates in our imagination between the ideal and reality, with a distressing result. Again, on a lower level than Faustus there is yet another grade of persons, in contrast with whom he shows up as heroic and ideal. These are the vintner, the horse-courser, and other pieces of common clay picked out of a London alley; they belong to a different world, and we feel that they could no more communicate with the tragic characters than men can talk with angels. Thus there are in this one play four sets or orders of persons: (1) the purely abstract and symbolic, such as Lucifer, who only appears on an upper stage at certain moments, and takes no part in the action; (2) the intermediate, for instance Mephistophilis, who ought to be symbolic, but treads the lower stage, a cowled enigma, horrible because at moments he ceases to be symbolic without becoming human; (3) the heroic or tragic: Faustus, who is an ideal half realized, hanging together on its own plane; (4) the real: common mortals who would attract no attention in Fleet Street.

The Greek drama, although in the detail of historical development it started at a different point from the modern, and followed another course, seems, nevertheless, to pass through a phase analogous to that which we have just described. The original substance of the drama was the choral lyric; the actors as they afterwards became began as an excrescence. At a certain stage the actors are assimilated to the chorus and move in the same atmosphere. Thus in the earliest play of Aeschylus, the Suppliants, we find that the chorus of Danaids are actually the heroines of the action, which centres round them, so that they are not merely on the same plane with the actors, but themselves a complex actor, and the effect is simple, coherent, and uniform. In the Prometheus, again, the chorus belong to the same ideal world as the Titan hero, a world in which abstract symbols like Mastery and Violence can move without showing as unreal against the other persons. The whole drama is on the symbolic plane, the life in it being due to anthropomorphic imagination, not to the intrusion of realism.

But in the latest plays of Aeschylus, the beginning of a change is clearly marked: the actors are becoming human, while the lyric is rising above them, or else remains suspended in a rarer atmosphere from which they are sinking. This is a natural stage in the passage from pure symbolism to realism. The advance shows itself externally in the drifting apart of the lyrical element from the dialogue,—a separation which, of course, widens in the later tragedians, till the choral ode, though still an indispensable and very beautiful feature, becomes in point of construction little more than an interlude, which relieves the concentrated intensity of the action. This change is commonly taken as a phenomenon which needs no explanation; but really it is caused inevitably by the coming to life of the persons in the drama. In proportion as these become more real, the lyric becomes more ideal and further removed from the action.

In the stage observable in Aeschylus' latest plays, the choral part is still dramatic, and of equal importance with the dialogue. The two elements are evenly balanced; but at the same time they have begun to occupy different worlds, so that we are sensible of the transition from one to the other. The result is a curious duplication of the drama which now has two aspects, the one universal and timeless, the other particular and temporal.

The nature of this phenomenon will, we hope, become clear, if we take as an illustration the Agamemnon. In this play, the visible presentation shows how the conqueror of Troy came home and was murdered by the queen. The events that go forward on the stage are particular events, located at a point of legendary time and of real space. The characters are certain individuals, legendary or historic—there is to Aeschylus no difference here—who lived at that moment and trod that sport of earth. But in the choral odes the action is lifted out of time and place on to the plane of the universal. When the stage is clear and the visible presentation is for the time suspended, then, above and beyond the transient spectacle of a few suffering mortals caught, just there and then, in the net of crime, loom up in majestic distance and awful outline the truths established, more unchangeably than the mountains, in the eternal counsels of Zeus. The pulse of momentary passion dies down; the clash and conflict of human wills, which just now had held us in breathless concentration, sink and dwindle to the scale of a puppet-show; while the enduring song of Destiny unrolls the theme of blood-haunted Insolence lured by insistent Temptation into the toils of Doom. As though on a higher stage, uncurtained in the choral part, another company of actors concurrently plays out a more majestic and symbolic drama. On this invisible scene walk the figures of Hybris and Peitho, of Nemesis and Ate—not the bloodless abstractions of later allegory, but still clothed in the glowing lineaments of supernatural reality. The curtain lifts for a timeless moment on the spectacle of human life in an aspect known to the all-seeing eyes of Zeus; and when it drops again, we turn back to the mortal tragedy of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, enlightened, purified, uplifted, calm.

Thus we find in Aeschylus something analogous to the hierarchy of persons we noted in Faustus; although, for various reasons, there is not the same crude effect of incoherency and tension. The supernatural characters—Zeus, supreme above all, and the demonic figures of Hybris, Nemesis, Ate, and the rest, are not seen, as Lucifer is seen on the upper stage of the Elizabethan theatre, but remain in the spiritual world to which lyrical emotion exalts the inward eye—the world where metaphor (as we call it) is the very stuff of reality, where Cassandra quickens and breathes, and whence she strays among mortal men like a fallen spirit, sweet-voiced, mad, and broken-winged. Hence the effect is far more awful and solemn than the actual apparition of Lucifer; and when Apollo and Athene and the spirits of vengeance take human shape in the Eumenides, a spell is broken, a veil rent, an impression shattered, for which not the most splendid symphony of poetical language can atone.

Here, however, we would confine our attention to the Agamemnon. At the lower end of the scale we find a further advance of realism in some minor characters, the watchman and the herald; the nurse in the Choephori is of the same order. These are allowed some wonderful touches of common humanity, below the heroic level; for they are not directly concerned in the central action, and a little irrelevant naturalism does no harm, if it is not carried far. But they are only just below the heroic standard, and are certainly not the sort of people you would have met in a walk to the Piraeus.

Thus, the two planes in the Agamemnon are divided by an interval less wide and less abrupt than the divisions in Faustus. In psychological conception also the union is very close, since the heroic characters are still so abstract and symbolic that they are barely distinguishable from the pure abstractions of the lyrical world. Agamemnon, for instance, is simply Hybris typified in a legendary person. He is a hero flown with 'insolence' (the pride and elation of victory), and that is all that can be said of him. He is not, like a character in Ibsen, a complete human being with a complex personality,—a centre from which relations radiate to innumerable points of contact in a universe of indifferent fact. He has not a continuous history: nothing has ever happened to him except the conquest of Troy and the sacrifice of Iphigenia; nothing ever could happen to him except Pride's fall and the stroke of the axe. As we see him, he is not a man, but a single state of mind, which has never been preceded by other states of mind (except one, at the sacrifice in Aulis), but is isolated, without context, margin, or atmosphere. Every word he says, in so far as he speaks for himself and not for the poet, comes straight out of that state of mind and expresses some phase of it. He has a definite relation to Cassandra, a definite relation to Clytemnestra; but no relation to anything else. If he can be said to have a character at all, it consists solely of certain defects which make him liable to Insolence; if he has any circumstances, they are only those which prompt him to his besetting passion.

Now it is in some such way as this that Thucydides presents his principal characters. Cleon is a good instance. He is allowed no individuality, no past history, no atmosphere, no irrelevant relations. He enters the story abruptly from nowhere. A single phrase fixes his type, as though on a play-bill: 'Cleon, the most violent of the citizens and first in the people's confidence'; that is all we know of him. There follows a speech in which the type reveals itself in a state of mind,—Violence in its several phases. Then he vanishes, to reappear, before Sphacteria, as Violence with one of its aspects ('covetousness') emphasized, and a sudden passion of ambitious self-confidence … added thereto. Finally, we see him wrecked by this passion at Amphipolis. Pericles is introduced in the same way, with a single epithet: 'Pericles, the son of Xanthippos, a man at that time first among the Athenians, and most powerful … in action and in speech.' His characteristic quality is wise foresight ( … —the opening word of his first speech); and he stands also, in the Funeral Oration, for the glory … of Athens. Alcibiades we shall study later. In every case the principal characters are nearly as far removed from realism, nearly as abstract and impersonal as the heroic characters in Aeschylus. Thucydides, in fact, learnt his psychology from the drama, just as we moderns (whether historians or not) learn ours, not by direct observation, but from the drama and the novel.

But we can carry the analogy further; it extends to minor points of Aeschylean technical construction, which follow naturally upon the drifting apart of lyric and dialogue. In the Agamemnon we note that the separation of the two planes has gone far enough to make it impossible for the members of the chorus to interfere with the action at its crisis. The elders, when they hear the death-cry, cannot enter the palace; not because the door is locked, nor yet because they are feeble old men. Rather they are old men because an impassable barrier of convention is forming between chorus and actors, and their age gives colour to their powerlessness. The need of a separate stage for the actors, though tradition may cling to the old orchestra, is already felt. The poet is half aware of the imaginative separation, and he bridges it by links of two kinds— formal links of technical device, and internal connexions of a psychological sort, which will occupy us in the next chapter.

The formal links are provided by what is called 'tragic irony'. The dialogue is so contrived that, instructed by the lyric, we can catch in it allusions to grander themes than any of which the speakers are conscious, and follow the action with eyes opened to a universal significance, hidden from the agents themselves. Tragic irony, however, is not a deliberately invented artifice; it arises of itself in the advance from the purely symbolic stage of drama. In that earliest stage the whole dialogue might be called 'ironical', in the sense that it is the poet's message to the audience, not the expression of the persons' characters, for they have none. But it becomes ironical in the strict sense only when the persons begin to have elementary characters and minds, and so to be conscious of one meaning of their words, which is not the whole meaning or the most important. The effect is now no longer merely symbolic, but hypnotic; the speaker on the stage is like a somnambulist—alive, but controlled and occupied by an external personality, the playwright.

Tragic irony is used by Aeschylus with great freedom; because his persons are still so near to the symbolic, they have so little character and psychology of their own, that they do not mind serving as mouthpieces. Here and there we find instances of perfect irony, where the speaker's words bear both constructions equally well, and are at once the natural expression of the appropriate state of mind and also a message from the poet to the spectator, applying one of the lyrical themes. This is the only sort of irony admitted by Sophocles, whose characters have become so human that they will not speak merely for another. In Aeschylus, however, there are whole speeches which are hypnotic, and hardly in character at all. The effect is so unfamiliar to readers schooled in realism that it is often missed.

The first two speeches of Clytemnestra, for instance, seem to be of this kind; notably, the beacon speech. If we try to interpret this as a realistic revelation of Clytemnestra's character and thoughts, we shall not find that it helps us to much insight, because its main function has nothing to do with her character. The poet is speaking through her, and the thoughts are his. The early part of the play, down to the entrance of Agamemnon, is an overture, in which Aeschylus musters and marshals the abstract themes which are to be the framework of the trilogy. One of them is expressed in the beacon speech; and it is this. The fire of Idaean Zeus has fallen upon Troy, 'neither before its season nor striking as an idle glancing shaft beyond the stars'; but that same fire, the symbol of Justice, speeds now to 'strike the roof of the Atreidae'. From mountain top it leaps and hastens across the sea to mountain top; and like the torch passed from hand to hand in the race, it is itself a runner and the only one which 'running first and last reaches the goal'. This description of the symbolic fire conducted along the beacon chain is given to Clytemnestra because it can be given to no one else, not because it is the best means of illustrating her psychology. The speech, by the way, also exhibits another artifice employed to link the two planes—the allusive verbal echo between dialogue and lyric. The symbol of the fire, in a slightly varied form, recurs at the beginning of the next chorus, and the keyword … is reiterated to mark the correspondence.

Now the speeches in Thucydides can be roughly classed under four heads. There are, first, a few realistic speeches by minor characters; for instance, the short, sharp utterance of the Spartan ephor, which has the trick of the laconic practical man. Next, there are idealistic speeches, designed as direct expressions of character or of national ideals; the Funeral Oration will serve as an example. These shade off, through a class in which sketches of national character are introduced indirectly, with some strain upon dramatic probability, into a class where irony is openly employed in the tragic manner. Cleon's Mytilenean speech, for instance, is nearly all of the character-revealing sort, but it contains a passage about the evil results of exceptional prosperity which is without any true application to the position of Lesbos or to the history of the revolt. It runs as follows:

Conceiving a reckless confidence in the future, and hopes that outran their strength though they fell short of their desires, they went to war; and they thought fit to prefer might to right, for where they thought they saw a chance of success, they set upon us when we were doing them no wrong. It is always so: when exceptional prosperity comes sudden and unexpected to a city, it turns to insolence: and, in general, good fortune is safer for mankind when it answers to calculation than when it surpasses expectation, and one might almost say that men find it easier to drive away adversity than to preserve prosperity. We were wrong from the first. We ought never to have put the Mytileneans above the rest by exceptional treatment; then their insolence would not have come to this height. It is a general rule that human nature despises flattery, and respects unyielding strength.

These words are patently inapplicable to the revolted island, whose exceptional position was notoriously a survival of the status originally enjoyed by every one of the allies, but now forfeited by all but a few; to speak of it as a sudden access of prosperity is simply meaningless. We are driven to see in the passage a use of tragic irony; Thucydides puts into Cleon's mouth the very moral which his own career is to illustrate. The device is unskilfully employed, since dramatic probability is too completely sacrificed. Sophocles would not have passed these sentences, which on the speaker's lips have not even a plausible meaning; but Aeschylus would have passed them, and after all Thucydides was only an amateur tragedian.

A fourth use of speeches is illustrated by the Spartan envoys' homily before Sphacteria. This is still further removed from realism, and resembles the beacon speech, which is but one degree below the lyric plane. The historian, reluctant to break silence in his own person, sets forth the theme and framework of his drama in the form of a solemn warning. He has already described the Athenians at Pylos as 'wishing to follow up their present good fortune to the furthest point'. This is a dangerous frame of mind, against which Themistocles had warned the Athenians after Salamis, when they wished to press forward and destroy the Persians' bridges over the Hellespont. 'I have often,' says Themistocles, 'myself witnessed occasions, and I have heard of many from others, where men who had been conquered by an enemy, having been driven quite to desperation, have renewed the fight and retrieved their former disasters. We have now had the great good luck … to save both ourselves and all Greece by the repulse of this vast cloud of men; let us then be content and not press them too hard, now that they have begun to fly. Be sure that we have not done this by our own might. It is the work of gods and heroes, who were jealous that one man should be king at once of Europe and Asia.… At present all is well with us—let us then abide in Greece, and look to ourselves and to our families.'

The warning of the Spartan envoys is conceived in the same spirit; but it is unheeded and unanswered. No answer, indeed, was possible; the speech is not an argument, but a prophecy. A reply from Cleon, a statement of the war party's policy, such as modern critics desiderate, would be as inappropriate as a reply from Clytemnestra to the Second Chorus in the Agamemnon. The stage is clear while this prophecy, addressed not to the actors but to the spectators, passes unheard by those who, could they have heard it, might have been saved.

One further point of formal resemblance between Aeschylus and Thucydides is the allusive echoing of significant phrases, which sustain the moral motive dominant in the plot. We have seen an instance of this device in the repetition of the words 'coveting more' … , which reappear at critical moments after the use of them in the envoys' speech; and we shall note other examples later. This completes the analogy with Aeschylean form, so far as concerns external peculiarities.

Charles Norris Cochrane (essay date 1929)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7386

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 to accept the theory of a 'stream of ocean', or any other figment of the poetic imagination, as an adequate explanation of the periodic rise and fall of the waters of the Nile. He also displayed familiarity with the theory that physical conditions determine human character, when he remarked, in his concluding chapter, as though to point the moral of his history, that 'soft countries are wont to produce soft inhabitants. It is impossible that the same land should yield an excellent harvest and men who are good in war'. Now if Herodotus had consistently made use of these principles as canons of historical interpretation, instead of introducing the religious or metaphysical principles which he actually employed, he might still have produced a great work, but it would have been an anticipation of Thucydides rather than the work which we actually possess. As it was, he frequently employed scientific standards both in the examination of fact … and in its interpretation.… The interpretation, for instance, of the Persian defeat at Plataea (ix. 62) as being the result of inferiority not in brains or strength, but in equipment and in the science of warfare, is quite 'scientific'. But it is when Herodotus comes to the ultimate questions of human history that he reaches an impasse; the reason being that he is unable to determine whether it is ultimately God or man who pulls the strings. This difficulty is illustrated by the passage (vii. 1-19) in which he discusses the causes of the Persian invasion. The physical causes having been expounded with great vigour and perspicacity, he finally turns from them as inadequate, and imports God in the shape of a nocturnal vision, to account for the act which Thucydides would have unquestionably referred to the love of domination and the prospect of power. If then, in the judgement, of moderns, Herodotus is inferior to Thucydides, it is not because he is a 'romancer'. That theory should long ago have been discarded. If we praise Thucydides and decry Herodotus at the present day, it is because our spiritual affiliations are with 'science' rather than with 'philosophy'; for Thucydides is the most scientific, as Herodotus is the most philosophic of Greek historians.

It has been thought necessary to depict at some length the background of Thucydides' thought for two reasons. Firstly, Cornford, in his brilliant and powerful argument, has referred the Histories to quite another setting. Secondly, the critics of Cornford, while they have put their fingers on what are without doubt the genuine characteristics of Thucydides, do not seem to have accounted adequately for the fact that those characteristics emerge in his work. Thus, in their hands, Thucydides himself appears as a portent, an 'uncaused' phenomenon in the stream of European thought. [J. B.] Bury, for instance, speaks of his 'powerful and original mind'; and a recent writer [G.F. Abbott, in Thucydides, A Study in Historical Reality, 1925] says: 'It is all the more to the credit of Thucydides that, living in an age when scientists still occupied themselves with problems altogether beyond the reach of scientific investigation, he did not allow his mind to wander into barren speculations, but kept it with unswerving steadfastness to those lines of thought upon which experience or deduction from experience could be brought to bear profitably. Upon these lines he concentrates his whole attention; and for the rest he has nothing to do but to take the universe as he finds it.' These critics go too far. In the fifth century B.C., at least in the one department of medicine, genuine science had emerged among the Greeks; and the power and originality of Thucydides lies in his having attempted to adapt the principles and methods of that science to the study of society.

There is no doubt that Thucydides, through his well-known connexion with the Thrace-ward regions, had at least the opportunity of meeting the Father of Medicine and becoming familiar with his work. That he actually did so is a probable inference from the close and, in some cases, startling analogies of style between the Histories and the Corpus Hippocraticum. These analogies have been noticed by most thoughtful students. Forbes, for instance, in his introduction to Thucydides i, recalls the penetrating observation of Littré [in Œuvres d' Hippocrate]: 'Thucydides lived and wrote at the same time as the physician of Cos; the more I have reflected on the style of the two, and sought to penetrate into its processes, its form, and its feeling, the more fully I am convinced that a close affinity existed between these writers.… It is to Thucydides that Hippocrates must be compared; in both we have a grave way of speaking, a style full of vigour, a choice of phrases full of meaning, and a use of the Greek language, which, although great pains have been taken with it, is nevertheless less flowing than that of Plato.' He then cites the Airs, Waters, Places (ch. xvi) as exhibiting these analogies of style.

It is our contention, however, that the analogy goes much deeper than mere style: that, in fact, Thucydides adapted the principles and methods of Hippocratic medicine to the interpretation of history; and to the demonstration of this the rest of this chapter must be devoted.

The commentators have noted that Thucydides was keenly interested in natural phenomena, and have collected examples of his observations, e.g. of eclipses, tidal waves, the whirlpool of Charybdis, the silting up of the Acheloüs mouth, volcanic action at Stromboli and Aetna, forest fires, and the effects of the plague on flora and fauna at Athens. They have further observed that in each and every case he sought a natural explanation of the phenomenon in question. But Herodotus had already, in his disquisition on the topography of the Thessalian plain, provided a model for the rational explanation of natural phenomena, when he remarked (vii. 129) that the gap at the mouth of the Peneius river is the work of an earthquake and consequently that those who like to call earthquakes the work of Poseidon may do so. Thucydides, therefore, cannot be credited with originality in this field; although one may notice in passing that his grip on the principle of the uniformity of nature is firmer than that of his predecessor. Herodotus, in default of a plausible natural explanation, may sometimes be tempted to take refuge in supernaturalism. Thucydides never yields to superstition. Ignorant, for example, though he be of the real causes of the solar eclipse, he is content to state the observable facts, that this phenomenon occurs only at the beginning of the lunar month; confident that the eclipse has no supernatural significance, and that in due course will be made the generalization which will explain the phenomenon to the satisfaction of scientif-ic minds (ii. 28).

The originality of Thucydides lies rather in his attempt to bring all human action within the realm of natural causes. In this connexion should be noticed the pecu-liar word πρόϕασως which he uses to designate a 'natural cause'. This word, which in Homer, Herodotus, and later writers unquestionably connotes 'formulated reason' or 'pretext', means in Thucydides 'exciting cause' or the 'physical antecedent of a physical state'. To Cornford πρόϕασως has proved a stumbling-block; it is one of the foundation stones upon which he builds his theory of Thucydides Myth-historicus. Other commentators, impressed with its apparently obvious meaning in Thucydides, have argued that, in this as in other cases, etymology must give way to common sense. The fact is that the word, as used by the historian, is in the highest degree technical. It is uniformly used by Hippocrates in the sense of 'exciting cause', and has been taken over directly by Thucydides in his attempt to apply the methods of medicine to history; the adaptation of methods involving, as is usual, the adoption of terminology.

In Thucydides, then, as in Hippocrates, it is assumed that all human actions and sufferings are subject to natural causes, and by these are meant the causes that are proper to human nature. In other words, both writers accept men no less than things as ultimates for the purposes of historical as of medical science. To Cornford this appears as a grave defect. He says: 'If we would understand Thucydides we must not regard a human action as partly caused by innumerable influences of environment, and by events that happened before the agent was born, right back into an immeasurable past.… The world upon which the Greek looked presented no such spectacle as this. Human affairs—the subject-matter of history—were not to him a single strand in the illimitable web of natural evolution; their course was shaped solely by one or both of two factors: immediate human motives and the will of gods and spirits, of Fortune, or of Fate. The rationalist who rejected the second class was left with the first alone—the original and uncaused acts of human wills.' The modern passion for reducing history to mechanics could hardly go farther than this. But surely Hippocrates and Thucydides are entitled, for the purposes of their science, to lay down their own postulates; and to admit if they so desire, specifically 'psychical' alongside of 'material' causes as ultimate factors for history. Again Cornford appears to go too far when he remarks that the ancients 'looked simply and solely to the feelings, motives, characters of individuals or of cities. These and (apart from supernatural agencies) these only, appeared to them to shape the course of human history.' The observations, quoted above from Airs, Waters, Places effectually dispose of such a view. To Hippocrates the ultimate factors were human motives in relation to environment, institutional as well as geographical. In his study of the evolution of Greek society at the beginning of the first book, Thucydides takes the cue and applies the Hippocratean principle to the elucidation of past as well as present, with such brilliance that the passage may truly be described as one of the greatest, as it is one of the earliest studies in human geography to be found in European literature.

To embark on a detailed examination of Thucydides' psychology would take us too far afield. It is sufficient to say that, like Hippocrates, Thucydides regards human nature as a relatively uniform and stable entity, in which, for purposes of analysis, one may distinguish … the intelligence which affords direction to the activities of the organism, and the various potentialities … which unfold in response to their respective stimuli, and result in various changes … which make for the well-being of the organism or otherwise. Here may be noted how modern is the psychology of Thucydides in contrast with the classical or 'faculty' psychology which was derived from Platonism, in that he stresses the unity of the organism in the response which it makes to any particular stimulus (iii. 45. 7). 'In a word then, it is impossible and absurd to suppose that, when human nature is subjected to a powerful urge in any direction, it can be diverted either by force of law, or by any other terror.' Again (iii. 45. 1), 'Yet carried away by hope, they take the risk of [rebelling against Athens]. No one ever condemns himself to death in advance, when he embarks on a dangerous enterprise'. This last passage illustrates how, according to Thucydidean psychology, judgement tends to reinforce desire, so that the resultant act is an act of the whole personality.

Thus personality counts as a factor in human history, and has to be taken into account in the explanation of events. Spontaneous combustion may account for forest fires (ii. 77. 4), but to explain the downfall of the Athenian Empire are needed the personalities of Cleon, Nicias, and Alcibiades, each of whom, in his own way, made his unwitting contribution to that catastrophe. Thucydides therefore parades them across the stage, not in order to abuse them or praise them, still less to gratify the idle curiosity of the casual reader with a mirror of statesmen, but simply in order that he may bring out the facts and ideas connected with them which are relevant to the analysis upon which his eye is steadily fixed.

On the other hand, the growth of society is no more spontaneous than its destruction. As Hippocrates had said, growth is the result of shock which stimulates the mind and awakens it from stagnation. Such shocks, Thucydides observes, as though developing the Hippocratean thesis, are those that come from the struggle for control of the valleys, resulting in the successive organizations of power which culminate in the polis, or the clash of cultures resulting from invasion, or the fusion of immigrant with native as in the case of Thesean Athens. No less significant are the accumulations of capital, which suggest to their possessors all sorts of possibilities hitherto undreamed of; and the invention of ships and the art of navigation, which constitute the foundations of historical Greece. In all cases, where new ideas are involved, it is assumed that these ideas were born in somebody's brain. Thus Ameinocles of Corinth appears as the man who invented the trireme and later introduced it into Samos. Similarly with the idea of consolidation.… In Athens this did not come about spontaneously, but was the work of Theseus, a man of power as well as wisdom. Theseus, stimulated by the existence of perils which arose not merely from foreign incursions but also from mutual quarrels among the village communities in Attica, and working by means of persuasion mingled with force, imposed on the inhabitants of the peninsula a unitary organization which afterwards got the sanction of religion; and deserved it, because indeed it saved the Athenians not only from foreigners but also from themselves. One is reminded of the observation of Hippocrates, quoted above, that there is an element of compulsion connected with nomos, but that nature ultimately comes in to reinforce it, so that it becomes indeed a sort of second nature itself. And one may suppose that consolidation, which was in Athens brought about as the response to certain conditions, came about in Argos and elsewhere, if not in response to the same conditions, at least to conditions equally compelling, or was introduced according to the self-same law of imitation which led the Samians to copy the naval architecture of the people of Corinth, and which to this day prompts progressive individuals and nations to import and adopt the advanced ideas of their rivals.

The power of innovation or 'invention' is one of the subjects which most engage the attention of Thucydides, and one which he discusses in various passages. In their speech at Sparta (i. 68-71), the Corinthians charge the Spartans with apathy and stagnation, and apparently attribute these defects of character to the peculiarity of the environment of Lycurgan institutions. On the other hand (70. 2) the Athenians are represented as innovators, quick to conceive an idea and to execute the plans which they conceive, beyond their powers daring, prepared to gamble beyond their judgment, in the moment of peril sustained by hope, venturing fearlessly abroad, etc.; so that (§9) in short, if one said that they were born neither to take any rest themselves or to allow it to other men, one would speak the mere truth. These characteristics, which constituted such a menace to the conservative states of Greece, are (71. 2) referred to the atmosphere and institutions of Athens. 'Your institutions,' the Corinthians say, 'compared with those of the Athenians, are out of date.'

The nature and purpose of the speeches in Thucydides must be reserved for later treatment. Meanwhile, it may be noted that Thucydides either shared with Pericles or was prepared to attribute to him a point of view substantially the same as that which he puts into the mouth of the Corinthians in the passage just quoted. In the Funeral Speech Pericles accounts for the unique qualities of his fellow citizens in precisely the same way, viz. as a result of the spiritual atmosphere created in Athens by the great generation to which Themistocles belonged, and maintained in ever increasing power and volume by their successors. The specific points which he makes, reminding one again of Airs, Waters, Places, are worth noting:

  1. The Athenians are autochthonous, and the natural product of the peculiar geographical conditions in the Attic peninsula.
  2. The shock of the Persian War gave Athens the first great impulse towards her imperial destiny. While Sparta and other conservative Greek states failed to rise to the occasion, and to effect those adaptations necessary to meet the new conditions created by the war, the empire-builders of Athens seized their opportunity and created the empire, which not without toil and stress they handed on to the succeeding generation.
  3. The empire, as they possessed it, was the consequence of the atmosphere, social and political, of Athens.

With regard to the question of innovation—the capacity for conceiving and applying new ideas in human life—Thucydides in two passages, speaking in his own person, reveals his opinion. The first passage is in the estimate of Themistocles (i. 138. 3-6), the second, in the estimate of Pericles (ii. 65); and, of these, the former is the more significant. In the Funeral Speech also (ii. 37) it is argued that the spirit of equality in Athens is not inimical to distinction, that, in fact, so far from implying a cult of mediocrity, it actually makes provision for the employment of talent … wherever it may be found. The existence of talent—special endowment—Thucydides was prepared to recognize; whether it was the peculiar abilities of an Antiphon, or an Alcibiades, or even a Cleon, or the more normal qualities of a Demosthenes or a Brasidas, each of whom played his part in weaving the web of history, so that account has to be taken of him by the judicious historian. Accordingly, in the contribution of formative ideas to the life of the community, some men, such as Pericles and Themistocles, stood preeminently above their fellows. The latter, in whose fertile brain the idea of empire was first conceived, seems to have fascinated Thucydides. In estimating his contribution to Athenian life, he protested against the somewhat unfavourable verdict of Herodotus. Employing the current formulae of sophistic analysis, nature and nurture … , he reveals his belief that while nurture may save men from mediocrity, it can never account for genius. For the significance of Themistocles lay precisely in the revelation which he gave of the strength of natural genius. Without the advantages of a protracted education, but by the sheer force of his genius, he was in fact supreme in his ability to extemporize expedients to meet the necessities of the day. This is the answer which Thucydides makes to those (like Cornford) who complain that he makes too much of the 'uncaused actions of human will'. For history, talent—especially insight and penetration … —is, like human nature itself, original and ultimately inexplicable, a postulate in fact necessary to the science. Thus did Thucydides dispose of the question of mind in evolution; and his authority survived to create the psychological interpretation of history common to the greatest of subsequent classical historians. For us in our day it has remained to essay the task of dehumanizing the history of humanity.

Thucydides was a child of Periclean Athens, and the intense individualism of the age in which he lived made it natural for him, perhaps, to consider the problem of society and of history from the point of view of the relationship of individuals to the group. Accordingly, Thucydides is never tempted to conceive of society itself as an organism—and so far his point of view would meet with acceptance by 'realistic' sociologists of the present day. On the other hand, he was evidently impressed with the attempt in Periclean Athens to unify the interests and sentiments of the individual and the group, and he was no less impressed with the fatal failure to do so in the case, not merely of Alcibiades, but of the less spectacular conservative and ultra-reactionary landed classes with which he himself was connected. In one respect his individualistic prepossessions seem to have exposed him to the just criticism of the commentators, that is, in his account of the evolution of society in primitive Greece. The canons of interpretation which he employs in this field are exactly the same as he employs in his analysis of current history; and so he seems to have accepted the historicity of legendary figures like Agamemnon and Minos, the latter of whom, say How and Wells [in Herodotus,] he makes into a prehistoric Pericles. We may note in passing that he guards himself from dogmatism by referring constantly to the merely traditional character of his authorities. Nevertheless, in his reconstruction of early Greek history it is probable that Thucydides allowed himself to be carried away to some extent by the experience of his own day. A fifth-century Athenian could hardly have imagined a society like that of medieval Europe. He failed equally to appreciate the strength of the religious motive in the still undifferentiated society of primitive Greece. However, this at least is clear, that, in his treatment of prehistoric Greece, Thucydides fell victim to the formulation of an induction on too narrow a foundation of fact; for the individualism of the fifth century B.C. cannot be regarded as in any degree universal, though perhaps it is normal in developed societies. But it was not his method, so much as the inadequacy of the facts at his disposal, which was at fault.

The reconstruction of a past, remote whether in time or, more significantly, in spirit, may seem at best a hopeless task; and, as the real triumph of Thucydides lay in contemporary history, we gladly turn to his work in that field. The view of human motivation, which he appears to have held in common with Hippocrates, has already been examined. Beyond this, all belongs for the historian to the realm of τύχη or chance. Philosophy may, but science cannot know of 'any cause' capable of bringing to pass the plague in Athens at a critical moment in her history, or of any 'cause' capable of producing that fatal eclipse of the moon which completely immobilized the already terrified men of Athens at the last moment when escape was still possible from the hands of a vengeful and relentless foe. For history these are and must remain mere coincidences. Therefore, to those who accept the self-denying ordinance of history they must be relegated to the realm of … the incalculable. It is important to notice that in these, as in other cases, it is the coincidence itself which does not yield to any form of prognostication. Hippocrates (Airs, ii) had already remarked that the contribution of astronomy to medicine was anything but insignificant, on account of the effect which celestial events have on the diseases and the digestive organs of mankind. Similarly, the effect of the plague at Athens upon the morale of the Athenians is a proper subject of scientific investigation; and at the same time the plague itself is traced to a natural cause, in contagion, through the Piraeus from Egypt. The coincidence of events, however, remains inexplicable. Accordingly, while theologians and philosophers may dispute regarding the ultimate meaning of such coincidence, as Polybius does about the coincidences that in his day laid the Mediterranean world at the feet of Rome, or Sallust (in his letter to Caesar de Ordinanda Republica) about the coincidences that in their turn brought the Roman world beneath the heel of the dictator, the truly scientific historian, limited by his self-imposed method, can do nothing but hold his peace.

Scientific history, as Thucydides argues (i. 20-2), has nothing in common with imaginative literature, but consists in the diligent and unremitting search for truth, and it has its own standards of evidence … similar to the evidences of medicine, which are under favourable conditions adequate.… The truths of history like those of medicine consist first in the actual transactions which have taken place … ; and these, even if they are subjects of first-hand knowledge, should be accepted only after most careful check with the results of independent observations. Next come the λόγοι, or formulations—summaries and at the same time interpretations—in so far as these entered into and affected the course of events. With regard to the transactions themselves, Thucydides notes in true scientific fashion the common dangers to which the historian is exposed, the psychological perils arising from moral bias, defective recollection, as well as the carelessness and lack of observation characteristic of mankind. In the case of the λόγοι the difficulties of the historian are more acute.

For in the λόγοι, the permanently valuable elements of his work, Thucydides faced the problem, not merely of reporting correctly what was actually said on each occasion, but of amplifying and developing these statements in a manner appropriate to the occasion. To the modern historian, this may seem a strange kind of realism; actually in the hands of Thucydides this quaint literary convention, which Herodotus had carried over from the epic or the drama, affords an admirable vehicle for the expression of those points of view, always partial, frequently conflicting, which determined the transactions—the great issues, in short, of the war and the mainsprings of human action in relation thereto. The Funeral Speech then, and all the other speeches, represent the thought of Thucydides just as they are expressed in language which is unquestionably his own. But in another sense they are genuinely objective, in so far as each of them constitutes an analysis conveying to the reader the attitude of representative individuals or groups in relation to the facts which came up for discussion. To state the facts and formulate the issues, this appears to have been the aim of Thucydides. Thus he was almost always enabled to avoid dogmatic judgements in his own person. And if the facts are well authenticated and the points of view are fairly and adequately represented, the device enables the historian to withdraw from the picture, leaving the reader to judge for himself. If this was Thucydides' aim, he appears amply to have achieved it, as witness the controversies which in modern times the commentators have waged regarding the significance of the war.

The λόγοι, therefore, represent the attempt of Thucydides to do for history what Hippocrates was at the same time trying to do for medicine—the attempt, that is, to establish such classifications or formulations (τὰεζδη) as would raise history from the level of mere chronicle, characteristic of the annalists just as in medicine the same formulations were needed if medical science was to escape from the mere empiricism of the Cnidian school. Through the symptoms to arrive at a general description and thence to penetrate, if possible, to the true classification of the malady, this is the procedure which Hippocrates advocates and which he designates by the words semeiology and prognosis. But this was the very process which Thucydides sought to apply to history, which thus for him becomes the semeiology and prognosis of human life.

The unforgettable picture of the plague at Athens, copied by Lucretius and imitated by Procopius in ancient, as it was by Gibbon in modern times, has always been accepted as one of the best illustrations of Thucydides' temperament, the keenness with which he observed concrete fact, the cold detachment with which he reported the symptoms of a malady to which he himself had fallen victim, the precise analytical power with which he portrayed the changes, not merely bodily but also mental, of the disease. For the commentators generally the account of the plague has illustrated these characteristics. For us it does more; it constitutes the most intimate link between Thucydides and Hippocrates, and seems indeed to be the bridge between the two.

In his account of the plague Thucydides follows precisely the Hippocratic procedure. After the general introduction (ii. 47-8), in which he describes the outbreak and its gravity, he begins (49) by what in Hippocratic terminology is a κατά στασις— a general description of the conditions, climatic and otherwise, prevailing during the summer in which the plague broke out. Then follows the general description of symptoms, including a reference (§6) to the fact that the 'crisis' occurred as a rule on the seventh or ninth day. Now there is no feature of Hippocratic theory more striking than this notion that every malady tends to run a normal course up to a crisis, which once surmounted, the patient normally recovers. So Thucydides, having dealt with the course of the disease up to its crisis, goes on (§6-7) to describe what may be called the complications attending recovery. Such, he concludes, is the general description or semeiology of the epidemic. With regard to its classification or prognosis, unfortunately no rational account can be given. For, contrary to normal experience, the affliction spread to beast and bird, and also (51.2) there was no specific remedy, so to speak, the application of which assured relief. Then, too, it smote all alike (51. 3) whatever had been their medical history or their regimen of life. Thus this epidemic eluded rational classification from every point of view. The passage incidentally throws light on the Thucydidean conception of πρόγνωσς what is 'classification' and how is it possible?

Hippocratean prognosis, after the general description of symptoms, usually includes an account of psychical reactions. In his attempt, indeed, to relate psychical manifestations to the physical constitution, Hippocrates is generally credited with having developed the theory of the four primary humours, of health as a blending of these in due proportions relative to the organism, and of disease as a disturbance, normally resulting from a failure in the process of assimilation. Accordingly, Thucydides proceeds to record the depression and hopelessness that settle down on the patient, when the presence of the disease is detected, as well as his vain elation when the crisis is successfully passed, and the hope, scientifically groundless, that he would never perish of any other disease. He notices also the effect of the situation upon those who, themselves not having as yet fallen victims, either feared to approach the sufferers, or if they did so, paid the penalty of their unselfish idealism (51. 5) with their lives.

In the Hippocratean sense, the plague was an unparalleled shock, and likely therefore to be the occasion of derangements equally unparalleled. Such was indeed the case, and (53) Thucydides goes on to describe the general outbreak of social anarchy and demoralization which was its result—an outbreak in which the most evil passions of human nature were released, and which human law proved as powerless as divine authority to check. Thus neither Hellenic religion nor Periclean statesmanship sufficed to provide safeguards adequate to meet the shock (§4).

The canons of interpretation employed for the prognosis of the plague seem to us to be the canons employed also in the interpretation of Greek history generally. For Thucydides, the evolution of society is determined by a principle which, in contradistinction, on the one hand to materialism, and on the other to idealism, we venture to designate as that of 'physical determinism' ('Physical', following the usage of Hippocrates and Thucydides. Modern usage perversely seeks to restrict the meaning of this word to that of 'the world with man left out'.). Logically, perhaps, following the classification of Aristotle, causes may be distinguished as 'material', 'formal', 'efficient', and 'final'; but it should be remembered that these distinctions had not yet been made when Thucydides wrote; and it may be questioned whether, from the point of view of historical interpretation, they were or are of any great value. For, from the standpoint of science, the kind of 'formal' and 'final' causes which have been employed have proved useless; because such causes are not susceptible of observation and verification by scientific procedure. But, in any case, science does not raise itself by its own bootstraps; and there is no possible demonstration, scientifically speaking, of the existence either of nature or of God. Natural causes there are, unless man is a madman living in a madhouse; and these are at one and the same time 'material' and 'efficient'. For example, when Thucydides attributes the beginnings of the city state to the accumulation of capital, he does not mean to imply that the 'material', whether it be land, cattle, slaves, or hard cash, is what determines the course of evolution. These things, to him, constitute capital in so far as their meaning and significance are appreciated by their possessors. In other words, he is thinking in terms analogous to those employed in the parable of the Talents. The man without a sense of the value of his possession buries it in the earth. His fellow, conscious of what may be done with his, puts it to work and makes it bear fruit. The just sense of value, which enables the prudent speculator to size up the situation and to manipulate with profit the forces at his disposal, is the same sense of value which Thucydides attributes to personalities like Themistocles and Pericles. Carlyle, exaggerating no doubt the significance of great personalities, turns history itself into the biographies of its great men. Thucydides is perhaps more judicious, and never forgets to relate genius to the circumstances which give it an opportunity for free play. Thus in another age Nicias, with his conventional morality, might have exercised a salutary influence on the fortunes of his country. As a politician, however, in democratic and imperialist Athens, and as the reluctant leader of her forces in an enterprise which he loathed, his very virtues proved pernicious and contributed to the disaster which he had sought so studiously to avoid. This is not to say that in politics there is no morality; yet it does imply that political situations may arise in which a man can be too moral, or rather that in certain situations the rules of conventional morality can with difficulty be applied. In such sit-uations, the advice of Plato is, characteristically, that the 'good' man should take refuge under the wall. In this connexion, the function of the scientist is to state the observable facts; while once more theologian and philosopher may speculate regarding the mysterious ways of Providence or Fate.

Thus, while Fate or Providence rewards each man according to his desert, the only 'moral' which the historian can draw is that it is necessary to cultivate that mysterious power of insight, which science postulates as a natural endowment of individuals and peoples. Thus the problem of the social physician becomes a problem of finding appropriate nourishment, we shall not say for the soul, but for the constitution of man; and we shall see in the following chapter how the problem of doing so is faced, as Thucydides sees it, by Sparta and Athens, and in each case with what observable results.

For it is noteworthy that in both cases the problem is faced, and that both the system of liberty and the system of authority are represented as positive prescriptions of a definite and intelligible regimen of life. Athenian liberalism, no less than Spartan authoritarianism, is far removed in spirit and in practice from the optimistic liberalism or anarchism of modern times. Neither Hippocrates nor, presumably, Thucydides ever supposed that 'nature', if left to herself, could work the miracle of cure.

He, however, who looks for a positive statement of Thucydides' own views on this subject, will look in vain; for the pages of Thucydides contain no readymade system of social therapeutics. Hippocrates had divided the work of the physician into three parts: semeiology, prognosis, and therapeutics. Semeiology and prognosis are really two aspects of the same process. They include at one and the same time the accurate observation and the intelligent appreciation of data. Thus the mechanical notion of 'induction', by which one is supposed first to collect the data and then to generalize from them, is not Hippocratic, and whoever of the moderns may desire to have the credit of discovering 'induction' may do so. To Hippocrates, as to Thucydides, it is obvious that if you set about collecting pebbles in order to make a generalization from them, you must have in your mind the rough idea of a pebble to start with, otherwise it may turn out that after all you have been collecting eggs or apples instead of pebbles. Thus the function of semeiology, and prognosis is simply to widen the connotation of the class or, in other words, it is not a mechanical and passive, but an active mental process, and this is what makes it a capacity which few in the highest degree enjoy, so that, exemplified in a Themistocles, it is a subject for admiration. Thus scientific history makes no attempt to rob life of its great mystery. It accepts the fact of natural endowment as an essential condition of well-being and progress; at the same time noting the comparative rarity of its occurrence in any very full measure; and the consequence for mankind of those great inventions which spring from the brains of its possessors.

The scientific historian, as such, limits himself to the semeiology and prognosis of society; leaving to the political philosopher the task of constructing, on the basis of this prognosis, an adequate system of social therapeutics. This, then, is the real reason for many of the peculiarities of Thucydides which the commentators have noted and for which they have tried to account. His 'objectivity' and 'detachment' are results of the scientific method which he consciously adopts, and seeks conscientiously to apply. This, rather than the circumstances of his birth and life—his mixed descent, his affiliation with the conservatives, his exile by the democrats—enables him to characterize his native country, and put his finger with unerring precision on both the strength and weakness of imperial democracy. Moreover, his reticence is the reticence of relevancy. His duty is to consider the significance of personalities and events, in strict relation to his purpose. Hence those silences in regard to what happened, if the events had no bearing on the particular issue under discussion, which after all distinguish history from annals. Hence also those partial portraits or sketches of personalities, so vivid as far as they go, but yet so irritating to the modern, with his habit of discursive reading and of discursive writing. These, also, are in strict keeping with scientific method, and serve to distinguish history from biography. Finally, it is vain to look in the pages of Thucydides for any systematic statement of his beliefs. The good social physician will, in prognosis, keep strictly to the task of writing the 'history' of his patients, and he will reserve his schemes of social therapeutics for special treatment later, if he himself essays the task of treatment.

Yet, to all who accept the method of science, i.e. the view that life itself is the real teacher of mankind, so that it is necessary to consider how men do as a fact behave, before considering how they should, the one task is the necessary preliminary of the other. Such a conviction may without doubt be attributed to Thucydides; therein lies for him and for those who think with him the usefulness of history.

If this point of view be accepted, it limits decisively the scope and nature of social science. Sociologists, as such, should cease to look in history for anything except observable physical causes; and they should no longer attempt to extract from the study of society any general law of progress, as they have long since ceased to find in history any general law of decline, and as, in modern times, few or none of them profess to discover in it evidence for a law of cycles. To do otherwise is to violate the first principle of scientific method, as laid down by the author of Ancient Medicine, and applied by Thucydides to sociology—to confuse the 'is' with the 'ought'—in short, to disguise what is really philosophy in the gown of science. For it was against the general hypothesis that the author of Ancient Medicine had levelled the full weight of his artillery, seeking to demolish this citadel as the necessary preliminary to genuine science. It is both the right and the duty of science to speak in terms of limited and concrete ends. History, for instance, may properly consider the 'progress' of Rome under the principate in the direction of centralized and bureaucratic autocracy; or it may consider the decline of the city state from a condition of independence and self-sufficiency to that of a mere municipality under the imperialism of Alexander or of Rome. But to the questions: 'what constitutes progress or decline in general, how do these come about, and how may they be measured?' history returns no answer. These are general hypotheses, utterly unverifiable by observation; that is, they belong to the realm of philosophy, and not to the field of history and social science.

The word 'history' is full of ambiguity, and this is not surprising, because of the various senses in which the word is commonly used. We shall not speak of those to whom the record of the past is quite without meaning, although there is perhaps an increasing number of such. Apart from them, there are many people who regard history as a record once and for all delivered to the saints. For them, this record is sacred, and no considerations of truth are allowed to disturb the source from which they draw nourishment to feed their favourite prejudices. To others, history is merely material for propaganda. Unconscious, perhaps, of the sharp distinction between 'historical' and 'imaginative' literature, or, it may be, despairing of the possibility of an accurate interpretation of the past, they do not hesitate to 'reconstruct' history by the suppression of features which are unpleasant or disagreeable to them; and thus Clio is prostituted to the cause of world-peace, or progress, or whatever worthy or unworthy cause they desire to foster. There are, however, still others who follow Thucydides in regarding history as the diligent and unremitting search for truth, and who combine the most profound respect for the 'facts', in so far as these can be discovered, with the attempt to interpret these facts, as the physician endeavours to interpret the symptoms of his patient. To these history is really the equivalent of political science. In the present chapter we have endeavoured to set forth the method of this science as Thucydides saw it. In subsequent chapters we shall attempt to illustrate the fruits of the method, as he uses it for (a) the prognosis of power (social welfare as realized in state and empire), and (b) the prognosis of weakness, or the pathology of society. Besides illustrating certain results which the scientific method yields, this survey will perhaps serve to demonstrate its limitations, especially in relation to what may be described as the philosophical method of approaching the same profound questions.

John H. Finley Jr. (essay date 1942)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9604

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 on his completed work and, on the other hand, with the complicated and impersonal work itself. But to see exactly how the one set of facts concerning his life and age grew into the other fact which is his History is impossible, because the agent effecting the change, the mind of Thucydides, stands aloof and distant. Hence, if one analyze too much the thought of his age, one neglects the History as an organic whole. But if one be concerned with the History alone, it will seem to exist, as the works of Aristotle long seemed, as something apart from all else, born fully grown. But since this inescapable gulf exists, it must be recognized.…

Like the opening lines of other Greek writings—the swift, majestic introductions to the Iliad and Odyssey or the wonderfully lucent scene at the start of the Republic—[the first sentences of the History] tell much of the work. It will be recalled that after giving his name Thucydides says that he undertook his History because he foresaw, even at the outbreak, that the war would exceed any earlier conflict in importance. It was, he says, the greatest upheaval ever to afflict the Greek world. But it is characteristic of him that, instead of turning at once to the background and causes of the war, he pauses at the beginning to substantiate this first statement by an elaborate study of the remote past.

He does so ostensibly because of the enormous fame of the Trojan War, and the next eighteen sections comprising the so-called Archaeology constitute, so far as form is concerned, not so much an introduction as a digression designed to support his view that the present war was vastly more serious. Such digressions occur frequently in the History, being the one means by which, in the absence of notes or appendices, a mind as sensitive as his to the demands of proof could substantiate its claims. Actually, however, the Archaeology expounds with such sweep and clarity what were to him the basic forces in the development of Greece that it forms an indispensable beginning to the History.

But before turning to the Archaeology it is necessary to say a word or two more of these first sentences. It will be remarked that Thucydides fails to say here that the war which he is about to describe lasted twenty-seven years and included not only the so-called Archidamian War, which came to an end in 421 with the delusive Peace of Nicias, but all the further hostilities down to the final surrender of Athens in 404. He first states this fact in so many words in the so-called second introduction prefaced to the narrative after the Peace of Nicias. The passage begins as follows: "The same Thucydides of Athens set down these events also in order as they occurred, by summers and winters, up to the time when the Lacedaemonians and their allies made an end to the empire of the Athenians and dismantled the long walls and the Piraeus." He then goes on to defend the view that all the hostilities of this twenty-seven year period constituted one war, to reckon exactly how long the war lasted, and to state, in the sentences quoted earlier, that he had lived through it all.

Now his failure to say as much at the start has given rise, in the century that has elapsed since the writings of the Hamburg scholar, F. W. Ullrich [Beiträge zur Erklärung des Thukydides, Hamburg, 1846], to an extended, though (in the opinion of the present writer) largely mistaken, controversy in regard to the composition of the History. The view of Ullrich, revised and restated in a thousand ways by his successors, was that Thucydides wrote the first four and a quarter books of the History in the belief that the war had ended in 421 with the Peace of Nicias, but that he later realized his mistake and, after the end of the war in 404, altered much of what he had written, appending the second introduction in the fifth book to justify his treatment of the whole conflict as one war. Nevertheless, the view continues, he died before completing his revision, and the work that we have contains many early passages harshly and inconsistently juxtaposed beside later passages. To attempt to refute this view in detail, as has been attempted elsewhere, would be a long and perhaps not over-profitable task. Suffice it to say that the main reason for believing that the History was composed not at widely scattered times but essentially at one time after 404 when the outcome of events had become clear, is to be found in its tight, organic development not only of certain leading ideas but of many minor themes as well. That fact, it is to be hoped, will be evident as we go on. That is not to say that Thucydides failed to make use of earlier notes; he inevitably did, and some of these notes may not tally in detail with his final opinions. Moreover, he evidently wrote with some difficulty, perhaps going back at times to insert new passages beside those already written, and he died without completing his work or even fully revising what we have of it. It is generally assumed that the main part of the fifth book and all the eighth book, both of which lack speeches, are particularly incomplete, and the view may be correct, especially for the eighth book, although it seems not impossible that Thucydides may have intended to treat certain years in this unemphatic way, reserving his fullest emphasis for what were to him the great symptomatic events of the war. But in spite of these marks of incompleteness, it nevertheless seems inconceivable that he could have given so searching and so consistent a picture of how and why all the parties to the war (and Athens particularly) acted from first to last as they did, unless he was viewing the war clearly and as a whole. One instinctively assumes so brilliant and closely knit a work to be the product of one period of intense creation, but that assumption appears inescapable when a man's very opinions postulate a full knowledge of events. Would an historian writing, for instance, of Napoleon and Napoleonic France in 1800 at the time of Marengo have seen in the subject exactly what he saw in 1815, after Waterloo? Similarly, could Thucydides, after the Peace of Nicias in 421, have written in such a way of the strength and weakness of Athens that what he wrote then would have tallied exactly with what he wrote seventeen years later? The answer gives the basic grounds for believing in the unity of the History.

But there is another and minor argument to the same effect, which brings us back to the opening sections of the History. It was observed above that the Archaeology is not, properly speaking, an introduction but a digression designed to support Thucydides' initial statements regarding the magnitude of the war. The second introduction is likewise a digression on the idea, tacitly assumed from the first, that all the wars of the period comprised, in fact, a single struggle, and on how long in years, months, and days the struggle lasted. It follows that one need not expect Thucydides to have treated the unity and length of the war at the outset, as he might have, had he been writing a formal introduction. Given his rigorous methods, he would have had to go into these matters in some detail, as is clear from the second introduction, and the place where they properly and conveniently came up was after peace had seemingly been made. Readers who had just lived through the war would meanwhile hardly be uncertain what war he was referring to, and the second introduction cannot have broached an unfamiliar idea. But at the start he was not chiefly concerned with the length of the war as such, which he alludes to merely in passing (for instance, in the aorist of the second sentence—"this was in fact the greatest upheaval," and again in section 23). Absorbed with his initial train of thought and forced by his self-imposed standards to demonstrate its truth exactly, he allows the first three sentences to suffice as an introduction, and plunges at once into the argument, demanded alike by these sentences and by the work as a whole, that the magnitude of any war depends on the contemporary state of material civilization. It may be that, as the rhetorician Dionysius observed, he should have begun by tracing the history of Greece from the remote past to the present, instead of, as he does, dividing the subject between the Archaeology and the Pentecontaëtia, the latter of which, like the former, is simply a confirmatory digression. Had he done so, he would certainly have made a more conventional beginning and might also have described the subject of his work, that is, the twenty-seven years of war, more explicitly. As it was, his pressing analytical mind set itself more searching goals, and these opening sentences stand witness to the fact not that he was ignorant of the length of the war when he wrote them but that the pressure of his thought dictated a procedure which had other merits than simple clarity. Since on any theory much of the first book was written after 404, one might after all assume that he would have revised this opening passage first of all, had he known that it did not phrase his view of the whole struggle.

These remarks do scant justice to the long-standing dispute on the composition of the History, which nevertheless will now be left on one side except as it comes up in passing. What has been said, however, may at least have cast some further light on the mind of Thucydides, as it reveals itself in these first sentences. The pressing succession of clauses, the breadth of the inferences made, the haste with which, having stated his concept of the war, he proceeds to verify it—all bespeak a mind, austere, swift, imperious, absorbed with the causal relation of events. These traits are the more evident if one compare the introduction of Herodotus, "Here are set forth the inquiries of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, [undertaken] in order that the deeds of men should not grow dim with time and that the great and wondrous monuments both of the Hellenes and of the barbarians should not become unrenowned, and also [to narrate] why they fought one another." Herodotus, like Homer, looks to the past, seeking to preserve great deeds from oblivion. He even goes further and, like his predecessor, the geographer Hecataeus, would celebrate also the monuments of men's skill. There is little here of proof, though he later says that he feels obliged to report what he has heard, whether he believes it or not. Thucydides, on the other hand, turns to the past, not (as we have seen) for its own sake, but in order to confirm his views on the present. He does not think of himself as a commemorator; he is not even, like Herodotus, wholly concerned with great events in themselves, but almost equally with their social and political causes. One could go on to contrast the quite different feeling for proof in the two introductions and their dissimilar pace and intensity. But what is perhaps more worth observing is the size, so to speak, of the canvas sketched by the two men. Herodotus will set forth not only a longer past but, geographically, a far wider world. In these reaches, his work may be said to resemble that of Aeschylus, as it does also in its emphasis on the religious and moral import of the events described. Thucydides, on the other hand, gives all but a few pages to the far narrower scene and briefer period of the Peloponnesian War and, even when he digresses, does so to illustrate forces then at work. His breadth is not that of time or space but of representative action and lasting tendency. Thus his work resembles the bounded but intense plays of Sophocles, which take an action at its height and illuminate in swift succession the latent natures of all who are involved in it. Just so, Thucydides takes the states of Greece and, particularly, Athens at their height and reveals in the responses of each to the fierce demands of these twenty years the potentialities long inherent in their ways of life and government.

Something has been said already concerning both the occasion for the Archaeology and the reasoning on which it is based. Formally, this analysis of the weakness of Greece in earlier times justifies Thucydides' claims concerning the magnitude of the present war. His method is to postulate the kind of society that would have been appropriate to men's habits and standards in earlier times, as these were known either by tradition or from surviving literary works. These facts constituted confirmatory pieces of evidence, called by him τεκμήρια or σημεῐα, but his basic reasoning follows the pattern of what is likely or natural. Like the Old Oligarch, he assumes that certain social characteristics necessarily imply a certain form of government.

But more important is the idea of progress to which the Archaeology gives expression. The idea is often said to be foreign to antiquity and was in fact less common than two other attitudes: on the one hand, the sense of decline from a happier past (an attitude natural to such troubled periods as those of Hesiod or of the youthful Horace and Virgil) and, on the other hand, the concept, best expressed by Plato, that societies rise and decline cyclically, as they approximate or depart from the norms of just government. But that Athenians generally should have believed in progress through the great creative period of the mid fifth century is both natural in itself and well attested by our sources. Indeed, as will be discussed later, an optimistic faith in man's developing powers inevitably accompanied the rise of democracy then, as it has in modern times. The tragedians are all concerned with the idea. Aeschylus' Prometheus and Eumenides, Sophocles' great ode on the triumphs of man in the Antigone, the speech of Theseus in Euripides' Suppliants, the lost Palamedes of each of the three dramatists, and the Sisyphus of Critias, all in one way or another betray the sense that modern times surpass all times before. Plato represents the sophist protagoras as discussing the rise of civilization, and the tract On Ancient Medicine traces the slow growth in the art of healing in a critical and even a patronizing spirit. Thucydide's accuracy will therefore hardly be doubted when in the History Pericles too speaks of Athens' achievements as beyond anything ever known, and when Diodotus, in a passage quoted in the last chapter, sketches the evolution of law in much the same spirit as that of the tract On Ancient Medicine. The attitude which Thucydides imputes to these men corresponds exactly to his own in the Archaeology, and there can be no doubt that it reflects the general sense of great contemporary progress that surrounded him in his youth. But when he states a little later that his work will be valuable to future generations because history repeats itself, it is clear that he finally adopted a cyclical view of history very much like Plato's. He had seen the brilliant material progress of Athens checked and squandered, in the course of the war, by a social instability bred of that very progress, and he traces the process of eclipse with an insight which originates, one could almost say, in surprise. The cyclical view of history was virtually forced upon him by events. On both historical and literary grounds, it is therefore extraordinarily apt that, at the very outset of his work when he is about to recreate the state of Greece at the start of the war, he should thus conjure up the idea of progress. The Archaeology explains why, as a young man, he foresaw the magnitude of the war and, by some unconscious process of reversion, may well express much of his earlier reasoning. At least it conveys quite purely that confident admiration for the present which breathes through the Funeral Oration and in contrast to which the later narrative is even darker than it otherwise would be.

The argument of the Archaeology is, in brief, as follows:

In very early times no settled life existed. Men fought over the better land, and since it was not adequately fortified, the weak were constantly forced out. Attica, where the soil was poor, provides the exception proving the rule. For the same people were able to maintain themselves there permanently. In this purely tribal stage, there existed as yet no sense of common Greek nationality. The period came to an end only when Minos, by creating a navy, enforced the conditions of settled life. (That piracy had been extremely common is shown by the fact that in Homer it involves no stigma. In western Greece, where men still carry arms, one sees a living remnant of a way of life once quite general. Indeed, it is not many generations since Athenians gave up carrying arms and assumed luxurious habits of dress and adornment. The Spartans, on the other hand, early adopted the soberer dress common at the present, as well as the fashion of exercising stript. The earlier Greek habits in this connection more resemble the barbarian habits of the present.)

With the naval domination of Minos, men were for the first time sufficiently peaceful to acquire wealth. Instead of living inland through fear of piracy, they now built walls and occupied advantageous positions by the sea. These new foundations, by fostering commerce, further raised the level of civilization, the weak meanwhile submitting to the strong, not only through force but for the sake of profit. Similar financial authority and naval power (not, as has been said, the oaths of the suitors) enabled Agamemnon later to muster the Trojan expedition. Nevertheless, from Homer's catalogue of ships it is evident that this expedition, representing as it did the full power of Greece, fell far below the standard of the present war. (It has, indeed, been assumed from the small remains of Mycenae that Agamemnon's power must have been small, but the inference is incorrect, since the small remains of Sparta would give no indication of her actual power.) The real difficulty of the Trojan expedition was the relative poverty of the times. The Greek force could not be adequately provisioned, and hence a part of it was always foraging away from Troy.

After the Trojan War fell the troubled period of invasions, followed in turn by that of colonization in Ionia and the west, and only gradually were the conditions of settled life restored. With the increase of trade, great advances were made once more, particularly at Corinth, which was very powerful commercially (the trireme was invented there). Somewhat later Samos likewise acquired naval power, and later still the Phocaeans of Massilia, the Syracusans, Corcyreans, and Athenians. These successive navies continued the main source of dominion in Greece, military undertakings being for the most part brief and local. Nevertheless, even these earlier naval developments did not totally fulfil their promise, having been checked, in the case of Corinth, by the rise of the somewhat unadventurous tyrants and, in the case of Samos, by the Persians. Only in Sicily occurred any considerable development of power. Eventually, however, largely through Sparta's efforts, the strength of the tyrants was broken. (Sparta alone maintained her normal form of government continuously and owed her position to that fact.) Finally, after the Persian wars, the naval state of Athens and the military state of Sparta emerged as the dominating forces in Greece. Athens created an empire and Sparta a league of oligarchic cities subordinate, if not tributary, to herself. Whether against each other or their rebellious allies, both states gained great experience in arms during the fifty years before the war.

Such is the argument of the Archaeology, and its insight must strike one as most remarkable. The scheme of historical development is in all essentials that followed today (the chief exception being that Thucy-dides seems to connect the period of invasions with the somewhat later period of colonization). More striking still is the understanding of, earlier society that it reveals. Only very recently has the way of life underlying the early epic poetry of Greece and of modern Europe been looked at with a similar realism. And that Thucydides reached these conclusions from very broken evidence and states them with trenchancy and breadth is doubly remarkable when one considers how glorious the tradition of the Homeric world remained even among his contemporaries. But these merits of the archaeology concern us less than the formative ideas of the History which are first expressed here.

First, there is the concept that settled life and material progress are possible only through political unification, which in practice meant forcible control by some central authority. As Minos and Agamemnon in earlier times delivered Greece from a state of extreme localism and thus created the settled conditions necessary for commerce and the arts of peace, so, it is implied, has Athens, and to an even higher degree. Before Minos only transitory and shifting settlements had existed, but, when he made navigation safe, strong communities grew up in places convenient for trade, and, though this meant that the weak must accept dominion by the strong, they were glad to do so for the higher standard of living which resulted. The expedition that Agamemnon led against Troy was of a size of which only a settled and therefore a centralized society would be capable. Now, in the present war, Sparta pictured herself as the liberator of Greece, that is, the restorer of local independence to the many cities controlled or menaced by Athens. The characteristically Greek desire for autonomy is often and sympathetically portrayed by Thucydides, but the Archaeology, like many following passages, shows that this simple question of independence versus subjection was not, to him, all that was at stake in the war. The great material progress of his time was inconceivable to him as apart from Athens' control of the subject cities. For the Athenian empire, rather than the backward land-states led by Sparta, was the progressive force in the period—how much so appears in his confident belief, to be discussed in the next chapter, that Athens should have won the war easily. In short, in the Archaeology he reads back into the time of Minos and Agamemnon that crucial problem which bewitched all Greek history: how the full sovereignty of smaller states was compatible with unification and progress.

It might be objected that, in assuming that unification could be had only when one strong state exerts its control over others, Thucydides neglects the possibilities of voluntary cooperation. But that issue, to his mind, was dead, at least so far as the Delian League was concerned, since he notes with some bitterness in the Pentacontaëtia that the Ionian states through their own sloth and weakness early surrendered complete leadership to Athens. This disparity in vigor between the Ionians and the Athenians is a crucial and tragic fact of the period. The living issue to Thucydides was, therefore, not the presence or absence of control by Athens, but rather the mildness or despotism of her control, and, as we shall see, one of the central themes of the History concerns exactly this transition from the doctrines of generous leadership enunciated in the Funeral Oration to those of naked absolutism expressed in the Melian Dialogue. Thucydides has often been compared with Machiavelli in his detached and, in some respects, amoral attitude towards power. But he is not Machiavellian in the ordinary sense of the word: that is, he is not solely concerned with the acquisition and the use of power but rather, as the Archaeology shows, with its significance in the history of civilization. For to him power meant unification and unification material progress, and if therefore Athens was in one sense a tyrant city, as her enemies alleged, she was equally the teacher and guide of Greece.

A second idea propounded in the Archaeology which has a vast bearing on the work as a whole concerns the part played by naval power in Greek history. Its early development by Minos and Agamemnon gave rise to the first marked advances in civilization, and it was of equal moment for the rebirth of Greek culture following the period of the invasions. In listing the great navies of Greece in section fourteen Thucydides concludes with the Athenian, mentioning the well-known fact that Themistocles was its originator. Later in the first book he says in so many words that Themistocles, by fortifying the Piraeus and making Athens primarily a naval state, laid the foundations of the empire. It need hardly be said that Pericles continued the work of his predecessor. His strategy in the war was a naval strategy, and his whole policy in transforming Athens into a commercial democracy was based on control of the sea. It follows, therefore, that, to the historian, Themistocles had rediscovered and Pericles reapplied the ancient secret of empire in Greece. But to speak of naval power to any Greek of Thucydides' time was to speak of the lower classes,… and therefore of democracy. "To begin with," says the Old Oligarch [or Pseudo-Xenophon, in his Constitution of Athens,,] "I say that the poorer classes and the demos rightly possess more authority than the well-born and the rich, because it is the demos that rows the ships and makes the city powerful. The pilots, the boatswains, the captains of penteconters, the prowmen, the shipbuilders, these strengthen the city far more than the hoplites, the nobles, and the well-bred." And in fact, of course, Themistocles and Pericles, the proponents of the navy, were likewise the leaders of the popular party. The Old Oligarch is right when he says that the lower classes were politically important in Athens because the empire was based on them. To Thucydides, therefore, the idea of naval supremacy was inevitably associated with that of democracy. He remarks, it will be recalled, that Corinth had earlier failed to fulfil her promise as a naval power because of the cramping policy of the tyrants. One concludes that one reason, to his mind, why Athens had achieved more fully than any earlier state the political and material advances which had always followed from the possession of naval power was to be found in her developed democracy. This line of thought attains its fullest expression in the Funeral Oration, where Pericles finds the key to Athens enormous achievements in the liberated energy of her citizens. More will be said of that later. The important point here is that, in the Archaeology, Thucydides sets the strength of Athens in the perspective of Greek history, and by giving its cause a naval supremacy which in turn implied democracy, raises the fundamental question of his work: namely, how strong the democracy of Athens, the source of her power, was to prove politically.

This point leads to the last of the leading ideas adumbrated in the Archaeology. Thucydides remarks that Sparta, though not a naval state, had nevertheless been extremely strong because of her stable institutions. He notes, however, the old-fashioned simplicity both of Spartan life and of the actual town of Sparta, and over and over again this picture of the city as a stalwart but antiquated force in the Greek world returns. "Your ways are old-fashioned as compared with theirs," say the Corinthians at the assembly of the Peloponnesian League. "But in politics, as in mechanics, the new inevitably displaces the old." It follows from the great importance which Thucydides attached to material progress that he thought Sparta outmoded as a power and no longer fitted for her ancient position of leadership. Indeed, never having been a naval state, she had been strong, to his mind, for no positive reason but for the negative reason that she was well governed when the rest of Greece was under the fettering control of the tyrants. For he expressly says that, in Greek experience, no great empire had ever been founded on land-power. One returns, therefore, to the conclusion reached in the last paragraph, that Athens, whose dominion rested on a basis justified by the whole course of Greek history, should not only have defeated Sparta but have displaced her as the mistress of the Greek world. Nevertheless, he identifies in the Archaeology the one element which was Sparta's strength and was to prove the weakness of Athens: namely, stability of government. As we have seen, the greatness of Athens was, to him, dependent on her being a democracy, not only or chiefly because the poorer classes were the backbone of the fleet but because freedom alone could supply men individually with the self-confidence and vigor which were necessary for the maintenance of Athens' far-flung interests. He was not blind, however, to the weaknesses which could develop in a democracy through popular pressure and under the strain of war. When, therefore, he later finds the cause of Athens' defeat, neither in the strength of her enemies nor in her own lack of resources, but in the mistakes of Pericles' more violent successors, he returns to the same factor to which he had pointed in the Archaeology as the source of Sparta's strength.

The connection between political unity and material progress, the significance in Greek history of naval power (a power best achieved by a democracy), and the importance of stable government, these are the nerves of the History as a whole first revealed in the Archaeology. As a study of the remote past, it is undoubtedly colored by the author's attitude to the present, as all historiography probably is to some extent. Nevertheless, Thucydides transcends the more obvious vices of such an attitude both by the rigor of his methods and by the largeness of the principles which he invokes. There can be little doubt that these principles form part of what he refers to just beyond as the recurrent teachings of history.

We pass now to the famous section which follows on the method and purpose of the work. Just before it, Thucydides restates his belief in the supreme magnitude of the present war and his confidence in the essential picture which he has given of early Greece. This affirmation prompts him to glance, with amusing and quite characteristic irony, at those who easily accept all tradition, even such local and verifiable tradition as that Harmodius and Aristogeiton killed Hippias rather than Hipparchus, or who believe "the poets' gilding songs or what the logographers have written less for the sake of truth than to lend charm to their recitations." This last remark evidently applies to Herodotus, two of whose statements had just been singled out for criticism. "While a war is going on," Thucydides adds, "people always think it the greatest ever to have been fought, but, when it is over, they go back to admiring the past." The scholiast on the digression on the conspiracy of Cylon later in the first book somewhat mysteriously observes, "here the lion laughed," and the remark comes to mind at this and a few other passages where Thucydides finds a dry amusement, not unmixed with annoyance, in the follies of mankind. But whether his strictures of his contemporaries are wholly just may be doubted. At least, Pericles too is made to speak, no doubt authentically, of the supreme brilliance of the present as compared with the past, and even Thucydides' careful methods were by no means alien to the spirit of the time.

The actual statement of his method falls into two parts: first, on what basis he has composed his speeches, and then what evidence underlies his narrative. He concludes by stating the purpose of the History. Something has been said of the passage already, but because of its extreme importance we may here look into it in some detail.

It begins as follows: "As for the speeches delivered by the several statesmen before and during the war, it proved difficult for me to report the exact substance of what was said, whether I heard the speeches myself or learned of them from others. I have therefore made the speakers express primarily what in my own opinion was called for under the successive circumstances, at the same time keeping as close as possible to the general import of what was actually said."

The first thing perhaps that strikes one in these sentences is Thucydides' fundamental desire for accuracy, the same desire which he had expressed in the section preceding and, indeed, from the outset. Nevertheless, because it proved impossible to report the exact substance of what was said … he makes no claim to do so. What he has failed to report seems not entirely clear; presumably, the wording and structure of the originals. It has been suggested [by A. Grosskinsky in his Das Programm des Thukydides (1936)] that he sometimes gives as one speech what was orig-inally two or three speeches, though that may be stretching his words too far. But at least he has given himself a good deal of latitude. For he goes on to say that, though he has kept as close as possible to the general import of what was said (the clause, it should be noted, has a purely secondary, limiting force), he has caused his speakers to say primarily what he himself thought called for at each stage of events. In the phrase "what was called for" (literally "the things necessary,"… ), one obviously reaches the crux of the passage, since this is what the speeches chiefly contain. Unfortunately the connotation of the words is somewhat difficult to fix. Most commentators have given them an entirely political meaning. Speaking later of Themistocles, the historian calls him supremely able to conceive "what was called for"… and, from the context, he is evidently thinking of Themistocles' ability to see the decisive elements in any practical situation. Hence the words presumably have the same meaning here. Thucydides therefore means that he has set forth in any given speech those broad considerations, political, social, historical or even psychological in character, on which, to his mind, the choice of policy at a given moment depended. In other words, the speeches contain an analysis of the principal factors in the war, as these appeared at different times to the leaders of the several states or to opposing leaders in any one state. The speeches, therefore, are in no sense detailed copies of actual speeches; for, if they had been, they would not have contained Thucydides' own estimate of a situation. On the other hand, neither do they set forth his personal views; otherwise they would not have been limited to the standpoint of the actual speakers. They may be described as expounding what Thucydides thought would have seemed to him the factors in a given situation, had he stood in the place of his speakers.

But a further point of interpretation remains which does not alter so much as clarify the meaning of the passage: namely, the rhetorical connotation which the words "what was called for,"… had for him. In speaking of Themistocles in the passage just cited, he expresses his amazement at the sheer genius whereby, without any formal training and on the spur of the moment, he could see and expound "what was called for,"… that is, as we have seen, the decisive elements in a situation (which are further defined just before as having to do with the probable future course of events). Thucydides' astonishment is the more striking because both Pericles and Antiphon are later said to have had the same ability. Thucydides uses virtually the same words of the three men, except that in the case of the latter two he expresses no surprise. Anti-phon the professional rhetorician and Pericles the friend of sophists and philosophers were clearly not untrained as speakers, and their powers of estimating and expounding the elements of a situation were therefore admirable but not astonishing, whereas Themistocles' similar powers seemed almost incredible. A few other passages bear on the question. Gorgias in the Helen appears to use τό δεον to describe a speaker's reasoning, and in Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates is about to analyze the speech just read to him, he clearly refers to its argumentation as opposed to its language in Thucydides' manner by the words τὰ δεοντα. But a final passage from the History is more informative, that at the end of the present paragraph where he says that his work will set forth the nature of coming events. Now the untutored Themistocles is said to have seen just that. "He was," says the historian, "a supreme judge of present policies and supremely able to conjecture what would ensue even in the distant future." And Pericles, it has already been said, is expressly praised for his foresight; indeed, the History largely concerns how correct that foresight was. When therefore, on the one hand, both these men are said to have had foresight and to have expounded ["what was called for"] and, on the other hand, the History as a whole is to set forth the nature of future events and the speeches to contain [the term "what was called for"], it follows that [the words "what was called for"] are the instruments of conveying the tendencies of society and human nature on which alone foresight can be based. But, as we saw, it seemed in the highest degree surprising that Themistocles should have been aware of these deep recurrent elements in experience which permit foreknowledge. Therefore knowledge of them must have been gained after his time, and, since that knowledge is used in speaking, it can hardly be dissociated from the sophistic movement. Accordingly, it seems clear, [the words "what was called for"] have a partly rhetorical connotation.

Here it is necessary to recall what was said in the last chapter: namely, that the sophistic arguments from likelihood, from expedience, and from the law of nature were more than mere tools of persuasion. They seemed to provide a searching (one had almost said, a scientific) insight into human nature. The grip of the sophists on the thought of the later fifth century is hardly to be explained on any other assumption. These arguments, moreover, appeared the more valuable because they were wholly directed to the practical tasks of speaking and hence of government. Sophistic rhetoric had arisen because, in the changed conditions of the time, it seemed to furnish speakers with the means of estimating human conduct and calculating the probable course of events. It was not, therefore, as we tend to think that rhetoric is, an art of adornment unconnected with thought; it was as much concerned with thought as with expression, uniting both into an effective, practical instrument. When, therefore, Thucydides says that he has caused his speakers to say "what was called for," using the term in a half-rhetorical sense to signify the main lines of reasoning possible under various circumstances, that does not mean that he is not also using the words in the political sense described above. So completely was rhetoric the vehicle of political thought. The fact that the term ["what was called for"] had to him only one meaning, whereas we can detect two, shows rather how exclusive an instrument of political analysis the argumentation of his time seemed to him to be.

This profound validity which he felt that argumentation to possess in many ways gives the key to his speeches. One can say that they are in purpose something like the Tetralogies of Antiphon: that is, compressed examples of the reasoning to be followed under different circumstances, though they are at the same time more than that, because they both convey the point of view of actual speakers and are the main means of presenting the compelling forces in the history of the time. It is as if Thucydides had made a virtue of a necessity by saying that, if his speeches could not have the merit of exact truth, they would at least have the merit of clarifying the main reasons for events. And since his work as a whole is to acquaint men with the recurrent forces in history, then the speeches became to him the main means to that end. It is in this way that he effects the union between the specific and the generic which was referred to in the last chapter as vital to his thought. Doubtless such other passages as the Archaeology or the description of the revolutionary mind likewise do so; doubtless also the prognostic value of the book lies to some extent in the mere pattern of the events which it describes. Nevertheless, the arguments of the speeches, precisely because they embody that searching and realistic estimate of human behavior introduced by the sophists, must have been to Thucydides the primary link between his narrative and what he considered its deeper teachings.

A few final deductions concerning the speeches thus become possible. In the first place, because they embody arguments of a fundamental character, they may be expected to play an organic, even an interrelated, part in the work as a whole. It will appear in the following chapters that many speeches look to one another and that in some Thucydides even violates reality by ascribing to one speaker a knowledge of what another was even then saying some distance away. The fact should not be surprising, since, granted the searching nature of the arguments, the speeches naturally possess a significance in some sense transcending their immediate circumstances. At the same time, many speeches appear in pairs, partly because they reflect actual debates, but partly also because the coupling of arguments more clearly reveals their contrasting implications. As we saw, this form of antithetical debate had a strong influence on fifth-century thought from the time of Protagoras on. But if these tendencies inherent in the nature of Thucydides' arguments seem to rob the speeches of veracity, there are other and strong considerations to the contrary. For if the sophistic arguments were in any sense as widely known as has been represented, then they constitute in themselves strong proof of his veracity. The many correspondences between the speeches and the actual writings of the years in question prove, if they prove anything, that his concept of oratory was formed in the very period of which he wrote and thus, in the main, well represents the manner of speaking then common. That may not be the case, to be sure, of speeches delivered by Spartans, Corinthians, Syracusans, and others. These men actually spoke in their own dialects and, though we know little on the subject, were presumably less versed than Athenians in the contemporary forms of argument. But, as will appear in a later chapter, Athenians at least probably did not vary enormously in their manner of oratory. Lysias had not as yet evolved his concept that the style should be suited to the speaker, nor had Plato and Isocrates advanced their more complex theories of style and argumentation. Rather, these men thought of the oratory that preceded them as rigid and uniform. If, then, the speeches do occasionally violate reality and fulfil a larger function of contrast and interpretation in the work as a whole, they can be fundamentally veracious, at least in the case of Athenians. That is merely to say that we are dealing here with two kinds of veracity: the one of circumstance, the other of outlook and attitude. The former Thucydides sometimes violated, though even here one must remember that he kept to the import of what was actually said. The latter he maintained, because he could not by his nature be unveracious but, even more, because he was raised in the same tradition of oratory as his Athenian speakers.

Finally, the speeches have a value quite relative to the speakers and the circumstances, and their deeper meaning (so Thucydides seems to suggest) will be apparent only to readers gifted with political insight. The first point is obvious, though sometimes neglected. For when he expressly limits himself to the points of view actually advanced by the several speakers, he is evidently committed to giving their judgment, not his own. Thus it is incorrect to read his approval into all the opinions advanced in the History; in fact, it is impossible, since the frequent pairing of speeches means that they convey opposite opinions. How, then, may one penetrate this enigmatic surface and find what Thucydides considered the core of truth beneath? The answer is not easy; for one must remember that, whatever their deeper meaning, the speeches always and primarily recreate an actual dilemma which confronted statesmen at a given time and of which none of them could know the solution. Quite as much as the characters of tragedy, Thucydides' speakers face an uncertain future and reveal their wisdom or their folly by the course which they advocate. This plan, strange to our conception of history, undoubtedly seemed natural to him (he probably imagined no other), precisely because he wished to reconstruct the actual course of events, believing that only from reality could any permanent lesson be drawn. The reader, then, is much in the position of the speakers, since he too must decide at any given moment which course is desirable. Yet, needless to say, he is more fortunate; for the later narrative quickly shows the result of earlier decisions, and Thucydides also does not entirely withhold his own judgment. Such passages as the Archaeology, the statement of the causes of the war, the appraisal of Pericles, and the description of the war's brutalizing effect, definitely express the historian's own views and, by so doing, offer a standard by which to interpret the speeches. For instance, we have already seen that, in the Archaeology, Thucydides states the prime importance both of empire and of naval power in Greek history and also that the latter idea is inseparable from his concept of democracy as the energizing force which made Attic naval power possible. When therefore Pericles, held up as an example of foresight, explains the function both of the Athenian navy and of democracy, one is justified in believing that his views coincide with the historian's. Or conversely, after Thucydides has sketched the brutalizing effect of war, it is incorrect to conclude that the doctrine of naked power advanced in the Melian Dialogue represents his views. It merely pictures views then actually held by the speakers. But such interpretations of the meaning of the History must be reserved for the next chapters. Here it is merely necessary to see that the speeches have a value relative to the speakers and to the stage of the conflict which they represent, and that only the course of the war, coupled with Thucydides' direct statements, can show which speeches convey his own judgment. But in this fact probably inheres what he considered the usefulness of his book. He himself analyzes some of the forces at work in the war, concurs in the judgment of certain of his speakers, but in all cases, whether he considered his speakers wise or foolish, shows the larger reasons on which their policies were based. He expects that his readers will be men of political interests faced with analogous problems in the future, and he leaves a manual of statecraft for their use.

It remains, then, to speak of the final sentences in the paragraph on his method. Having described the speeches and stated that detailed accuracy cannot be expected in them, he goes on to say that in his narrative, on the other hand, he has spared no effort to achieve complete fidelity. "As for the events of the war, I did not consider it proper to report them on the information of any chance witness, but [I have reported] only what I myself saw or learned from others, after testing their information in detail with the greatest possible care. The truth was hard to discover because reports of the same event by different witnesses were not identical but varied with the observer's memory or bias."

In the narrative then, if not in the speeches, Thucydides has maintained an ideal of absolute and rigidly tested truth. It is interesting to observe his method as he expresses it here. Negatively, he has avoided Herodotus' practice of reporting any chance story. Positively, he relies either on his own personal observation or on the tested reports of witnesses, presumably several in each case, since the variation in their reports much impressed him. These informants were men from both sides. So much appears from his previously mentioned statement in the fifth book to the effect that his exile had the advantage of enabling him to talk with the enemy. His difficulties as well as the resource with which he met them are illustrated in another passage of the fifth book, where, after telling how the Spartans with characteristic secretiveness concealed their numbers at the battle of Mantinea, he goes on to analyze the organization of the Spartan army and thus to achieve a fairly exact reckoning.

His extraordinary care in gathering less important details could be illustrated from many passages such as the following from the account of the Ambracian army in the second book: "Their barbarian contingents consisted of a thousand Chaonians who, being a people without kings, were lead by Photius and Nicanor, the members of the ruling house who enjoyed the magistracy for that year. With them came the Thesprotians, also a kingless people. The Molossians and Atitanians were commanded by Sabylinthus, the guardian of the King Tharyps who was still a child, and the Parauaeans by their King Oroedus." Another type of passage shows his interest in geographical facts learned presumably either by his own efforts or from works on the subject: for instance, the following on the army of the Thracian King Sitalces: "His rule extended, in the direction of the independent Paeonians, as far as the Paeonic Laeaeans and the Strymon river, which flows from Mount Scombrus through the territory of the Laeaeans and the Agriani. In the direction of the Triballi, likewise independent, the boundary is formed by the Treres and Tiltari who live to the north of Mount Scombrus extending westward as far as the river Oscius. The latter rises in the same mountains as the Nestus and the Hebrus, a huge deserted range adjoining Rhodope." When one reflects how constantly such details are given and what care was demanded in acquiring them, their unobtrusive presence in the History inspires unfailing amazement. Like the more important facts, such as the names of generals and the number of troops at crucial engagements or the exact wording of treaties, they reveal how seriously the preceding statement on the accuracy of the narrative was meant.

But one other point of some importance for his narrative must be mentioned in this connection, namely, his system of chronology. Confronted as he was with a variety of calendars in use in the various Greek states (the official Attic year beginning in midsummer, the Spartan in the autumn, and so on) and with the additional difficulty that these calendars, being based on lunar months, varied markedly from year to year, he abandoned them entirely. Or rather, he used them just once to fix the outbreak of the war with reference to the official Attic and Spartan years and to the list of priestesses in the temple of Hera at Argos. Thereafter he calculated by years of the war, which he subdivided in turn into a winter and a summer season. Within these subdivisions he is often more precise, dating events as near the beginning or end, at the early harvest or late vintage. On the other hand, his system precludes his giving exact dates, forcing him to fix events primarily by their sequence. It need hardly be said that such a system hampers his narrative. The description of the long siege of Plataea, for instance, thus falls under three separate years. But he adopted it consciously and doubtless with a full understanding of its limitations. Thus when he finds fault with the chronology of Hellanicus, it is quite evident that he thinks his own standards far superior. At the same time, when he confesses in the final sentence of the present section that his work will be less attractive, because less fabulous, than those of his predecessors, one concludes that he realized well how cramping these same standards were, even as they revealed themselves in his chronology. Nevertheless, his satisfaction in his system is very great. He several times points out that it enabled him to achieve more reliable reckonings than any which might have been based on official calendars. In short, his chronology reflects the same ideal of accuracy that is expressed in this whole section and revealed in great and small ways throughout the book. And if such details, whether of fact or of chronology, sometimes break the thread of important happenings, they supplied, he undoubtedly felt, the sole basis for any larger estimate of the war. They also reveal a side of his mind which was concerned not with judgment but with fact alone.

The section concludes with words as famous as any in the History: "The absence of the fabulous will, I fear, detract from the charm of my work. But if it be found useful by those who wish to know the exact nature of events that once took place and, by reason of human nature, will take place again in similar or analogous form, that is enough. My work has been composed, not for the applause of today's hearing, but as a possession forever." The first sentence repeats his passionate contempt for those who found fable easier than truth and the past greater, because more golden, than the present. The second states his belief that history is both useful and scientific: useful, because posterity will find in the experience of the past some indication of the forces at work in their own day; scientific, because those forces are implicit in human nature and, as such, can be studied and recorded as something quite permanent.

This view, as we have seen, reflects a characteristic attitude of the Greek mind, an attitude which found truth neither in divine revelation nor in the purely material aspects of nature but rather in the observed traits of human character and the lasting tendencies of society. More particularly, the statement embodies a new sense which came into being in the latter half of the fifth century that conduct is predictable, that men of a certain sort tend to act in a certain way, that certain conditions will always produce certain results; in sum, that human nature too is subject to almost mechanistic laws. What those laws are can perhaps hardly be defined exactly. In reading the History, one feels that Thucydides was constantly trying to reduce the movements of society to some clear, orderly pattern, but that this pattern, suggested over and over again by recurrent themes and repeated situations, in the end always eluded him. That is not to say that he does not state what were to him the compulsive forces in the war. We have already observed in connection with the Archaeology what he considered some of these forces to be, and others will emerge in coming chapters. But over and above these specific tendencies, there is the sense that the social, as much as the individual, organism acts as a unit following the laws of its being, and perhaps the subtlest charm of Thucydides is constantly to suggest, if not to define, these laws. Especially do the speeches, as has been said, serve this end. The searching commentaries which they give on social and individual conduct seem to lay bare the guiding nerves beneath events. That the thought and oratory of the time had, generally speaking, a similar object has already been argued. There can at least be no doubt that Thucydides, imbued as he was with the new teachings of the sophists, rested his work squarely on his estimate of human nature …, and predicted eternal usefulness for it because human nature in its cyclical course would forever bring back similar situations. At the same time, to his view, his work could not fulfil this function were it not absolutely truthful. Accuracy, congenial to him in itself, ultimately subserved this long-term object. Conscious then of these two merits, fidelity and depth, he makes the single boast of the History, a boast as Olympian as his usual reticence, that he has composed his work not for a day, but forever.

A. W. Gomme (essay date 1945)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7095

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 opening chapters he lays more stress on it than on anything else, both in general (e.g. 2. 2-4, 7. 1) and for particular states, as Athens (2. 5) and Corinth (13. 5), and particular events, as the Trojan war (II). But he does not give a general survey of economic conditions in Greece in the last third of the fifth century, because it would be familiar to his readers (it is a little absurd to complain, as we do by implication, that he did not foresee his modern readers, that he did not foresee the course which European history was to take after the conquests of Alexander and the Romans as one result of which he was to become a 'classical writer' in the modern sense); he does not describe the importance of the independent small-farmer class in nearly every Greek state, especially in Athens, most of the Peloponnese, and Boeotia; of the large land-owners in Thessaly; of the presence of an indigenous serf-class in Lakonia, Argos, and Thessaly, and its absence in Athens; of the commercial and industrial development in Corinth, Athens, and Syracuse, and the consequent great increase in the non-indigenous slave population and in the number of foreign free men, nor the apparently peculiar conditions in a few states such as Chios and Kerkyra with their large numbers of slaves—not serfs— working on the land. He understood such things, and frequently mentions economic factors which directly affected the conduct of the war (and which are so closely bound up with strategy that they will be best dealt with in the next section). But he gives no survey of the whole such as we should have welcomed. How much we should have welcomed it can be seen by one instance. Many modern scholars have thought that the economic factor was an important, or the principal, cause of the Peloponnesian war itself; Thucydides did not—he supposed a political cause. The moderns may be right and Thucydides wrong, though it is quite a mistake to suppose that he misunderstood the matter because he knew nothing of economic factors in history; but how much more intelligently we should have been able to discuss the question, if Thucydides had himself supplied us with the data. We have not, however, any right to claim that he ought to have done: the general conditions of Greek economy were simple and known to his readers.


In practically all land-wars between Greek states previous to the Peloponnesian war, and in most of them after it, victory and defeat depended on the issue of a battle on level ground between two armies of hoplites, with occasionally some cavalry to play a minor, defensive part—to hinder an outflanking movement and to cover a retreat. This is at once a paradox in a land so mountainous as Greece, where level ground is hard to get at, a land one would have thought made for mountain-fighting by quick-moving light-armed infantry. The Aitolians, who in the greater part of their lands had no plains, were masters of this kind of warfare, which was completely effective against hoplites, as the Athenians on one occasion discovered; just as, at the other extreme, the Thessalians knew how to defend their wide plains with cavalry, which was almost as effective. But the great majority of states relied almost exclusively on a hoplite army, large or small according to the size of the state, and fought in the small plains. Hoplites, with good defensive armour and with offen-sive weapons for hand-to-hand fighting only, must fight in close formation, must maintain their cohesion; the best trained of them preserved best a kind of parade-ground stiffness; hence they could only fight on level ground. Attempts at more open fighting by hoplites were generally failures (cf. Thuc. iv. 129; Polyb. xi. 15. 7-16. 5, a notable instance); even a small break in the level could disturb their ranks … so they chose the plain. But that does not explain why no state with a plain to defend developed a light-armed force to attack enemy hoplites in the hills before they reached the plain. Demosthenes, after his defeat in Aitolia, made good use of his experience when he fought the Spartans on Sphakteria with his light-armed troops; but this had little effect on the military organization of Athens or of any other state. Even after the spectacular success of Iphikrates in the fourth century, the old methods in essentials were continued.

[G. B] Grundy, in the ninth and tenth chapters of his Thucydides, has discussed the problem at length. He points out that the immediate cause of the preference for hoplite-fighting in the plains was economic. In the ordinary warfare between neighbouring states, waged in spring and early summer, the essential thing for the invaded state was to defend its crops, particularly its corn, on which it depended for the ensuing year. Every state, even every inland state, was not necessarily self-supporting in its food-supply (cf. i. 120. 2); but it depended to a large extent on its own crops. Hence the battle to protect them; hence also the decisive nature of the one battle—if the defending state won it, it had saved its means of life, and the war was over unless it wished to retaliate. If the invading state won it, it could, more or less, dictate terms; for its army could quickly destroy or carry off the enemy's corn. The problem for the invading state was to destroy the enemy's harvest without losing a large part of its own through taking away the farmers from their fields for the invasion; hence generally an invasion before harvest time with a view to the destruction rather than the capture of the enemy's crops, and the necessity for a quick decision so that the men can get back in time for their own harvest. That was one of the causes of the superiority of the Spartan army. Sparta possessed—for Greece— abundant and very fertile land; but her citizens did not have to farm it themselves; that was done for them by the helots, and the citizens were free to indulge not only in a more intensive military training than was possible for others, but in warfare in seasons that were very inconvenient for the enemy, and for longer periods. Only the contingent of Perioikoi in her army consisted of men who were normally employed in productive work. Athens equally with Sparta was capable of conducting prolonged campaigns, but for a different reason. The Peloponnesians would be able to invade Attica and destroy the crops, even perhaps at their leisure vines and olive-trees and buildings—a much more serious matter, for they represented capital, and would take years to replace—but the Athenians were not dependent on these for food; the country people could withdraw every year within the walls, and so long as they controlled the sea they could import what they wished—not food only, but timber for the fleet with which to control the sea—so long also as they had money to buy the food and timber, or goods to give in exchange for them. Hence the importance to Athens of her accumulated capital and her manufacturing industry. This ability of both Sparta and Athens to wage a long war (though Sparta was badly handicapped by her allies …), and the very different causes of this ability are the principal matter of difference between the Peloponnesian and all previous Greek wars, as Thucydides, always alive to the economic factor, brings out clearly in the first book, in the speeches at the conferences at Sparta and in that of Perikles. His contemporary, the Old Oligarch, in his superficial way, or in spite of it, also shows appreciation of the good economic position of Athens, and of its effects in a war against a Greek land-power.

The above explanation, however, of the ordinary Greek preference for hoplite warfare, correct enough as far as it goes, does not really solve the problem. It explains why Tegea or Elis or Argos must defend her plains against the Spartan invader, and cannot, like the Athenians, retire behind impregnable walls; but it does not answer the question, why were not the strategy and the tactics of mountain warfare by light-armed troops developed in order to prevent the invasion reaching the plains? Almost every state had a mountain barrier easily (one would have thought) defensible against hoplites, if we bear in mind the vulnerability of hoplites on rough ground. It is not that the passes are in themselves very difficult to cross, from spring to autumn: those over Täygetos and into Arkadia from north and east are the most difficult in the Peloponnese; but they are no ground for hoplites against active light-armed, and in many of them there are long distances in which marching must be in single file. Nor do any passes in Greece (except in the north-west over the Pindus) stand alone—they can be turned by not-distant alternative routes; but again, light-armed men can change direction quicker than hoplites. Yet we hardly ever hear in Greek history of a defensive use of mountain country to prevent invasion. Lamachos, in the Acharnians (1073-7), is ordered to the hills, and in winter, but to stay a border-raid, not an army; hence the order was necessary in winter as well as in summer; Lamachos' force was to act in the same way as cavalry in the plains when the enemy was in Attica. Thucydides tells us that in 457 the Spartan army in Boeotia could not get home because an Athenian fleet patrolled the gulf of Corinth (across which they had arrived in central Greece) and Athenian forces held Megara and Pegai, δύσοδός τε γὰρ ή Γερανεἱα κεὶ εϕρουρεῖτο αἰεὶ ὑπό Ἀήηναἱων (i. 107. 3). This looks like a sensible defensive policy, which could be used against the Peloponnesians coming from the south as from the north. This particular line was lost when Megara was lost; but the next, that between Megara and Eleusis, was almost as defensible, yet was never defended, not even, as far as we know, used to harry and delay, if not to stop, an invading force. Argos has a fine natural barrier against Sparta both on the south-west and on the west (if the Spartans advanced through Arkadia); but in the many wars between these two states the battles were all fought by hoplites in the plains. The classic example of the use of a narrow pass by the Greeks, Thermopylai, is the exception which proves the rule. This was narrow, so that a small army could defend it with no danger of being outflanked, or surrounded, provided the sea was safe and the mountains on the south adequately guarded; but it was level, and had room enough for hoplites to move, and a wall across it, like the Isthmus at Corinth, which hoplites could defend; it was not defended by light-armed mountaineers. The pass at Parapotamioi between Phokis and Boeotia was another of the same kind, though nothing like so easily defensible; so was the position at Mantineia in 362, and that at Chaironeia taken by the Greeks in 338. But when the Greeks were driven out of Thermopylai and had to retreat to Attica, they did not defend the passes over Kithairon and Parnes; they relied on their fleet. In the fourth century, and to some degree in the fifth, Athens had an elaborate system of frontier forts, from Eleusis to Rhamnous; but they were not intended to stop, hardly even to delay, an invading hoplite army.

I believe that the reason for the failure to develop a true mountain strategy was social and political rather than economic. Light-armed troops, able to fight in more open formation than hoplites, every man therefore more independent of his fellows, and to move rapidly from one threatened pass to another, if they were to be generally effective and not only in special circumstances, in Aitolia or Sphakteria or pursuing the dispirited Athenian hoplites retreating from Syracuse, needed a more prolonged and thorough training than the Greek states, other than Sparta, wished for their citizens; they must be almost a professional army, or rather there must be at least a cadre of professional officers, and so an officer class (corresponding both to our commissioned and our non-commissioned officers), a thing no Greek state (except Sparta in her own way) wanted or thought of. I am not among those who think the hoplite armies only half-trained militia. For their own purposes, that is, tactically in pitched battles, as heavy-armed, slow-moving troops, fighting in close formation, they were most of them admirably trained, as they showed on many occasions, against foreign troops, Persian, Macedonian, or Keltic, as well as in Greek wars; and against the weapons of the light-armed, arrows, javelins, and stones, they were, on their own ground, invincible. But the Greeks were not strategically well trained; for that professional officers are necessary. For ordinary hoplite fighting the Greeks, especially the farmer class, were prepared to undergo the training that was necessary, and to fight for their country when invaded. In spite of their many wars, they never regarded warfare as anything but a tragic interruption of ordinary life; it was not something permanent, a continuous activity, and so did not require a professional skill and a hierarchy of officers (contrast Sparta, v. 66. 3). Moreover, the hoplite system was in all states, for the hoplite class, a thoroughly democratic one; and the fact that every man could supply his own armour and weapons—for sword, shield, and buckler are not rapidly consumed like arrows and javelins, shells and bullets, and each man has his own, whereas guns and tanks must belong to an army— helped the Greek view of the relationship of the citizen to the State: a citizen contributed to the needs of the state when called upon, he was not taxed by a superior government; and there was no need for the state to possess a large store of arms which might fall into the hands of ambitious men and be as dangerous to normal well-ordered public life as (it was felt) would be a professional military class. So no well-organized light-armed force was ever formed by any Greek state: in those in which the hoplite class was predominant, light-armed fighting, such as it was, was left to the very poor, landless men, despised and neglected; in Athens, after the hoplites and the poorer classes had been merged politically into one demos and when the navy was organized, it was the poor who served as rowers—partly no doubt at first because, before the new naval tactics were developed, rowing was despised (and was never very desirable), partly because the poor could not contribute their own weapons and the state (of course) must supply the ships and their oars; and even in Athens, after the complete triumph of the radical democracy, both the social and the military distinction between the hoplite and the thetic classes survived. Sparta, with the leisure for a professional army, could doubtless have trained a light-armed corps had she wished; but so long as her rivals were content with hoplites, she had but little need for them. With her strong hoplite force she was in little danger of invasion; and there were no enemy light-armed to prevent her crossing her own mountain frontiers whenever she liked.

Nor did the Greeks in Thucydides' day possess a cavalry technique. This, however, is not surprising when we consider the nature of the country, unsuitable most of it both to the breeding of horses—of cavalry horses at least—and to their use. Most states, including Sparta before 424 (iv. 55. 2), had no cavalry; Athens and Boeotia had small forces. These were used at home to prevent raiding beyond the enemy's armed camp (i. 111. 1, ii. 22. 2, iii. 1. 2), in enemy country to make a raid; in pitched battles they were present on the wings, to harry an outflanking movement (especially against the left wing) and to hinder pursuit (v. 67. 1, 2, 73. 1), seldom for a decisive action (iv. 93. 4, 94. 1, 96. 5 with n.). Even in Thessaly, with its fine horses and its knightly ruling class, the cavalry, good as it was, could not defeat infantry: they could only confine it to narrow quarters, though for defensive purposes this might be decisive, for it could prevent raiding for supplies (i. 111. 1; cf. Xen. Hell. iv. 3. 3-8). Alexander the Great was the first to develop effective cavalry tactics. We must remember as well that in Greece the cavalry too was, within its class, democratic: officers and men were alike gentlemen.

Of this matter of supplies for an army we hear little in Greek historians. Campaigns were normally expected to be short; an invading army took a few days' rations with them, and for the rest expected to get their food either from a friendly city used as a base or by raiding the enemy. The Plataia campaign of 479, in which we hear of a supply convoy from the Peloponnese (Hdt. ix. 39. 2, 50), was exceptional: not only was the Greek army many times larger than the average, but their position on the northern slopes of Kithairon, with the enemy in possession of Boeotia, allowed them no supplies on the spot, and the country immediately behind them, Attica, had been denuded. When an elaborate campaign like that to Sicily was planned, arrangements for supplies were made both by the state and by private individuals (vi. 44. 1; cf. 31. 5); and doubtless similar things were done for other less important but distant expeditions. Even so, not only purchase and requisition, but foraging and raiding by the soldiers themselves were necessary, with fatal consequences often not only to the raiders but to the discipline of the main forces. The classical example of such ill consequences is Aigospotamoi; where we must blame the generals, not for letting the crews on shore—that was necessary—nor for the foraging as such—some forces must go for supplies—but for keeping no proper watch and neglecting discipline.

There is another apparent paradox in Greek warfare in the fifth century—the primitive nature of their methods of siege; but in this case the paradox is more easily explained. It was due to two causes. The first was the immense superiority of the defensive weapon, the wall whether of stone or mud-brick, over the offensive—javelins, arrows, or hand-worked battering-rams. Even in the fourth and third centuries when engines of attack had been elaborated, such as high towers from which men could shoot at the defenders, and a sort of artillery—cross-bows that fired iron bolts and large stones—the defensive was uppermost; for the 'firing' was all at short range and the engines and towers, to be movable, must be of wood, and an energetic defence could set them on fire. Mining was used to sap foundations; but counter-mining was as easy. Neither Philip nor Demetrios Poliorketes was successful in assaults on well-defended towns, Perinthos, Byzantion, Rhodes; and neither Philip nor Alexander, neither Demetrios nor his son Antigonos, tried to take Athens by assault. There was only one effective method of taking a walled town, properly defended, by assault—a reckless expenditure of human life. Apart from the use of such siege-engines as were available, walls could be scaled by ladders; but here the defence had a great advantage—it could concentrate on the points of attack, and a handful could resist a large number; unless the attack had a great superiority in numbers and was prepared for heavy losses, it could not succeed against resolute men. This was the method successfully used by the Carthaginians in Sicily at the end of the fifth century; and it succeeded largely by its novelty; it took the Greeks entirely by surprise. We are reminded of the success of the Japanese in the Russian war of 1904: it had been supposed that the machine-gun had established the superiority of the defence over attack once more; and the Russians had not calculated on the reckless disregard of life by the Japanese. This method was not available to the Greek states with their small populations; success would have been much too dearly bought—we must remember what a large proportion of citizens were in the fighting line. This is the second cause for the Greek failure in siege operations. So that a defence properly organized was always successful so long as food and water lasted (no large supply of munitions was necessary when men fought mainly with swords); occasionally a place was taken by a sudden surprise attack; but the only sure way of taking a walled town was by a long siege which reduced it by hunger. A proper defence could be managed by but a small body of men (the siege of Plataia, described in detail by Thucydides, is the extreme instance in Greek history), or by the older and less active or inexperienced citizens (i. 93. 6, ii. 13. 7). All this is easily to be understood; and the only matter for wonder is on occasion the very great disproportion of numbers, as at Plataia, and the fact that surprise was not more often attempted—for example, why did not the Athenians, under the command of Alkibiades, ever try on some fine winter's night to capture Dekeleia? One can imagine Demosthenes making the attempt.

A walled city therefore with access to the sea and to supplies from the sea was practically impregnable, as Athens proved to be throughout her history from the building of the long walls to 262 B.C. SO long as she or her allies could use the sea; and Megara and Patrai were similarly made impregnable while they were allied with Athens (i. 103. 4, v. 52. 2). If the state attacking a coastal city itself commanded the sea, it would demand that the wall on the sea side be destroyed or in its permanent possession, as the Athenians at Poteidaia (i. 56. 2, n.) and Demetrios at Athens in 294, to avoid the necessity of a siege; the wall on the land side would be preserved for defence, as by the Athenians at Teos (viii. 16. 3).

To reduce a town by hunger, however, would in most cases take many months and even years; and the Greeks were as little reckless of time as of lives; to have a great part of the citizen population away for long periods meant too great a loss of production at home. This difficulty, however, could be largely overcome. The besieging army built a wall round itself (of earth or stone according to circumstances), between its lines and the city-wall; behind this it could defend itself as effectively against sorties by the besieged as the latter could against assault by the besiegers. Hence but a small number of men could be left to hold this besieging wall, and it was the regular practice for the main part of the attacking army to leave after this wall had been built (Poteidaia, i. 65. 3; Plataia, ii. 77. I, 78. 2; Skione, iv. 133.4; cf. Dekeleia, vii. 27. 3). This helps to explain why in 458 the Athenians could only send their reserve forces against Corinth when they had just commenced the siege of Aigina and had their main army there and in Egypt, while in the next summer, though Aigina had not yet fallen, they could send such large forces to fight at Tanagra and Oinophyta (i. 105. 3-4, 107. 5-108. 4; cf. also nn. on 110. I, 4). If the besieging army was in danger of attack from without as well as from the besieged city, it would build a double wall and encamp within it; if the enemy secured something like command of the surrounding country the besiegers became literally the besieged (the Athenians before Syracuse, vii. II. 4).

If the siege was by both land and sea, conditions were only slightly altered: the land force of the besiegers built their wall round the land side of the town, and the fleet had or could have a palisade on or near the shore behind which the ships could retire as well as one round its camp on land as a protection against raids (Mytilene, Syracuse); the only difference lay in the fact that the section of the fleet which was actually patrolling the sea had necessarily no external protection (Samos, i. 116. 2-3, 117. I).

Of naval warfare there is less to be said. Of the general principles of naval strategy, the advantages of seapower, the ability for example of the state which holds it to attack where it will, and at a distance from home, Thucydides gives no systematic account, though he mentions much by the way. In tactics, on the other hand, development had been so rapid and so recent that he everywhere explains them fully; and for general conditions we need to keep in mind but two things, which I have illustrated elsewhere: that the trireme was a lightly built vessel, designed primarily for manaeuvre in battle, not for voyages, and for drawing up on shore; and that with its total complement of nearly two hundred men, it was not possible to provide much storage space for food and drink nor sleeping quarters. In the ordinary way, therefore, except on journeys of extreme urgency, the trireme, unlike the merchant vessel, must put in to shore every evening; only a day or two's supply of food could be carried, and men must sleep and find water to drink. That meant not only that a trireme must more or less hug the shore, as on the long voyage to Sicily, vi. 42, 44 (and because it must anyhow, for these reasons, hug the shore, the builders were enabled to construct it so lightly), but that the shore must be friendly or neutral; and that if a fleet is taking part in the siege of a city, it must have a camp on land near by (iii. 6. 2, iv. 27. I, &c.). This explains much of the detail in the history of the Peloponnesian war.

The trireme could be rowed at some 4 to 5 knots, and for a short burst—that is, when making an attack in battle—it might reach 7 or 8; under sail it would also travel at some 5 knots with favourable winds. This means it would normally cover from 35 to 45 miles in a day, in a calm sea (for men cannot row more than 8-10 hours a day, except in a very urgent case), 80-90 at most under sail. Bad weather, especially the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, would check considerably the lightly built trireme, with an upper deck not more than 16 feet above the water. This made a voyage difficult and slow in the winter months (and often in the summer); but it must not be supposed that this stopped winter voyages altogether, as is often stated. Ambassadors sailed to Sicily, cavalry were conveyed to Methone in Macedonia, in the winter of 416-415 (vi. 7. 1, 3); communications were regular with Poteidaia and Syracuse during the siege-operations; there was much winter sailing in the Ionian war, from 412.…

Such were the general conditions, economic, social, and technical, determining Greek strategy and tactics, which Thucydides took for granted; the application of them in detail he abundantly illustrates. But there are other strategical factors particular to this war of which we should have expected a general survey, but he does not give it. For example, we expect an account of the principal routes by which the all-important supplies of food and timber must reach Athens, and which must be defended at all costs. It is not that he is unconscious of the importance of such factors; he often mentions them in the course of his narrative: food supplies, vii. 27. 4-28. 1 (Dekeleia), ii. 69, viii. 35. 2 (ships from Egypt); timber, iv. 108. 1, vii. 25. 2, viii. 1. 3. But there is no general explanation.… Why did Perikles not add: 'and especially guard the food-routes from the Pontos and from Egypt (via Rhodes), and the timber-routes from Thrace and Macedonia, and above all Euboea'? Nor does Thucydides explain the strategic importance of Megara to Athens, nor tell us anything of such problems on the Peloponnesian side, except in general terms, i. 120. 2, ii. 69; nothing for example of Corinthian interests west of the Adriatic, and Peloponnesian dependence on them. He is silent as well on the purely military side of strategy; he gives particulars when they are significant for his narrative, as the strategic value of Herakleia Trachinia, iii. 92, and of Amphipolis, iv. 108. 1, but no survey, no account, for example, of the means of communication, and so of joint action, between the Peloponnese and Boeotia and hence of the strategic importance of Plataia, and between the Peloponnese, via Amphissa and Doris, and Thessaly (note his very brief reference, iii. 92. 4); nor of the immediate strategical problems of Demosthenes in Aitolia and Akarnania, nor of Naupaktos and the Athenian position in the Gulf of Corinth. These are matters, of geography and elementary economics, of which he assumes a knowledge in his readers; but it is a somewhat rash assumption.

It is the same with the topography of a campaign: except for a few cases such as Amphipolis and Pylos, he contents himself with the briefest description, as of the Epirus coast between Acheron and Sybota (i. 46-54: see below, p. 179), or with none, as of Memphis, Prosopitis, and in Egypt (i. 104. 2, 109-10). Did he take these last to be known, from Herodotos … or are they just from his notes, never explained, like Derdas, Pausanias, and Philippos in i. 56-65? Or is it from literary principle, as Jacoby suggests?…


By this I mean the actual working of the constitution in the different states. If we compare the Athenian with the Roman constitution of the century between c. 250 and 150 B.C., on paper they appear to be very similar: each with a council or senate, annual magistrates elected by the people, and an assembly of the people whose assent was necessary to new laws and to certain vital executive actions such as alliances and war and peace. We know that in practice they were very different; and Polybios is at some pains to explain the working of the Roman constitution to his readers. Thucydides felt no such need to explain Athenian practice; not only because his readers were familiar with the principal facts, but because his narrative illustrates these facts very fully throughout. We should know from his work even if we had no other evidence that the ekklesia did in fact control affairs, and control them directly; a wise statesman might guide it, a foolish or dishonest one mislead it, but it could never be ignored; neither a powerful magistracy nor a powerful council directed policy. Similarly we know from him that the apella at Sparta had a decisive voice in the decision of war and peace; so too had the general body of Statemembers of the Peloponnesian League; Sparta was not all-powerful in the League, nor any magistrates or the gerousia in Sparta. We might well, however, have been given a fuller description of the League, especially of Sparta's position within it once war had been declared. We learn something of that from the introductory first book, from Archidamos' speech and the Corinthians' at the second congress, as well as in the course of the narrative (the peace negotiations after the capture of Pylos and towards the end of the Ten Years' War); but we would have welcomed something more explicit. Still more should we have welcomed an account of the organization of the Athenian empire, particularly of the garrisons in the cities, the cleruchies, the constitutional changes effected by Athens, and the recruitment of land-troops and crews for the fleet from the subject states; but in this case Thucydides would perhaps have given such an account if he had ever completed his survey of the development of the empire out of the Delian League, for he appears to promise it.

Apart from these omissions, there are others (or so they seem to us) due to Thucydides' conception of his task, to the limits which he imposed upon himself. In the first place, he was writing a History of the Peloponnesian War, not a History of Greece (or of Athens) from 431 to 404, still less a political or cultural history of Athens from 479 to 404. He confined himself to the war. We may regret this, and wish that he had written of the glory that was Athens or some such noble theme; but we must recognize it. More than this: he interpreted his task as one with narrow limits. He not only omitted the cultural and economic history which would be proper to a History of Athens, or of Greece, but also political history where it did not seem to him to have a direct bearing on the war, directly to affect its course, as did the rivalry between Kleon and Nikias and between Nikias and Alkibiades, or to be caused by it, as were the stasis in Kerkyra and the revolution of the Four Hundred in Athens. They were part of the … the great disturbance that was the war; but ordinary party strife or rival ambitions were to be ignored. "Thucydides reviews the mass of events and chooses by his own insight the part that is worthy of recital. This part he undertakes to describe while it is actually happening; he works to that end and what lies outside his theme does not interest him." It interests him, as witness his digressions; but he will not let them divert him from his main purpose, as Herodotos did. Owing to this austerity we have lost much.

It is not (once again) that he did not understand cultural history, that he had no eye for a fine building, no ear for poetry, or no feeling for that combination of freedom and order which was the Greek aim in politics and almost their achievement; the Epitaphios, to which he gives so prominent a place in his work, is itself one of the finest tributes ever paid to Athens. This was indeed one of the chief problems of which he was conscious: was this ideal Athens worth the risk of a great and destructive war? It was the central theme: it was this civilization, of which Athens was the head, which was in danger of destruction by the war. But he did not feel it his duty to describe its development, either before or during the war. Nor, as we have seen, did he undervalue economic forces; but he does not describe their particular effects. He does not, for example, tell us to what extent, if at all, the campaigns abroad restricted the Peloponnesian harvest or the Athenian fleet restricted Peloponnesian imports (cf. iii. 86. 4); not even the effect of the blockade on Megara (cf. iv. 66. 1)—of that we learn more from Aristophanes; nor what proportion of the Athenian fleet was engaged in the defence of the trade-routes for their imports, or what was the effect on Athenian finances of the increased import of food from abroad made necessary by the annual invasions of the Peloponnesians. In the matter of finance indeed we can unhesitatingly find fault. Thucydides knew its importance (i. 80. 3-4, 83. 2, 141. 3-5; iii. 13. 6; vi. 34. 2), and gives in detail some of Athens' financial resources (ii. 13. 2-5); but as he does not give the whole of the state's revenue nor—what is more important—the expenditure for any one year or over a series of years, the true value of these resources remains unknown. He occasionally mentions particular expenditure (the siege of Poteidaia: ii. 70. 2; cf. also iii. 17 with nn.); but he does not relate current expenditure with current income. He is content with generalizations, brief summaries, and hints (cp. especially vi. 31. 5: this partly because he had not trustworthy figures and would not guess). Nor does he tell us consistently how the money was raised: he tells us that the special property tax was imposed for the first time in 428 and produced 200 talents (iii. 19. 1), but after that there is silence. We do not know from him by how much the allies' tribute varied from year to year, nor—and this is the most remarkable ommission in his narrative—of the doubling or trebling of the tribute in 425. And in consequence of this we do not know from him either the economic or the political consequences of the different taxes—the effects on men's minds as well as on their pockets both at Athens and in 'the cities'. For this, or for some of it, we turn to Aristophanes.

We can understand Thucydides' temper best, however, by observing his treatment of another element in history—the biographical. He clearly had a liking for biography, a keen sense of personality, as is shown by his account of Perikles, Nikias, Kleon, Alkibiades, and Brasidas, and above all by his long, and for his purpose quite unnecessary, excursus on Pausanias and Themistokles; where he goes out of his way to describe the fortunes and characters of the two men who λαμπρότατοι εγενοντο τῶν κμθ᾽ εαυτοὺς. But except for this he excludes all biographical detail from his narrative—not because he thought individuals had little effect on events—he emphasizes the importance of Perikles, Brasidas, and Alkibiades—, but partly because the detail is untrustworthy, chiefly because it is trivial: attractive, but in itself unimportant in the midst of great political events. It is in this more than in anything else that he shows his determination not to write like Herodotos, not to allow himself to be beguiled and to beguile others by what is simply attractive (cf. i. 22. 4, n.). His superb silence on the anecdotes and gossip and the scandals about Perikles at the beginning of the war is the principal case in point. It proves not only that he regarded the stories themselves as too puerile to need refuting, but that he did not believe either that Perikles was guided in his policy by personal motives, or that his political position was shaken by the outbreak of the war. If we turn from Thucydides to Ephoros' account of the origins of the war, as reflected in Diodors, or to the fairer-minded but not more critical Plutarch, we seem to pass from a world of adults to a world of children. Yet we lose much from Thucydides' silence, and would have lost more if Aristophanes (who also wrote for adults) had not been preserved. For the gossip and the scandal are historical in this sense, that they did exist at the time; attacks were made on Perikles, though they left his supremacy undisturbed; stories were spread abroad and his friends prosecuted by men who were afraid to prosecute him himself. These all help to show the temper of the time; they throw light on the events and on the "critical and ungenerous" side of the Athenian character; and the Olympian silence of Thucydides would have left these currents and eddies of opinion unrecorded. An equally clear, if not quite so important, a case is that of Alkibiades. Thucydides mentions the general lawlessness of his private life, and its effect on men's attitudes towards him (vi. 15. 3-4, 28. 2)—a matter of great importance for the history of the war, for Alkibiades, unlike Perikles, was overthrown and his overthrow had disastrous consequences for Athens; but he gives no details of it, because he will not tell anecdotes, and it would remain vague for us, lacking its proper significance, if we had not the invaluable Plutarch. It matters not whether the anecdotes told by Plutarch are true, provided they were told at the time and believed by many (provided, that is, that Plutarch faithfully reports contemporary gossip); for it was these anecdotes, true or false in themselves but true to Alkibiades' character, that affected the minds of his fellow-countrymen. But Thucydides will not gossip; he will not give personal details. He refuses even to tell us that the famous Gorgias was one of the ambassadors from Leontioi in 427 and made a great, if temporary, impression upon his hearers. It need not be added that autobiography is even farther from his purpose, farther still any attempt at an apologia for his own failure.

For all these things that he omits, some because he will not mention them, some because he thought it unnecessary, others perhaps because he did not understand their significance, we must go to other sources. … A word needs to be said about Thucydides' own methods of obtaining information; for that is another matter on which he is silent. He tells us that he began making notes of events from the first, and that he got information from both camps and especially, after his exile, from the enemy's; that he himself witnessed some events and heard some speeches, but about others had to collect his information from elsewhere. But he does not specify; he never says which speech he heard or at which event he was present, nor what in any one case his other sources of information were, how long after the event he was able to make inquiries, what care he took to test what was told him, what battlefields he visited. There is only one event at which we know he was present—when he was in command, and there are a large number which we know he did not witness; but that is all. We are in his hands; we can only judge him by the result, by our own sentiments as we read him and by the testimony of others. That testimony is indeed as silent about Thucydides as he was about himself; but their silence is as eloquent as his: Ephoros, for all his efforts, varied from him but little (and always for the worse), and added less; Xenophon, Kratippos, and Theopompos began their histories where he left off; Philistos wrote of the siege from the Syracusan point of view, but could find little apparently to add to Thucydides. Aristophanes supplements his narrative admirably; contemporary official documents nearly everywhere confirm it. All who have written of the Peloponnesian war since Ephoros have had the same experience: they can only translate and abridge; Thucydides has imposed his will, as no other historian has ever done. Yet in very few cases can we test the truth of his narrative.

G. B. Grundy (essay date 1948)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9648

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 associated, not merely each section, but each item of it with that event in his narrative which suggested it.

The result is not an ordered treatise, but a mass of material scattered, it might almost be said at random, through his work. Thus the collection of it is a somewhat laborious business, a labour which may be taken once and for all by one man and need not be repeated again and again by those who are interested in the study of the subject.

This section is therefore devoted to the collection of such passages in his work under rather comprehensive headings, with notes attached to those passages which seem to require some explanation.

That does not apply to all his views. Some of them require no explanation, as they are founded on elements in human nature which are innate in man and quite independent of the circumstances under which he lives. Still there are many elements in human life which result from the circumstances in which those lives are lived, and sometimes the actions and ideas of an age have to be interpreted in the light of what is known of the spirit of that age.

General Philosophy of Life

Thucydides' philosophy is essentially practical, not speculative, for, though it deals with the future, it is only with that part of the future which, as he believes, can be deduced from the facts of the past. His belief in that future has been very largely justified by the facts of history.

(I. 22.) The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of things must resemble, if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.

Many of his philosophical dicta bear on ordinary social life, and, though it is necessary to quote them as part of his philosophy, they do not call for comment at the present day, as they deal with matters which come within the ordinary experience of men of the present world, and are an expression of truths which have been stated again in the voluminous literature of later times. But at the time at which Thucydides wrote there was no voluminous literature, and the only literature from which he could borrow anything he did borrow, were the philosophical writings of the sophists, and perhaps here and there a brief passage from the dramatists. It is not of course possible to say in every case where Thucydides is stating his own conclusions from the facts of life, but it is probable that he does so in the vast majority of instances, while some passages may be novel renderings of ideas which may have been previously existent in some vague form in the minds of his readers. But the passages must be quoted here as they appear in various parts of his work. They show his views on the philosophy of life, which must always be a large part of the philosophy of history.

(I. 42.) To abstain from wronging others who are your equals affords a surer basis for power than a dangerous pursuit of gain incited by an apparent temporary advantage.

This is a truth which Germany would have done well to realise before the first World War and, to a certain extent, before the last war.

(I. 76.) The truth is that those who use force do not need law.

This is almost certainly suggested by the dictum of the sophists in its crude form 'might is right', that dictum which Plato attacked so violently in the Republic without taking into account the fact that those same sophists also stated the solution of the unpleasant fact— concession made by the stronger to the weaker which mitigates in the only way possible the working of this brutal truth. The words, which Thucydides puts into the mouths of the Athenians, are, so far as he is concerned, an unpleasant fact; and it is with facts alone that his philosophy deals. This is shown in another sentence later in the same chapter: 'but it seems that men are less angered by injustice than by constraint'.

He does not moralise on such facts. As is his way he leaves the moral conclusions from them to his readers. Some commentators on his work have remarked on the absence from it of moral conclusions. As far as expression goes that is true; but as far as moral implication goes it is very misleading. His work is full of them.

(I. 71.) You fail to see that peace stays longest with those who are more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice.

This is the position of the Spartans as described by the Corinthians.

It is admittedly difficult to see how these words apply to the situation at the moment at which they are said to have been uttered, the time when Corinth was urg-ing Sparta to take the lead of the Peloponnesian League in war with Athens. It is not a very satisfactory suggestion, that it is better to attack a power which shows the intention to be aggressive than to wait till the aggression actually takes place.

(I. 71.) Improvements ever prevail.

An obvious truth; but one truth which had to be impressed on an age in which many of the Greek race were staunch upholders of ancient customs and ideas.

(II. 35., Funeral Oration.) For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted. When this point is passed envy comes in and with it incredulity.

A cynical remark, but very true.

(II. 40., Funeral Oration.) Usually daring results from ignorance, caution from reflection.

Emphasises the necessity of thought before action.

(II. 43., Funeral Oration.) Heroes have the whole world for their tomb.

This is a very fine translation of one of the finest epigrams in history. There lie behind it certain ideas which editors and translators of Thucydides seem to have overlooked.

Whatever doubt there may be as to whether the Funeral Oration is of Thucydides' own composition or a report of the actual speech made by Pericles, there cannot be much doubt that this is a quotation from what Pericles actually said, and he said it with a very practical purpose—to dispel from the minds of his hearers a feeling which would cause them the greatest unhappiness. That feeling would be caused by certain beliefs associated, not with the Greek state religion, but with that family religion which seems to have had more influence on the Greek mind, that ancestor worship which was equally strong in both the Greek and the early Roman world. It is based on the idea that the living were guarded in life by the spirits of their deceased ancestors, and that those spirits watched over them and had some power to alleviate the ills and misfortunes of life. Associated with this was the further idea that the body of the deceased ancestor must be buried amid the scenes which had been familiar to him in life—that otherwise his spirit could not be happy, and that consequently his descendants must see that his body was laid near his old home. Hence the living sought by every means in their power to carry out this religious duty, and it became a recognised principle in Greek international law that victors in a battle should surrender the bodies of those of the defeated who had fallen in the fight. It was a rule any infraction of which shocked the Greek mind intensely, as Thucydides shows in his reference to the refusal of the Boeotians to surrender the bodies of the Athenian slain at Delium, and the still more striking example of the trial and punishment of the victorious generals after Arginusae for not picking up after the battle the bodies of the drowned and such as survived on the wrecks.

Marathon, where the Athenian dead were buried in the mound, was acknowledged to be an exception justified, as it was thought, by the exceptional glory won by those who took part in the victory, and the consequent idea that the spirits of the dead might be happy on the scene of their great triumph.

(II. 44.) For honour never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

(II. 52., Psychology of the period of the plague.) Bodies lay on one another in the agonies of thirst, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of the corpses of persons who had died there just as they were, for the disaster passed all bounds, and men, not knowing what might become of them, became utterly careless of everything whether sacred or profane. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures. Sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body on the stranger's pyre and ignited it. Sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning and went off. Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches alike as things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain an object; but present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was laid down as both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man, there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and, for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but felt that a far severer sentence had been passed on them and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

The psychology here described was repeated again in the middle ages when plague fell on large towns.

The strict and scrupulous formality of Greek funeral ceremonial is very clearly implied here.

It has been stated in modern histories that the Greeks employed both inhumation and cremation in burial of the dead.

It seems possible that this is too wide a statement. The belief in the spirit of the dead residing with the body in the grave, would tend to promote inhumation as the method of disposal of the bodies of the deceased, just as the belief in the literal resurrection of the body led the early Christians to resort to inhumation in place of the practice of cremation which prevailed in the pagan world. They may have been forced to adopt cremation in the case of those who died at some great distance from their homes, and may also have done so in the case of those who died of plague lest the bodies might infect the living.

(II. 61.) For the judgment of mankind is relentless to the weakness that falls short of a recognised renown, as it is jealous of the arrogance that aspires higher than its due.

(II. 64.) Besides the hand of heaven must be borne with resignation, that of the enemy with fortitude.

(II. 64.) Decay is a law of nature.…

This may have been a commonplace of Thucydides' day, but one of which idealists have to be reminded. Applied to human institutions its truth is due to the fact that governments and free peoples, especially democracies, have, owing maybe to a desire to promote the interests of some particular class in the population, or to follow through ignorance the lead of an ambitious demagogue, failed to recognise those factors in their political institutions which have in the past promoted the attainable happiness of the community as a whole, and have substituted for them innovations which are eventually destructive of welfare and happiness. If a state were realisable which, like that of the Romans under the early Roman Empire, had a constitution which worked well in the interests of its whole population, and had also rulers who were capable of seeing clearly what modifications were necessary to meet changes due to changing external circumstances, then human nature would have to be treated as an exception to this 'law of nature', for it might attain to the highest practical ideal in a world where the good cannot be maintained without active resistance to the evil. Ideals to be durable must be backed by force.

(III. 64.) He who faces odium for great ends is right in his determination.

(III. 64.) They whose minds are least depressed by calamity and are most capable of meeting it are the greatest men and the greatest communities.

Illustrated by the British people in the first disastrous years of the late war.

Thucydides uses every opportunity for the insertion of some item of political philosophy, even of the philosophy of the violent and ruthless imperialist, a type with which he had no real sympathy.

(III. 39., Cleon's Speech.)

The philosophy laid down in the passages cannot for the most part be taken to represent the views of Thucydides. It is really of a negative character, a warning of the type of argument which may be expected from a violent extremist. But there are passages in the speech which are no doubt really expressive of the historian's own political philosophy.

(III. 39.) The truth is that nothing so tends to make a people insolent as sudden and unlooked-for good fortune. In most cases it is safer for mankind to have success in reason than out of reason, and it is easier for them, one may say, to stave off adversity than to preserve prosperity.

Probably a consideration added to the speech by Thucydides. No race has reason to know the truth of it better than the British in view of their experience after the war of 1914-18.

(III. 39.) Men are by nature generally inclined to treat the subservient with contempt, and the unyielding with respect.

(III. 40.) It is they who wrong their neighbour without a cause who pursue their victim to the death on account of the danger which they foresee in letting the enemy survive.

The wholesale murders by the Germans during the recent war illustrate this dictum. But communist tendency before the war also illustrated it.

(III. 45., Speech of Diodotus.) Individuals, when acting in masses, irrationally magnify the objects for which they strive.

(IV. 62., Speech of Hermocrates at Gela.) The incalculable element of the future exercises the widest influence and is the most treacherous, and yet in fact the most useful of all things, as it frightens us all equally, and makes us consider before attacking each other.

This is not a dictum which could have claimed much originality at the time at which it was written, for the Greeks seem to have always had a profound fear of the chances of life. What is emphasised is the part it plays as a deterrent of action, backed by a powerful element in human psychology.

Much the same sentiment is expressed in IV. 65.

(IV. 61. Speech of Hermocrates at Gela.) I do not blame those who wish to rule, but those who are ready to serve; for it is ever natural to man to rule those who yield to him, as it is to resist those who molest him. One is not less invariable than the other. Meanwhile those who see dangers and refuse to provide for them properly, or have come here without having made up their minds that our first duty is to unite to get rid of the common peril, are mistaken.

Probably Thucydides knew that some such view had been expressed in the original speech. It is a curious and rather unexpected deduction for the doctrine 'might is right'.

(IV. 62. Hermocrates' Speech at Gela.) Vengeance is not necessarily successful because it is just, that is to say because a wrong has been done, nor strength sure because it is confident. The incalculability of the future is the prevalent factor, and while it is the most uncertain, would nevertheless seem to be the most useful because, as all alike fear it, we think twice before attacking one another.

Here is the familiar emphasis on the incalculability of the future, a fact the Athenians were most inclined to forget, and of which those who advised them were equally inclined to remind them.

(IV. 86. Speech of Brasidas.) I am not come here to help this party or that; and the freedom which I pretend to offer is not of so dubious a kind that I should think of disregarding your constitution and of enslaving the many to the few or the few to the many. That would be heavier than a foreign yoke.

These may be words spoken by Brasidas, or at any rate a reproduction of the general sense of what he said. The words are applicable to the present time (Jan. 1945) when England has interfered in Greece to prevent a well-armed communist element from dominating the government of the country.

(IV. 92. Speech of Pagondas before Delium.) As between neighbours generally freedom means simply a determination to hold one's own; and with neighbours like these, who are trying to enslave near and far alike, there is nothing for it but to fight it out to the last.

(IV. 108. Narrative Text.) It being the habit of mankind to give to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

A reflection of Thucydides' own.

(V. 86-111. Extracts from the Melian Dialogue.)

(V. 89.) You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only a question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

(V. 103.) Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have enough and to spare, if not without loss, at all events without ruin. But its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours when they are ruined.

(V. 103.) Nor be like the generality of mankind who, when salvation is, humanly speaking, theirs, when what seemed obvious hopes fail them, when things go wrong, have recourse to blind hope founded on prophecies and oracles and suchlike things as lead men to their destruction.

In so far as philosophy is concerned the whole dialogue is by implication an attack on the doctrine that might is right, that doctrine which Thucydides, as is shown by other passages in his history, abominated, and against that trust in hope for the future which he attacks again and again as an example of human folly. In a sense the whole dialogue might be quoted; but further quotation would be little more than a repetition of the philosophical doctrines which the passages quoted exemplify.

It is rather curious that, though Thucydides attacks, not the truth of the doctrine of the sophists, but its inapplicability to good social life, he never mentions the remedy for it which the sophists suggested as the only remedy, if social life was to be peaceful and happy, the concession of the stronger to the weaker. He accepted doctrine as a natural but not a moral law. He felt that for the happiness of human societies the strong must make concessions to the weak, and he probably felt that neither could be happy in social life unless such concessions were made.

He himself puts the natural law so crudely in the dialogue that there cannot be much doubt that he set out to write the dialogue in order to condemn by implication the doctrine itself and the appeal made to it by the Athenian ultra-democrats. It is one of the passages in his history that makes the assumption that he himself was an ultra-democrat irrational and impossible.

It is also a unique example of the dialogue form in his history.

(VI. 11. Nicias' Speech on the proposed Sicilian Expedition.) We all know that that which is farthest off and the reputation of which can least be tested is most admired.

Seems like an anticipation of Tacitus' 'Omne ignotum pro magnifico'.

(VI. 89. Speech of Alcibiades at Sparta.) As for democracy, we men of sense know what it is—and no one better than I who have every reason for cursing it. But there is nothing new to be said about a patent absurdity.

This can hardly represent Thucydides' view of every species of democracy; but it is a true statement of the view taken of it by the oligarchs of his time.

The Greek idea of patriotism was not that which the word implies in literature of the present day. In Greece in the historic period there was more sympathy between the oligarchs of different states and the democrats of different states than between the oligarchs and democrats of the same state.

The position normal at the time in Greek politics did not prevail in Athens because the existence of the Empire made it possible to find economic support for the proletariat from the tribute and, during this time of war, by employment in the fleet; and the oligarchs were too few in number to dare to move a finger without the prospect of immediate and enduring support from Sparta, that which the national party then in power at Sparta was not disposed to give.

But no Greek expected an oligarch to be loyal to his state when it was under a democracy, nor a Greek democrat, when his state was ruled by an oligarchy. How far a dissatisfied party might go is illustrated by the connivance of the Athenian democrats with Persia at the time of Marathon.

Alcibiades goes on to say 'So much for the prejudice with which I am regarded', which shows that the Spartans suspected his bona fides until they saw that he had good reason to be hostile to the Athenian democracy. They regarded his antipathy to democracy as being, under the circumstances, quite natural, and were therefore prepared to take and follow his advice in certain important respects. Also the language put into the mouth of Alcibiades by Thucydides assumes that under the circumstances he may be trusted to act in their interest.

This sympathy between extremist parties in different countries, and their tendency to let it override national patriotism, has become very noticeable in the states of Europe since the beginning of this century. The feeling was also strong at the time of the great French revolution, and remained more or less so till 1848. But in the later half of the Nineteenth Century it seems to have died away. The communist rising in Paris in 1870-71 attracted very little open sympathy in other countries.

(VII. 14. Nicias ' Dispatch from Syracuse.) Besides I know that you have a characteristic love of being told the best side of things, and then to blame the speaker if the expectations which he raised in your minds are not justified by the result; and therefore I thought it safest to declare to you the truth.

This is a difficulty which statesmen dependent for their position on popular support have often had to face.

(VII. 67. Speech of Gylippus.) Where there is the greatest hope there is also the greatest ardour for action.

(VII. 68. Speech of Gylippus.) The rarest dangers are those in which failure brings little loss and success the greatest advantage.


In the previous section the quotations aim at giving Thucydides' philosophy of general life. In what follows they deal with political life. The boundary between the two is somewhat vague and largely dependent on the individual who happens to be drawing it; so the reader may think that some of the quotations which appear in each of these sections ought to appear in the other.

It has been necessary to speak of Thucydides' personal views in reference to certain passages which have been already discussed. He never discloses their nature in any express words, a policy in accordance with that suppression of his own personality which is so noticeable in his history. His comments on facts, for example, in the passage in which he speaks so strongly of the effects of revolution on the psychology of the Greeks of his day, do not take the form of explicit expressions of his own opinions. But that they are so implicitly is quite clear.

It has been stated that Thucydides was a moderate democrat. Of tyranny he says nothing which could give any clue as to his feelings with regard to it, except that he says of the tyranny of the Peisistratids that it became unpopular towards its end, which may imply that he had nothing to say against it as it was during the lifetime of Peisistratus. He mentions of course more than once the suspicion entertained by the Athenians that Alcibiades was aiming at tyranny; but he does not blame Alcibiades for so doing. It is possible that he thought that a tyranny under him would have been better than the political position in Athens in the last phase of the war, for he expresses the opinion that, had Athens entrusted the management of the war to him, she might have been spared the disaster which over-took her. He speaks frequently of oligarchs and oligarchies; but of oligarchy as an institution he has practically nothing to say.

Thucydides was however an imperialist, but of the moderate type represented by the moderate democrats. They felt obliged to maintain the empire for reasons put by Thucydides in the mouths of the Athenians at the conference preceding the outbreak of the war. He did not approve of harsh and violent treatment of any ally who showed a determination to retire from mem-bership of the League. The speech which he attributes to Diodotus in the Mytilenian debate expresses probably his own views. Judging by his remarks on the subjugation of Naxos in 466 or 467 he seems to have regarded it as an injustice and a mistake that punishment for revolt should take the form of deprivation of local freedom. How Thucydides proposed to reconcile the political independence of the members of the League with the absolute necessity of maintaining it as an individual force against Persia, he neither says nor implies.


(I. 34. Speech of the Corcyraeans.) Every colony that is well treated honours its parent state, but becomes estranged from it by injustice. For colonists are not sent forth on the understanding that they are to be the slaves of those who remain behind, but that they are to be their equals.

It is of course well known that Greek colonisation differed from that of modern times in that the colony, from the time of its founding, had political independence. In modern times colonies have progressed gradually towards such independence, and that has led to the degree of independence attained becoming at times a matter of dispute between them and the mother coun-try. Cf. the case of England's American colonies at the time of the War of Independence.

Still the remark attributed to the Corcyraeans by Thucydides is just as true in the present as in his day.

(I. 42. Corinthian Speech at Athens.) Abstention from all injustice to other first-rate powers is a greater tower of strength than anything which can be gained by the sacrifice of permanent tranquillity for an apparent temporary advantage.

(I. 75. Speech of the Athenians at Lacedaemon.) And at last when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it seemed no longer safe to give up our empire, as all who left it would fall to you.

It has been seen throughout history, that in nearly every alliance or coalition between different states constraint has had to be exercised either by the mass of the confederacy or by a dominant state under one of two sets of circumstances—when some of the members fail to make their contribution to the forces, military, naval, or financial of the alliance, and secondly, when some members wish to leave the coalition before the end for which it was formed is attained.

If the constraining power be a single state then, when the alliance is dissolved, it is heir to a very hostile feeling on the part of the powers on whom this constraint has had to be exercised.

In the case of the anti-Persian League, of which Athens was the leader, the period in its existence, after the Eurymedon, when the work of the League seemed to be done, and Athens nevertheless refused to dissolve it, fell within the time when the moderate democrats dominated in Athenian politics.

(I. 76. Athenian Speech at Sparta.) It has always been the law that the weaker should be controlled by the stronger.

An assertion of the natural law that might is right. It is somewhat strange that Thucydides, who had no sympathy with this law, inserts this passage in a speech made by an Athenian delegate at a time when Athens was under the control of Pericles. Various explanations of it are possible, but no one of them is convincing.

(I. 76. Athenian Speech at Sparta.) Calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice, a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his own ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.

The cynical character of this and the previous quotation from this speech make it possible that Thucydides wishes to indicate that the speaker is an ultrademocrat. His reports of the language of the members of the party in other parts of his work seem designed to express the cynicism of the views of political extremists.

(I. 77. Athenian Speech at Sparta.) When force can be used, law does not come in.

The same cynicism as in the previous quotations from the speech.

(I. 123. Corinthian Speech at the Second Congress at Sparta.) Treaties are broken not by resistance, but by aggression.

(I. 141. Pericles ' Speech). For in a single battle the Peloponnesians and their allies can face the rest of Greece, but they cannot carry on war against a power with equipment so different from their own because, not having one governing body, they cannot do anything with quick promptitude; since all of those states have equal votes and are of different races each seeks to forward its own interest. Hence, as is usual under such circumstances, what is done is only half done, for some wish to wreak some private revenge while others are by no means anxious to waste their own resources, and, being slow in coming together, they give but little time to the affairs of the alliance as a whole, but a much longer time to the management of their own individual interests.

This tendency in alliances and leagues has often been illustrated in history. A noticeable instance of it is the difficulties with the continental allies of England in the period preceding the battle of Blenheim. It was also strikingly illustrated when the recent League of Nations attempted to make Italy refrain from an attack on Abyssinia.

(II. 63. Speech of Pericles.) Prosperity is never safe unless combined with readiness to act.

(III. 12. Mytilenian Speech at Olympia.) What then was this friendship, or what substantial freedom could there be when we accepted each other against our inclination; where fear made them court us in war, and us them in peace; where sympathy, the ordinary basis of confidence, had its place supplied by terror, fear having more part than friendship in keeping us in the alliance: and where the first of us who was encouraged by impunity was certain to break faith with the other? (III. 37. Speech of Cleon.) Bad laws which are never changed are better for a state than good laws which have no authority.

Whether this is a dictum with which Thucydides would agree is doubtful. But it must be remembered that there is a philosophy of the bad and the worse as well as of the good and the bad.


(I. 32. Corcyraean Speech at Athens.) (A state) which never in the past formed a voluntary alliance with anyone has now to ask alliance of others, and owing to this policy we have isolated ourselves for the present war with Corinth, and what aforetime seemed prudence to us, the avoidance of risk involved in any foreign alliance due to the danger involved in the policy of a neighbour, this isolation now seems folly and weakness.

As to the cases in history in which some states have followed a policy of isolation, its wisdom or unwisdom has depended on the circumstances of the time. But generally speaking, there is danger in such a policy when it involves the refusal to help other states which are assailed by an aggressor, since their subjugation may lead to a new geographical situation in which the aggressive state is brought nearer to the isolated state, and that state has to appeal for help to those states to which it has in the past refused it.

(I. 39. Corinthian Speech.) They should have shared their power with you before they asked you to share their fortunes.

The results of isolation are indicated in the preceding comment on the passage from the Corcyraean speech.


Thucydides' philosophy of war includes much which has become commonplace in the centuries that have passed since he wrote. But his remarks have a truth which is wonderful, considering that they were not drawn from centuries of past military experience em-bracing a large mass of literature, but are the conclusions which a very able man drew from a very meagre supply of facts, and drew correctly, owing to his capacity for seeing which were the permanent and which were the incidental elements in the making of events. It is a distinction which only the highest intellect can make successfully.

The attitude to war shown by mankind at all ages of the world is remarkable for much backsight, if a word may be used in a new application, and very little foresight. Soldiers, especially those of armies with a great past history, are intensely conservative of those military principles which have led them to victory in the past, regardless of developments, however significant, which have rendered those principles out of date. The Spartans at the beginning of the Ten Years' War were, in spite of the warnings of Archidamus, quite convinced that the hoplite phalanx would be just as effective in that war as it had been in the wars of the past.

It was the same with the Romans in the days of Rutilius Rufus. For a hundred years they had been blind to the lessons which the Second Punic War ought to have taught them. The English in the Boer War were still using close order in attack, though its ineffectiveness against the modern rifle had been conclusively shown at Plevna twenty-three years before.

It will not be necessary to comment on the passages in Thucydides which state principles in the art of war. They will merely be quoted. Many other examples in medieval and modern warfare might be quoted in reference to the principle which has just been discussed.

As Thucydides was writing the history of a war, his references to the major and minor principles of war are naturally numerous.

(I. 34. Speech of Corcyraeans at Athens.) It is our policy to be beforehand with her … We ought to form plans against her instead of waiting to defeat her designs.

(I. 34. Speech of Corcyraeans at Athens.) Since he who has least cause to repent the fact that he has given way to opponents will be the safest in the end.

This would be applicable to Munich, had not the criminal laxity of previous years made any other course impossible.

(I. 36. Speech of the Corcyraeans.) You must remember on the one hand that your strength will be formidable to your antagonists; and on the other, that whatever the confidence you derive from refusing to receive us, your weakness will have no terrors for a strong enemy.

Largely applicable to the situation just before the outbreak of the war of 1914-18, when Britain seemed to hesitate about entering the war in case of the invasion of Belgium.

(III. 30. Speech of Teutiaplus the Elean on the Revolt of Mytilene.) Let us not shrink from the risk, but let us remember that this is just one of the surprises of war that we have all heard of; and that to be able to guard against these in one's own case, and to have the eye to see them when they can be used against an enemy is what makes a successful general.

(I. 69. Corinthian Speech at Sparta.) For it is not he who reduces a people to subjection, but he who could prevent that being done, but ignores it, who is more truly the doer of the deed.

(I. 78. Speech of the Athenians at Sparta.) As to war, do not wait till you are engaged in it to be convinced of the great incalculability of its nature. It is wont, if prolonged, to become an affair of chance from which neither of us will be exempt, and its issue is an unseen risk. Men on entering into a war resort first to action which is that which they ought to postpone; but, when disaster overtakes them, resort to deliberation.

(I. 42. Pericles' Speech.) For the times and tides of war wait for no man.

Cf. Runstedt's recent attack (December 1944) on the allies in the Ardennes.

(I. 82. Speech of Archidamus.) War undertaken by a coalition for sectional interests, whose progress there is no means of foreseeing, does not easily admit of creditable settlement.

(I. 81. Speech of Archidamus.) For let us not be elated by the fatal hope of the war being ended by the devastation of their lands.

(I. 83. Speech of Archidamus.) War is a matter not so much of arms as of money, which makes arms of use.

(I. 84. Speech of Archidamus.) We are warlike owing to our being well-disciplined—warlike, because the main element in it is a sense of one's own measure, as in courage the main element is a feeling which makes us shun disgrace.

(I. 85. Speech of Archidamus.) We always in practice base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good.

There have been many subsequent occasions in history on which successful generals have attributed much of their success to this assumption.

(I. 120. Corinthian Speech at the Second Congress at Sparta.) If wise men remain quiet while they are not injured, brave men abandon peace for war when they are injured, returning to an understanding on a favourable opportunity: in fact they are neither intoxicated by their success in war, nor disposed to take an injury for the sake of the delightful tranquillity of peace. Indeed to falter for the sake of such delights is, if he fail to act, the quickest way of losing the sweets of repose which make you shun war, while to conceive extravagant pretensions from success in war is to forget how hollow is the confidence by which you are elated. For if many ill-conceived plans have succeeded through the still greater fatuity of an opponent, many more, apparently well-laid, have on the contrary ended in disgrace. For there is never an exact correspondence between the promise of deliberation and the performance of execution; but speculation may be carried on in safety, while fear causes failure in action.

Strongly applicable to the states of Western Europe in the years preceding the second world war.

(I. 122. Speech of Corinthians.) For war of all things proceeds least on definite rules, but draws principally on itself for contrivances to meet an emergency.

It is difficult to see clearly in what application this statement is made. Taking the history of war as a whole, there have been occasions which have illustrated its truth; but success, even under these circumstances, depends on adherence to general rules of war established by long experience.

(I. 140. Speech of Pericles.) I know that the spirit with which men are persuaded to go to war is not that with which they actually engage in it, and that their opinions vary with the variations of events.

(I. 140. Speech of Pericles.) If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into concession; while a firm refusal will make them clearly understand that they must treat you more as equals.

In some ways correspondent to the position at the time of Munich.

(I. 140. Speech of Pericles.) For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of Man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected.

(I. 141. Speech of Pericles.) Farmers are a class that are always more ready to serve in person than in purse.

(I. 143. Speech of Pericles.) Seamanship, like everything else, is a matter of art, and will not permit of being taken as a by-play, and picked up at odd times. On the contrary, it is so exacting as almost to exclude by-play altogether.

(II. 63. Speech of Pericles.) You cannot decline the burden of empire and still expect to share its honours … For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, tyranny. To take it perhaps was wrong; but to let it go is unsafe.

Thucydides' moral attitude towards these statements cannot be judged. They may merely give a general idea of what Pericles actually said. He leaves the moral situation on one side; but he does believe that these things are true, though they are the outcome of a morally doubtful situation. It may be seen that these truths are to a certain extent applicable to the present relations between Britain and India. (1945).

(II. 64. Speech of Pericles.) Unambition is never secure without vigour at its side.

It is possible that Pericles was referring to that movement towards a negotiated peace, which existed in Athens in these early years of the war. Its existence is known from certain passages in Aristophanes.

(IV. 17. Speech of Lacedaemonian envoys at Athens after the disaster on Sphacteria.) You can avoid the mistake of those who meet with an extraordinary piece of good fortune, and are led on by hope to grasp continually at something further, through having already succeeded without expecting it. Those who have known most vicissitudes of good and bad have justly lost faith in their prosperity. And your state and ours have had the experience which might teach them this lesson.

(VI. 91. Speech of Alcibiades at Sparta.) The surest method of harming an enemy is to find out what he most fears, and to choose this means of attacking him, since everyone naturally knows best his own weak points.

Illustrated in the recent war by the attacks which the allies have made from the air on German manufacturing centres, especially in the Ruhr.


(III. 37. Speech of Cleon.) Often before now and on other occasions have I been convinced that democracy is incapable of empire, and never more than by your present change of mind with regard to the Mytilenians.

This is in nowise an expression of Thucydides' own view, but one of the various passages which illustrates the psychology of the ultra-democrats.


(III. 38. Speech of Cleon.) In such contests the state gives the rewards to others and takes the danger for herself. The persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests; who go to see an oration as you would go to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and, as far as the past is concerned, you do not accept what you have actually seen as more trustworthy than what you have heard in specious verbal criticisms. The easy victims of new-fangled arguments, unwilling to follow the conclusions of experience, slaves to every new paradox, contemptuous of everyday experience; the first wish of every man being that he could speak himself, the next to rival those who can speak by seeming to be quite au fait with their ideas, by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; asking, so to speak, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and yet comprehending inadequately those very conditions; very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a state.

As a picture of real life in a democracy this is one of the most remarkable passages in Thucydides. The same thing might be said with truth of political audiences at the present day and in modern times.

It is rather remarkable that Thucydides puts the words into the mouth of Cleon. But Cleon was condemning, not his own ultra-democrats, but those of the moderate party who had doubtless flocked into the city with the express intention of getting the decision of the day before, condemning the whole male population of Mytilene to death, revoked.

The Athenian Assembly suffered from the same weakness as the assemblies of other city states, namely that it was inconvenient and difficult for the rural population to attend its meetings at the city centre of the state, so that at Athens the town population was assured of a majority, unless any important or exciting proposal was to come before the meeting.

In Attica the rural population, chiefly small farmers, was mainly of the middle or moderate conservative party, whereas the town population of Athens and Piraeus was mainly ultra-democratic. Thucydides says that at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War the rural outnumbered the urban population.


(III. 82-4.) Later the whole Greek world so to speak was convulsed in forms varying in various places, the democratic leaders seeking to introduce the Athenians, and the oligarchs the Lacedaemonians.

In peace they would not have had an excuse for calling them in, nor would they have been willing to do so, but in war it was different, and each having an alliance with which they could both harm their opponents and benefit themselves, helpers from outside were easily introduced by would-be revolutionaries. And many grievous things befell the states by way of revolution, such as do occur and always will occur so long as human nature remains the same, but in a more or less violent measure, and differing in form with the variety of circumstances which accompany them. For in peace and prosperity states and individuals display better dispositions, owing to their not falling under imperious necessities.

But war, which takes away the supply of daily bread, is a hard schoolmaster, and assimilates the temper of the masses to the circumstances of the time. Revolution therefore ran its course from city to city, and those at which it arrived latest, having heard what had previously happened elsewhere, carried matters much further in respect to innovation of design, elaboration in attack, and the brutality of their acts of revenge. And they changed the ordinary meanings of terms as applied to acts, owing to the way in which they thought right to regard them. For senseless audacity was called manly esprit de corps, and caution was called specious cowardice, and moderation a coward's excuse, and a wise caution in everything useless inaction. And an impulsive rashness was ascribed to a manly nature, and considerations of safety a plausible excuse for changing sides. The harsh and violent man was always to be trusted, and anyone who opposed him was untrustworthy. A successful plotter was a shrewd fellow, and he who saw through it shrewder still. But one who took measures to render neither of these things necessary was one who broke up his party and was afraid of his adversaries. Speaking plainly, he who forestalled one likely to injure the party was praised, so also one who brought in one who had had no intention of joining it. So, too, relationship was regarded as less binding than partisanship, owing to the latter making a man more ready to take blind risks; such associations not having in view the blessings derivable from the law as established, but the promotion of their own interests in contravention of the established laws; while the confidence of their members in each other rests less on any divine sanction than on complicity in crime. The fair speeches of adversaries were received with active precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, if proffered on either side to meet a momentary difficulty, held good so long as those who swore them had no other resource; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard thought that vengeance sweeter which was due to the trustfulness of the other side than if taken openly, and he took into account the safety of it, and further, having won a victory by deceit, he had won the prize of intelligence. Indeed criminals are more often called clever than simpletons are called honest, and men are ashamed of being the one, but proud of being the other. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power due to greed and ambition. Out of this came the zeal of contending parties. For the leaders in the states, each side under a specious name, the political equality of the proletariat, and the prestige of a wise aristocracy, whilst nominally managing the public interests, made them prizes, and trying in every way to get the better of one another, ventured on the most terrible deeds, and proceeded to reprisals still more terrible, not inflicting punishment in accordance with justice and the interests of the state, but limiting it only at their own pleasure. They were ready to glut the animosity of the moment either by condemnation on an unjust verdict or by forcible seizure of power. Thus neither party paid attention to religion; but the use of fair names to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. The moderates were destroyed by both sides, either because they did not join either, or because they were grudged their chance of survival.

Thus every form of wickedness arose in the Hellenic world by way of revolution, and the old simplicity in which nobility had so large a place was ridiculed and disappeared. Being arrayed against one another in ideas, antagonistic parties prevailed with resulting widespread distrust, for there was no regard for a promise or oath such as might have brought about a reconciliation, but all when they held the upper hand, not reckoning on any hope of security, could provide against danger rather than cherish confidence. And intellectual inferiors were usually the survivors. For from fear of their own inferiority and the cleverness of their opponents, they feared to be worsted in debate and caught off their guard by the versatility in design of opponents who plotted against them. And so they took bold action. So their opponents with a contemptuous confidence that they would see through them and that there was no need to take action where strategy would be effective, were caught unawares and perished.

In Corcyra men ventured on most of these acts, and did all that might be perpetrated by men who had been governed with tyranny rather than tolerance by those who now offered them an opportunity for revenge, some wishing to get rid of their wonted poverty and above all, owing to what they had suffered, to get hold of their neighbours' property, gave false verdicts in the courts, and some, not with a view to gain the better of rivals but of men on an equality with themselves, carried away by ungovernable passion, made cruel and pitiless attacks on them. For the time being all order in civic life ceased, and human nature always rebelling against the law and now its master, readily showed itself to be of an unbridled temper superior to justice and hostile to all superiority, for otherwise it would not have put gain before moral right, had not envy had an evil influence. Men claim, when revenging themselves on others, to set aside the accepted laws on matters on which depends the hope of salvation for those in trouble, and not to leave those laws in existence against the day when the man in trouble needs their help.

Before dealing with the matter of this passage there are certain things which must be said with regard to its form. Grammatically involved passages are found scattered through the speeches in Thucydides; but there is no passage in his history in which the confused nature of Thucydides' Greek is so difficult to unravel by grammatical analysis. Thucydides was aiming at exploiting the new style to the full, but, owing to his exile, he had to work alone.

There are two features of this passage in Thucydides which render it unique from a linguistic point of view. In the first place, it is the only passage in the actual narrative of his history in which he adopts the style he has used in the speeches. Secondly, so far as grammatical peculiarities are concerned, they are far more frequent, and in some cases present greater difficulties, than the language of the speeches. When he wrote the speeches he had made some advance at any rate in his writing of Greek on the new lines.

So much for the form of the passage. Of the matter it may be said that it is perhaps the most remarkable of his contributions to mass psychology. There is hardly an item in it which cannot be paralleled in the history of modern revolutions, and especially in the revolutions of the last thirty years. Yet these forecasts were made on premises very restricted in number and in respect to the period which provided them. Thucydides seems to have been as it were a psychological anatomist, who dissected the human mind with results just as scientific as the results of the dissection of the human body.

It would be superfluous to cite from the histories of modern revolutions parallels to the various characteristics of revolution which Thucydides cites. They are easily recognisable to anyone who has even a moderate knowledge of modern history.

Those who after reading the passages quoted in this chapter remain unconvinced of Thucydides' aim to be not merely a historian but also a historical philosopher, will not be convinced by anything that an editor of his work may say. But they may be reminded that it would have been strange if a man of his ability had claimed that his work was to be a 'possession for ever' on the basis merely of his narrative of the events of the war.

This philosophical element in his work cannot be paralleled in the work of any other ancient historian, and does not play any noticeable part in any work of a modern writer.

One of the greatest losses the literary world has experienced is the fact that he did not live to continue it by insertions of speeches in the narrative of the fifth and eighth books, and in a history of the last years of the war which he never lived to write. It seems strange that he left his work incomplete, since it contains evidence that he lived at least till 398 or 399. One surmise is possible. The writing of history on a large scale leaves the writer a sadder if not a wiser man. He had to write the history of his own country, beginning at the time of the Periclean democracy and ending with the disaster of Aegospotami and its aftermath. The contrast between those last tragic years and the position at the time of the opening of the war may have broken his heart and led him to carry on reluctantly and slowly the task of telling the story of the bitter end, so slowly that death overtook him before he finished it.

David Grene (essay date 1950)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7922

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 the happenings which he describes. But few seem to have noticed how curiously the moral comment, such as it is, has been directed. There are, in particular, three passages of this kind, each embodying some personal judgment of the historian and at first sight quite separated in the nature and variety of comment, yet which on closer scrutiny show a similar kind of detached humanity.

a) The first is the story of the destruction of the Boeotian town of Mycalessus. Mycalessus was far inland, its walls ineffective and in parts dilapidated; it was quite remote from the war or any concern in it. Unfortunately it happened that the Athenians had hired a body of Thracian mercenaries who were supposed to go with Demosthenes to Sicily. They came too late to join the expedition and proved too expensive to keep on foot without a specifically allocated military task. So the Athenians ordered them sent home and put them, for their return journey, under the command of an Athenian officer. Since the state was paying them a drachma a day per man, as long as they were under Athenian orders, and the journey home by land would take a considerable time, Deitrephes, their general, was instructed to employ them to do all possible harm to the enemy on the way back. It was under these circumstances that they marched through part of Boeotia and made their foray on this sleepy little country town of Mycalessus. Then Thucydides says: "They stormed Mycalessus and sacked its houses and its temples, killing every human being. They spared neither young nor old but killed everyone they met, women and children alike and even the pack animals and every living thing they saw. For these Thracians, like most other barbarians, are most bloodthirsty when they are confident. There was there, then, a terrible confusion and every form of death: in particular, they attacked a school— the largest in the town—where the children had just come in and butchered every one of them. This whole city suffered a catastrophe second to no other in its unexpectedness and horror." At the end of the passage he writes: "This is what happened to Mycalessus, a thing which is as much worth our tears as anything that occurred in this war, considering the small size of the town."

At the end of the Sicilian campaign Nicias surrendered to the Sicilian troops, though, as Thucydides tells us, because he trusted their Spartan general, Gylippus, rather than the Sicilians themselves. He and the other Athenian general, Demosthenes, were held for a while by the Sicilians at the request of Gylippus, but eventually they were both executed. According to Thucydides, the Syracusans among the Sicilians were afraid to spare Nicias lest under torture he should reveal the names of the considerable party within Syracuse itself which had tried to open negotiations with the Athenians. The total failure of the expedition and the loss of close to forty thousand men, killed, wounded, and prisoners, is very largely attributable to the stupidity, timidity, and incompetence of Nicias. Demosthenes had repeatedly tried to save the army, and his plans for this end were sound and their success probable. Nicias consistently balked them. These facts are vouched for by Thucydides himself in the seventh book. His comment on the end of Nicias is as follows: "On this charge, then, or one like it, Nicias died, being the least worthy of all the Greeks of my time to come to such a depth of misfortune, since he had lived all his life in accordance with what is popularly called virtue." Of Demosthenes he says nothing.

c) In 412-411 the democracy of Athens was overthrown by a conspiracy of oligarchs who had long been discontented with the prospects both of war and of peace if Athens remained democratic. The hope of enlisting Alcibiades and with him perhaps the help of Persia, which he was reputed to be able to deliver, weighed with some of this party. But the roots of the oligarchic attitude to the war, the democracy, and Sparta go back much further, as we saw in an earlier chapter. There were two wings of the oligarchic clique—a violent faction whose aim was a strong administration of a very few and a moderate constitutional party who wanted a restriction of the franchise and a remodeling of the constitution to bring it nearer to what Aristotle later calls a politeia, a mixture of democratic and oligarchic elements. The chief planner among the extreme oligarchs was a man named Antiphon; that of the moderates, Theramenes.

The extremists made the initial moves in the revolution and administered the city for a while by secret-police methods when, as Thucydides puts it, "no one of the rest of the citizens spoke against these measures, being afraid and seeing the size of the conspiracy; and if anyone did he was immediately killed in some convenient manner, and there was no search for the doers of the deed or justice to be had against them if suspected, but the multitude kept quiet and were so terror-stricken that each man who had no violence done him, even though he kept his mouth shut, thought it a gain." The terror did not last long, and the moderates among the oligarchs took control and drafted a new constitution which was to limit the franchise to five thousand. The extreme oligarchs had already formally suggested this, but, according to Thucydides, this was a mere pretense to make the transition from the democracy easier; they had no intention of making the five thousand a working political unity. Theramenes, however, the leader of the moderates, wanted the five thousand in good faith, and of the constitution set up in the name of the five thousand Thucydides says: "For now for the first time in my lifetime the Athenians seem to have enjoyed an excellent government; for there was a blend in it of the few and the many, and this was the first thing which lifted the city out of its ill condition."

Now if we look at these passages, first in their contexts and then in conjunction with one another, something of their strangeness becomes apparent. In the first place, none of the three constitutes what one might call remarkably merited comment—on a comparative basis. Is it not strange that the man who records the total destruction of Melos conducted in the most cold-blooded fashion, and the almost complete destruction of the city of Mitylene, and the execution of the Plataeans who surrendered after the siege should have had not one word of pity for the victims or blame for the executioners and reserve this pity and blame for the murder of a few hundred villagers and a school-house of children in Boeotia? Is it not strange that the man who notes the end of Antiphon (described as "second to none among his day in virtue") and the end of Demosthenes, who had won the Pylos campaign so brilliantly, who had even almost rescued the Sicilian expedition from the failure to which Nicias' leadership doomed it, without even a single phrase or comment, should have delivered so complete and comprehensive a verdict of praise on Nicias, who had lost the decisive battles of the war? And is it not strange that the man who had seen Periclean Athens and acknowledged its enormous power, resilience, and vitality should have reserved his praise of the "best government" for the rather dim academic experiment of Theramenes, which lasted a couple of months and was really hardly ever alive, as a functioning unit, at all?

One way to remove the sense of strangeness in these comments is to explain them individually and piecemeal. Each of them is, of course, susceptible of an individual explanation. We can say that, after all, Thucydides is human, like any other man; that the devastated village and the murdered school children appealed to his sense of pity as greater and more terrible events had somehow failed to do. Or we might force ourselves to see the emphasis on the size of Mycalessus as the important matter. Other cities greater than this had fallen but none more completely, considering its smallness. And we can explain away the comment on Nicias by assuming a personal friendship between Thucydides and Nicias and a personal hostility between Thucydides and Demosthenes. And we can explain away the statement on the constitution of Theramenes by saying that, after all, Thucydides is a moderate oligarch, by preference, that he has never approved of the democratic empire, and that his word of praise for the polity of Theramenes is his personal voice as a fifth-century politician. The common thread which runs through all such individual explanations is a separation of Thucydides the historian and Thucydides the man. We picture to ourselves a Thucydides austerely bent on his task of recording the Peloponnesian War yet at times revealing a sort of private humanity which he shares with all of us.

When a historian is primarily a philosopher of history and secondly a historian, as in the case of Hegel or Spengler, such a bifurcation of the professional and the personal is conceivable. Because the pattern is conceived first, born of the impact of some set of facts on the individual artist before the set of facts has taken artistic form. When this takes place, the particular foibles of the philosopher-historian can, at moments, crack the mold he has created. But when, as is true of Thucydides, the concrete particular, in its completeness, is both the form and the totality of the philosophy, the personal cannot intrude. What he has seen, detail by detail, is the story, and the story has major implications; but the implications spring from the story, not the story from a theory. The personal, in such a case, enters only when the historian selects his subject in the first place; it does not appear as an addendum or an interruption in the treatment of the subject.

More than this. If we look again at the three passages quoted, we can see a common link in the moral comment. All three passages deal with men or events which are peculiarly within the realm of chance rather than in that of necessity.

In the case of Mycalessus, Thucydides stresses this. The soldiers who did the deed were mercenaries who came late for the operation to which they were assigned; it was a mere casual chance that they were sent back by way of Boeotia and that the instructions they received—to do all the harm to the enemy that they could en route—led them in the most accidental way upon this wretched Boeotian village. Mycalessus itself, witness its fallen and crumbling walls and its sense of utter security, was a place in no sense suited to play a role in this war. Melos might and naturally did become a bone of contention between Athens and Sparta; an island inhabited by Dorians siding with neither Athens nor Sparta is bound in terms of the logic of the war to suffer. But Mycalessus need not have, as far as this same logic went, and it is for that reason that Thucydides pities it.

The same sort of pattern is discernible in the story of Nicias and his relation to the Sicilian expedition. He did not want such an expedition at all and least of all wanted to command it, as we learn from Book vi. Being, in spite of his own intentions, elected general, he is, then, in a purely fortuitous way, deprived of the two assistants who could have made it a success: of Lamachus by death and of Alcibiades by desertion. He makes another desperate effort to get rid of the command following on his first failure, when he demands reinforcements so large that he assumes the Athenians will refuse and a successor to himself because of his incapacitation through illness. He succeeds in neither request. Fatally, the Athenians sent another army so large that he had no excuse left for failure; and they affirm their confidence in him by insisting on his retention of office. Finally, when beaten in the battle in the harbor, he might still have withdrawn his forces relatively intact, but the eclipse of the moon intervening found his superstitious weak spot, and the result of his enforced delay is the complete destruction of the army and himself.

The peculiar poignancy of Nicias' position is further emphasized when we bear in mind that he was, in his own esteem and in that of the Athenians, a very lucky general. He comes before us time and again with his uneasy reliance upon good fortune. Thucydides tells us that he was especially anxious to negotiate the peace of 421 which bears his name, because so far his good luck in generalship had been unbroken and he wished to have the record of a general never defeated. He had "lived all his life in accordance with what is popularly considered virtue" and with the timid caution of one who has been lucky and knows that luck can change. And the result of his "popular virtue" and his caution about luck is to be involved himself and involve his country in the most prodigious catastrophe she had ever experienced.

There is, I believe, in these two passages the sense of Thucydides' awe in the face of chance. Thucydides was not a superstitious man; he plainly did not believe that chance was our name for God's contrivances or that the area which Diodotus labeled "chance" is really the pattern of destiny. But, I think, the peculiar ironies of chance inspired him with a kind of horror, and in these two instances, that of a well-meaning, decent, and incompetent man, meaninglessly enmeshed in a task demanding enormous skill, and the simple little country town with its men and women, children and animals, senselessly slaughtered by a hired mercenary army for no conceivable military purpose, the disproportion between the people and their fate awakened a human pity which is nonetheless explicable according to his own theory of history and its development.

The last instance—that of the comment on the Constitution of the Five Thousand—is much harder to place. The Constitution of the Five Thousand is certainly not peculiarly the product of chance, nor does chance in connection with it exhibit the irony which is remarkable in the case of Nicias and the village of Mycalessus. On the other hand, there is perhaps another way of seeing the Constitution of the Five Thousand as a thing not directly growing out of the necessity of history—thus explaining Thucydides' comment on it. In the chapter on stasis Thucydides says: "In peace and good times both states and individuals show better judgment because they do not fall into necessities which are too strong for will or intention." The "better" here probably indicates the same kind of moral comment as the "best" applied to the government of the Five Thousand: that is to say, in both cases "better" and "best" refer to some sort of moral excellence which is no longer possible when the stress of circumstances "likens the temper of most men to their circumstances."

This is further supported if we seek for a definition of "better" in the chapters on stasis and for "best" in that section dealing with the Constitution of the Five Thousand. The gist of the chapter on stasis is that the proper qualities of man in a state of normalcy—courage, caution, decency, and intelligence—become superseded by peculiar distortions in fact, such as insensate daring, ruthlessness, and universal suspicion, and that the use of the moral terms also changes. The distorted extremes received the moral titles due to their normal counterparts. In the chapter on the Constitution of the Five Thousand, Thucydides cannot mean that the "best government" is best in the sense that it will help Athens win the war, for the first actions of this government are directed toward a peace with Sparta. The reason he gives himself for the attribution of "best" is true and significant. "For it was a blend of the few and the many, and this was the first thing that lifted the city out of its ill condition." The conflict of the few and the many is the basis of stasis, and stasis Thucydides stamps as the peculiar internal condition resulting from external war.

In other words, allowing for the basic drives of human nature which lead to the potentiality of war between states and the potentialities of war within the society between the few who have and the many who have not, the actualization of human aggressiveness in war and in faction represents the hysterical condition at which point moral comment is no longer significant, since man's capacity is now entirely limited by circumstances, and neither his will nor his intention has any free play. At such a time the art of politics finds its proper exercise, since it is pre-eminently the art of understanding necessity and operating within the possibilities afforded by necessity. But the area where moral comment is in order is only that in which human beings can be regarded as in some sense operating with freedom to choose between one alternative and another without the direct force of necessity constraining them.

This latter is the case with the Constitution of the Five Thousand. It was, in a way, an academic experiment, since it tried to cure, in a root-and-branch fashion, the basic disease of the Athenian state, the conflict of the few and the many. It did this in preference to setting the winning of the war first, as the democrats would have it, or the establishment of a stable government, by fiat, as the extreme oligarchs wanted. It belongs in one of the rare breathing spaces between the compulsive assaults of necessity and embodies an effort by men consciously and freely to choose, theoretically, a better state. And it is in this spirit that Thucydides comments on it.

Summing up the three passages, we can state the result like this. Thucydides saw a struggle between good and bad in an individual man or a situation as worthy of comment only when the man or the situation belongs in the region which lies outside the direct control of necessity. Thus the chance destruction of Mycalessus and the chance which carried Nicias to be commander of the disastrous Sicilian expedition show, briefly, a piece of history which might have been different. In the light of its hypothetical difference the historian may and will comment morally. Again when an action can actually be consummated with the true possibility of choice—that is, when it proceeds from men's freedom of decision rather than the compulsion of necessity—a moral comment can be significant. But moral comment is out of place in the discussion of the war and the empire, for here are only the final and natural responses to a continuous process of circumstances, and what men ought to do in regard to the war and the empire should be dictated only by the necessity of coping with the existing situation.

Beyond Necessity

Though the comments we have last discussed are probably to be integrated in this theory of history as I have shown, they do not reveal the most significant attitude of Thucydides as a historian. In a sense this is quite evident in the light of the manner in which they have been traditionally explained. Had there not existed a very marked contradiction between these passages and the general spirit of the rest of the narrative, so many scholars would not have tried to see them as sentimental inserts or taken them at their face value as sarcastic comment. The analysis we have pursued so far does in fact show why there is this discrepancy of tone. In the passages on Nicias, Mycalessus, and the Constitution of the Five Thousand, Thucydides is remarking on phenomena which in a special way belong outside the realm of necessity. The Archaeology and the Fifty Years combined with certain of the speeches indicate to us what he considered the necessity of history to be and the qualities required by statesmen who would be true statesmen in the light of this necessity. What we must try to do now is to discuss where within this area—the necessity of history—the highest praise is given—to statesman and to state. When men's free will is effectually curbed by circumstances, and when chance does not obviously confuse the issue—in other words, in the true domain of politics—where does Thucydides find his highest value?

We can start from a passage which is puzzling enough in itself, unless we find the explanation we are seeking. Antiphon, according to Thucydides, was the intellect that dominated the extreme party of the oligarchs, the party, that is, that installed and maintained the reign of terror in 411. Here are the historian's own words: "The man who brought forward the proposal and to all outward appearance was the most energetic in destroying the democracy was Peisander; but the one who engineered the whole business and the manner in which it was brought to this pass and had thought most deeply about its contrivance was Antiphon, a man among the Athenians of his day second to none in virtue."

The word "virtue," unqualified, stands in the sharpest contrast to that in the verdict on Nicias, "what is considered virtue." A little research into the deeds chronicled of each figure amplifies what our conception of the two virtues should be. The violence of the oligarchs of Antiphon's party is quite clearly noted by Thucydides. There was a reign of terror in which order was maintained by judiciously selected secret executions. Thucydides' cool words of this demand attention: "And they killed certain men, though not very many, who seemed to be suitable ones to remove, and threw others into prison and banished others." In a sense, the whole record of Nicias, with his hesitation and irresolution and general tendency not to do the effective and ruthless thing, stands in the strongest contrast to this; but it is capped, as it were, by the pathetic note in his last speech to his soldiers: "I am in the same danger and hazard as the lowliest of you; I am no stronger than any of you—indeed you can see how my sickness prostrates me. Yet in my private life and otherwise I think my good fortune has previously been second to none. I have lived with much devotion to the gods and much justice in the sight of men and have merited no man's grudge."

It is hazardous, of course, to take a man's own judgment on himself as the historian's, but when the narrative, the historian's verdict, and the general's own speech all jibe, there can be little reason for rejecting the total portrait of Nicias as the presentation of a well-meaning incompetence, just as surely as Thucydides' comments on Antiphon and his party lead us to form a picture of ruthless efficiency. In other words, "conventional virtue" and the virtue of the statesman according to necessity are at opposite poles. We might notice too that the phrase in the general description of Antiphon, "the ablest in forming conceptions and in giving them voice," recalls another similar passage. This is Pericles' description of the duties of statesmen, in which the emphasis falls exactly on these two qualities with the same words: the need for forming conceptions and being able to express them. We might remember also the passage on Themistocles:

"Themistocles was a man who showed most certainly the strength of a native talent and for this is more worth our admiration than any other. By virtue of his peculiar understanding, without previous study to better or supplement it, he was the shrewdest judge of those crises that admit of virtually no deliberation and the best guesser at the future to its utmost limit. That which he had in hand he was always able to give an account of and was not incompetent to judge sufficiently well even that of which he was inexperienced. The future he foresaw, both for better and worse, to a remarkable extent. In a word, by brilliant natural gifts with the minimum of application he was the ablest man at improvising necessary measures."

The negative part of an inference from the use of "virtue" in the Antiphon passage is thus established. It is clear that the virtue Thucydides is praising in Antiphon has essentially nothing to do with mercy or humanity. We can also be sure of this in regard to Pericles, whose words on the empire we would do well to remember: "To acquire the empire may have been unjust: it is dangerous to let it go. You must remember that you hold a tyrant power." Is there any other attribute which can be exercised from the blanket definition of Antiphon's virtue which will help us to understand Thucydides' comment in a more general way?

Yes. Surely, according to Thucydides, the virtue of the statesman need not carry with it success. Neither Themistocles, Pericles, nor Antiphon was successful— personally successful, at least. That is to say, each of them achieved an enormous political task, the one the building of the long walls and the fleet to make the new empire, the second the extension of the empire and its preparation for the war, and the third the destruction of the democracy. But, in each case, the judgment of the multitude at some point intervened to wreck the purely personal satisfaction in achievement. Themistocles died in exile, a guest of the Persian king he had helped to defeat; Pericles at the end of his life was disgraced by the democracy he had led so long, even though in the last few months of his life he was reinstated; Antiphon was finally tried and executed by the people. Yet Thucydides tells us that Themistocles was "more worthy of our admiration than any other man in history," that Pericles was a single statesman of unique caliber in Athens' record, and that Antiphon was second to none of the Athenians in his day in virtue. Personal success, then, cannot be a necessary factor in the attributes of greatness, according to Thucydides. This is the more noteworthy, since, for him, foresight and efficiency are the prerequisites of a good statesman.

What do we find, then, positively, on the side of the statesman who commands Thucydides' admiration and the attribution of admiration? The achievement of a deed notable in terms of his own History, be that deed good or bad according to conventional Greek morality. More than that. The achievement must rise to the stature of uniqueness. As Thucydides felt that the historical significance of his time with its clash of these two great empires was unique, so uniqueness is for him, in a way, a guaranty of the importance of a given event. The fleet and the long walls; Athens' extraordinary endurance in the war; the destruction of the Athenian liberties of a hundred years' duration—all these have, for Thucydides, the stamp of singleness and the stamp of greatness. This is perhaps the very key to the personal failure of the statesmen, for the multitude cannot be taken along as a willing partner in the achievement of unique greatness. They constitute the difficulties to be overcome, the barrier that tests the strength of the assailant. And so, when the task is done, the many and the one relapse into their natural condition of antagonism, and, when the conflict becomes personal, the one must be beaten. But in the strange impersonality of selfsacrifice, in the desperate power and will to create something greater than the reach of a single man's ambition or benevolence, Thucydides found that which he called "virtue."

The life of nations for Thucydides is all of a piece in the early stages: the struggle for existence and then the struggle for supremacy. The object of interest for the nation in its historical development is dynamis, power, and this means dominion over others. Fear and greed are the driving motives on the road to imperialism, and there is no turning back. Yet in the course of the development there is a moment when these two factors are not the only ones. There is, as the Athenian envoys state it, honor. In the greatness of the thing created, the empire, there is a quality different from the qualities which created it; it is great in itself and for itself, and honor is its due from all.

The historical moment cannot, perhaps, last long; yet its greatness and dignity is the magnet of the historian's attention, and its decline the most penetrating exhibition of political motives, failures, and successes that can be offered him. Here is the significant recurring thing for Thucydides. That men struggle to live and then to dominate one another individually and nationally is a recurrent theme but does not attain any precision of form until their concerted and collective efforts have built a great monument to their individual greed and fear. In the hour that they honor that monument not only as the source of their own material well-being but as something apart from them, greater than them and worthy of their sacrifice, the greatest development of man, as Thucydides saw him, greatest politically and socially, has been attained. And, correspondingly, as the moment has called forth the most subtle and sophisticated sentiments of man living in a political society, its balance is rare and precarious. Overnight it dissolves again into an association of men, fearful and greedy.

History would be, then, for Thucydides, a series of significant mountains, the peaks rising at intervals in the endless chain. And, for the historian, the greatness and symmetrical proportions of the great thing that was made became valuable for their own sake, though, of course, the very appreciation of the greatness and the proportions implies a historian's emphasis. It is not hard to put this aspect of Thucydides' study together with his avoidance of conventional moral judgments, both on men and on the corporate political entities which they constitute and, more important still, with the inclusion of the few rather strange judgments we possess. The conventional moral judgment is, from his point of view, a failure on the level of significance. The ordinarily denominated virtues of man are not significant, in Thucydides' eyes, since they are not for him the genuinely predisposing factor in the creation of power; and only in power, in the building of something bigger than himself, is the peculiar excellence of the pressure of truly compulsive forces, fear and greed and their occasions—and the ability to transcend them within limits.

Yet the transcendence has no object; it must be its own object. This will hold good for the statesman and the state and the historian alike. The great statesman is the man who governs, not for his own advantage or necessarily for the good of the governed (which would be the classical statement), but for the continued dignity and survival of the state which in Athens has its characteristic expression in power, wealth, and extent. The great state, like Athens, will seek no models but in itself be the object of imitation, living in the radiance of its own beauty and magnitude. The greatness of the history is in its truth and its significance; that it serves no man's delight or vanity or affiliation; that thus the events were and thus they will be again, since they are truly described and of the order that will recur.

Among statesmen a unique position in the history is occupied by Pericles, and it is to Pericles and Periclean Athens that we must look for the most significant expression of Thucydides' admiration.

There are only three speeches of Pericles reported in the History. They are the speech in which he advocates the declaration of war, the famous Funeral Speech, delivered over those that had fallen, and the speech in which he defends himself against the people's dissatisfaction with his conduct of the war. These three speeches peculiarly express the spirit of the city of Athens as she entered on her long struggle, and, apart from their significance inside Thucydides' History, they probably constitute the most extraordinary document we possess revealing the relation between the leading statesman and his people in a naked and unqualified democracy.

The first aspect of all three speeches that may surprise us is their frankness. It is not often that before a democratic electorate a politician can reveal his hopes and fears almost exactly as they must appear to himself, though perhaps in this there are signs of what Thucydides describes as Pericles' odd attitude to the people: "He dominated them, but in a spirit of freedom." For instance, in the first speech—that in which he urges the declaration of war—he warns the assembly that they may be inclined to feel quite different about the war when they are in it than when they are contemplating it as a future possibility. This, he tells us, is the wrong thing to do. "For it is possible for the outcome of events to proceed no less stupidly than the plans of men: that is why we are used to blame chance for whatever happens to us unexpectedly."

In the last speech in the History, where Pericles is forced to defend himself against unjust resentment in the early years of the war, he unhesitatingly lays the blame where it belongs: on the plague and the people's suffering under it which makes them unfair in their estimate of himself. He then proceeds to try to make them realize the true possibilities of success temporarily concealed from them by their immediate defection. Yet, as he does so, he cheerfully reveals to them that there is a secret in mastering them; that he is not handling them as man to man.

"As to your fears of your sufferings in this war, lest it grow so great that we can no longer surmount it—let suffice for you what I have told you before on the many occasions when I proved that your suspicions about the war were incorrect: yet I will add this one further matter on the greatness of your empire, something I am sure you have not thought of before yourselves nor have I made mention of it in my former speeches to you. Even now I would not have introduced this thing; for its presentation is somewhat too imposing—but that I see that you are unreasonably depressed. You think that your empire is over the allies alone; but I will show you this: there are two elements of the world for use, land and sea, and of the one you are total masters for as far as you now exercise that mastery and further if you please. No one, neither the Great King nor any other people on earth at present, will successfully repel you if you sail against them with the fleet you have now."

Here we are not concerned for the moment with the calm arrogance of the speech—that will be important later—but with the frankness it exhibits toward his audience. There is so clearly the implication that he is managing them, as of right of character and talent; that he knows the correct parts of the case to put now and at another time. And he tells them just this: I would not have thought it advisable to produce an argument that is so arrogant in fact but that I see you irrationally depressed, and so I find that a little more of the naked truth than usual is necessary to restore you to a sensible frame of mind. Here is the note of complete personal responsibility, without the blessing of divine sanction or hereditary legitimacy; and here is equally the undeviating openness of one who informs those whom he controls that his judgment is better than theirs and that only exceptional circumstances such as the present make it necessary for him to show them the deepest factors in his calculations.

But the frankness of these speeches is only one side of their basic character, and that may be summed up by saying that they are concerned with man and nothing but man. It is extraordinary in such speeches as these— one contemplating the city's engagement in a long war, one spoken in praise of the dead, one defending a leader suspected because of what was accidental mischance— that, with the exception of one insignificant and quite colorless reference, there should be no mention of divine guidance, divine blessing, or even, in a merely sentimental allusion, fatherland's gods.

That this is no general Greek practice, if we need convincing on the matter, we can see from Thucydides' own observations on the last speech of Nicias to his troops before their final battles in Sicily: "He said other things which men in such a contingency are apt to say, not guarding against appearing to anyone to talk platitudes, about women and children and gods of our country, things continually brought forward in the same form on behalf of all causes, yet in the presence of an existing emergency men judge them useful and urge them." But Pericles even in crisis will guard against seeming to talk platitudes. He shares with his hearers—knows it and draws his power from it—the knowledge that he and they are not like those of another age or another state who will bolster their hopes or their fears or even their sorrow by reference to beliefs outworn and dead. The city which is committed to the war, the city whose lovers the dead were over whom Pericles made his speech, was a manmade thing and existed only by the will and sacrifice of its men.

Here is the explanation of the strength of the materialistic appeal of Pericles to the citizens of Athens. They enjoy the products of the ends of the earth as natively as those of Attica. They may live their lives as they please, and no one may interfere. They are not harried by the demands of a harsh and continuous military service. Because, in a certain sense, the city is theirs and from beginning to end exhibits the immediate choice of its inhabitants, not the influence of tradition or sanctions imposed from outside. And in his final assessment of the city's chances against Sparta, Pericles, in the spirit of his city, describes the world as something essentially for use: earth and sea are for use, either in war or peace. In such a statement there is nothing of a reverence or an awe before something greater than man or even merely alien to him; nor is there any hesitation involved in balancing various intricate factors, some subject to human control and some not, which can go to the resolution of a military dilemma. There is the starkly bare statement of basic determining areas of conflict and power. Athens is master, absolute master, of one element. She is therefore virtually bound to win the war, in a land like Greece where in war or in peace the sea is the source of power. These speeches are exceedingly direct, and man is the center of the universe in the mouth of the speaker and the minds of the hearers.

Yet there is a very remarkable impersonality in the man-made object, the city for which the human sacrifice is demanded. The fathers and mothers who have lost their sons are urged to have more children: "For as far as you are concerned as individuals the children that are successors to those that are gone shall be a forgetfulness of these, and, for the state, this will profit her doubly, since she will not be left empty of men and shall be safer besides; for there is no giving of just or even counsel on the part of those who risk their children on the consequences of their advice and those who do not: these two parties are not on the same footing." Here we see that the reason for new children is largely at least to preserve the city and not only in respect to numbers but, subtly, because only those who have their most precious human possessions to lose will take sufficient thought for the considerations of state policy! The more one thinks of this, the more one sees that the city, "the praises of which, as I have spoken of them, are such in virtue of the fair deeds of her sons," is not only man-made; she has attained an independent existence such that her preservation means more than the happiness or misery of all her inhabitants.

This position is still considerably removed from the forms of state worship we have come to know later, because, in the first place, it is a state the total scope of which is itself—it does not, for Pericles, embody an ideal that is greater than it; and, in the second place, he contemplates its destruction at some future day, when the glory of it will be the only thing left.

"You must realize that your city has the greatest renown among all mankind for not yielding to misfortune, that it has spent more men's bodies and pains on war than any other, and that it has obtained the greatest power that the world has yet seen up to now. Even if we shall one day in this time come to disaster—and this we may, for everything that is born decays too— the memory of that power shall be everlasting: that we were Greeks and ruled more Greeks than any others had; that in the greatest wars we held our own against them all and individually; and that our city was the greatest and the most abundant in everything." You must disregard the hatred of your subjects, he says, for "hatred does not abide for long, but the brilliance you have now and the repute hereafter are all that are left for everlasting memory."

The bareness of this, in all its abstractness, is terrible enough. Glory is all that remains, yet the glory is not of the victory of a principle, a faith, or a civilization; it is glory that attaches ultimately to defeat as well as to victory, a memory held in awe, in which the blackest deeds against Greek morality have their place as truly as the love of beauty and wisdom, the story of a city whose greatness is lovely and untouchable, created by man but not responsible to him, knowing no God and no life beyond itself.

And Thucydides' conception of his own worth as a writer is closely linked with the value he saw in the war and its political setting. Slowly and painfully he left behind the values of the poets and the logographers. He did not want to entertain nor did he wish to record great and glorious events, "that their memory might not be lost from among men … or fail of their due distinction." That which is true and that which is permanent are what he wanted to record, and what was true and permanent in the nature of man reflected in the deeds of fifth-century Greece was rarely entertaining and hardly ever glorious. Harsh, brutal, and bloody as the deeds were, he must face them with no comforting possibility of moralizing them away against a prospect of a necessarily brighter future or a universal good design of divine origin. To realize them in their true meaning, to divest himself of hope of things different and of unmeaning resentment at things as they were, to cling bitterly and doggedly to explaining the cold-bloodedness and brutality in terms that could at least be verified after the fashion of his world, became the whole duty of the historian. As his work attained its peculiar austere perfection, perhaps Thucydides felt a kinship with Pericles, who sought no glory and no reward except in the creation of something greater than himself, yet a something rooted in the brutal truths of the life around him.

Pericles is great because, though he rose on the fear and greed of his countrymen, though the empire he built was built on fear and greed, he and perhaps it transcended this fear and greed. He feared nothing and was greedy for nothing. He cowed the people when they were overconfident and heartened them when they were downcast. Everyone knew that money could not tempt him. And it is because of this that he stood above all his fellows, and it is through the defect of this quality of disinterestedness that his successors reduced all again to the level of their fears and greeds and ruined both the state and themselves.

And the city of Athens, the national equivalent of Pericles among individuals? Is she not the school of Greece? However she may have robbed the allies to build the Parthenon and robbed the Greek city-states of the freedom they treasured, she had become, as the Funeral Speech indicates, something greater than all this. She had become a model of human society, tolerant and gracious, now that the days of conquering were over. In the Athens of Pericles Thucydides saw something great and admirable which compelled his intellectual homage and his emotional acceptance as nothing else did. If one believed that the history of man politically is a story of greed, strife, and fear, and their working in the society created by them, there was still a time when these passions had for a historical moment been immobilized in a balanced beauty and strength, and Periclean Athens was this historical moment. The enormous wealth which the commercial democracy alone could create—as Thucydides so well knew—was here to set off dramatically the symbols of Athenian rule: The Athenian can eat at his table the fruits of the ends of the earth as commonly as the olives of neighboring Attica.

Yet the democracy whose dynamic was greed and fear and whose might was the offspring of that greed and fear was held in check by a single autocrat whose rule it accepted because he was not as other men were. In this voluntary acquiescence of the vulgar, in this submission to the statesman who neither flattered nor feared them but who put heart into them or made them tremble with the witchcraft of his own aloof certainty, Thucydides may have seen the transcendence of the materialism in which he believed. Here was power as it truthfully was, based on fear, pride, and greed, yet it touched something too magical for measurement.

F. E. Adcock (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8353

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, whether it was before he began to write the narrative which follows, or after he had written his account of the antecedents of the war that broke out in 431 or at some later date after he had had a quorum of experience in writing the History or, perhaps more probably, when he had written his account of the Ten Years War or, even conceivably, at the end of the twenty-seven years that began in 431 B.C. and went on until the fall of Athens. It is wise to suppose that he meant what he said and was at pains to say what he meant.

If this is so, then his readers have been warned that the speeches are not, and could not be for reasons stated, the ipsissima verba of the speakers.

This does not imply that, if he had before him a complete record of what was actually said, he would have decided to reproduce it, even after a sort of translation of the words into his own style and dialect, and so give the actual text of what was said. We are told, indeed, that, in composing his speeches, the historian kept as closely as possible to 'the overall purport or purpose of what was actually said', written in such a way as to coincide with his opinion of what the several speakers would most likely have presented to their hearers as being 'what the situation required'. The reference to his own opinion presents a limiting factor one way, as his reference to the 'overall purport or purpose of what was actually said' is a limiting factor in another way. Thus, when the procedure has been applied, the reader will know something at least of what the historian regarded as what the situation required and an approximation at least to what was actually said. Thucydides limits his knowledge in terms of the difficulty (or even impossibility) of remembering precisely what was said.

The speeches to which this caveat applies are speeches which he heard himself or of which he received reports from others who were present when and where speeches were made. Frailty of memory would only concern him where he inserts a speech in his history, and it is natural to assume that he does not in fact insert speeches of which he cannot have had at any rate some information. So far as this procedure is applied, it seems to preclude the insertion of speeches when he does not know something at least of what was actually said. This means that, where this procedure applies, all the speeches we have are based upon some knowledge. Under this procedure no speech would appear where no speech was made, for no one can have any knowledge of a speech which never existed.

To insert speeches with no knowledge at all of their actual content would be so notable a departure from this procedure that it is very difficult to believe that he would not have warned his readers that such a departure has been made. A very heavy burden of proof rests upon those who assert that this happened, and a study of the relevant circumstances strongly suggests that Thucydides did not insert in his history speeches which are wholly fictitious in the sense that they have no basis whatever of ascertained fact. And it is very difficult to escape from the conclusion that at whatever time he announced this procedure he intended it to apply to the whole work in which it occurs.

It may be possible to suppose that, at times, he took more freedom in the interpretation of what material he had, but hardly possible to suppose that this freedom extended to the insertion of speeches which are wholly imaginary and without any basis of ascertained fact. There may be differences between the closeness to reality of different speeches varying with Thucydides' sources of information.

For example, as regards the speech of Sthenelaidas at Sparta, if Thucydides was informed of the exceptional voting procedure applied by the ephor, he would presumably also be informed of 'the overall purport and purpose of what was actually said' by him. Here and there, it is just possible that Thucydides assumed that a general encouraged his troops before battle, as Nicias is said to do before the first engagement against the Syracusan levies, and that he felt himself on firm ground when he attributed to Nicias the encouragement of saying that his army was more experienced than the Syracusan levies, as became almost apparent by the course of the battle. It was so much what the situation required that he might conceivably have taken it for granted. But this ought not to apply to deliberative speeches on policy.

It is often asserted that such a deliberative speech could not have taken its present form because no Assembly could have followed the arguments as they listened to the orator declaiming them. But the speeches we possess are not so unintelligible as that, even if they require the reader to give close attention to what he read. What Thucydides wrote is for his readers to peruse at their leisure with the text before them, and with the custom of reading aloud, so that they could study their meaning with knowledge of where their study was difficult. The writer may diverge from the ipsissima verba of the speeches, but does his best 'to come as nearly as possible' to what matters most, 'the overall purport or purpose of what was actually said'. It is not enough to say that he restricted himself to what the speakers were convinced was true, for now and again he makes a speaker say something which he knows the speaker cannot have believed to be true or something which he himself cannot have believed to be true in fact. He is well aware that speakers making a case for some policy or action may say things which neither the historian nor the speaker believe to be true. The simplest and most certain example of this is the false statement attributed to Brasidas about the identity of his army before Acanthus with his army before Megara some months before. Brasidas must have known that it was false, and Thucydides in a later passage says that it was, and this could not be due to information not yet at his disposal when he wrote the speech he attributes to Brasidas. Brasidas, too, knew at the time that it was false, although his Acanthian hearers did not. Where there was a difference between what appears in a speech and what has appeared in the narrative we must suppose that the truth as Thucydides sees it is to be found in the narrative, which is directed to the statement of what happened in a way the words of an orator may not be. It is a fault in method to treat these statements otherwise, and not to admit that a speech may contain a statement at variance with the facts, but 'an approximation to the purport or purpose of what was in fact said', and that is all.

These considerations do not greatly diminish the value to a historian of what appears in a speech: what is needed is a critical and careful evaluation of what the reader reads, after the warning which he has received. A speaker may therefore fail to give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what is given deserves close attention within the limits which Thucydides has set himself after giving the reader warning of what he is doing.

As a rule, the circumstances of speeches, when carefully studied, reveal a possibility of this required quota of knowledge. This possibility applies to speeches which scholars have declared to possess no such basis of knowledge as gives to them an element at least of authenticity. It may be illustrated by three instances of speeches in which any element of authenticity has often been denied.

Take first the speech of Athenian envoys at the first Conference at Sparta. That Athenian envoys were present and were allowed to intervene is stated as a fact of equal authority with other events which are being described. It is a priori probable that Pericles would wish to know what was being said at Sparta. It was not alien from Greek procedure to admit their presence and to allow them to speak. If they were not present and so did not speak, the statement that they were would be known to be false by the time at which he may have expected to publish his account of the war to which they were a preamble: whatever we may think of the suitability of the speech, it is very rash to deny that a speech was made by Athenian envoys.

Secondly, we may consider the Plataean and Theban speeches after the surrender of the city. That speeches were made is beyond serious doubt. But how could Thucydides have any direct knowledge about their content and general purport or purpose? As for the Plataean speech, Thucydides, in a way that is an exception to his usual practice, names the speakers. One of them was Lacon, proxenos of Sparta, who could very properly have been in favour of capitulation on terms which included a fair judgment by the Spartans. If that was so, he could affirm that he had done Sparta a service, for the capitulation was in Sparta's interests. And if he did, his life would be spared and so the historians could discover at first or second hand the gist of his plea. As for what the Thebans said in reply, this could be known to him at least as soon as the armistice of 423-422 enabled the historian to make inquiries about it, at Thebes or elsewhere. It need not be just a fictitious refutation of what the Plataeans said.

Finally, we reach the Melian Dialogue (V, 85-113). The occasion is not just a fiction. That there were negotiations is beyond doubt. It was the duty of the Athenian generals to secure, if possible, the surrender of the city without recourse to a siege. And the Dialogue is highly realistic and to the point for that purpose. The general trend of the arguments on either side was known to the Athenian negotiators, who would report to Athens, not, of course, in a procès-verbal of the discussions but their general character, if only to show they had done their best for their purpose.

The same would be true of the report which the Melian representatives must have made to their fellow citizens, some of whom, if only those who betrayed the city, were spared. We must also suppose that the first thing the Melians did before the Athenian lines were drawn round their city was to send to Sparta to ask for help, reporting at least the trend of the negotiations. If so, this could reach Thucydides, who, if he was not at Sparta at the time could find out what was known there from whatever source. If this is so, and the possibility seems to be beyond doubt, Thucydides could procure the knowledge that he needed in order to recount, in the form of a dialogue, the general course of the discussion.

These are important instances of speeches, or of a dialogue as a substitute for set speeches, which scholars have too hastily regarded as going wholly beyond the historian's knowledge. He could know enough for his purpose, which was to assist his readers to study 'the plain reality of what happened'.

Granted that in all, or practically all, the speeches there is an authentic element, there is to be found also a stylistic character which is uniform throughout them all. This is immediately apparent, and does not require justification. It is assumed that his readers are familiar with the old-fashioned Attic which is used for the narrative. There is no attempt at the vraisemblance that might be suggested by a variation between the vocabulary and syntactical usage of Pericles or any other Athenian of the day and the laconic Doric in which we assume the kings or ephors would address the Spartan Apella. The army which Archidamus addressed at the Isthmus before the invasion of Attica contained officers who spoke in the dialects of their cities; the troops of Brasidas were in part helots, in part men from Peloponnesian states, but it would not occur to a Greek reader that they might not all equally well understand what their commander was saying. What mattered was the reader. This diction was not an absolute rule, or a literary convention from which Thucydides could not free himself, as he does when it comes to the citation of a treaty written in Doric in v, 77 and 79. It was convenient, the more as the argumentation used by the historian was conceived of in his own speech as well as thought.

This argumentation proceeds throughout in much the same manner with the use of gnomic generalizations to assist the deployment of the dialectic which is uniform throughout as is the addiction to antitheses, above all between 'word' and 'act'. The vulgarian Cleon can echo what Pericles had been made to say with the same forcible dignity. Now and again, in some terse and bold, almost contemptuous, aphorism, we may seem to hear Alcibiades, or Nicias in the words of his conventional piety. If the style may be the man, the man may use the style, but with economical delicacy of touch. To the dialectical force of a Pericles Cleon may add his natural violence, the partner of his persuasiveness. The moral is that Thucydides is the master of his own style and not the slave of any literary convention.

One hint of his masterful way is a liking for paradox, which, as it were, calls to attention the hearers of the speeches by a sharp emphasis which challenges normality. The historian had taken with him into exile a formed and consistent style which, indurated by constant use, stayed with him to the end of his work.

There is one apparent change in the historian's practice which it is not easy to explain. In Book v between Brasidas' speech before the battle of Amphipolis and the Melian Dialogue, and throughout the whole of Book VIII, no set speeches occur. It has been thought that Book VIII was unfinished and would have contained speeches had it received its final form. But when its diction is examined, it does not appear to be less finished than some other of the books. Some scholars have stressed a pronouncement attributed to Cratippus that the historian decided to abandon the use of set speeches because they hampered the pace of the narrative and presented difficulties to the readers [Dionysius of Halicarnassus]. There is no agreement whether Cratippus was a younger contemporary of Thucydides and so might have been in his counsels, or whether he was a later writer who was just giving his own deduction from the absence of set speeches, a deduction which is no more than his own. The most probable explanation is that Book VIII contains no debate of the first importance and that if Thucydides had thought of introducing such a debate at the time of the oligarchical revolution of 411 B.C. he might have preferred to wait until he could obtain more information on his hoped-for return to Athens. For whatever reason he did not carry out this intention: there is no sign that he introduced into his work matter to be discovered later at Athens, such as is cited in Aristotle's Constitution of Athens (29 ff.).

The oligarchic revolution was shortlived and transient in its effects, and Thucydides may have been content with what is found in Book VIII as we have it. In that book we find more of Thucydides' judgment of the personalities and of their policies than elsewhere in the works, and this, taken in conjunction with some reports of speeches in Oratio Obliqua, may have seemed to give what was required. And if no more seemed needed, Thucydides may have spared himself the labour of composing set speeches.

It may be that this explanation may apply to a part of Book v after the Peace of Nicias if Thucydides wrote those chapters before he came to believe that they were an integral part of his whole work, so that he wrote with less élan and intensity of purpose than in earlier books. There are twelve set speeches in Books VI and VII, but these were written as belonging to a theme notable in its own right and then as part of a crescendo of emphasis as the expedition proceeded.

There is one speech, the Epitaphios of Pericles, which on one theory was written after the fall of Athens in protest against a movement that belittled Pericles and Periclean Athens with him. This theory gives to the speech a dramatic effect, partly as a contrast between the bright hopes of 431 B.C. and the dark shadow of the Plague in the next year, and partly as a contrast between the high hopes with which the war began and the disaster which overtook Athens at the end of the whole period of twenty-seven years. There may be discovered an elegiac note in the passage in which it is hinted that sacrifices it commemorates may be in vain. Years ago I accepted this thesis [Cambridge Ancient History,] but it now seems to me that I was mistaken in following what, at that time, was the dominant view, supported as it was by great names such as Eduard Meyer. It now appears to me that it was written in 431 B.C., while the voice of Pericles still sounded in the historian's ears—the authentic echo of what was demanded of the citizens in that hour. It is then, as other speeches are, closely linked to the situation of the moment, when the first year of the war had appeared to justify Periclean strategy. The fact that few Athenians had fallen in the cavalry skirmishes of that summer does not make it less worthy of record. Athens still stood splendid and united in love for the city, and this, together with the character of Athenian soci-ety, is celebrated at that very moment as it deserved. The moral declension that was to be described in the third book was still in the future.

There is one more point that deserves mention in this context. The almost amateurish courage of the Athenians is proclaimed as a match for the long-studied discipline of Sparta and her army. It is not easy to believe that this claim would have been made after the indiscipline and folly of Aegospotami had thrown away Athens' last hope of survival. Would not a speech so confident and so proud have seemed bitter irony to the historian if it was then that he wrote the speech? Thus, difficult as it is to be sure, it now seems to me that the picture of the high summer of Athenian power and warlike confidence was written at the moment when it was true. That bravery and self-devotion cannot command success is part of the historian's philosophy of war, and praise is due to those who meet the dangers of the moment, whatever the ultimate outcome may prove to be among the paradoxes and vicissitudes from which no war is exempt.

Whatever our conclusion may be about the date at which the Funeral Speech was written, it does not resolve a question which is perhaps beyond solution. This is how far the speech is dictated by Thucydides' own view of Athens and how far by his admiration for Pericles which led him to allow Pericles to think for him, so that we may only find in the speech praise of a community of which Pericles had been the spiritual and intellectual begetter. What may come nearest to the truth may be the conclusion that what Thucydides admired and what Pericles accepted with pride was 'in name a democracy, in deed rule exercised by the first citizen'. More will be said about this in a later chapter.

We may now turn to a group of speeches which may be considered by themselves. A battle, and a hoplite battle in particular, often began with generals' speeches on both sides. In a hoplite battle the speech is, as it were, part of the battle-cry which started the charge. Thucydides at Mantinea in 418 B.C. notes that the Spartans do not need this tonic and it is their business to keep their heads so as to be able to swing inwards and not merely rush at the enemy. The object of the speech before such a battle is to give the troops confidence in themselves, their cause and, incidentally, their general. It may go back to the Homeric practice of a man launching a phrase before he launches his spear or his close-quarters attack. But it has a more practical effect. In a naval battle, where signalling is difficult, it is desirable for the captains on ships to know the general's plan for the battle. It is also encouragement to discipline and obedience to orders or to dispel some cause of discouragement. But in smaller encounters Thucydides does not provide a general's speech, and hardly ever a pair of speeches, one to each side. In the two speeches of the Peloponnesian admirals and of Phormio in the Corinthian Gulf, the Peloponnesians are told to trust to their courage to make up for lack of trained skill, the Athenians to trust to discipline and trained skill to make up for their inferior numbers. The speech of Demosthenes at Pylos is answered not by a formal speech before the Spartan attack but by the vehement call of Brasidas to force a landing at all costs. Before Delium the speech of Pagondas is about why they should fight, of Hippocrates why they should hope to win. Before Trafalgar Nelson's signal in effect reminds the crews of their long acquired obedience to orders and of their reputation. It in a way combines the effect of both sets of speeches in the Corinthian Gulf.

Sometimes there is only one speech, that of the general who is about to win a victory or achieve a military success. The account of the battle is made more intelligible by the knowledge of what the general wanted to do. Sometimes there may be no speech because the general has not grasped the situation or because it changes after the operations have begun. For example, Demosthenes in Aetolia is not given a speech because he did not make one or anticipate the course of the fighting. At Sphacteria there are no speeches. Demosthenes does not explain beforehand how he proposes to achieve his purpose for no such speech is needed or could do good. Before Amphipolis Brasidas makes a speech, but Cleon, who was not expecting to fight, did not for he hardly directs the course of the battle. The two battle speeches, in Illyria and before Amphipolis, of Brasidas help to indicate his psychological appreciation of the enemy and of his own troops, and the speech of Phormio underlines the reason for Athenian naval supremacy and does not explain the course of the engagement that followed because this is not yet known. The speech of the Peloponnesian admirals before the battle underlines the theme of natural courage, rather than of the tactics which were going to be used. The speech of Demosthenes underlines the value of hope, when it is the only thing that helps. 'Hope is not a good guide, but is a good companion on the way.' It sets a determined Athenian against a determined Spartan. The speech of Nicias before the first engagement with the Syracusans states the fact that the experienced Athenian army can expect to be superior to a levy en masse of Syracusans. There is no Syracusan speech (perhaps because Thucydides did not know what they said, perhaps because there was no time for it to be made). Pagondas before Delium underlines his will to fight, and suggests that the Athenians had perhaps underrated the Boeotians' determination, so that the attack, of itself, would produce a psychological effect on the Athenians.

Sometimes the purpose of the speech is to underline the importance of the battle and the tactical chances of either side, as in the speeches before the battle in the Great Harbour. One might have expected a speech by Demosthenes before the night attack on Epipolae, but that was not a battle that really went according to plan and it is of course possible that Demosthenes in order to make sure of the advantage of surprise did not make a speech but concerted his plan secretly with the separate commanders. The speech of Nicias before the retreat (VII, 77) is part of the characterization of Nicias and stresses the gravity and indeed tragedy of the retreat.

Where battle is not actually joined there are no general's speeches. The letter of Nicias to the Athenians is not so much a speech as the Thucydidean account of the situation as Nicias saw it. The two speeches of Pericles which discuss the strategical balance of the sides in a future war are concerned with policy and overall strategy and not with battle tactics. It looks as if Thucydides felt he needed to know something of what was said to put his speech in the frame of an immediate operation. In general, Greek battles depended more on morale than on tactics, and the morale of troops is one branch of that psychological observation of human nature and behaviour that was Thucydides' constant study. In particular he makes the generals' speeches fit the psychology of the general and that of his troops. He underlines the awareness that Athenian troops have a quality of élan which may be brittle if anything happened to upset them. He has a valuation of the military quality of troops of different cities. The tactical conduct of the battle is not anticipated but is left to be revealed by the course of the engagement which follows, and this is true of the speeches of Brasidas to his troops before the battle in Illyria and the battle before Amphipolis.


Thucydides had grown up in a period in which men were prone to think by way of argument, by the shock of one thesis colliding with another. The notion that there are two sides to every question was an assumption preached by Protagoras, and illustrated in the Clouds of Aristophanes. It is obvious that statesmen in a community where decisions are reached by persuading a concourse of citizens to vote one way or another must prevail by argument which appeals to them. A general must make his troops so think and feel that their action will match the purpose of their commander. In most battles a vehement self-confidence, however induced, gives the best chance of victory. The Orders of the Day of the Emperor Napoleon or Field-Marshal Montgomery aim at achieving this. An army that lost heart had lost the battle. In the deliberations led by statemen something based more on intellectual calculation was required and dialectic was here the art of magnifying the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of any particular policy or course of action. To achieve this result any argument that could persuade was the right argument, and veracity, the servant and not the master of argument, is a weapon among others, a means and not an end.

At the time when Thucydides was learning his trade, a most potent argument was the argument from probability, which, as Aristotle was to say in his Rhetoric, relies upon the confusion of a general with a particular probability. More and more, the Greeks had become vulnerable to the lures of this argument which was now practised in the courts. Hence we may expect to find, as we do, that speeches often begin with a generalizing maxim, of which the present thesis is asserted to be an instance. Prone to believe that what is often true is always true, a Greek Assembly might be attuned to an orator's purpose. A skilful use of this dialectical argument may flatter, while it deceives, the hearer's intelligence. The converse of this, an apparent paradox, appeals to the quick-witted, for it suggests that the hearer is cleverer than his neighbours. It is thus asserted that a man who allows something to happen is as responsible as a man who takes positive action to bring it about. This is not always so in real life, but it is tempting to believe it with an uncritical readiness. It is what Bacon might have called an idolum fori. A sharp distinction between what is said and what is actual fact is an argument in itself, and this distinction had to Thucydides an especial appeal, for the opposition is highly intelligible. So is the distinction drawn between what is expedient and what is just; each of the two is persuasive and each is governed by its own rationale, and where they can be allied, their strength is great. Where their force is unequal, either may be stressed and prove decisive.

There is one oratorical device which is not often found in speeches because of the economy of the work. The speeches are concerned with particular situations which have been described in the narrative of the events that led up to them. As a rule, the veracity of the narrative is to be assumed and what it contains can be taken as read so as to predispose the hearer to accept the speaker's arguments. There may be exceptions to this general rule if the ignorance of the audience can be practised upon. Brasidas, in his speech at Acanthus (IV, 86-7), is represented as making a false statement about the size of his army because, as Grote observed, [in his History of Greece,] its falsity cannot be discovered before the decision is taken. To judge from the speech attributed to Brasidas before the battle of Amphipolis, this mendacity would appear to him to be a legitimate ruse de guerre, such as befits the skill of a shrewd general.

It has been argued that the historian sets himself to make his speakers say what they in their heart of hearts believe. But to do that might be to injure their case, and this injury is something they must avoid at all costs.

It has also been argued that the historian's dialectic is used to indicate what he himself believed, so as to correct his narrative. If this be so, it belies what he says has been his practice. When he refers to his own opinion it is not his opinion of what was true but what the situation would have required a speaker to say, and these need not be identical. Themistocles is said to have had a singular capacity for improvising what the situation required of him, but that might often be a lie, from which he, of all men, would least shrink.

The dialectical methods of Thucydides are at the disposal of either side in a debate, and so are used impartially to reinforce either. All is fair in war, and, proverbially, 'war is impartial', favouring neither one side nor the other. A speech is like a missile which has one single purpose, to hit its target. The man who throws the spear should be able to see his mark, and Thucydides gives him eyes to see it. The dialectical skill put at the disposal of a speaker will raise his actual arguments to a higher power. Thus the reader will best judge the case for either side, and so appreciate the validity of either thesis. Hence the validity or wisdom of whatever case prevailed. Thucydides is aware that the right thing may be done for the wrong reason, but his readers will be the wiser if they are given the arguments in their most cogent and persuasive form.

But set speeches are not the only way to illuminate the rationale of actions. It is apparent that in the narrative of events it is rare for Thucydides to commend or to condemn. The plain and intelligible record of events leaves the reader to use his own judgment, but, now and again, narrative is so phrased as to indicate a judgment, when an action succeeds or fails according to the actors' view of what was required. Demosthenes' adventure in Aetolia appears to fail because he would not wait to secure the help of troops who would be best fitted to bring it to success. The dialectic of action or inaction illuminates the situation.

The fortune of war, in its paradoxical way, may make good plans fail and bed plans succeed, but it belongs to the clear story of what happened to indicate at times whether the plans were good or bad. The Spartans on Sphacteria are killed or captured within twenty days, but the promise to achieve this is condemned as 'lunatic'. Herein, it is argued that success is not the one criterion of military skill and insight. This judgment of Cleon's promise may be inspired by malice, but that may not make it any less cogent or less instructive to the future general, who will learn his trade by studying what happened in the past and how it happened. In the account of the night attack on Epipolae, the plain tale of what happened will teach, what the history of war has so often taught, that few operations are so hazardous and unpromising as night attacks, even if in war 'bad may be the best'. All this is the application of the historian's own study of what happened.

This illumination may be provided by the historian's choice of what to emphasize and what to leave unrecorded. In the first year of the War the Athenians invaded the Megarid, and this is fully described, for it is part of the counter-offensive which will raise Athenian morale. Thucydides came to know that something of this kind happened in each of the next six years and he says so, but in no one of these years does he mention it, for the effect was progressively smaller. You cannot cut down the same olive tree twice. What matters is what matters. The light falls where there is something worth seeing, something worth notice, and of that the historian is the judge.

Here and there, evidence from other sources shows that Thucydides has failed to mention events of which he may be presumed to have some knowledge. The reasons for this are matters of legitimate conjecture, and where a probable reason can be found it deserves consideration in judging how Thucydides argued to himself what he would present to his readers for their future study. He was a highly autonomous man, who made his own rules for himself and must not be too readily assumed to be dominated by the literary conventions of his successors in the field of history.

Those who assert that Thucydides was precluded from citing the text of a treaty by a stylistic rule must have regard to the fact that he sometimes does so. He might, in a final revision, have preferred to put things otherwise, but that would be his second thoughts or even his third. We can only surmise that what we have was not always his last word. The assumption that his readers would be wholly baffled by the sight of the original text of a treaty in the Doric dialect is refuted by what appears in the Acharnians and the Lysistrata of Aristophanes.

The upshot of all this is that Thucydides' practice was, as it would naturally be, to describe things as he saw them and thought it best to say them, subject to a strong intention not to allow himself to be deceived by the frailties of others. An interesting contrast is to be found in the description of the attack on Sphacteria, which shows no sign of being described so as to attribute its success either to chance, or to Demosthenes as distinct from Cleon. In the dictum that follows his condemnation of Cleon's promise, namely that men of judgment welcomed the alternatives of securing the prisoners or of being rid of Cleon, Thucydides indulges his disapproval of Cleon at a point where he was not inhibited by his duty to his narrative of operations.

In the narrative, then, he seeks to be precise, to avoid in himself the faults he observes in others. His facts are caught up and preserved in a fine web of thought. For he is writing, not to satisfy what seems to him irrelevant curiosity, but to assist by his own judgment and presentation 'the study of those who will give their minds to understand how it actually happened', which may be 'why it happened at all'. And he sees events as one great dialectical argument in which human intelligence is the final arbiter in the seat of judgment. Securus iudicat.


Thucydides was a rich man of good birth and aristocratic connections, an Athenian citizen. His normal ethical standards may be assumed to be those of his class, and there is nothing in his work to prove they were not. In politics—How should a city's governors be chosen? Pericles in the Funeral Speech approves of equality of opportunity in state affairs. But only 'of opportunity'. Men of talent are not excluded from office by poverty, but they are chosen to have authority only if they seem worthy of it. It is possible this is what Pericles said without its being what Thucydides himself thought. But it seems Thucydidean: to him the city comes first, the individual citizen second, and, as the city needs talent wherever it can find it among the citizens, he would not wish to see its area of choice limited. Without 'disparity of esteem' the right men might not be chosen. It was true that, for various purposes, citizens were treated as equal, whether they were or not, especially in membership of the Council or the jury courts. But with these Thucydides is hardly concerned. What matters in a war is the quality of generals, in the field and at home, and those are not chosen by lot. For special missions also men are chosen by direct choice.

The Assembly is, at least in theory, sovereign and it has the last word. The Demos meeting in Assembly has its faults: it is mutable, excitable and, as a body, it may be gullible. 'It is easier to mislead many men than one' [Herodotus, V, 97, 2]. But it was persuadable by skilful argument, of which it was a good judge, and might be obedient to authority based on personal ascendancy and the courageous use of it. Without such guidance it may go astray. Remove its guide and what is left may be false lights, and this cannot be denied. So democracy might be foolish, unthinking, and, as is said in Alcibiades' speech at Sparta, there is nothing new to say about it. Its salvation is to be persuaded into right decisions by the wise, by men who think of the city first and their own material advantage second, if at all. Of Pericles, whom Thucydides admired, it is said that his patriotism and his incorruptibility reinforced his eloquence, his foresight and his courage.

To possess these qualities is the mark of a true statesman, the kind of man for whom Thucydides' history was written; without these qualities, the cleverest of men may be suspect and so not be followed, however wise their policies may be. What was wrong with Alcibiades is that he was not like Pericles, though, when at a crisis he put the city first, he is praised for what, in that moment, he was.

The city comes first: the interests of the city come first, and whatever does not serve these interests is a bad thing and not a good. The practice of private virtue, inhibited by private scruples, if it limits the city's power or disregards its interests, is dismissed with an ironical, contemptuous phrase. When private virtues— courage, self-abnegation, honesty, a simple-mindedness that has a large ingredient of nobility, serve the community, they are highly praised: but only then. In great affairs of state, civic virtue—courage and devotion— is the one virtue that claims pre-eminence. When the war has begun, this is what Athens can claim to inspire in all her citizens, above all a passionate devotion which goes over all.

To turn from the citizen to the city: the city embodies power, and power grows from power and from nothing else. No other interests may prevail against it; no other criterion is in place. The ancient mythical past of Athens was full of stories of generosity, the protection of the weak, but in the present the exhibition of these qualities is limited by the immediate interests of the state. If moderation is politic, a means to create a more lasting power, it is a virtue, but only then.

To be admired is a legitimate ambition, but as the spring of courage, the spur of action, in the public interest. The virtue of a citizen is aristocratic virtue, democratically used if your state is democratic. That was true of Athens in its bright day, and much of it survived in its dark day. When men are attuned to it, it produces greatness in a city and it becomes human nature on the highest plane. This is not an ethical ideal, to be inculcated for its own sake, but as an ingredient in Athens' greatness. The sharing of it unites a state: what divides a state, above all civil strife, is its enemy. Thus civic virtue is easiest preserved in peace; it is endangered by the compulsions of war. But if the security and interests of the city lead to war, this danger must be endured.

Thucydides observes a progressive decline in ethical standards as war and civil strife continue. This appears to be inevitable, so that it becomes a reasonable expectation that men will behave worse and worse both in public and private—private ambition, partisan passion, disloyalty to the state become common, and new standards of behaviour, even new words of praise or blame, reflect this decline.

Intellectual force on this lower plane may still exist, effective for its own purposes. Courage retains its value and extorts admiration from the historian, and so does the subordination of personal ambition and party feeling to the interests of the city in war. A compromise government that helps Athenian resistance for a time is highly praised. But this spirit of compromise is rare and short-lived and throughout the history it becomes rare and rarer. Having observed the degeneration of civic ethics set out in phase after phase, he has shown the true meaning of what has happened and so the historian has done his task. We are told of the symptoms and effect of this great malaise as we are told the same of the great plague, where, too, there is praise for self-denying patriotic courage of those who rose above the demoralization that the plague induced.

The historian has an intellectual distaste for professions belied by acts and he explains Spartan bad faith to the Plataeans by regarding it as an unworthy surrender to the Thebans, who are made as hateful as the Plataeans are made, at least, pitiable. But it is to be observed he does not hesitate to make a Spartan say what is untrue if that is what his case requires. His diligent desire to reach and speak the truth about events did not make him subordinate the needs of war, in which all is fair, to the cause of veracity.

There is a sense in which Thucydides may justly be described as a student of ethics of communities, but this does not deny his firm belief that great states will pursue greatness with the profoundest egotism: for that is the nature of cities, comparable with the nature of men.

It is not plain to see that Thucydides, throughout all his history, has any declared preference for this or that form of constitution. He observes, almost without comment, the hostility of the many to the few and of the few to the many, assumed by the author of the pseudo-Xenophontic Constitution of Athens and, later, elevated to a dogma by Aristotle.

In general, Thucydides judges men by their purposes, rather than by the means, however unscrupulous, they use to attain them, and as the process of ethical decline continues he becomes apt to take for granted a personal egotism which matches community or party egotism. In place of men subordinating their interests to the city he expects that they will subordinate the city to their interests, or to their hostility to men they distrust or dislike. The failure to use the abilities of Alcibiades as a director of warlike resources is made responsible for Athenian defeats and in the end to the final overthrow of Athens. Democracy without Pericles, once it is filled with jealous rivalries, does not deserve to survive, but oligarchy is not the cure; it is another form of the disease. Thucydides may have agreed with Pope:

For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate'er is best administered, is best.

The one criterion that has validity in war is the effective management of the war. The one consolation for defeat is past greatness and courage in adversity. Greatness, the domination and exploitation of others, cannot be forgone. It is better to have ruled and lost, than never to have ruled at all.

Some scholars have hoped to find in Thucydides a Panhellenic patriotism, a search for national unity and sympathy of Greek for Greek. But of this it is hard to find a clear trace. There is pride in the Athenian share of the defence of Greece against the Persians, but that is above all a pride in warlike resolution and resource, the act, not the cause. And the great possession of Athens that could not be taken away was the memory that she had ruled over more Greeks than any other city and had fought more wars to bring it about and preserve it. Old traditions of benevolence and generosity on the part of Athens are silent. What remains and lasts for ever is the memory of courage, resilience in adversity, and resolution and 'what is else not to be overcome'.

To all seeming, Thucydides never supposed that the gods intervened in human affairs or, if they ever did, their action, as that of Chance, was unpredictable. He valued conformity with the state religion as a social bond, a kind of preservative of traditional ethics, which, moulded by the community, had value for the state. When Nicias perished, his end was the more lamentable, not because he was not to blame for it, but because his faith in Heaven had been misplaced. The historian's strong conviction that human events are guided by human wits and will preserved him from substituting a predestined Nemesis for the study of what happened and why. Men should not blind themselves; and he did not blind himself either. Things are what they are, and men have made them so.

This realism does not mean that his heart did not ever stir within him. When the Athenians decreed the massacre of the Mityleneans, he described the decree as 'savage and monstrous', not arguing that it was so, but simply describing it as any sensible or civilized man would have described it. To him needless cruelty was odious, the more because anger darkens the mind. Though, when it comes to that, Cleon's decree is refuted by cool dispassionate raison d' État, in which the plea of pity is disclaimed. Thucydides is not silent about the Athenian repentance, for he knew that without its presence and effect the Athenians might well have committed what he believed to be at once a crime and a blunder. His native way of thinking was to avoid emotional excess, and an excess of passion is the enemy of reason, which is the path of wisdom. When he spoke of one other odious act it was the massacre at Mycalessus, and the destruction of the barbarous Thracians was the penalty executed not by Heaven but by men. He has human sympathy for Nicias, hoping against hope for help from Heaven, as he has for the tumult of hopes and fears of the Athenians watching their ships sinking in the Great Harbour at Syracause.

We may surmise that in the days of the plague he would not have been frightened to help his fellow citizens, for it was a part of aristocratic ethics not to be afraid in a good cause.

The first of crimes was passionate folly. Those who ruled over others incurred hatred, but that was its price and the price was worth paying. He seems to respect the Spartans' usual adherence to a code of conduct, but when at Hysiae the Spartans massacred the inhabitants, he has no word of blame for it, any more than for what happened at Scione and Melos. For war is 'a violent preceptor', and its pupils cannot evade its teaching.

Michael Grant (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5444

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 seems so strange to us in a historical work, had been adapted by Herodotus from Homer, and Thucydides—who after all came from Athens, where talk was a fine art— carried its employment a good deal further. Twenty-four per cent of his whole work consists of such orations, which number no less than forty, and, like his other digressions, are carefully and ingeniously spaced. Phoenix, in the Iliad, had instructed Achilles to be a speaker of words as well as a doer of deeds, and Thucydides couples words and deeds together as the materials of history.

It is very clear to him that the two forms of activity are closely linked. Diodotus, offering moderate counsel about Mytilene is made to say that 'anyone who denies that words can be a guide to action must either be a fool or have some personal interest at stake'. For one thing, speeches create action—good or evil, for Diodotus' opponent Cleon is chosen to show how disastrous the gift of the gab can be. Besides, Thucydides holds the very Greek opinion that no one will get anywhere at all unless he is articulate. 'Someone', Pericles is made to say, 'who has the knowledge, but lacks the power clearly to express it, is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all.'

Man, that is to say, is a rational being whose actions are based on decisions, and these can only be the outcome of verbal formulations. Speech is the root of all political life, and the point had never been so evident as it was at this time. For professional rhetoricians were intensely active, and the practical fruit of their efforts, formal speech-making, also underwent far-reaching developments. Pericles, whose orations play such a leading role in Thucydides' work, was said to have been the first to deliver a written speech in court—and the fact that he had learnt philosophy from Anaxagoras (who was also Thucydides' teacher) inspired Plato to describe him as the greatest of orators. The earliest Greek speech which has come down to us—relating to the murder of a certain Herodes—likewise belongs to the period of the Peloponnesian War (c. 417). It was delivered by the rhetorician Antiphon of Rhamnus, whose style has a good deal in common with Thucydides; and indeed it was from him that the historian was reported to have learnt his rhetorical skills.

Apparently Thucydides recited parts of his work; and surely these recitations included some of the speeches which were so appropriate to such a medium. Moreover, these orations form a perfect illustration of his view that the whole of history is based on articulateness—on words as well as deeds. A historian, therefore, must take pains to record what people said. The method he himself uses is a carefully calculated one.

In this history I have made use of set speeches, some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself, and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty. So my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

Perhaps Herodotus had been criticised for inventing speeches; and that may be why Thucydides felt it incumbent on himself to explain how he is going to proceed. He admits that his speeches do not set out to represent the exact words of the speakers, for this, as he reasonably says, would have been impossible. He aims, instead, at conveying a general impression—the essence rather than the substance.

The additional indication that he included 'what was called for' might be held to mean that he tells us what the speakers 'had to' say, and therefore what they did say. But the phrase seems more likely to signify 'what the various occasions demanded'. If that is so, he is admitting that scope has been given to his imagination. Such a criterion could clash with the requirement that the general sense of what had actually been said should always be reproduced. And indeed, just as Herodotus had included purely mythical orations, it is pretty clear that Thucydides very often pays more attention to what a situation seems to him to 'call for' than to any texts of actual discourses that could have been available to him.

His speeches make little attempt to reproduce speakers' individual characteristics or probable styles. Like a simple nurse in Aeschylus, and a policeman in Sophocles, the speakers talk the language not of themselves but of their author. Their orations are closer in structure to rhetorical textbooks than to any genuine extant speech. They are also much shorter than the sort of harangues that were actually delivered on public occasions—as we can tell from those that have survived. Moreover, some of Thucydides' speeches are singularly out of place, indeed tactless, in relation to their occasion. For example the admiral Phormio's address to his sailors could not possibly have been delivered to any crowd of mariners in such a form, though it is apt enough as an explanation of Athenian policy for the benefit of the reader. And the Assembly meeting to discuss Mytilene surely cannot have proceeded as Thucydides said it did. Moreover, Attic oratorical style had been moving rapidly during the war, but the style of Thucydides does nothing of the kind; quite apart from the question of whether their substance is authentic, the speeches in later books such as VI and VII must have been, stylistically, far removed from any possible originals. But some of the speeches quoted in Thucydides may never have been delivered at all.

If they were delivered, the fact that he does not exactly reproduce them does not necessarily mean that he was ignorant of what had been said. He may sometimes, it is true, have written down a version while his memory was vivid. But even then, like other ancient historians, he felt free to select, add and elaborate before transcribing the oration for his history. The fact that a speech may have been known, so that any alterations he introduced could be detected, constituted no objection. For verbatim inclusion would have been artistically damaging.

He had quite other purposes in mind; and they were purposes which entirely overrode and overruled the criterion of mere fidelity to what had actually been said. In his view, the speakers are not just there in their own right. To a certain extent, they are mouthpieces of the historian, in that they provide the medium for a substantial part of his huge contribution to the development of abstract and rational thinking. But they are much more than merely his mouthpieces. They are there to reveal underlying causes; to display the characters and tempers and motives of individuals and nations; to penetrate to general truths which might not have emerged from the details of the narrative; to get the participants in events, political or military, to speak for themselves; and to bring out, by methods impossible for a mere chronicle, subjective elements that are indispensable to our understanding.

We shall win, and why, explain typical speakers. And then subsequent developments show whether their calculations were good or bad—ostensibly without the historian intervening, so that the reader is given the illusion of independence. In this way, for example, we are introduced to the essence of Athenian power and to its gradual deterioration from the Periclean ideal. The clashes of opinion at Sparta before the war, and the reactions to these various views expressed by Pericles on the Athenian side, show an interlocking arrangement of one point answering another, often at a distance of time and place: and in reporting one oration the historian sometimes shows foreknowledge of a later one.

The influence of contemporary sophists—described by one of their number, Prodicus of Ceos, as men half-way between philosophers and political scientists—is clearly detectable in the manner in which close concentration is focused upon a single argument. The method used is often that of 'ring' or 'loop' composition: statement, proof, restatement. By these means, unarguable truth being so elusive, the attempt is made to achieve the 'probability' stressed by the sophistrhetorician Gorgias, like philosophers before him, as the best attainable ideal. The potentialities and powers of the spoken and written word were now appreciated as never before. And so colliding intellectual theses are stated, by Thucydides, in extreme forms—corresponding with the antithetical tastes of this age in which Protagoras of Abdera (an Ionian town in Thrace) (485-415) was admitting the possibility of opposite views on any and every question. Consequently, Thucydides' speeches often occur in pairs. But sometimes, for example when Pericles is speaking, or the able Syracusan Hermocrates, the cogency of what they say is implied by the omission of any riposte from another orator. The same expository technique, without reply or antitheses, is adopted for additional set-pieces of special significance, for which, although speeches are not involved, the technique of speeches is used: such as the plague at Athens, and civil strife in Corcyra, and the dispatch sent by the Athenian general Nicias from Sicily.

To identify the historian's speeches with the choral odes of tragedy would be going too far. Yet they do owe many features to the tragic dramatists. They, too, for several decades past, had been introducing imaginary forensic speeches into their plays. The whole procedure of Thucydides is theatrical, bringing the past vividly before the reader like a drama on the stage, with the intention of revealing character and not just recording events. The whole depiction of national and personal psychologies in these speeches is analogous to the practice of the tragedians. In particular, on a great many occasions, we are strongly reminded of Euripides (c. 485-406 BC), who was essentially the dramatist of the Peloponnesian War. Thoroughly Euripidean, for example, is Thucydides' debate on the doom of rebellious Melos, in which sophisticated arguments are put forward in a dramatic dialogue form. Reminiscent of tragedy, also, is the historian's unmodern tendency to generalise, to seek the eternal in every event, often coining abstract terms for the purpose, again in the manner of Euripides. The reputation of Thucydides throughout the ages has scarcely fallen short of the tragedians, with whom he has so much in common; and this reputation has largely been due to the impact of his speeches.

Moreover, there is a strong poetic, tragic tinge about his actual language, and this feature, too, is particularly accentuated in the speeches; their precision and passion are those of poetry. Gorgias observed that the effects of orally delivered poetry upon audiences included 'fearful anxiety, tears and lamentation, and grief-stricken yearning'. His own success owed a lot to poetical effects; and so did the emotional highlights of Thucydides' story.

And yet this style is archaic and harsh. Crammed with meaning and overtone, sentence after sentence possesses the astringent conciseness of a gnomic utterance. The order of words is unnatural, and diction is contorted almost to the breaking-point of the language—and the translator. These elaborate, twisted antithetical rhythms are very different from the loose and easy fluency of Herodotus. They breathe the spirit of an age of rhetoricians and sophists which had only dawned at Athens after Herodotus wrote. Gorgias was the first to speak of 'figures of speech', and Thucydides noted and adapted not only his methods of argument but his diction. The historian's aim, says H. C. Baldry, 'was to master the new-fangled game of abstract thought'.

And yet his response was entirely his own. For example, he characteristically avoided the normal symmetry of the antithetical style, breaking up its formal balance. The whole effect is one of estrangement, individual and wilful. This surprising method has even inspired conjecture that Thucydides, whose father had a Thracian name, only learnt Greek as a second language. That is unlikely, but it does so happen that two antithetical and epigrammatic writers who influenced him, Protagoras and Democritus, were fellow-Thracians, both from the city of Abdera. And, without accusing Thucydides of writing pidgin Greek, it is possible to suppose that his insistence on a curiously old-fashioned idiom—the feature that particularly struck ancient critics—reflects the geographical and spiritual isolation of his banishment from Athens. Exile had not affected Herodotus, or at least not in this way—it had broadened and not soured him. The experience has seldom failed to leave its stamp, in one way or another, on any writer; and it marked Thucydides with an alienation that is reflected in his peculiar, unnatural Greek.

His narrative style possesses the same characteristics as his speeches and set-pieces, but to a far less extreme degree. The language is still compact, but not so much contorted as succinct. His writing was also famous for its speed, a quality likewise attributed to Democritus. Severe, grave, and terrifyingly intense, Thucydides presses on with inexorable rapidity. Occasionally, if the dramatic requirements of the narrative demand it, there is instead a slow and halting march. But when he has something terrible to write about, such as the final destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in the Sicilian river Assinarus, the tale rushes ahead.

When day came Nicias led his army on, and the Syracusans and their allies pressed them hard in the same way as before, showering missiles and hurling javelins in upon them from every side. The Athenians hurried towards the river Assinarus.

Once they reached the river, they rushed down into it, and now all discipline was at an end. Every man wanted to be the first to get across, and, as the enemy persisted in his attacks, the crossing now became a difficult matter. Forced to crowd in close together, they fell upon each other, trampled each other underfoot. Some were killed immediately by their own spears, others got entangled among themselves and among the baggage and were swept away by the river.

Syracusan troops were stationed on the opposite bank, which was a steep one. They hurled down their weapons from above on the Athenians, most of whom, in a disordered mass, were greedily drinking in the deep river-bed. And the Peloponnesians came down and slaughtered them, especially those who were in the river. The water immediately became foul, but nevertheless they went on drinking it, all muddy as it was and stained with blood. Indeed, most of them were fighting among themselves to have it.

In his account of the Sicilian expedition the historian deploys all his talents, because the Syracusans were the only people in whom Athens met its match. Full of tragedies and dramatic ironies, this account of an utter catastrophe which wisdom could have avoided was the climax of Book VII. Macaulay described the book as the summit of human art.

Thucydides' way of telling the story is cerebral, the product of an exceptionally powerful mind. It conveys the intellectual effort which had given birth to the work.

For his history, throughout, is a glorification of intelligence. Its purpose is not only to enable people to know. That is not enough, being a mere meaningless accumulation. The aim is also to make readers understand. In keeping with Gorgias' teaching that full, total knowledge is beyond attainment, the task must be tackled in a humble spirit. When, therefore, Thucydides has general laws in mind, he does not lay them down dogmatically, but only suggests what is likely. Thucydides agreed with Democritus' assertion that to understand the cause of any one thing was worth more to him than the whole kingdom of the Persians—and another contemporary, Socrates, was reported to have expressed similar sentiments.

For these men lived in an epoch when the Ionian spirit of investigation had finally taken deep rots in the fertile soil of Athens. People were prepared to investigate everything; and the comparatively few years that had elapsed since Herodotus composed his work had established great gains in the efficiency of their techniques. And so, just as Thucydides probes incessantly to comprehend events, this capacity to understand is also the quality he admires most in the characters of his history. Protagoras was now asserting that man is the measure of all things, but his fellow-townsman Democritus added that no one is likely to prevail by native qualities alone without training. Thucydides, however, believed that even an untutored person could succeed if only his intellect was powerful enough. The career of Themistocles, for example, seemed to him to show how mind, granted perseverance and subtlety, is capable of rising even above the disadvantage of a deficient education.

But it is far better to have the opportunity to learn, and Thucydides above all wants his readers, whether students or statesmen, to be given the greatest possible opportunities of comprehending what is going on. For all attendant circumstances are merely subordinate, or should be made subordinate, to the minds of man. Thucydides, says Antony Andrewes, 'sees events as one great dialectical argument in which human intelligence is the final arbiter in the seat of judgment'. His insistence on reason as the ideal anticipates Aristotle's emphasis both on wisdom and on practical intelligence. The distinction was a refinement that came after Thucydides; he is content to stress the cerebral quality in general as the criterion by which people and causes must be judged.

All his important personages, therefore, are shrewd planners and calculators, and the word for 'understand' or 'judgment' (gnomai, gnome) occurs 305 times in his work. The Greeks admired the middle course so much because they found it hard to achieve; and similarly Thucydides appreciated intelligence because he knew that even in his own city, crammed with intelligent people, it did not by any means always prevail. Instead he felt, as Cornford says, that 'human affairs move along a narrow path lit by a few dim rays of foresight (gnome) or the false, wandering fires of hope'. Most of all was this true of politics, the sphere which Thucydides had chosen for his analysis of the applications of human reason.

To understand the successes and failures of this power, it was obviously necessary to study psychology. Earlier philosophers had concentrated on physics and metaphysics, but now Socrates and Democritus and the sophists had turned the eyes of the Greek world on to human behaviour. We have the former's views filtered through (or invented by) Plato, and Democritus' ethical and psychological works survive in fragments, which, although numerous, are not numerous enough to enable us to reconstruct his system. As for Thucydides, this interest in the human personality is deficient in a certain necessary quality of variegated untidiness, because his pursuit of this aspect is subordinated to other aims. He likes biography; his delineations of famous men contributed to the formation of that literary genre. But everything judged to be irrelevant and trivial is rigorously excluded. For what the historian wants to do is to elucidate, through his characters, the types of person who react to given sets of circumstances, who fix the characters of states, who decide the features which oppose Athens to Sparta. This is to say, we are far, deliberately far, from Herodotus' preference for more personal and private factors. Thucydides judges men not as individuals but as politicians.

That, for example, is how he sees Pericles. Only two years after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles was already dead. Yet he is the central figure of the work, and in a sense its hero. There is no knowing what Thucydides thought of the earlier, pre-war Pericles, the young, demagogic, imperialist on the make; for he does not choose to tell us. But about his conduct of the initial period of the war we are told a good deal; and the background of these events is described in the speeches attributed to him. Two of these orations, it seems, only reached their present form many years after his death. Yet it is difficult to read the Funeral Speech without feeling that Thucydides had to some extent, later if not sooner, become infected with the glory of the imperial state. The ideal may not have been perfect, but it was magnificent; and, looked at in retrospect, it provided a dramatic foil to the disastrous present.

Admiration of the departed order implied respect for the man who had brought it into being. And indeed, when we come to the actual subject of the history, namely the war, its outbreak is not regarded as Pericles' fault. There is no suggestion that he could have avoided it, and the gossip that he started hostilities from private motives of his own is dismissed with contempt. As regards the actual conduct of the military operations, the verdict of Thucydides, at whatever date or by whatever stages it was reached, again spoke unequivocally in favour of Pericles. 'During the whole period of time when Pericles was at the head of affairs the state was widely led and firmly guarded, and it was under him that Athens was at her greatest. And when the war broke out, here also he appears to have accurately estimated what the power of Athens was.' In the end the Athenians lost the war, it is true. But they only lost it many years after Pericles' death. And, although his calculations had admittedly been turned awry by the plague, it was not because of him that they failed. On the contrary, if he had continued to be in charge, they would have won. They lost because his successors did everything he had told them not to do. He had counselled them to look after the navy, but to refrain from imperial expansion during the war (though perhaps he was less purely defensive than Thucydides made out). He also advised them to avoid taking any action which might risk the safety of Athens itself. But they did the exact opposite, in all respects. They, not Pericles, pursued private motives; and they fell fatally into civil strife. Pericles, with his 'position, intelligence and human integrity', had been able to respect their liberty and yet lead them at the same time. Those who followed him could not.

Of these successors to Pericles we know very little. Except for some caricatures by the comic dramatist Aristophanes, there is scant information except from Thucydides himself—and his pictures merely consist of a few malevolent flashes. After Pericles' death, the leading politician for some years was Cleon. Thucydides brings him to our notice in three episodes. He was the man who, in 427, proposed the decree to execute the rebellious Mytileneans, which was passed but rescinded the next day. In 425 it was he who won a considerable victory at Pylos on the western coast of the Peloponnese, when members of the Spartan military élite were (exceptionally) taken prisoner on the island of Sphacteria. And in 422-421 it was again Cleon who proceeded to Macedonia to win Amphipolis back from the Spartan Brasidas. But on this occasion he failed, and the enemy killed him.

Like the conservative Aristophanes, who treated Cleon as a lamentable and violent demagogue, Thucydides has the lowest possible opinion of the man, and says so in lethal asides. He is degraded to the status of a clown unworthy of the dignity of history—someone who throve in an atmosphere of disturbance, because 'in a time of peace and quiet, people would be more likely to notice his evil doings and less likely to believe his slander of others'.

In regard to Mytilene, Cleon was unnecessarily brutal and revengeful—which was an unwise way of treating allies. He also proclaimed a deplorable desire to prevent his fellow Athenians from engaging in free discussion. At Pylos he was grasping and arrogant, and made a 'mad' promise (though it came off). And thereafter, when we learn of his sordid end in Macedonia, it is hard to forget that Amphipolis, which Cleon had failed to recover, was the very same place which Thucydides himself had lost. The recovery of the town might have meant his return from the exile his failure had earned him. Moreover, the circumstances that had led to the city's loss and Thucydides' disgrace could reasonably be ascribed to Cleon's overbearing measures against the allies. These were all reasons for regarding Cleon acrimoniously.

Coarse fellow though he may have been, he was able, particularly as a financier—and he earned respect from orators in the following century. However, his merits were of no concern to the purpose of Thucydides. His point was that Cleon displayed a dramatic antithesis, a debased perversion, of Pericles: vulgarian contrasted with man of culture, secondrate with firstrate, inferior demagogue with enlightened guide. Cleon's savagery towards the allies was a typical example of how he did everything Pericles told his successors not to do. The violence of his domestic and foreign policy over a period of years could, in the view of the historian, be partially blamed for the lapse into civil strife which was really what cost Athens the war. And the same sort of censure was merited by his successor Hyperbolus, another butt of comic poets, who was exiled (ostracised) in 417, 'not from any fear of his power and influence, but for his villainy, and because the city was ashamed of him'.

Thucydides' characterisation of two other leading Athenian figures in the war is more subtle. One is Nicias, who was responsible for the Peace of 421 but met with utter disaster in the expedition to Sicily, and was executed by the Syracusans (413). The historian's verdict is an unexpected and cryptic one: 'Nicias was a man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved to come to so miserable an end, since the whole of his life had been devoted to the study and practice of virtue.' Not a word, here, about the usual political and military subjects, or about his gifts in those spheres—gifts which were adequate but not brilliant, and earned him a reputation of respectable timidity from Aristophanes. The comment of Thucydides, as far as it goes, is accurate enough. But its omissions and implications are significant. First of all, there is a tragic contrast between his pious, conventional virtues and his appalling end. But, above all, it is implied, with a grim and ironical clearsightedness, that these qualities, excellent though they are in their way, will not guarantee the intelligent and effective conduct of affairs. The Sicilian catastrophe had proved as much, with terrifying finality. 'Thucydides' epitaph on Nicias', remarks C.M. Bowra, 'is the verdict of a man who knew that, in the destinies of peoples, goodness is not enough.'

All the same, even if not enough, it is a useful thing to have. For example, the absence of these standard, solid merits in Nicias' young opponent Alcibiades was a serious political handicap both to himself and to Athens. Before the Sicilian expedition, says the historian, Alcibiades had not been given important commands because of his debauched personal habits. Obviously these were bound to intensify his estrangement from the very proper Nicias, and so they contributed to dangerous dissension in the State. And the radicals disliked his extravagances quite as much as Nicias did.

Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not usually go into a man's private life. But in this case he had to, since it affected Alcibiades' career and consequently exercised a direct influence on the war. For when, in 415, Alcibiades was withdrawn from the Sicilian expedition and took refuge with the enemies of Athens, it was again suspicion of his lack of principles which had turned his fellow-citizens against him. Ostensibly, the charge was impiety, but what really inspired his opponents was the generally unreliable unsolidity of his character. However, after Alcibiades had come back to an Athenian command (411), he deserved well of his fellow-countrymen. For when the fleet at Samos wanted to attack their own city of Athens—temporarily under an oligarchic dictatorship—he refused to let them. Politically unprincipled though he was, by this intervention, says Thucydides, 'he rendered as eminent a service to the state as any man ever did'. This exceptionally high praise prepares us for the conclusion that, in spite of the flaws in his private life, his rejection and dismissal by his own people (repeated all over again in 406) was ruinous to Athens. And the historian is probably thinking of Alcibiades (and deliberately speaking in warmer terms than Herodotus) when he praises Themistocles, that equally brilliant and unsound figure of the earlier war. Here was another man whose unreliable, hazardous character and conduct had likewise helped to drive him into the arms of Athens' enemies. And yet, when not hampered by this defect, he too had performed splendid actions.

How had Themistocles managed to achieve these things? Not because of his background, because he had none, but because of his intellect, foresight and ability to make quick decisions. This continual emphasis on brain-power sometimes makes Thucydides' verdicts rather disconcerting. The standard translation of arete is 'virtue'. But the term is applied not only to the devout Nicias, but also to Antiphon, who, whatever the merits of his prose style, was a sanguinary, treacherous plotter, the leading oligarchic extremist of 411. The surprising attribution of virtue to such a man is intended, as Bury pointed out, 'to express the intelligence, dexterity and will power of a competent statesman, in sharp contradistinction to the conventional arete of the popular conception'. This was not virtue as most people understood it, but something more closely comparable to the virtù which Machiavelli saw in tough, skilful Sforzas and Borgias of his own day. Thucydides liked men who concentrated their energy on the tasks at hand. There is not much talk of natural benevolence. Instead, speeches prefer to harp on action-enhancing qualities such as courage.

Courage operates in the mass as well as in individuals. The psychology of masses and groups is a field in which Thucydides achieved extraordinary pioneer advances. With the acutest perceptiveness he analysed and expressed the changing attitudes of states, factions, councils, assemblies, and above all armies. Generals' speeches are skilfully adapted to the thoughts and feelings of their various contingents—unless it suits his purpose to do otherwise. The results of Greek battles depended on morale rather than tactics, and here we see the mentality of the soldiers, their excitements and exaltations and despairs. As the Sicilian expedition draws towards its calamitous close in a decisive seabattle in Syracuse harbour,there is an unforgettable picture of the agonised Athenian troops looking on, their fears for the future like nothing they had ever experienced before, their bodies agonisedly swaying this way and that to match the vicissitudes of their ships, on which everything depended.

W. den Boer (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4724

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 important is the idea of progress to which the Archaeology gives expression"—[J. H. Finley] pronounces. Let us now try to determine what Thucydides really said. We are entitled to do so because scholars of repute oppose the views of Mme [Jacqueline] de Romilly and J. H. Finley. I mention Hans-Peter Stahl's book, Thukydides, Die Stellung des Menschen im geschichtlichen Prozess, which was published in 1966, as an example of such opposition. [Stahl writes,] "it seems that Thucydides himself sees the importance of what was the development of human knowledge not in change (Fortschritt) but in the determinant factor of might, which remains the same".

To discover who is right it is necessary to deal carefully with chapters 1-19 of Book I. I hope that my paraphrases of passages from this famous introduction will give a preliminary answer.

Chapter I. Thucydides writes about a unique event— a great war—the greatest disturbance in the history of the Greeks. His studies led him to the conclusion that the history of the preceding period, compared to his own, indicated no greatness, either in warfare or in anything else.

Chapter II. In ancient times, the country which is now called Hellas had no settled population. There was a series of migrations of various tribes who were constantly under the pressure of invaders stronger than they were: there was no commerce, no safe communication routes, either by land or by sea, and because of these factors the tribes were always prepared to abandon their territory.

From these two chapters alone it already becomes clear that we have to enlarge upon the statements of Stahl. The historian is anxious to prove that the Peloponnesian war holds more importance than any other event before it. Such digressions are familiar and are called αὐξήσεις, additions to show how important the subject is. For this purpose the writer has τεχμήϱια, which he will emphasise in the following chapters. These 'signs' will demand our attention: in chapter 2 some such signs are already evident, viz. invasions, no settled population, no commerce, no safe communication. It is important therefore, for us to be sceptical from the first of the idea set out by Romilly in her important article. She tries to persuade us that the problem of whether 'progress' occurs in I. 1-21, is a simple one. As is to be expected, her answer is in the affirmative, although she has to admit that the exposition deals with the importance of wars and states, the extension of political groups and the size of their means with which to determine the scale of warfare. But, so it is alleged, this is only the framework. The historian's tenet or doctrine is of a clear affirmation, coherent and outspoken, of progress. In my opinion this statement is misconceived and stems from prejudice.

However, Thucydides does give 'signs' for his own view that before the Peloponnesian war there had been no great military achievement in Hellas. The underlying causes for this were:

  1. No settled population.
  2. Inhabitants always prepared to abandon their own territory.
  3. No commerce.
  4. No safe communication by land or sea.
  5. No surplus left over for capital.
  6. Production only of necessities.
  7. No regular system of agriculture.
  8. This all culminated in lack of protection by fortifications.
  9. Invasions at any moment.
  10. No reluctance of the population in moving from their homes.

Point 10 brings us back to point 1.

And all these statements are combined by two other signs which on the surface appear to oppose each other, but which in fact do corroborate the passage as a whole:

  1. The most frequent changes of population occurred where the soil was most fertile (e.g. Thessaly, Boeotia and most of the Peloponnese).
  2. Attica was remarkably free from political disunity because of the poverty of her soil.

In the conclusions of chapters I and II the 'sign' of Attica is an important and excellent example of the historian's theory "that it was because of migration that there was an uneven development elsewhere; for when people were driven out of other areas of Greece by war or other disturbances, the most powerful of them first took refuge in Athens which was a stable society, finally becoming citizens of Athens. The influx of people created such an increase in the population that it resulted in Attica becoming too small for its inhabitants and so colonies of people were sent out to Ionia".

It should be emphasized again, that in general the author's aim was only to explain how this great war could have occurred. This point is sometimes forgotten by modern commentators. During the course of time there was a development of circumstances which brought about the possibility of war. The purpose of Thucydides in the Archaeology was to elucidate the conditions which led to 'the greatest war', and there is no passage, not even a sentence, which does not serve this purpose. There is no need for detail, and the author does not dwell on it; he merely gives the main outline of the theme by the use of brief 'signs' rather than by the use of particulars.

Chapter III. The lack of unity among the inhabitants of early Greece can be confirmed by yet another observation, from Homeric poetry. The words 'Hellas' and 'Hellenes' as a common name for land and population are late in appearing. There is no record of action in any form being taken by Hellas as a whole before the event of the Trojan War. Even the poet Homer, who lived many years after this war, refers only to the population of a very restricted area—the inhabitants of Phthiotis—when using the name Hellenes. It was the followers of Achilles who came from Phthiotis. Neither does Homer use the word 'barbarians', which proves that the people who were later known as 'Hellenes' did not see themselves as a united whole, as distinguishable from foreign outsiders. "In any case these various Hellenic states, weak in themselves and lacking in communications with one another, took no kind of collective action before the time of the Trojan War. And they could not have united even for the Trojan expedition unless they had previously acquired a greater knowledge of seafaring".

Chapter IV. The end of the previous chapter opens the way for the next 'sign': the first Thalassocracy of Minos, Lord of the Cyclades islands, in which he founded most of the colonies. One of the results of his power was security for seafaring people. "It is reasonable to suppose that he did his best to put down piracy in order to secure his own revenues".

Chapter V. This chapter takes the reader back to the remote past, piracy and the social position of the pirate. Piracy was practised by all the inhabitants of the coastal areas, and success in it was a reason for pride. A similar form of robbery was also prevalent on land.

Chapter VI. (Even now there are still people who live by these means). Personal security demanded the carrying of weapons and people were hesitant to discontinue this practice. In spite of their way of life being filled with menace and danger the Athenians were among the first to lay aside their arms and to adopt a more relaxed and luxurious form of living. A case in point here concerns clothing, and there are two stages to be discerned. In the first stage it was customary for the older members to wear costly clothes, and this was also the fashion among their kinsmen in Ionia. Later came a less pretentious way of dressing—more after the present-day fashion—which was first adopted by the Lacedaemonians. The custom of nakedness when playing games also comes from the Lacedaemonians. Formerly, Greek athletes wore loin cloths, even at the Olympic Games, and this is still the custom among some of the barbarians. "And one could show that the early Hellenes had many other similar customs to those of the presentday barbarians".

An additional observation may not be out of place here. "Human (=Greek) Progress" is not emphasized in this chapter. Its main content concerns the disappearance of violence,—the wearing of arms in ordinary life being no longer necessary, the change in people's manners, and an easier mode of life, illustrated by the trend towards a more simple form of clothing.

Chapter VII. After discussing the conditions of living in the previous chapter Thucydides returns to the question of navigation and its consequences. The art of navigation had been developed at a relatively late stage. A 'sign' of that part of the reconstruction of the past is that older settlements were founded inland, whereas the cities founded in recent times, when navigation had become safer, were built in coastal areas. The geographic position of these settlements protected the newly built harbours.

Chapter VIII. It was because of this protection that attacks from the sea became less profitable and regular commerce began to flourish: it also became possible for Minos to organize a navy and to improve the sea communication routes.

The introduction of this passage in particular confirms the widespread piracy (which was checked by Minos). According to tradition the islands of the Aegean were originally inhabited by the Carians. When Delos was purified by the Athenians all the graves on the island were opened up, and it was discovered that over half the bodies were those of Carians. This could be recognised by the types of weapons buried with the bodies, as well as by the method of burial. It is important to remember that this, and other archaeological remarks have no direct relation to the central theme—the accumulation of power; he does not say that the Carians exerted their military power over an extensive area. In this connection we should bear in mind von Fritz' observation that the opening of the graves bore out the traditional tales. We are therefore confronted here with one of the first attempts, if not the first, to combine … the 'signs', with archaeological evidence. The successful organisation of Minos drove out the pirates and brought prosperity to the coastal regions. The results of this prosperity brought with them differences of wealth and power. Minos' measures brought about possibilities for power so that a situation arose in which the coastal areas were able to acquire wealth and their population to lead a more settled way of life. Some areas were more prosperous than others. Differences occurred. Through the acquisition of capital resources the more powerful cities were able to subject the people of the weaker cities. Hellas had already developed along these lines to a certain degree at the time of the expedition to Troy.

Chapters IX-XI. The Trojan War will occupy us only briefly. The appreciation of Thucydides' argument, and in particular the question of history contra legend, can be omitted. According to Thucydides the war was the result of one of the concentrations of power, the development of which he had traced in the preceding chapter. In modern literature the evaluation of these chapters, which are filled with names from myths and legends, is not always favourable towards Thucydides. However, this is of no concern to us at the moment. The sensible middle course favoured by K. von Fritz seems to me highly preferable to the hyper-criticisms of Ed. Schwartz and the apologetics of Gomme. If nevertheless I had to make a choice between the interpretations of Schwartz and Gomme, I would side with the latter because of his awareness of the tremendous difficulties in treating this subject from a remote past. To have seen the history in mythology as a central problem, is of great merit. Thucydides perceived this, as he did also in the case of the early history of Attica (II 15-17). In my opinion there is no value in discussing the problem of whether or not we should blame him for mentioning Agamemnon and Pelops. The most important point is that the idea of progress is not mentioned in his account. His impressive treatment of the difficult problems in the early history of Greece has been the reason why scholars have repeatedly made the mistake of comparing him with his predecessors in this respect and seeing progress within the evaluation of the past. This, though, is not the progress of human society as such. Here is the point at which scholars part company. It does, of course, depend upon the lens through which we are compelled to look. I, for one, do not think that the following quotations have any bearing on progress.

1-1: "all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods (sc. the remote past) were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else".

3-1: "the weakness of the early inhabitants" (before the Trojan War).

3-4: "these various Hellenic states … took no kind of collective action before the time of the Trojan War".

10-5: "not a large number went on the expedition" (against Troy).

11-1: "the cause (of this small number) was lack of money and want of supplies".

11-3: "as it was, just as lack of money was the reason why previous expeditions were not really considerable, so in the course of this one (the Trojan War), we shall find … that it was inferior to its fame".

In all these quotations Thucydides attempts to put forward his own subject as being greater than the events of the more distant past. He does not speak about human misery ('misère') but about military 'weakness'. Before the time of the Trojan War the things lacking were the necessary equipment, and the shortage of materials, but not the needs of the population.

When we look at Thuc. I 1-11 as a whole we can see that, from a modern point of view, the most vulnerable parts of the exposition are those which draw attention to the most important historical problems.

  1. How did the Greeks become conscious of their unity, opposed to the Barbarians? His answer is that Hellen, the son of Deucalion, when he became strong, was invited to the aid of other cities. I see this act as military aid, and cannot endorse von Fritz who draws the conclusion that the fact that Hellen and his sons were invited to other cities shows an awareness of cultural unity, not a unity of language or of race. Neither the first nor the two others are even remotely connected with the passage as I see it. The other states invite them as allies in a military enterprise. So Thucydides proclaims military reasons for the unity of the Greeks.
  2. Commerce and economic growth are only possible when the sea is free from piracy. That means also that one state has to possess the maritime power to impose its peace on the others.
  3. The origin of power in the Greek world. It started with Mycenae, which nobody nowadays will deny.
  4. The Trojan War. The historicity was never doubted in ancient times. Thucydides scrutinizes the circumstances under which such an enterprise could take place.

We must agree with von Fritz that to put these four problems clearly before his audience is 'eine grossartige Leistung'. Might is proclaimed without any moral commentary. H.-P. Stahl's statements seem to be the most satisfactory.

There are still eight more chapters to be treated and these deal with the more recent past. Here especially, there is the temptation to glorify one's own time. This temptation is sometimes irresistible to the human mind. Did Thucydides have the intellectual power to resist this popular view? The question is worth our consideration.

Chapter XII deals with the period after the Trojan War. The summary is very brief and it is not possible for any ancient or modern historian to do more until rather more progress has been made with recent archaeological research. We might safely say that in this chapter Thucydides sketched the decline of power only "very superficially". But, we can ask, who has done it better over the centuries? And in any case his purpose was to produce no more than a superficial sketch. A superficial sketch of this type left the way clear for him to deal with the new concentrations of power and with the question of how such concentrations of power could arise. He alludes briefly to the period of colonization, because this was yet another means of gaining power. Even making allowance for brevity, the words "Ionia and most of the islands were colonized by the Athenians, the Peloponnesians founded most of the colonies in Italy and Sicily", are very unsatisfactory. They should be understood as meaning only that colonization was one of the great causes of enhancement of power which led to the war, and be taken as a hint as to what would occur much later.

Chapters XIII-XIV. It is often said that this passage lacks coherence, but I am not convinced of this. Thucydides makes himself perfectly clear. He demonstrates the differences between monarchy and tyranny from the position the economy holds in both forms of government. The patriarchal kings get their 'share', their "gifts of honour"—I insist on giving the original meaning to #special char# mentioned in this chapter. However with the introduction of new forms of wealth the old aristocracy—which inherited its power from the kings— was no longer master of the situation. As Hellas grew more powerful and continued to acquire still more wealth than before, tyrannies began to be established in most of the cities, along with the increase of their revenue, whereas before that there had been hereditary kingships based on fixed prerogatives.

A shift of power follows, and a city organised along this pattern of tyranny and based upon the higher and lower levels of its citizens, requires centres of power. One such centre of power was the navy.

When Thucydides' account is reconstructed in this way much of what appears strange and 'unfinished' becomes clear. He does not speak about the oligarchies which proceed tyranny, because they were not essential to his purpose—the development of the state and the powers of the state. He does not touch upon all possible centres of power, but only upon maritime power, for he knows that it is precisely this which will explain the military conflict. Corinth and Athens rise from the shadows of time. It comes as no surprise that Thucydides places maritime history at the centre of the stage, so to speak, for he had already done so in chapter X, when discussing the partners of Mycenae in the Trojan War. He does the same again in chapter XIII, first with Corinth, when he mentions shipbuilding, the types of ships, and the construction of harbours and docks.

Here also I am disinclined to follow those scholars who accuse Thucydides of a passing and superficial treatment of his subject matter. In my opinion his report is remarkably to the point. Once again H.-P. Stahl's characterization of the 'Archaeology' of Thucydides proves to be the right one. All Thucydides' observations are centered around the development of power, which means that he needs no more than a minimum of material for his sketch. This is where the master reveals himself. He reveals himself as being not only master but also as an unbiased judge of persons and events. It does not seem accidental that this passage ends with the end of the naval history of Greece, at it were, through the achievements of Themistocles. Thucydides praises Themistocles elsewhere in what is, for him, unusual eulogy.

The particular mention given to the enormous achievements of the Phocaeans could be based on the oral tradition, or it might be due to the influence of other authors, among whom Hecataeus is likely to have been the first. I believe Thucydides was right to mention the founders of Massilia who, before they built their settlements there, had defeated the Carthaginians. After all, he could hardly have found a better illustration of such successful Greek initiative at sea.

Chapters XV and XVI are the counterparts of the two previous chapters. They are not so brilliantly worked to a climax, but nevertheless they serve the author's purpose well in his efforts to elucidate the development of power on land. The author himself explains the reasons for the impression of their being less satisfactory and lacking the depth of chapters XIII and XIV, when he states: "There was no warfare on land that resulted in any considerable accession of power". One might reproach him for viewing the wars on land only as important skirmishes between neighbours, for omitting the expansion of Argos and the power of its king Pheidon. But I repeat my earlier statement that Thucydides' intention was not to give a brief survey of history—he chose historical landmarks only for his main thesis, which was the development of concentrated power. I think that perhaps he was right in not considering the Messenian war as a part of the development of concentrated power. After all, in spite of the success of the wars, Sparta was, in the early stages, isolated from the mainstream of Greek development of power. So far as Thucydides was concerned, Greek development of power was connected with ephemeral alliances between states more than with the formation of leagues, and so far as archaic Sparta was concerned such alliances were not so evident.

The nearest approach to collective action was the ancient war between Chalcis and Eretria (the Lelantine war). During this war the rest of the Hellenic world sided with one or the other of the two combatants (end of Ch. XV). The counterpart to this conclusion is the fact that the different states which were isolated from the others suffered all sorts of obstacles to their continuous growth. The Ionian cities suffered greatly from their lack of alliances with each other. The Persian Empire stands as the great example of unity, subduing Lydia and the Greek cities in Asia and, "strong in the possession of the Phoenician navy", conquering the islands as well.

Chapter XVII. In the same perspective it is necessary to try to understand the failure of the tyrannies—even those which succeeded in maintaining themselves over shorter period: "since they had regard for their own interests only". The exceptions amongst these were the tyrants in Sicily who (as we have to interpret their being mentioned by the author) went beyond their immediate local interests. Indeed, the menace of Carthage and of the Siculi sometimes forced the Greek settlements to unite their forces.

From this we must conclude that in almost every case a concentration of power was lacking. This was the reason for so many states falling victims to the great powers, the Persians and the Lacedaemonians. Thucydides does not explain why these two forces were the exceptions. However much one would have liked to have the opinion of Thucydides about the Persian Empire, it did not concern him. His aim was the situation in his own time and an explanation of the predominant position of Sparta, which is given in the next chapter. Here, though, he does have to make some remarks on the glorious war against Persia.

Chapter XVIII and XIX. The conclusion of the former chapters is summarized in the last passage of chapter XVIII: "So for a long time the state of affairs everywhere in Hellas was such that nothing very remarkable could be done by any combination of powers and that even the individual cities were lacking in enterprise".

Now chapter XVIII brings forward another factor in the remarkable report of Thucydides: the stability of Sparta was based on the stability of its constitution. This idea was also present in the preceding chapter, if we bear in mind that the possibility for tyranny was made easier because of the lack of unity amongst the victims. Tyranny is always a product of political instability. Sparta had never been under tyranny and so continued as a politically stable society. This development was all the more remarkable since Thucydides knew that "from the time when the Dorians first settled in Sparta there had been a particularly long period of political disunity".

By taking Sparta as an example it can be seen that it is possible for a land state with no strong economic basis for power to be powerful as the result of a good and stable constitution. Such power, however, has its limits, and there are dangers which threaten its existence. Although there are great risks involved when there are numerous concentrations of rather weaker power: these are sometimes more dangerous than confrontations between two strong centres of power, because these provoke pockets of resistance. This phenomenon can be seen from chapters I-XVII, and is further confirmed in chapters XVIII-XIX; sometimes explicit statements on it are made, and sometimes it can be deduced by implication.

The Persian Wars demonstrate the creation of two different concentrations of power on mainland Greece—Athens and Sparta. This is shown in Chapter XVIII by the facts of Marathon, the naval preparation, and Sparta's command ten years later. Rivalry arose in spite of the common effort, and the war-time alliance was short-lived.

Chapter XIX underlines the significance of the two concentrations of power. Sparta and her allies, who did not have to pay tribute, Athens and her allies (whose fleets had been taken over in the course of time by Athens, with the exception of the fleets of Chios and Lesbos) who did have to pay contributions of money.

This then was the situation within the concentrations of power, and the purpose of Thucydides was to illustrate it in the chapters mentioned.

At the end of Thucydides' survey two things became clear. He works by the method of tekmèria—'signs'—. These 'signs' prove the importance of concentrations of power. Moreover, the economic factors are given more importance than was ever given by a Greek historian. Throughout the whole course of Greek historiography economic factors were never accorded much importance. As with so many great innovators, there were no successors to Thucydides, nor even imitators. When attention was given to economic factors during the new developments of historical research in modern times, Thucydides was not represented as a forerunner. The inspiration of these researchers was derived from (modern) social and economic sciences and not from antiquity. In antiquity all that was written about the influence of social and economic data was mostly too theoretical to be of any importance to the practical work of the historian, or it was limited to one or two observations about a restricted problem in a restricted period. Aristotle is a case in point here, and some data from Xenophon can illustrate it.

On the basis of the foregoing treatment of Thucydides' Archaeology, it is my intention to emphasize that a similar development can be traced concerning 'progress'. Thucydides does indeed give some examples of the improvement in the relationship between the human race and its environment, but these remarks are merely used as background for his main purpose, which was the exposition of the development of 'power'. It is therefore understandable that Lovejoy and Boas should have paid little attention to his work in general. One of the texts in G. H. Hildebrand's revised edition of F. J. Teggart, The Idea of Progress (1949), is taken from the Archaeology, but the great champions of Thucydides as a proponent of the idea of progress are Mme de Romilly and E. R. Dodds. A single quotation from Dodds is probably sufficient to illustrate their point of view: "Thucydides saw the past history of Greece as pursuing a gradual upward course". Others must judge between these words and my treatment. I must confess that I cannot find in Thucydides what Dodds states here in general terms.

W. Robert Connor (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6686

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 some of these signs a few years ago in an essay entitled "The Revival of Narrative" [Past and Present 85 (Nov. 1979)]. Stone argued that there was a "noticeable shift of content, method and style among a very tiny, but disproportionately prominent, section of the historical profession." The change was from what he called "structural" history to "narrative" history, that is to historical writing that is descriptive rather than analytical and whose central focus is on man and not on circumstances. He was not referring, of course, to the writing of antiquarians, or annalists, but to the shift from quantitative or "scientific" history toward another set of questions, especially those about the role of power and of the individual in history and also to the effort "to discover what was going on inside people's heads in the past, and what it was like to live in the past, questions which inevitably lead back to the use of narrative." Eric Hobsbawn in reply challenged many of Stone's conclusions but conceded "there is evidence that the old historical avant-garde no longer rejects, despises and combats the old fashioned 'history of events' or even biographical history, as some of it used to" [Past and Present 86 (1980)].

I suspect there is more of a change than Hobsbawn, and perhaps even than Stone, admitted. The signs multiply that a major change is under way, one with important implications for all who are concerned with history. We are witnessing, I believe, not just a resurgent academic appreciation of some traditional techniques of historical scholarship, nor a recognition that narrative theory affects historical writing as much as it does the novel, but a rethinking of some of the fundamental modes whereby our culture relates to the past. The issue, if I am correct, is not just the revival of narrative but a new and more experiential mode of historical understanding. This large claim is not to be argued in short compass. My aim here is more modest, to look at one author from antiquity, writing in what I believe was a period similar in one respect to our own— its rethinking of its relationship to the past and of the problem of writing about the past. Studying narrative discourse in Thucydides will not by itself clarify what is happening in our own culture, but it may contain a few hidden analogies to some of the changes going on right now.

We have now almost stopped talking about Thucydides as a "scientific historian." That analogy, borrowed from the enthusiasms of an earlier generation, had a long life in Thucydidean studies and caused much belief. It encouraged the notion that Thucydides was not so much a writer as a proto-political scientist and sent readers scurrying about to find in his work "laws" comparable to those found by natural scientists. Much attention was thus paid to passages that generalized about human nature or that expounded the so-called Law of the Stronger. Little attention was paid to the fact that these passages are almost always found in the speeches of the work, and that the structure of the debates and their setting within the narrative often subvert or modify the generalizations advanced by individual speakers. The search for the laws of a political science in Thucydides made him into a hard line Cold Warrior, teaching the lesson of the tough-minded pursuit of self interest and national interest. The attempt to make Thucydides into a "scientific historian," in other words, narrowed and distorted our understanding of the literary richness of the work. Still, the analogy did help us become aware of certain important features of the text, even if it did not go far toward explaining them. It drew attention to the restraint and austerity of Thucydides, the comparative infrequency of authorial interventions, and the avoidance of explicit judgments and evaluations. To be sure, it also tempted us to mistake these features for an attempt to write a purely "objective" or "value-free" history and to neglect the frequent and powerful indications of implicit value judgments throughout the Histories. The analogy to scientific history, in other words, did what analogies usually do—it opened our eyes to some features of the text and obscured some other features, equally important for a full and balanced appreciation.

Now that we have swung away from the view that Thucydides was a cold and detached observer and have begun to emphasize the elements of feeling, involvement, judgment, and pathos in his work, it is easy to be scornful of the old belief in a "scientific" Thucydides. But we learned a lot in that school, including the great debt Thucydides owed to the intellectual revolution of the mid fifth century B.C., especially to Hippocratic medicine and the early Sophists. Thucydides' work, we agree, was profoundly influenced—not molded or determined—but influenced by the thinking about myth, persuasion, and psychology that was going on during his childhood and youth. Out of that revolution Thucydides drew some of the elements that were to prove most important for his work. He combined a realistic, tough-minded psychology, the Hippoeratics' insistence on careful testing of observations and reported facts, and the argumentative techniques of the Sophists into a powerful machine for historical analysis.

We can best see this engine at work in the opening chapters of the Histories, the so-called "Archaeology," where it is applied to the legends of early Greece. If we look closely, we note a surprising contrast between Thucydides and the supposedly more credulous Herodotus. Thucydides turns out to be willing to accept a considerable amount of this legendary material, but only after it has come through his analytical engine. Along the way the variants in the stories are studied, the alleged motives of the actors are tested against his "modern" psychology and an interpretation is presented that is grounded in analogies from primitive cultures and arguments from probability.

Consider one example. Herodotus begins his history of the Persian wars by telling some legends about early hostilities between Greeks and barbarians. He includes two versions of the story of Paris' abduction of Helen, but then dismisses both: "Which of these two accounts is true I shall not trouble to decide. I shall proceed at once to point out the person who first within my own knowledge commenced aggressions on the Greeks, after which I shall go forward with my history …" (Herodotus 1.5, trans. G. Rawlinson). Soon we are studying the expansions of the Persian empire in the sixth century B.C.

Thucydides, by contrast, refines and then accepts legends about early Greece. The opening of his history, the "Archaeology," accepts the reality of the Greek expedition against Troy. But he drastically reinterprets traditional legends: "Agamemnon," he says, "seems to me to have assembled his expedition not so much because of the oaths which Tyndareus imposed upon the suitors of Helen [that is, that they should assist the successful suitor if anyone ever abducted Helen] but because he was the most powerful man of his day" (1.9.1). He leaves no room here for story-telling about the power of oaths or the chivalric loyalty of unsuccessful suitors. Power counts and Agamemnon had it; naturally then, others followed when he gave the order. If we look through the Histories we find that Thucydides accepts a surprising amount of legendary material but accepts it only after his new historical method has separated plausible versions from myth, sentimentality and downright falsehood.

This method, Thucydides' new historical engine, is one of the boldest and most powerful inventions of the intellectual revolution of the fifth century. We understand it and appreciate it thanks in large part to the phase of our own past that emphasized the "scientific" nature of Thucydides' work. But that emphasis did little to help us understand how this historical method functions within the text. For that we must turn to the aspect of Thucydides that has attracted so much attention in recent years—the nature of narrative discourse. Much interesting work has been or is being done in this rich field, but I shall concentrate on a very specific question, and a very difficult one: Why do we believe Thucydides' account? What makes him seem so persuasive and compelling? To phrase the question in this way is not to imply that all historians believe Thucydides all the time—far from it. But those critics who have challenged Thucydides most sharply will be the first to point out the extraordinary hold he has upon our thinking about the Peloponnesian War. Even when his account has received repeated and serious criticism, historians and laymen alike are reluctant to repudiate it. To be sure we try to utilize all our sources about antiquity, especially those by contemporary writers, but Thucydides enjoys, rightly or wrongly, an esteem not accorded to Ctesias, Xenophon; Appian, Suetonius, or even Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Tacitus. Why is this? The reason is not that Thucydides' account has been tested against a large number of independently verifiable facts and found consistently reliable. Only rarely can his work be compared to contemporary documents, and when it is compared, as when we have an inscription, there is almost always a problem. The problems do not refute Thucydides; we simply lack solid, independent verification. It is then something else that causes the intensity of belief engendered by Thucydides.

What is this something? Surely it is in part the recognition that Thucydides, whatever his biases and faults, is a highly intelligent observer. But how do we know that? And how can we test that impression? There is no sufficient outside authority to which we can appeal. We have only the words of the text to rely upon. In other words, the narrative discourse of Thucydides itself establishes the authority of the writer and persuades us to listen with respect, if not total assent.

It achieves this hold, moreover, without using many of the conventions of scholarly history. Obviously no one would expect to find in his work the apparatus of modern historical research, but the contrast between Thucydides and Herodotus indicates how rarely Thucydides uses the devices by which Herodotus presented to his readers the problems of finding out about the past. Herodotus will commonly identify the places where he finds a serious difficulty; he will report alternative versions or views; he will cite the consideration that leads him to prefer one version to another and he will state his conclusion in language that expresses the degree of confidence he feels. He may make mistakes of fact or logic; he may even be quite silly, but the problematic of history is always before our eyes. As [R. W.] Macan said in his appreciation of Herodotus in the Cambridge Ancient History, "Where there is a variant, he will not suppress alternatives, or impose his own judgment upon posterity. Even when his own mind is made up, he will allow his informants, and his public, the benefit of the doubt." The historian and his reader are colleagues, sharing the problems and engaged in dialogue about their solution.

Thucydides' practice is quite the opposite. Through " most of his work, he avoids discussing the problems of history and presents a finished product. As Macan says, "The results of his method, which is to extract for his readers, to all generations, a clear and chronologized narrative, the precise sources of which are seldom even indicated, must be taken or left on his authority, and on his authority alone." Reader and author stand in a different relationship. They are not colleagues, but performer and audience, the writer who knows how to produce a polished work and the audience who appreciates its craftsmanship and reacts to its quality.

To Thucydides' detractors this is sufficient to condemn him for "brain-washing" or manipulation. We expect to be colleagues, especially if we are professional historians (not that Thucydides ever was), and feel cheated if we are not allowed to look over his shoulder at the reports and documents he is using. Thucydides' defenders, on the other hand, wax eloquent. Gomme, following Gilbert Murray, for example, wrote that Thucydides was "determined to do all the work himself and to present only the finished product to the public, as the artist does. Wren showed St. Paul's Cathedral to the world, not his plans for it; so does the painter his picture; so did Pheidias his sculpture" [The Greek Attitude to Poetry and History, 1954].

If we step aside for a moment from the speeches for the prosecution and the defense, we notice something that seems to me more important than praise or blame. Thucydides' avoidance or rejection of the conventions of historical argument make it all the more difficult to give a satisfactory answer to our original question: Why do we believe Thucydides? We do not believe him because he has identified and clarified the problems, cited his sources, gathered the evidence and established his conclusions with such plausibility that we are forced to assent. Perhaps we believe him for precisely the opposite reason—because he writes not as the scribes and Pharisees do, but with authority.

That authority derives, I believe, from three sources. To one I have already alluded: it is the demonstration of historical method in the "Archaeology." The opening twenty-three chapters are a short, highly selective inquiry into some aspects of the past and constitute an epideixis, a demonstration piece, showing what Thucydides' method can do. They constitute an implicit a fortiori argument. If Thucydides' powerful engine can extract such a compelling interpretation of the remote past, a fortiori it should be able to attain important results in interpreting and analyzing the recent past. That, I believe, is what Thucydides implies when, after the investigation of early Greece, he points out the difficulties of finding out about the remote past but goes on to affirm that anyone who accepts the approximations he has derived from the indicators (tekma ria) he has mentioned will not go astray (1.21.1). He then turns to the problems of reconstructing the events of the Peloponnesian War. The famous "programmatic" or "methodological chapter" (1.22) is not a comprehensive statement of his historical principles but an affirmation of difficulties overcome and hence of the enduring utility of his work.

The first source of Thucydides' authority then is the demonstration of his historical method. But once the engine has been displayed, it is locked up again. We may hear it rumbling away in the background somewhere; we are reminded of its existence from time to time. But we do not regularly see it collecting, analyzing, testing and selecting reports and data about events and turning them into finished historical narrative.

Thus for much of the work the historical method of Thucydides is out of sight, if not entirely out of mind. In these portions its effects are reinforced by two further sources of authority. One is Thucydidean "style," that formidable, overwhelming complexity that can shatter all the neat antilogies and balances of Greek and strain the language to its limit.

Once again it is important to ask the simple but fundamental question. Why is Thucydides' style so difficult? Is it, as Collingwood thought [in his The Idea of History, 1956], the result of Thucydides' bad conscience, his uneasiness at pretending to write history when he was really writing political science or theory? Or is the more conventional answer correct—that it is the result of the originality and subtlety of his ideas. Is there some gnostic message concealed in the complexity of his expression? If we look closely, we find, I believe, that neither of these answers is correct. The difficulties derive not from the author's psychic disquiet nor from hidden subtleties, but from a desire to affirm his respect for the complexity of historical events and human motives. In Thucydides we discover not an arcane philosophy but a style that replicates the intractability of historical experience. It assures the reader that the author will not oversimplify or reduce events to cliché, antithesis, or dogma.

This assurance is conveyed by, and much of the difficulty arises from, Thucydides' use of multiple viewpoints in narrating events. He will begin from one point of view, and switch, usually without warning or marker, to quite a different perspective. Often we end by viewing a single event from two or three different viewpoints. In the account of the third year of the war, for example, Thucydides tells of the consternation that swept through Athens when a Peloponnesian fleet appeared in the Saronic Gulf. The Peloponnesians had almost defeated the Athenian ships in the Corinthian Gulf. Then, at the end of the campaigning season, the Peloponnesian commanders decide to undertake one more operation. They will march their sailors overland, each carrying his oarlock and seat cushion, to Megara where forty ships are drawn up in their ally's dockyards. With these ships, they plan to make a surprise attack on the Piraeus.

Up to this point the narrative is straightforward, perfectly clear, even relatively easy Greek. Then follows a sentence of such contorted phraseology—not to mention its nine negatives in 35 words—that the critics have tried to emend it or delete it. Crawley's translation smooths out some of the difficulties but catches the main idea:

There was no fleet on the look out in the harbor [of the Piraeus] and no one had the least idea of the enemy attempting a surprise: while an open attack would, it was thought, never be deliberately ventured on, or if in contemplation would be speedily known at Athens. (2.93.3)

Crawley has added a crucial phrase to the Greek: "while an open attack would, it was thought, never be deliberately ventured upon …". Why did Crawley add this phrase? He recognized and marked for his reader what is implicit and hence a source of obscurity in the Greek: that Thucydides has shifted from reporting the attitude of the Peloponnesians to conveying the psychology of the Athenians. In the next sentence, when Thucydides shifts back to the plans of the Peloponnesians, the reader understands, thanks to this contorted sentence, both the Peloponnesians' feeling that their original plan was terribly risky, and the ironic fact that precisely because of that risk it might well have worked:

… arriving at night and launching their vessels from Nisaea, they sailed, not to Piraeus as they originally intended, being afraid of the risk, besides which there was some talk of a wind having stopped them, but to the point of Salamis …

The rest of the account of the operation continues this alternation between Peloponnesian and Athenian viewpoints. The effect is consistently ironic: by the time we hear of the Peloponnesian decision to abandon their original plan we know that from the Athenian point of view it might have worked; by the time we hear of the panic in Athens, we know that from the Peloponnesian point of view the plan was too risky to carry through. The irony is characteristic of Thucydides and so are the rapid changes of viewpoint, a major component of his style and an important contributor to this second source of his authority.

The richness of Thucydides' account comes sharply into focus if we compare this passage to the smooth and nicely balanced version of the episode supplied by Diodorus of Sicily. Diodorus reduces all to a single viewpoint, that of one Peloponnesian commander; he omits the vivid detail of the march overland with each rower carrying his oarlock and seat cushion, and by failing to mention the growing fears of the Peloponnesian commanders leaves his reader without explanation for the outcome of the operation, an attack on Salamis not Piraeus:

In this year, Cnemus, the Lacedaemonian admiral, who was inactive in Corinth, decided to seize the Piraeus. He had received information that no ships in the harbour had been put into the water for duty and no soldiers had been detailed to guard the port; for the Athenians, as he had learned, had become negligent about guarding it because they by no means expected any enemy would have the audacity to seize the place. Consequently Cnemus, launching forty triremes which had been hauled up on the beach at Megara, sailed by night to Salamis, and falling unexpectedly on the fortrees on Salamis called Boudorium, he towed away three ships and overran the entire island. (Diodorus 12.49.2-3, trans. C.H. Oldfather)

No one needs corroboration from contemporary documents or even a knowledge of the chronological and historiographical relationship between Thucydides and Diodorus to know which of these two accounts to prefer.

A third source of authority, however, may prove even more important. To call this the "experiential" or "participatory" aspect of Thucydides' work would be cumbersome, but the terms for all their awkwardness call attention to a feature often neglected in the work. We do not usually think of Thucydides as a writer who keeps drawing his readers into the narrative of events until they feel they are themselves present, actually experiencing them. But Thucydides achieves this implication of the reader to an extraordinary degree. We do not often let ourselves be caught up in the vicarious experience of the actions he describes, but we should. For every minute we spend searching for laws or theory or gnostic insights, we might well allot equal time and attention to Thucydides' ability to recreate events and moods.

To achieve this end Thucydides has many techniques, chief among them the dramatic interplay between abstraction and sudden flashes of vividness. His style aspires to a level of generality that brings out the similarity of one episode to another. It often verges on the formulaic. But darting through it are words, phrases, sometimes whole episodes whose extraordinary vividness creates the illusion that we are ourselves present, witnessing events. In the passage we have just examined, for example, Thucydides notes that each sailor carried with him on the march his oarlock and cushion. In recounting the initial attack on Plataea, he focusses on the spear point jammed into the lock of the gate to prevent escape (2.4.3). At the siege of Plataea we observe the careful planning of the escape, the counting of the bricks (3.20.3), the removal of the sandal from the right foot (3.22.2), the armament and name of the leader of those who first climbed the ladders  (3.22.3). In the account of the battle near Naupactus we watch an Athenian ship wheel rapidly about an anchored merchantman and ram its Leucadian pursuer amidship and sink it (2.91.3); on Sphacteria we experience the dust, the headgear pierced by arrows, the broken spears (4.34.3). Every attentive reader of Thucydides could expand the list and note the close bond between visual detail and the mood of the scene and the feelings of the participants. Vision in Thucydides is the privileged sense, most commonly invoked and most directly linked to the emotions.

Yet modern critics have said far less about the vivid side of Thucydides' style than about the complexities of his moral and political beliefs. In this respect, for all their obvious faults, the ancient critics are closer to the mark. Plutarch, for example, stressed Thucydides' use of enargeia, vividness, in his comments on Thucydides.

The most effective historian is the one who makes his narrative like a painting by giving a visual quality to the sufferings and characters. Thucydides certainly always strives after this vividness in his writing, eagerly trying to transform his reader into a spectator and to let the sufferings that were so dazzling and upsetting to those who beheld them have a similar effect on those who read about them. (Plutarch On the Fame of the Athenians, ch. 3 [Moralia 347A])

Hobbes [in his Preface to a translation of Thucydides, 1629] made a similar observation, but set it in a more provocative context. He praised Thucydides as "the most politic historiographer that ever writ. The reason wherefore I take to be this … he maketh his auditor a spectator." And how did Thucydides attain this most politic result? "The narrative," Hobbes says, "doth secretly instruct the reader and more effectively than can be done by precept." The political lessons and the utility of the Histories, in other words, derive not from Thucydides' explicit comments or implicit theorizing, but from the reader's own involvement in the work.

Once we recognize this, many features of the work become far more intelligible. We can worry less about the author's hidden theories and more about our own reactions to the text. And as we become more active participants in the events described, we can dispense with the narrator's guidance and explicit comments. The narrator can become self-effacing, speak in the third person, intervene only rarely with his own judgments and evaluations and let the reader do, in Henry James' phrase, "quite half the labor." He may pretend that the war itself is the narrator which reveals its own greatness to those who scrutinize events closely enough (1.21.2).

We recognize, of course, that this is pretense, or a game in which reader and author engage. History is not chronicle, and Thucydides was certainly not a modest registering machine duly recording each event in colorless exactitude. He is present, selecting, shaping, coloring, at every episode, every phrase, every subscript. We ancient historians and philologists have reached the age of discretion at which we can reasonably be expected to recognize that the shaping of the text by the author, even as the author pretends to remove himself from his story, is not a bad habit, unprofessional conduct on the part of the writer. It is one way a writer can accomplish an essential part of his purpose—the involvement of the reader in the events and the activation of the reader's own evaluative capacities.

The illusion created by Thucydides, then, is one of immediate presence, of our own participation in the events described. That illusion, in Thucydides' view at least, excludes another one, and a very near and dear one to our historical hearts. Thucydides avoids letting his reader think that he is in the archive selecting the documents, or in the author's study participating in the choice of one version over another. We are not his colleague. Instead, the documents have been gathered, the informants interrogated, the selection of alternative versions has been completed. This much of the work is done and the reader is presented with the final product and asked to respond to it.

In this respect Thucydides' practice contrasts very sharply with that of Herodotus. To many modern readers Herodotus is much more congenial. As we read his work we are constantly reminded of the difficulties he encountered in assembling and shaping his material— the legends and biased accounts presented to him as fact, the leg-pulling, the gaps and the polemics he encountered. We are at his side, sharing the decisions with him, and enjoying the process. By contrast Thucydides may seem to us, as he does to Truesdale Brown [in Historia 31 (1982)], to underestimate our intelligence:

… while breaking new ground in his scrupulous use of sources, he underestimated the intelligence of his readers. Having arrived at his own conclusions by a critical examination of the evidence he does not share the materials he rejects with the reader. Herodotus was less critical … he could not bear to omit anything which he felt might appeal to his readers.

Brown's comments call attention to a major contrast between the two writers. But his explanation leaves out of sight the possibility that there are different principles at work. Thucydides imposes a different division of labor between author and reader. The historian's job is to investigate, compile, select, edit and present. The reader's half, the greater half, is to react, to assess, and thereby to learn.

This feature of Thucydides' technique has several important consequences for our understanding of the Histories, two of which call for special comment. The first concerns the ease with which description of mood is confused with statement of fact. The second returns to the major topic of this paper, the establishment of Thucydides' authority.

First, mood. One of Thucydides' goals, we have suggested, was to create in his reader the illusion that he is himself present at events. Sometimes this goal leads to descriptions not of the event itself but of the reactions and feelings of those who were present at the event. The most famous of these passages is the description of the great naval battle in the harbor at Syracuse. The main portion of the description of the battle contains passages such as this:

… while the naval battle was hanging in the balance, the land army of each side experienced a great conflict and convergence of reactions. The group from the immediate area were eager to win, with a view to even greater glory; those who had invaded feared lest they should experience even worse than their present state. Since for the Athenians everything depended on the ships, their fear of the future was beyond any comparison and thanks to the uncertainty of the naval battle, uncertain too had to be the vision of it from the land. Since one could see only a small portion of the action, nor did all look at the same spot, those who saw in one engagement their own forces succeeding were encouraged and would turn to invocations of the gods not to deprive them of their safety. But those who looked at a defeat raised a ritual lament even while they were shouting and from the sight of what had happened lost their spirit even more than those who were in the engagement.… (7.71.1-3)

The passage is an excellent example of several Thucydidean techniques—shifting viewpoints, the emphasis on vision, the creation of mood. But William Scott Ferguson deplored this approach:

… Thucydides fails even to suggest the factors that determined the outcome. Instead, he dwells on certain typical incidents in the confused fighting that followed, and then turns our attention to the spectators on the shore, and leaves us to infer the manifold vicissitudes of the protracted struggle from the agony of fear, joy, anxiety.…

True enough. Thucydides' concern, however, was not to recover the tactics, such as they were, of this confused battle, but to record the changes in the morale of the Athenians, the crucial factor in the next stage of the operations. We have in this passage another kind of enargeia, a vividness not of precise details but of mood.

For the reader passages such as this pose special problems. One can, for example, mistake mood for fact. Again, Thucydides does not always stop to distinguish and to mark important differences. Sometimes it is not entirely clear whether he is telling us what the situation was or how it seemed to contemporary observers. At the beginning of book eight, for example, Thucydides discusses the situation in Athens when news came of the loss of the expedition in Sicily:

All things on all sides grieved them and there surrounded them in this situation fear and dismay of the very greatest sort. For since they had lost, both individually and as a city, many heavy-armed soldiers and cavalry and crack troops of a quality the match of which they did not see to be available, they were depressed. Likewise since they did not see sufficient ships in their dockyards nor money in their treasury, nor crews for their ships, they despaired of any salvation in the present situation. They believed that the enemies from Sicily would immediately sail with their fleets against the Piraeus, especially since they had conquered so decisively, and that their own more immediate enemies at that very time had made double efforts in full force and would bear down upon them from land and sea and that their own allies would revolt and join them. (8.1.2-3)

The passage tells us how the Athenians looked upon their situation in the bleak moments when the news about Sicily arrived. It is full of descriptions of feelings—how they saw things, what they believed would happen. But many excellent commentators take the passage as Thucydides' assertion of facts, and then point out, using evidence from other passages in Thucydides, that the situation was by no means as hopeless as this passage suggests. Meiggs, for example [in The Athenian Empire (1972)], writes "the empire, meanwhile, according to Thucydides, threatened collapse as the allies competed fiercely to be the first to revolt, now that Athens' power was broken. His detailed narrative does not fully bear out this gloomy analysis." And Andrewes in the new Oxford commentary on book eight (p.6), noting that Athenian despair about their navy, concludes, "clearly the decree of 431 (ii.24.2) had not been maintained to keep a reserve of a hundred triremes, the best of each year, in readiness with their trierarchs." Perhaps not, but as Andrewes points out, their despair about their finances makes no mention of the reserve fund of one thousand talents also established in 431 and still available for use in the post-Sicilian emergency (8.15.1). Thucydides says that the Athenians did not see the resources to deal with the present situation; he does not say there were no resources to see.

As we read on in book eight the facts gradually become clear and the mood of the Athenians gradually changes: there is a reserve fund; not all allies revolt; those that do revolt often act prematurely; Sparta is not effective in exploiting the situation and the Syracusans are not swift or decisive in their intervention. At Cynossema Athens wins a major victory. In the eighth book we trace an irregular movement from despair to growing confidence, from apparent defeat to the renewed efforts of the Athenians in a final, and even greater, struggle. If we understand Thucydides' emphasis on changing moods, this book becomes more intelligible and we are far less likely, here or elsewhere, to mistake description of moods for statements about facts.

In a second way too we can now better understand Thucydides' technique and why it has produced such intense conviction. At certain points the narrative creates in the reader the feeling of being directly present at an episode in the war. We are as far from the historians' study as we can possibly be; we are in the war itself. We see; we hear; we even know the plans and thoughts of the participants. The crucial elements are before us, not in pictorial fullness, as one might find in a Hellenistic historian, but through highly selective detail. As Lawrence Stone has said of Peter Brown, "The deliberate vagueness, the pictorial approach,… the concern for what was going on inside people's heads, are all characteristic of a fresh way of writing history." And like a pointilliste painting it draws us in, involves our minds in the process of creation, and wins our assent. Seeing is, after all, believing.

Those who have learned what history is from professional scholars and who know a good footnote when they see one, may find this a paradoxical conclusion. How can one believe a writer who, after a few opening chapters, simply bypasses the whole problematic of history and writes as if he knew precisely what went on in the war, and even in the participants' heads? If we had been weaned on Macaulay and Carlyle, things might look different. Those writers remind us that in History's house there are many rooms and many passageways. We lose something if we block off too many parts of the mansion or condemn too much of it too soon.

And what is it, precisely, we risk if we close the chambers Thucydides occupied? The loss of vicarious experience and of the sense of participating in a reality far different from our daily life, the very thing that makes the study of history so important for the growth of the mind and imagination. "But surely," one might object, "this vicarious experience can be obtained without sacrificing the constant gestures of respect for the problematic of history which are the marks of modern scholarly history." Perhaps, but one should not underestimate the difficulty. For many readers any pause over the problems of historical evidence and reconstruction, any worry about conflicting sources or assessments, any entry into the historian's study, shatters the illusion of participating in the past. The problematic of history impedes its experiential power. To talk about the problems of historical analysis imposes a chasm between reader and past event. Even when it produces conviction, a residue of doubt remains. For historical analysis is always based on the calculation of probabilities. We read the arguments and assent, but our language reminds us of the uncertainty. We say we are "almost one hundred percent sure" or that we are "halfway convinced" or that we have "found the preponderance of evidence" on one side of the matter.

The division of labor we have noted in Thucydides bypasses this problem. Thucydides may have his doubts and unresolved problems. But he keeps them to himself and lets the reader transcend them. The conviction which attends the reading of Thucydides' work is thus not related to the calculation of probabilities or the careful assessment of plausible solutions. We feel we have been there. The world Thucydides has described, the patterns of power and human conduct, are so consistent, so real, that we have no choice but to assent. We are moved by the greater logic that derives its power not from accumulated evidence or carefully constructed syllogisms but from the evocation of a coherent world. At length we feel, not that we have deduced the nature of that world, but that we have temporarily become part of it. Of course we then believe—not despite, but because of the fact that Thucydides does not write as the scribes and Pharisees do, but as one with authority.

What shall we then conclude about Thucydides' authority? Why do we believe him? We have seen three sources of it in the work, the first the powerful engine of historical analysis whose workings are best to be seen in the "Archaeology." The second is a style that affirms the author's respect for the complexity of historical events and that views the past from multiple perspectives. The third source, perhaps the most important, is the reader's feeling of experiencing the events described.

The sources do not all cohabit in blissful harmony. Indeed between the second and the third there is an inevitable tension—the rapid shifting of viewpoints risks a shattering of the experiential quality of the work. But Thucydides' style not only contributes to his authority but sustains the tension and transforms it into the uniquely powerful result we have all experienced in reading Thucydides. It accounts for something scholars of Thucydides experience but often fail to mention—Thucydides' appeal as a writer and the pleasure of reading him. If we concentrate too much on the scientist or philosopher, we lose sight of the vividness of his writing and the rich, demanding but rewarding experience of reading a great writer. Expecting profundity we can miss the color, the swift-paced action, the detail, the opportunity to see, to experience, to understand. To say this is not to make Thucydides into a simple writer, not to minimize the efforts he expects from his readers. But it is a reminder of the ability of this work to avoid the eventual emptiness of an exclusively analytical method and to resist with equal determination the tendency so evident in Hellenistic historiography to report anything that is sufficiently lurid and sensational. What makes Thucydides' work what it is—one of the unsurpassed and enduring achievements of prose narrative—is precisely this tension and interaction among different modes of narrative discourse.

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