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Bust of Thucydides residing in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Thucydides (c. 460 B.C.c. 395 B.C.) (Greek Θουκυδίδης, Thoukydídēs) was a Greek historian and author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the 5th century B.C. war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 B.C. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of "scientific history" due to his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods, as outlined in his introduction to his work.[1]

He has also been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the relations between nations as based on might rather than right.[2] His classical text is still studied at advanced military colleges worldwide, and the Melian dialogue remains a seminal work of international relations theory.

More generally, Thucydides showed an interest in developing an understanding of human nature to explain behaviour in such crises as plague, genocide (as practised against the Melians), and civil war.


[edit] Life

In spite of his stature as a historian, modern historians know relatively little about Thucydides' life. The most reliable information comes from his own History of the Peloponnesian War, which expounds his nationality, paternity and native locality. Thucydides informs us that he fought in the war, contracted the plague and was exiled by the democracy.

[edit] Evidence from the Classical Period

Thucydides identifies himself as an Athenian, telling us that his father's name was Olorus and that he was from the Athenian deme of Halimous.[3] He survived the Plague of Athens[4] that killed Pericles and many other Athenians. He also records that he owned gold mines at Scapte Hyle (literally: "Dug Woodland"), a coastal area in Thrace, opposite the island of Thasos.[5]

The ruins of Amphipolis as seen by E. Cousinéry in 1831: the bridge over the Strymon, the city fortifications, and the acropolis

Because of his influence in the Thracian region, Thucydides wrote, he was sent as a strategos (general) to Thasos in 424 B.C. During the winter of 424-423 B.C., the Spartan general Brasidas attacked Amphipolis, a half-day's sail west from Thasos on the Thracian coast. Eucles, the Athenian commander at Amphipolis, sent to Thucydides for help.[6] Brasidas, aware of Thucydides's presence on Thasos and his influence with the people of Amphipolis, and afraid of help arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Thus, when Thucydides arrived, Amphipolis was already under Spartan control.[7] (See Battle of Amphipolis.)

Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance, and news of its fall caused great consternation in Athens.[8] It was blamed on Thucydides, although he claimed that it was not his fault and that he had simply been unable to reach it in time. Because of his failure to save Amphipolis, he was sent into exile:[9]

It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Using his status as an exile from Athens to travel freely among the Peloponnesian allies, he was able to view the war from the perspective of both sides. During this time, he conducted important research for his history, having claimed that he pursued the project as he thought it would be one of the greatest wars waged among the Greeks in terms of scale.

Bust of Herodotus

This is all that Thucydides wrote about his own life, but a few other facts are available from reliable contemporary sources. Herodotus wrote that Thucydides' father's name, Όloros, was connected with Thrace and Thracian royalty.[10] Thucydides was probably connected through family to the Athenian statesman and general Miltiades, and his son Cimon, leaders of the old aristocracy supplanted by the Radical Democrats. Cimon's maternal grandfather's name was also Olorus, making the connection exceedingly likely. Another Thucydides lived before the historian and was also linked with Thrace, making a family connection between them very likely as well. Finally, Herodotus confirms the connection of Thucydides' family with the mines at Scapté Hýlē.[11]

Combining all the fragmentary evidence available, it seems that his family had owned a large estate in Thrace, one that even contained gold mines, and which allowed the family considerable and lasting affluence. The security and continued prosperity of the wealthy estate must have necessitated formal ties with local kings or chieftains, which explains the adoption of the distinctly Thracian royal name "Όloros" into the family. Once exiled, Thucydides took permanent residence in the estate and, given his ample income from the gold mines, he was able to dedicate himself to full-time history writing and research, including many fact-finding trips. In essence he was by then a retired, well-connected gentleman of considerable resources who, by then retired from the political and military spheres, decided to fund his own scientific project.

[edit] Later sources

The remaining evidence for Thucydides' life comes from rather less reliable later ancient sources. According to Pausanias, someone named Oenobius was able to get a law passed allowing Thucydides to return to Athens, presumably sometime shortly after the city's surrender and the end of the war in 404 B.C.[12] Pausanias goes on to say that Thucydides was murdered on his way back to Athens. Many doubt this account, seeing evidence to suggest he lived as late as 397 B.C. Plutarch claims that his remains were returned to Athens and placed in Cimon's family vault.[13]

The abrupt end to Thucydides' narrative, which breaks off in the middle of the year 411 B.C., has traditionally been interpreted as indicating that he died while writing the book, although other explanations have been put forward. An attempt at a written history of the Peloponnesian War was continued by Xenophon.

[edit] Education

Although there is no certain evidence to prove it, the rhetorical character of Thucydides' narrative suggests that he was at least familiar with the teachings of the Sophists, traveling lecturers who frequented Athens and other Greek cities.

It has also been asserted that Thucydides' strict focus on cause and effect, his fastidious devotion to observable phenomena to the exclusion of other factors and his austere prose were influenced by the methods and thinking of early medical writers such as Hippocrates of Kos.

[edit] Character

Inferences about Thucydides' character can only be drawn (with due caution) from his book. His sardonic sense of humor is evident throughout, as when, during his description of the Athenian plague, he remarks that old Athenians seemed to remember a rhyme which said that with the Dorian War would come a "great death". Some claimed that the rhyme was actually about a "great dearth" (limos), and was only remembered as "death" (loimos) due to the current plague. Thucydides then remarks that, should another Dorian War come, this time attended with a great dearth, the rhyme will be remembered as "dearth," and any mention of "death" forgotten.[14]


Thucydides admired Pericles, approving of his power over the people, and shows a palpable distaste for the demagogues who followed him. Thucydides did not approve of the democratic mob nor the radical democracy that Pericles ushered in but felt that it was acceptable in the hands of a good leader.[15] Generally, Thucydides exhibits a lack of bias in his presentation of events, refusing, for example, to minimize the negative effect of his own failure at Amphipolis. Occasionally, however, strong passions break through, as in his scathing appraisals of the demagogues Cleon[16] and Hyperbolus.[17] Cleon has sometimes been connected with Thucydides' exile.[18]

Thucydides was clearly moved by the suffering inherent in war and concerned about the excesses to which human nature is apt to resort in such circumstances. This is evident in his analysis of the atrocities committed during civil conflict on Corcyra,[19] which includes the phrase "War is a violent teacher".

The History of the Peloponnesian War

The Acropolis in Athens
Ruins at Sparta

Thucydides wrote a history that was divided into 8 books after his death: its modern title is the History of the Peloponnesian War. His entire contribution to history and historiography is contained in this one dense history of the 27-year war between Athens and its allies, and Sparta and its allies. The history breaks off near the end of the 21st year, the last sketchy book suggests that his death was not anticipated and could possibly have been sudden or violent. Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War represented an event of unmatched magnitude.[20] He intended for his account of the events of the late fifth century to serve as "a possession for all time."[21]

Thucydides is generally regarded as one of the first true historians. Like his predecessor Herodotus (often called "the father of history"), Thucydides places a high value on autopsy and eye-witness testimony, and writes about many episodes in which he himself probably took part. He also assiduously consulted written documents and interviewed participants in the events that he records. Unlike Herodotus, he did not recognize divine interventions in human affairs.

One major difference between Thucydides' history and modern historical writing is that the former includes lengthy speeches that, as he himself states, were as best as could be remembered of what was said — or, perhaps, what he thought ought to have been said. Nevertheless, it can be argued that, unless a historian were to write them down, these speeches would not have been otherwise archived at all, which is certainly not the case in the modern era, when records and archives abound. Therefore Thucydides did not merely "go to the source", as a historian proper is nowadays routinely urged to do, but actually rescued his mostly oral sources from certain oblivion. These speeches are composed in a literary manner. Pericles' funeral oration, which includes a moral defence of democracy, heaps honour on the dead:

The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; they are honoured not only by columns and inscriptions in their own land, but in foreign nations on memorials graven not on stone but in the hearts and minds of men.

Although attributed to Pericles, this passage appears to have been written by Thucydides for deliberate contrast with the account of the plague in Athens which immediately follows it:

Though many lay unburied, birds and beasts would not touch them, or died after tasting them [...]. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons who had died there, just as they were; for, as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became equally contemptuous of the gods' property and the gods' dues. 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 upon 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 so went off.

Classical scholar Jacqueline de Romilly first pointed out, just after World War II, that one of Thucydides' central themes was the ethic of Athenian imperialism. Her analysis put his history in the context of Greek thought on the topic of international politics. Since her fundamental study, many scholars have begun studying the theme of power politics, i.e. realpolitik, in Thucydides' history.

On the other hand, some authors, including Richard Ned Lebow, reject the common perception of Thucydides as a historian of realpolitik. They argue that actors on the world stage who had read his work would all have been put on notice that someone would be scrutinising their actions with a reporter's objectivity, rather than the storyteller's passion, and were thus consciously or unconsciously participating in the writing of it. His Melian dialogue is an example.

Thucydides does not take the time to discuss the arts, literature or society in which the book is set and in which he himself grew up. He was writing about an event, not a period, and as such took lengths not to discuss anything unrelated.

Leo Strauss, in his study The City and Man, argued that Thucydides had a deeply ambivalent understanding of Athenian democracy: on one hand, "his wisdom was made possible" by the Periclean democracy, on account of its liberation of individual daring and enterprise and questioning; but this same liberation spurred the immoderation of limitless political ambition and thus imperialism, and eventually civic strife. More conventional scholars view him as recognising and teaching the lesson that democracies need leadership, but that leadership can be dangerous to democracy.[22]

[edit] Thucydides versus Herodotus

Herodotus and Thucydides

Thucydides and his immediate predecessor Herodotus both exerted a significant influence on Western historiography. Thucydides does not mention his counterpart by name, but his famous introductory statement[23]

To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.

is thought to refer to him.[24]

Herodotus records in his Histories not only the events of the Persian Wars but also geographical and ethnographical information, as well as the fables related to him during his extensive travels. If confronted with conflicting or unlikely accounts, he leaves the reader to decide what to believe.[25] The work of Herodotus is reported [26] to have been read ("rehearsed") at festivals, where prizes were awarded, as at Olympia.

Herodotus views history as a source of moral lessons, with conflicts and wars flowing from initial acts of injustice that propagate through cycles of revenge.[27] In contrast, Thucydides claims to confine himself to factual reports of contemporary political and military events, based on unambiguous, first-hand, eye-witness accounts,[28] although - unlike Herodotus - he does not reveal his sources. Thucydides views life exclusively as political life, and history in terms of political history. Morality plays no role in the analysis of political events while geographic and ethnographic aspects are, at best, of secondary importance.

Subsequent Greek historians — such as Ctesias, Diodorus, Strabo, Polybius and Plutarch — held up Thucydides' writings as a model of truthful history. Lucian[29] refers to Thucydides as having given Greek historians their law, requiring them to say what had been done (ὡς ἐπράχθη). Greek historians of the 4th century B.C. accepted that history was political and that contemporary history was the proper domain of a historian. Unlike Thucydides, however, they continued to view history as a source of moral lessons.[30] Some of them wrote pamphlets denigrating Herodotus, the "father of lies",[31] although the Roman politician and writer Cicero dubs him the "father of history."[32]


Thucydides and Herodotus were largely forgotten during the Middle Ages in Western Europe, but remained influences on Byzantine historiography. However, Herodotus became highly respected again in the 16th and 17th century, in part due to the discovery of America, where customs and animals were encountered even more surprising than those related by Herodotus. During the Reformation, the Histories provided a basis for establishing Biblical chronology as advocated by Isaac Newton.

Even during the Renaissance, Thucydides attracted less interest among Western European historians than his successor, Polybius.[33] Niccolò Machiavelli does not mention Thucydides much in Il Principe (The Prince), in which he held that the sole aim of a prince (politician) was to seek power regardless of religious or ethical considerations, but later authors have observed a close affinity between them.[34] In the 17th century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan advocated highly authoritarian systems of government, admired Thucydides and wrote a translation in 1628. Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli are together considered the founding fathers of political realism, according to which states are primarily motivated by the desire for military and economic power or security, rather than ideals or ethics.

Thucydides' reputation was greatly revived in the 19th century. A cult following developed among German philosophers like Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that, "in him [Thucydides], the portrayer of man, that culture of the most impartial knowledge of the world finds its last glorious flower." Among leading historians, such as Eduard Meyer, Macaulay, and Leopold von Ranke, who developed modern source-based history writing, Thucydides was again the model historian. They valued in particular the philosophical and artistic component of his work.[35] However, German historians also admired Herodotus: the history of civilization was increasingly viewed as complementary to political history.[36]

In the 20th century, Johan Huizinga, Marc Bloch and Braudel pioneered a different mode of historiography which emphasized the study of long-term cultural and economic developments, and the patterns of everyday life, over that of political history. The Annales School, which represents this direction, has been viewed as extending the tradition of Herodotus. [37] At the same time, Thucydides' influence became increasingly prominent in the area of international relations through the work of Hans Morgenthau, Leo Strauss[38] and Edward Carr.[39]

The tension between the Thucydidean and Herodotean traditions extends beyond historical research. According to Irving Kristol, considered the founder of American Neoconservatism, Thucydides wrote "the favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs,"[40] and Thucydides is a required text at the Naval War College. On the other hand, author and labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan recommends Herodotus as a better source than Thucydides for drawing historical lessons relevant for the present.[41]

[edit] Thucydides in popular culture

In 1991, the BBC broadcast a new version of John Barton's 'The War that Never Ends', which had first been performed on stage in the 1960s. This adapts Thucydides' text, together with short sections from Plato's dialogues. More information about it can be found on the Internet Movie Database.

[edit] Quotations

  • "But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it."[42]
  • "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."[43]
  • "It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well, and look up to those who make no concessions."[44]
  • "War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes."[45]
  • "The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention."[46]
  • "The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools."

[edit] Quotations about Thucydides

  • ... the first page of Thucydides is, in my opinion, the commencement of real history. All preceding narrations are so intermixed with fable, that philosophers ought to abandon them, to the embellishments of poets and orators. (David Hume, "Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations")
  • Exiled Thucydides knew/ All that a speech can say/ About Democracy,/ And what dictators do,/ The elderly rubbish they talk/ To an apathetic grave;/ Analysed all in his book,/ The enlightenment driven away,/ The habit-forming pain,/ Mismanagement and grief:/ We must suffer them all again. (W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939")

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Cochrane, p. 179; Meyer, p. 67; de Sainte Croix.
  2. ^ Strauss, p. 139.
  3. ^ Thucydides, 4.104.4; 1.1.1.
  4. ^ Thucydides, 2.48.1–3.
  5. ^ Thucydides, 4.105.1.
  6. ^ Thucydides, 4.104.1.
  7. ^ Thucydides, 4.105.1 – 106.3.
  8. ^ Thucydides, 4.108.1 – 7.
  9. ^ Thucydides, 5.26.5.
  10. ^ Herodotus, 6.39.1.
  11. ^ Herodotus, 6.46.1.
  12. ^ Pausanias, 1.23.9.
  13. ^ Plutarch, Cimon 4.1.
  14. ^ Thucydides, 2.54.3.
  15. ^ Thucydides, 2.65.
  16. ^ Thucydides, 3.36.6; 4.27; 5.16.1.
  17. ^ Thucydides, 8.73.3.
  18. ^ Marcellinus, Life of Thucydides 46
  19. ^ Thucydides, 3.82 – 83.
  20. ^ Thucydides, 1.1.1 ff..
  21. ^ Thucydides, 1.22.4.
  22. ^ Russett, p. 45.
  23. ^ Thucydides I,22
  24. ^ Lucian, How to write history, p. 42
  25. ^ Momigliano, pp. 39, 40.
  26. ^ Lucian: Herodotus, pp. 1-2.
  27. ^ Ryszard Kapuscinski: Travels with Herodotus, p. 78.
  28. ^ Thucydides I, 23
  29. ^ Lucian, p. 25, 41.
  30. ^ Momigliano, Ch. 2, IV.
  31. ^ Plutarch, On the Malignity of Herodotus
  32. ^ Cicero, Laws 1.5.
  33. ^ Momigliano Ch.2, V
  34. ^ J.B. Bury: The Ancient Greek Historians (London, MacMillan, 1909), pp. 140-143.
  35. ^ Momigliano, p. 50.
  36. ^ Momigliano, pg.52
  37. ^ Stuart Clark (ed.): The Annales school: critical assessments, Vol. II, 1999.
  38. ^ See essay on Thucydides in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss – Essays and Lectures by Leo Strauss. Ed. Thomas L. Pangle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  39. ^ See, for example, E.H. Carr: The Twenty Years' Crisis.
  40. ^ The Neoconservative Persuasion
  41. ^ History Lessons | The American Prospect
  42. ^ Thucydides, 2.40.3.
  43. ^ Thucydides, 5.89.
  44. ^ Thucydides, 3.39.5.
  45. ^ Thucydides, 3.82.2.
  46. ^ Thucydides, 3.82.8.

[edit] References and further reading

Greek Wikisource has original text related to this article:

[edit] Primary sources

[edit] Secondary sources

  • Cochrane, Charles Norris, Thucydides and the Science of History, Oxford University Press (1929).
  • Connor, W. Robert, Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984). ISBN 0691035695
  • Dewald, Carolyn. Thucydides' War Narrative: A Structural Study. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0520241274).
  • Forde, Steven, The ambition to rule : Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in Thucydides. Ithaca : Cornell University Press (1989). ISBN 0-8014-2138-1.
  • Hanson, Victor Davis, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House (2005). ISBN 1-4000-6095-8.
  • Hornblower, Simon, A Commentary on Thucydides. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon (1991-1996). ISBN 0-19-815099-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-19-927625-0 (vol. 2).
  • Hornblower, Simon, Thucydides. London: Duckworth (1987). ISBN 0-7156-2156-4.
  • Kagan, Donald. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-03211-5.
  • Luce, T.J., The Greek Historians. London: Routledge (1997). ISBN 0-415-10593-5.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. Sather Classical Lectures, 54 Berkeley: University of California Press (1990).
  • Meyer, Eduard, Kleine Schriften (1910), (Zur Theorie und Methodik der Geschichte).
  • Orwin, Clifford, The Humanity of Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1994). ISBN 0-691-03449-4.
  • Podoksik, Efraim. ‘Justice, Power, and Athenian Imperialism: An Ideological Moment in Thucydides’ History’, History of Political Thought. 26(1): 21-42, 2005.
  • Romilly, Jacqueline de, Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1963). ISBN 0-88143-072-2.
  • Rood, Tim, Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998). ISBN 0-19-927585-8.
  • Russett, Bruce (1993). Grasping the Democratic Peace. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03346-3. 
  • de Sainte Croix, The origins of the Peloponesian War (1972). London: Duckworth. 1972. Pp. xii, 444.
  • Strassler, Robert B, ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press (1996). ISBN 0-684-82815-4.
  • Strauss, Leo, The City and Man Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964.

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NAME Thucydides
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Θουκυδίδης; Thoukudídēs
DATE OF BIRTH 460 and 455 B.C.
PLACE OF BIRTH Alimos, Greece
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