Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Note on Thucydides


Thucydides was a an Athenian writer of the fifth and early fourth century B.C.E., he is best known for his book The Peloponnesian War, which was described and recounted the war between Athens and Sparta between 431 - 404 B.C.E. This war ended with the defeat of Athens and the triumph of Sparta.

Thucydides is our primary source for the war and in fact it appears that other ancient accounts relied largely on him making his account, by far, the main source.

Thucydides wrote what we would consider a typical war and politics type of history and in many respects nothing unusual. This is however rather distorted for what is forgotten is that Thucydides was an innovator in so many ways.

About Thucydides we know very little, and apparently little was known in antiquity also. Thucydides does tell us some pertinent details in his history but such comments are few brief and in many cases enigmatic. He seems to have been of Thracian descent and had some right to work gold mines in a part of Thrace.1

Thucydides apparently decided shortly after the war began to become the historian of the war because he very quickly recognized the wars importance. As he says:

The Median war, [Persian war] the greatest achievement of past times, yet found a speedy decision in two actions by sea and two by land. The Peloponnesian War went on for a very long time and their occurred during it disasters of a kind and number that other similar period of time could match. Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate, here by the barbarians, here by parties contending ( the old inhabitants being sometimes removed to make room for others); never was there so much banishing and bloodshedding, now on the field of battle, now in political strife. Old stories of occurrences handed down by tradition, but scantily confirmed by experience suddenly ceased to be incredible; eclipses of the sun occurred with a frequency unrecorded in previous history; there were great droughts in sundry places and consequent famines, and that most calamitous and awfully fatal visitation the plague. All this came upon them with the late war.2

His ability to do so was rendered problematic because he was an active politician and at times a general in the Athenian armed forces. However in 424 B.C.E. Thucydides was exiled over recriminations concerning the loss of the Athenian settlement of Amphipolis. Amazingly Thucydides records all of this in the third person in a very laconic manner that a reader unless he/she knows Thucydides had written it would never guess that the author is describing his own doings!
In this way they gave up the city, and late that same day, Thucydides and his ships entered the harbour of Eion.3
Now Thucydides faced a series of very formidable problems in writing his history. Let us examine a few.

One serious problem was chronology. Each Greek city state or polis had its own calendar and therefore way of reckoning the years. So just what date could be used? Thucydides decided to use as the basis for reckoning the time of his war by using the Persian wars has his fixed date. Using that date has his starting point he stated that the war began 50 years after the Persian Invasion that we date to 480 B.C.E. This seems like not much of an accomplishment, but in world of myriad calendars and therefore calendrical confusion that was one very clever brain wave.

Having thus fixed the date of the start of his war Thucydides refused to use any of the local city state calendars instead he dated his war by using the term year one of the war year two etc. To further specify his dates he divided his war years into winter and summer and specified events as occurring within each division. This further allowed him to avoid using a city based calendar. Further this allowed him to avoid the tiresome task of converting the dates that his informants would give him in their local calendars into a city based calendar if he had used one.

Thucydides solution was very simple but it was also brilliant. Even today we can with great confidence date the events mentioned by Thucydides.

Having solved the chronology problem to his satisfaction. Thucydides faced the problem of sources from which to write his history. This was too put it mildly a task of almost awesome scope, because for all practical purposes there were no written sources at all. A few degrees and perhaps some lists, maybe a few letters and reports but for all practical purposes written information the bread and butter of history writing was non existent!

So what did Thucydides have? Well what he had were witnesses to events. So if he made the effort he could go about and interview witnesses. This is why his exile helped him immensely in his writing of his history along with the income from his gold mines in Thrace which gave him a living while he pursued writing his history.

Thucydides says the following about his methods and the difficulty he had putting together his history.
And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrence by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.4
This left Thucydides with the nightmare of trying to reconcile conflicting accounts and evaluating them. Thucydides must have compiled a massive collection of notes and probably had an excellent memory. After all this was an age when there were no ball point pens and paper was expensive and writing a good deal more laborious then it would be now. It is quite easy to picture Thucydides working by flickering lamp light well into the night making notes from what the people had told him during the day.

Thucydides was also a very rational man. The section book 1 that gives a sort of pre-history of the Greeks, and which is called The Archaeology which is almost relentlessly rational. For example:
What enabled Agamemnon to raise the armament was more, in my opinion, his superiority in strength, than the oaths of Tyndarus, which bound the suitors to follow him.5
Further, given the temper of his times, Thucydides was unusually rational in not taking seriously omens or soothsaying.

The result was perhaps the greatest single work of history ever written but it does have its quirks and lacunae. The chief example is Thucydides speeches. This is what Thucydides says about his use of speeches:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.6
There as been a long standing debate about whether or not Thucydides speeches can be taken to be something like what the people involved actually said. The debate is fruitless because although Thucydides says he tries to be as close has possible to what they really said he also states “my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions,..”. Given this there is no way of telling by reading the speeches what they actually said and what Thucydides thought appropriate for them to say. Thucydides certainly deserves kudos for honesty though.

This is certainly not a modern day way of writing history, but is was very common among Greek and Roman historians and with the exception of Thucydides and Polybius no one thinks that the speeches or something like them may actually have been spoken. In my opinion Thucydides speeches are not reliable indicators of what was actually spoken. Thucydides honesty precludes that conclusion. Amazingly though the speeches in Thucydides account make up c. 25% of the total work!

The other problem is that Thucydides by his relentless shifting left out alternative versions of events. His history is a cleaned up version with all the messy ambiguity removed. Unlike Herodotus who frequently gave alternative versions of events Thucydides gives us one account, which seems to be the “true” account but since we don’t have the alternatives how can we be sure? Other Greek accounts of the war relied heavily on Thucydides so that there is basically no alternative to him. What evidence we do have would seem to indicate that Thucydides is indeed very reliable but still there is a sense of unease about him and his account. It would be nice to have a real alternative account.

Although Thucydides continued working on his history after the war ended in 404 B.C.E., with the defeat of Athens. The history stops in the year 411 B.C.E.. So it appears that the Thucydides never completed it and was working on it until his death. It is not known when Thucydides died although it was probably in the early 4th century B.C.E.

Thucydides also left one very surprising legacy. The war he described is very much his war. The names of the actual, principal participants in the war are nothing but pale shadows compared to the historian of the war. It is Thucydides' war and no other historian who has ever lived has matched that feat.

1. Thucydides, The landmark Thucydides, Touchstone Books, New York, 1996, Book 4, s. 105.

2. Thucydides, Book 1, s. 123.

3. Thucydides, Book 4, s. 106.

4. Thucydides, Book 1, s. 122.

5. Thucydides, Book 1, s, 9.

6. Thucydides, Book 1, s. 22.


Grant, Michael, The Ancient Historians, Charles Scriber’s Sons, New York, 1970.

Grant, Michael, Greek and Roman Historians, Routledge, London, 1995.

Finley, M. I., Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977.

Finley, M. I., Ancient History, Chatto & Windus, London, 1985.

Powell, Anton, Athens and Sparta, Second Edition, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Pierre Cloutier

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