ca. 459-ca. 399 B.C.
Some ancient historians wrote comprehensive histories of the past, including everything that was known at the time. Thucydides, on the other hand, focused on a single topic. He wrote a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict that divided Greece for several decades in the late 400s B.C., pitting Athens and its allies against Sparta and its allies. Thucydides believed that a close look at this war would reveal much about all wars and also about human nature and the pursuit of power. His History of the Peloponnesian War is the first known study of the causes and effects of war. Instead of simply presenting a series of events, Thucydides tried to explain the reasons for certain occurrences. By treating history as the search for underlying causes and patterns, he pioneered a new approach to historical writing.
Thucydides' Life and Times. Thucydides had firsthand knowledge of his subject. He fought in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, and he knew personally some of the public figures about whom he wrote. He also shared some of the new ideas and ways of looking at the world that revolutionized Greek politics and literature in the 400s B.C.
Born in Halimous, a village near Athens, Thucydides came from an aristocratic* family that was closely connected to the leading families of Athens. According to some ancient sources, he was descended from a marriage between a famous Athenian war commander, Miltiades, and a princess of Thrace, a region in northern Greece. This may have been true—Thucydides’ burial site was close to that of Miltiades’ children. Thucydides was related to Cimon, an important Athenian politician; Alcibiades, a well-known public figure; and Pericles, the leading Athenian statesman for many years. He was also wealthy, and he may have owned property in Thrace. At one point in his life, he controlled some gold mines there. Thucydides was clearly a member of the highest and most influential political and economic circles in Athens.
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
Soon after the Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C., a plague* devastated the city of Athens. Thucydides became ill, but unlike thousands of others, he recovered. He served in the military and was elected to the rank of general in 424 B.C. When a Spartan force moved into northern Greece, Athens sent an army led by Thucydides to protect Athenian property. It was Thucydides’ first important command, and it quickly turned into disaster. The Spartan commander outmaneuvered him, and the northern city of Amphipolis switched its loyalty from Athens to Sparta. This setback had a deep and lasting effect on Thucydides and on Athens. For decades, the Athenians dreamed of regaining Amphipolis. Because Thucydides feared that he would be severely criticized for his poor leadership, or even accused of treason, he did not return to Athens but chose exile instead. He did not return to Athens for 20 years.
Thucydides devoted his life to writing his great history. He claimed that he began writing when war broke out because he realized that the war would have great significance in Greek history. He also wrote that his exile gave him a certain advantage—it allowed him to visit the Peloponnese*, the region of Greece in which Sparta was located. In this way, he was able to obtain direct knowledge about both sides in the conflict. He wrote that “since because of my exile I had contact with both sides, and not least the Peloponnesians, it turned out that I had a considerable opportunity to observe at my leisure something about them.” After the war ended, he returned to Athens and continued to work on his history.
Thucydides lived and worked in a time of great change. Old authorities, such as clan leaders, oracles*, and priests and priestesses, gave way to written laws and democratic government. Philosophers* called Sophists taught political and speech-making skills. People had begun to question the truth of old beliefs and become more critical and inquiring about the world around them. Thucydides was deeply influenced by this questioning attitude. Unlike most men from aristocratic backgrounds, he admired Pericles, who brought democratic reforms to Athens. Yet he was not an enthusiastic supporter of democracy. His own political views are not clear from the History, which follows the Sophists’ practice of presenting both sides of every issue and argument.
Examining the War. Thucydides’ unfinished eight-book history falls into five parts. The first is a long introduction, in which the author compared his work with earlier histories. He discussed the early Greek civilization that existed hundreds of years before his own time. Instead of presenting the usual picture of these distant years as a time of heroes* and gods and goddesses, Thucydides provided a careful, down-to-earth discussion of the slow processes of history. This new approach to early Greek civilization laid the foundation for his examination of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides wanted to show that the forces that caused the war had been shaping history for a very long time. Chief among these forces was the desire of the strong to rule the weak.
The second part of the History covers the war between 431 B.C. and 421 B.C. and includes a description of the plague that brought terrible suffering to Athens in the early years of the conflict. It also contains a stirring speech by Pericles, praising the Athenian soldiers who had died for their city. The third part covers a period of five years during which Athens and Sparta were at peace. It includes a series of speeches called the Melian Dialogue, a debate about whether a powerful state has the moral right to force its allies into war. The fourth part of the History covers the renewed fighting between the two sides. The fifth part brings the account to 411 B.C.but ends abruptly. Thucydides intended to carry the account all the way to the defeat of Athens in 404 B.C., but his death left the History unfinished.
* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
AN EXILE’S FATE
Exiles are people who are banished from their homelands or who leave voluntarily. They are different from travelers and emigrants. Exile includes the notions of shame and punishment. A city or nation might exile an individual for committing a crime or failing in a duty. People in such positions often exiled themselves to avoid a more severe punishment. Whether forced or voluntary, exile was a common fate for unsuccessful Greek military commanders such as Thucydides, and often, like Thucydides, they returned home after the passage of years had diminished their disgrace.
As far as scholars can tell by checking the History against other sources, Thucydides was a highly accurate reporter. He stated that whenever possible he questioned people who had directly taken part in the events he described. Yet he may have invented, at least in part, the brilliant, dramatic speeches that he placed in the mouths of dozens of figures. In addition, he omitted several important elements of the war, such as the involvement of the Persian Empire.
Thucydides was the first historian to focus on the suffering and misery caused by war. He wrote of “so many cities deserted... so many exiles, so much slaughter, some from the war itself and some from civil strife.” In spite of his clear emotional involvement in many of the scenes he described, Thucydides felt a responsibility to his readers to be accurate and honest. He wrote that “for most people the search for truth involves no pains; they take whatever is available.” He also believed that “a clear view of the past” would show readers what to expect in the future. Human nature, he believed, does not change. War and the struggle for empire will occur again. The History, wrote Thucydides, was not something “to listen to just now but something to keep forever.” (See also Suetonius; Tacitus.)