Ancient History & Civilisation


I. Life


“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war” is the first pronouncement of The Peloponnesian War (1.1.1). Unfortunately, the merest glimpses of our author’s life follow this promising initial revelation of his name, nationality, and calling. Only at a very few unexpected places in his chronicle does Thucydides disclose somewhat more about himself. He announces, for example, that he once suffered from the great plague that struck Athens between 430 and 427 (2.48.3), the scourge that killed Pericles and thousands of his fellow Athenians (3.87.3).

Once more Thucydides, in the third person, matter-of-factly enters his own narrative during the account of the successful Spartan attack on the northern Greek city of Amphipolis (424). He tells us that:

“The general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis.” (4.104.4)

His father’s name, “Olorus,” is probably Thracian and royal, suggesting both a foreign and a wealthy pedigree. Thucydides confirms that standing and prestige when he explains that he was called to Amphipolis precisely because “he possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and thus had great influence with the inhabitants of the mainland” (4.105.1).

For his failure to save Amphipolis from the shrewd Spartan general Brasidas Thucydides bore the full brunt of Athenian popular indignation:

“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 more closely” (5.26.5).

Later Roman and Byzantine biographies, their anecdotes and gossip unproved but not necessarily always fanciful, add a few more intriguing personal details about Thucydides’ life: formal philosophical and rhetorical training, aristocratic connections, a violent death, and burial at Athens. But beyond his own admitted survival of disease, battle, and exile, Thucydides tells us little else about his experience in the war years other than that he lived “through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events” (5.26.5). We should conclude that he was near thirty when the fighting broke out (431) and probably died in his sixties or early seventies in the mid-390s, with his history apparently left uncompleted.


Besides an intrinsic interest in learning more about the author of the finest history of the ancient world, we search for the elusive historical Thucydides in hopes of learning something of the man’s outlook, his role in the events of his time, his association with the eminent figures of the fifth century—indeed, anything that might shed some additional light upon the intention, disposition, and outlook of the author of The Peloponnesian War. Given that he was an Athenian during the city’s greatest age; a man of some wealth, property, and important family connections; and once an official of the government with a sizable command, important friends, and apparently numerous enemies at Athens, a few inferences are in order.

Like his contemporary the Athenian playwright Euripides, Thucydides was familiar with, but did not necessarily approve of, the sophistic and rhetorical movements that were spawned by the bounty of this Athenian century. Nor does Thucydides’ own participation in the expanding regime of Athens suggest his agreement with an imperial democratic culture that grew out from the vast possession of subject states. Despite opportunity for profitable overseas concessions and military repute, wealthier Athenians like Thucydides probably felt more at home with a past timocratica government that had once been the private domain of property owners. As moderate oligarchs, then, they were skeptical of unpredictable democrats and any others who championed a more radically egalitarian agenda that might diminish the power of Athens’ upper classes (8.97.2).

For a man of Thucydides’ experience and upbringing, democracy worked best when nominal and under the control of a single great man like Pericles (2.65.6-13). Less responsible demagogues and politicians, like Cleon and Hyberbolus, were both unpredictable and unreliable and so to be feared (3.36.6; 8.73.3). Their stock-in-trade was the agitation of the Athenian demos, an always fickle and sometimes quite dangerous rabble (2.65.4; 2.65.10-11; 3.36.4; 6.24.2-4).

In contrast, by the latter fifth century conservative Athenians of piety and virtue were odd men out. A particular Thucydidean example of this is the very rich Athenian statesman Nicias, who failed to arrest the folly of the Athenian mob, and for his troubles ended up dead at the end of the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily (7.86.2-5). It is no accident that there is little naïveté, much less idealism and innocence, to be found in the black-and-white history of Thucydides (2.35.2; 3.44.4; 5.89). Its author, we must remember, was above all a man of action, an elected official, a captain, a traveler, and a pragmatic intellectual, a successful combatant against warrior and disease alike, hardbitten and intimate with both privilege and disgrace, a man who suffered with and outlived most of the greatest men of his age.

II. The Peloponnesian War


“Not as an essay which is to win applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time …”(1.22.4).

So Thucydides confidently writes of his own historical aims. We are warned early on that the “history”—Thucydides gives us no exact title of his work—is to be more than an accurate account of the events of his age, momentous and portentous as they were (1.1.1). Clearly, he believed that the war between Athens and Sparta offered a unique look at the poles of human and not just Greek experience, at contrasting ideologies and assumptions for a brief time ripped open by organized savagery (1.23.2-3) and left exposed for autopsy by the bewildered but curious who were eager for explanation and instruction. For the diagnostician Thucydides, the nature of humankind was constant and predictable, the story of civilized man somewhat continuous and repetitive, and thus his account of these events surely of educational value to sober and reflective men not yet born (1.22.4-5; 2.48.3).

Most often this message “for all time” appears in elaborate antitheses of thought and expression: individual words, entire sentences, even whole episodes. Nature and culture, word and deed, pretext and candor lead to larger corollaries of land power and sea power, oligarchy and democracy, commerce and agriculture, wealth and poverty—all for a purpose. The war between Athens and Sparta offers profound human knowledge in the extreme variance between what a man says and what he does (3.82.4-84.3), between the jealousy of ambition and the contempt for docility (2.35.2; 2.61.4), between the dream of a people and the reality of their experience (6.31.5-6; 7.75.6-7; 7.87), between innate discomfiture with the good and the human attraction toward the base (2.64.4-65.11; 3.36.6; 4.21.2-22.2; 6.24.2-4), between the burdens and responsibilities of power and the necessary acknowledgment of impotence (5.85-116), between democracy at home and imperialism abroad (2.62.2-64.3; 6.17.2-18.7), between the Athenian thesis that they are powerful but reluctant players in a brutal cosmic order, and the Spartan notion of free will, which hinges on the gods’ punishment of the guilty and aid of the virtuous (1.69; 1.121-124; 2.60-62; 5.104-106). Athens and Sparta are states in a real war, but they are also metaphysical representations of opposite ways of looking at the universe, whose corollaries are often emphasized in a variety of contexts.

So the majestic Funeral Oration of Pericles (2.35.1-46.2) is to be placed immediately before the horrific plague (2.47.3-54.3), in the same manner as the Athenians’ butchery of the hapless Melians (5.116.2-4) is a formal prelude for their own brutal extermination to come in Sicily (7.84.2-85.2). More concretely, the magnificent navy of Athens is to be contrasted with the invincible hoplites of Sparta (1.18.2-3; 1.142.5-8). The capital of Athenian imperialism is a match for the agrarian industriousness of the Peloponnesians (1.141.2-6), as the majestic Pericles towers over subsequent weaker successors (2.65.8-12) like Cleon and Alcibiades.

In his interest in formal polarities of thought and action, Thucydides is not always, I think, a more astute recorder than Herodotus (who lived c. 484-25), a near-contemporary historian, and therefore our most natural object of comparison. That Herodotus was less critical of sources and motive, more interested in ethnography, anthropology, myth, and yarn does not make him any less of a historian—or in turn Thucydides any more the biased theoretician, eager to select, omit, manipulate, and distort data according to his own preconceived and refined notion of what constitutes important and unimportant lessons of human behavior.

Rather, the differences between the two historians lie more in approach, method, and the generations in which they lived. Herodotus’ travel mosaics of exotic tales, alien characters, and oddities of experience are all to be sorted out by the reader himself to form an overall picture of why a past generation of free Greeks triumphs over an oppressive and autocratic Persia, of who lies and who tells the truth, of what is believable and what not, of what is wisdom and what folly. So Herodotus, the itinerant Dorian, relies mostly on and is comfortable with an oral tradition. He feels no need to assess—at least in any systematic or formal way—the accuracy of what he hears, and provides little idea how all these reports join and fit into a unified whole. In some ways Herodotus is the most modern of historians, providing raw data and documentation without the intrusion of personal interpretation or explication.

In contrast, the younger Thucydides lives the history of the war that he writes, an account verifiable by eyewitnesses still alive (1.22.1-3). His prose is to be accepted or rejected by contemporaries in Athens with keen interests in rhetoric and style, a generation well acquainted with the logic of Socrates, the realism of Euripides, and the arguments of the Sophists. The influence of contemporary medical writers also offered to Thucydides the methodology of symptomatology, diagnosis, and prognosis that could be applied outside the realm of pure science: history is also a scientific discipline with its own proper set of rules and procedures (1.21-22; 2.48-49; 3.82-84). He cannot often, then, like Herodotus, say simply, “It is said … ,” because the late-fifth-century Athenian audience of his history knows better and wants more. In any case, Thucydides feels the way to understanding is not through the sheer aggregate of examples, from which a few great notions of fate and chance might be freely deduced. The historian instead believes that the truth requires his own interpretation of the events he presents. It demands that he deem some occurrences not worthy of inclusion into his narrative, while others must take on unusual importance. If Thucydides’ historical material is less rich and enchanting than The Persian Wars of Herodotus, his carefully chosen military episodes and political speeches by themselves explicitly reveal cause and effect (1.97.2), follow a discernible chronology (5.20.2-3), and often lead to more profound and general truths about human experience (3.82-84; 5.85-116). And perhaps most importantly, Thucydides suffered through a war (5.26.5) far more lengthy, brutal, and horrific than the allied Greeks’ noble defense of their country a half century earlier, an experience that must in some part account for his bleaker conclusions that human conflict was both uncontrollable and inevitable.


Very different from Herodotus also are the composition, style, and organization of Thucydides’ history. How Thucydides assembled The Peloponnesian War and arranged his material is not really ascertainable. His history has come down to us divided into eight books, but we do not know whether these divisions, or the chapter and section divisions, derive from Thucydides himself or (far more likely) from editors and publishers who worked centuries after his death. He seems instead to have envisioned his story more as a chronicle of consecutive yearly military campaigns (2.1) than chapters of related episodes. So after Book 1 has set the stage, the narrative commences with the spring warring season of the first year of the war, 431, and proceeds to relate events in sequence through midwinter of 411. But then in Book 8 (which alone has no speeches), the history ends abruptly in midsentence (8.109). Seven years of his proposed twenty-seven-year account (5.26.1) are left unrecorded.

Thucydides must have either (1) composed his history without revision year by year as the fighting progressed; (2) begun writing the narrative from his notes only after the war was completed in 404; or (3) written and revised on and off from 431 to the early 390s, when his death—or perhaps simple frustration—cut short his narrative-in-progress in the summer of the year 411, and prevented completion of an ongoing reworking of the whole. The third possibility seems most likely, for here and there throughout the entire account Thucydides reveals knowledge of the war’s outcome (2.65.12-13), and thus the approximate role his characters and events would play in the general unity and theme of his work—if it had been completed.

Still, the history quite clearly divides into roughly two parts. The initial half (Books 1-5.25.2) covers the first ten years, the so-called Archidamian War from 431 to 421. It contains a formal preface (1.1-118.3) and seems to conclude with the notion that the Peloponnesian War ended in stalemate with the Peace of Nicias in 421 (5.18.1-24.2).

But with the abrupt resumption of hostilities in a variety of theaters in 421 (5.32.1-7), and the subsequent Athenian disaster at Sicily (415-13), Thucydides seems to have inserted something like a second introduction at 5.26. At some point in his research, he must have envisioned an integral and continuous twenty-seven-year war, one whose cohesive chronicle might now be brought all the way down to the destruction of Athens’ Long Walls in 404. This continuation, clearly incomplete and less revised, is extant from 415 to 411 (from Book 5.26 to Book 8.109).


There is little argument that Thucydides’ prose is difficult, and at times nearly incomprehensible. Yet its inherent abstruseness, its lengthy clauses and antitheses, and its deliberate understatement can still be moving. Thucydidean language often translates into English in a way more memorable than the direct and accessible expression of near-contemporary writers such as Xenophon or Lysias:

“Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places where it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meanings and to take those which were now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries” (3.82.3-5).

Thucydides’ use of abstract nouns, his preference for constant variety in vocabulary, his fondness for archaic and even poetic expressions, and his often dramatic inversion of normal word order all ensure that his Greek is as complex as is his method of historical inquiry. Yet bear in mind that very little Attic prose was written before Thucydides. Nearly all of what was composed has been lost. Therefore we are not sure whether Thucydides’ perplexing language is unique or typical, whether it reveals an entirely original method of expression, or simply mirrors the spirited intellectual ferment and experimentation of the times. Does the need to create ex nihilo words and phrases to match the depth of his abstract and conceptual thinking explain his singular literary technique? Or is Thucydidean style simply one with a peculiar, mostly lost, and now unrecoverable Athenian rhetorical florescence?


At Book 1.21-22 Thucydides clearly outlined his own methods of historical inquiry, offering a self-conscious candor rare in ancient narrative writing. He did not trust first impressions, he says, not even his own. But through inquiry and cross-examination of witnesses (“tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible”), autopsy, and apparent inspection of written documents, Thucydides claims an objective inquiry that has “cost me some labor.” His later admission that his own exile allowed him time for careful investigation, “especially with the Peloponnesians” (5.26.5), suggests the image of a careful and nonpartisan note taker, eager to hunt down the principals themselves—both Athenian and Spartan—who took part in the war. His keen knowledge of Spartan custom and tradition (1.20.3; 4.80; 5.66.2-72.4) bears out this confident assertion.

While it is once again fashionable to see this statement of principles at 1.21-22 as a clever smokescreen of sorts, a sham to hide biased fiction packaged as “objective history,” such modern cynicism rings mostly false for a variety of reasons. Although some of Thucydides’ narrative is highly stylized and focused deliberately on just a few individuals who best illustrate the author’s own ideas about fate, chance, and human experience, elsewhere he is clearly aiming to be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

Anonymous men are questioned (6.55.1), oracular pronouncements investigated (2.17.1; 2.54.2-5; 5.16), poets and prose authors both consulted and rejected (1.97.3; 3.104.4), inscriptions on stone noted and copied (5.18.2-19.2; 6.54.7; 6.59.3), and the material remains of buildings and walls explored and analyzed (1.10.2; 1.93.2; 2.15.4-6). Even the contents of graves are examined and marshalled to support historical hypotheses (1.8.1). Often such detail can appear to the reader as digressive (6.2.1-5.3), near-trivial (6.54.1-59.4), or even irrelevant, as if the historian means to follow up on his earlier promises of completeness, regardless of the tedium involved. Thucydides himself said such research “cost me some labor” (1.22.3). No wonder he despaired that “the absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest” (1.22.4).


There are one hundred forty-one speeches in the history, presented in both direct and indirect discourse. Because of the sheer number and variety of these addresses, the problematic use in general of formal speeches in ancient historical and rhetorical writing, and Thucydides’ own enigmatic comments about his rules of usage (1.22.1), debate persists over their degree of veracity. There are, I think, four possible interpretations: (1) the speeches are accurate and nearly verbatim reproductions of what Thucydides either read, himself heard, or was told by others; (2) they are entirely fictitious and made up by the author himself; (3) they are greatly elaborated, modified, or refined versions of what men probably said; or (4) the one hundred forty-one addresses are not uniform and so vary according to the above categories.

Before Thucydides, both the historians Herodotus and Hecataeus, like the Greek poets, used speeches mostly as literary and dramatic fictions to interrupt and vividly illustrate the argument of the narrative. But Thucydides’ own characterization of his speeches at 1.22.1 suggests a much different approach, one that warns his audience of his departure from past practice, and so should solve for us the problem of their historicity:

“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.”

This careful declaration, however, has led only to more controversy. Does not Thucydides admit to two contrary agendas: contrivance (“to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them”) and historical exactitude (“adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said”)? Has he not entered that most controversial and irreconcilable of arguments—so popular once again now in academic circles—the cleft between “objective” and “subjective” truth?

Apparently, Thucydides is envisioning two very different circumstances for setting down speeches in his history: well-known addresses in which he was more or less able to find out what was really said, and other instances in which something probably was spoken, but went unrecorded or was forgotten. The latter orations had to be reconstructed more or less according to Thucydides’ own particular historical sense of what was likely, appropriate, and necessary. How, then, can the exasperated reader determine the degree of authenticity of any given speech in the history?

He cannot. But surely he can rely on common sense to learn which addresses are more likely to have been spoken as recorded in the text of the history. Is there evidence—a large audience, an annual festive occasion, an official government proceeding—to suggest a speech was actually communicated, recorded, and subject to verification by Thucydides’ readership? How conceivable is it (considering the place and time) that Thucydides could have either heard a speech himself or learned of its contents from others? Does an oration confirm a personal imprint, in line with the speaker’s apparent nature and personality? Or does it seem instead stereotyped, designed by the historian himself to illustrate general and universal themes and so sometimes attributed to minor and otherwise unknown if not anonymous characters? And what are the preface and the reaction to a speech? Does an oration logically follow a course of events and in turn have an immediate effect on the conduct of subsequent actions in the narrative?


Succeeding generations of Greeks and Romans credited Thucydides with establishing objective history. His considerable skill in presenting that doctrine in formal prose left an undeniable mark even on his immediate literary successors, who likewise saw history as largely the unromantic story of political and military affairs. Indeed, many inquirers—Xenophon, Cratippus, and Theopompus—began their accounts where Thucydides had left off in 411. It is no surprise, then, that subsequent ancient historians were judged largely by the degree to which they followed the canons of accuracy and integrity established by Thucydides. Xenophon (428-354), therefore, is faulted for his failure to consult sources other than his own Spartan confidants, his blindness to the larger meaning of the very events he describes, and his view that his histories were not much more than one personal memoir. The fourth-century chronicler Ephorus (405-330), also unlike Thucydides, appears too credible and naive in his uses of sources, and lacks a workable chronology. Even the more erudite Theopompus (b. 378) is found too bitter in his judgments, without the distance and even the presumed air of objectivity of Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War.

In contrast, the anonymous Oxyrhynchus Historian, the mostly lost Hieronymus of Cardia (d. 250), and the later and extant Polybius (200-c. 118) have often won praise as “Thucydidean” precisely because they are didactic and strive to teach the reader larger and more abstract lessons from the near-endless wars and coups they relate. An awareness of cause and effect, the employment of a strict chronology, and evidence of a unity of purpose predominate. And like Thucydides these historians appear skeptical of what they hear and read. Often they must outline formally the mechanisms they employ to sort out rumor from fact. Even their speeches, embroidered and contrived as they are, lend explication and sense to larger issues beyond the drama at hand, and thus appear as “Thucydidean” rather than as mere fancies or as exhibitions of rhetorical expertise.

III. The Conflict between Athens and Sparta


Thucydides wrote his history while confidently believing that

“it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world—I had almost said of mankind.” (1.1.1-2)

The later history of the classical culture bears out Thucydides’ judgment that the Peloponnesian War was a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece.

Before the fifth century, the Greek poleis (city-states) had been unusually isolated from the turbulence of Mediterranean history. Free to form their own customs and traditions, the many hundreds of poleis nevertheless shared a common and venerable religious, linguistic, and political culture. Most were broad-based oligarchies that had evolved out of landed aristocracies or had inherited power from intermediary tyrannies. The citizenry of hoplite yeomen, each owning and farming about ten acres of land, formed up as heavily armed infantry (hoplites) in the phalanx to battle neighboring Greek communities over disputed strips of borderland (1.15.2). From the seventh to the fifth centuries, there was a steady, if sometimes slow, advancement of Greek material and intellectual culture (1.13.1), as the protective practice of timocratic government and near-ritual infantry fighting prevented most political upheavals and limited the damage caused by frequent wars. The fifth century changed all that (1.1.2-3; 1.18.2-3; 1.23.1-6).

After the repulse of the Persians (in 490 and again in 480-79), the insular Greeks were faced with unforeseen military and political responsibilities in the Aegean and the Mediterranean at large, which were largely antithetical to the landed capital, infantry exclusivity, and smug isolationism of the traditional city-state (polis) (1.91.4-7; 1.93.3-7; 1.96.1). Unfortunately, as early as 478, the two most atypical and powerful of the city-states, Athens and Sparta, could not agree on joint leadership of the Greek alliance that had been so successful against the Persians (1.18.2-3; 1.95.7-97.1). Oddly, both poleis, although in diametrically opposite ways, rejected much of the traditional culture of the city-state—pitched battle by amateur militias, government by yeomen peers, economic reliance on citizen-worked farms, absence of satellites and tributaries. The antagonism set the stage, as Thucydides saw, for a horrific war like none other in the Greek past (1.1.1-3; 1.23.1-2).

The leadership of the maritime Greek federation against Persia fell to the Athenian navy (1.18.2; 1.73.4-75.3). Far from dismantling an oppressive imperial hierarchy, the Athenians throughout the mid-fifth century refined the Persian system of empire, and channeled the tribute to solidify and enlarge their own democratic culture at home while seeking tyrannical aggrandizement abroad (1.89.1-1.117.3). The enfranchisement and enrichment of those Athenians without money and land (2.37.1), together with the freedom and capital to wage war both imaginatively and continuously (2.39.2-3), meant that the past limiting protocols of the polis did not apply to an increasingly restive Athens (1.80.3-81.6; 1.142.1-144.3) In the process, Thucydides says, Pericles and the Athenian intelligentsia craft an apology for their oppression. It becomes a determinist, Hobbesian doctrine which explains that power—and hence justice—always and rightly accrues to the strong (2.64; 5.97).

Sparta offers both a material and a philosophical contrast. Her unique enslavement of nearly a quarter of a million rural indentured servants, the Helots, excused an armed elite from working their own plots. Rejecting the traditional Greek practice of free agriculture, Spartan society gradually institutionalized a complicated and harsh system of apartheid that called for constant surveillance of an enormous productive underclass (1.101.2-103.3; 1.132.4-5; 4.41.3). The result was the creation of the first true militaristic culture in the West, where all Spartiate males from the age of seven embarked on a vigorous course of military training (2.39.1-2; 5.66.2-4). The ensuing expertise would ensure a professional army (1.18.2; 4.40.2; 5.66.2-72.4), able to put down murderously at a moment’s notice any hint of domestic insurrection (4.80.2-4) or, if need be, to march out to absorb and consolidate nearby territory in the Peloponnesus (1.19.1; 1.76.1). Inward, blinkered, reluctant to venture on the sea, Sparta’s self-interested conservatism takes on the appearance of an anti-Athenian philosophical system, in which most Greek states should be left alone to practice justice under absolute canons of Hellenic law (1.83-85; 4.86-87).


Thucydides saw that the ultimate confrontation between these two remarkable societies would be both inevitable and terrible (1.23.2; 2.11.6-9; 2.12.3); inevitable, because of their remarkable antitheses between land and sea, autocracy and liberality, narrow Dorian gentry and broader Ionian commerce; terrible, because there existed between the two powers neither an adherence to the past restrictions on Greek warmaking nor sufficient common political ground to negotiate a lasting peace. The battlefield once and for all might arbitrate their contrasting views of human and divine justice.

Athens, with its huge navy fueled by overseas tribute, had no need to engage grim Spartan hoplites in pitched battle (1.143.4-5; 2.13.3-8). Athens’ biggest worry was the sheer recklessness of its own democratic government (1.144.1). A simple majority of the citizenry, urged on and incensed by clever demagogues, might capriciously send out military forces in unnecessary and exhausting adventures (2.65.11-12; 6.31.1-5).

Sparta might continually invade Athens (2.21.1-23.3). But for what purpose? Her narrow and conservative policy of simple challenges to pitched battle, coupled with the unimaginative agricultural devastation of Attica, could never bring a maritime Athens to her knees (1.143.4-144.3; 2.65.11-13). Peloponnesian victory required innovative thinking and a veritable change in Spartan character itself (1.81.1-6), if she were to cut off the tribute of Athens, spread insurrection among Athenian allies, and so acquire a navy of her own (1.121.2-5; 1.142.2-143.3)—all steps counter to her own reactionary and inbred culture (1.69.4-70.8; 1.84.1-4), and to her professed notion that there are gods who punish an imperial power’s wanton destruction of Greek states.

So, for Thucydides, the struggle between a sea power and a land power meant not a short, decisive conflict like the border fights of the past, but a long-drawn-out and murderous affair: Eventually it became apparent that Sparta must man ships and Athens must fight on land. Maritime states loyal to Athens through contributions of tribute and manpower were to be lured away (1.81.3-4; 1.122.1); members of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League must know that war by land might be brought to their very doorstep (1.142.4; 2.25.1-5). Homicidal revolution (3.82.1-84.3), the mobilization of serfs and slaves (4.80.5; 7.57.8), drawn-out sieges (3.20.1-24.3; 5.84-116), mass murder and execution (5.116.3-4), and random, senseless killing (7.29.4-30.3)—all these were for Thucydides the expected cargo of a war between opposites, who would become ever more desperate and barbaric as the fighting progressed, as they learned that innovative and murderous responses were required for absolute victory.

Thucydides suggests, I think, that the legacy of the Peloponnesian War would not be the victory of Spartan authoritarianism and the repudiation of the imperial democratic culture of Athens. No, it would be the irrevocable exhaustion and bankruptcy of the Greek city-state itself. The polis was, after all, an egalitarian but closed and static institution that could not adapt well to the military, economic, and political challenges of the wider Mediterranean world, changes initiated by the Persian invasion at the beginning of the fifth century, but dramatically and tragically elaborated by the virulent war between its most distinctive representatives, Athens and Sparta. And even if the Athenians are right about the universal relativity of justice and the amorality of power, we sense that such belief is nevertheless explicatory of their own destruction—and the demise of the polis itself Our historian, it seems, does not necessarily like what he knows may be true.

IV. The Credibility of Thucydides


Naturally, when the careful political and military tenets of centuries were cast out, Greeks turned toward superstition and religious fervor to explain both natural (earthquake, flood, eclipse, volcanic eruption, plague) and human (war, political extremism, revolution) calamity. This rise of concern with supernatural exegesis during the fighting held an obvious psychological interest for Thucydides. The gods and the haunts of the gods—Delphi, Delos, Olympia—appear frequently within The Peloponnesian War (1.25.1; 1.103.2; 1.134.4-135.1; 3.104.1-4; 5.1.1; 5.105.1-3; 5.49.1-50.4). But this fascination with the divine or unusual (1.23.3) does not seem to have clouded the author’s own historical objectivity (2.28.1; 3.89.5). Nor does it suggest that Thucydides himself held deep religious beliefs, much less approved of the proliferation of oracles and prophecies. Again unlike Herodotus, he does not detect a divine motif in the unfolding of human events and surely does not write his history to confirm the sins of irreverence, hubris, and impiety.

On the contrary, Thucydides seems to see popular religion as more a social institution, valuable for inculcating and maintaining traditional conservative values. In that regard, superstition bereft of formal religious piety and restraint could only cloud human reason (2.8.2-3; 2.54.3-5; 7.50.4), and so add to the general cultural and intellectual decay unleashed by the war.


Of more interest are the occasional discrepancies and inconsistencies of Thucydides. They have caused alarm, understandable given the historian’s vaunted pledge of accuracy. As in any great history, there are a few omissions (see note 8.5.5b), distortions, and mistakes in The Peloponnesian War, and they must be understood both in the context of the times and in light of the author’s own historical aims and particular political outlook. Yet to perceive a personally engaged and emotional Thucydides, with clear preferences in his selection of material, is not necessarily to dispense with the notion of objectivity. An historian, remember, can (and should) be judgmental and opinionated, but he is not necessarily unfair or biased—if, as in the case of Thucydides, his evidence and method of inquiry are stated candidly for review and rebuttal.

Thucydides does not give an economic and social history of the Peloponnesian War, and provides, for example, only an abbreviated list of Athenian financial resources (2.13.2-7). More lamentably, only occasional glimpses are given of the countryside during the constant fighting (2.16.1-2.17.1; 4.84.1-4), for this was the area where the majority of the Greek population lived and suffered during the war. The drain, both psychologically and emotionally, on the people who provided the wherewithal to wage war is omitted, primarily because Thucydides is writing a strictly military chronicle of the Peloponnesian War, not a cultural or agrarian history of late-fifth-century Greece. In this regard, Herodotus is by far the more inquisitive recorder of ethnography and anthropology, and proves the more sensitive to the role that culture plays in a people’s political and military conduct.

There are also clear heroes and villains in Thucydides’ history. To a modern audience steeped in the behavioral and social sciences, Thucydides can appear to miss nuances in human temperament, concentrating instead on “objective” and absolute criteria such as timidity and heroism or recklessness versus self-control. In his eyes, human behavior is not predicated on or explained by one’s specific environment or upbringing, but instead directed by the play of chance, fate, and hope upon innate character—conditions universal to all and particular to no man.

The ambiguity of a man’s thought and intent is scarcely appreciated in the historian’s effort to paint broad strokes of character. Intention counts for little; action is everything. Pericles is thoroughly majestic (2.65.5-9), and Cleon is violent and mean-spirited (3.36.6; 4.21.3-4.22.2)—period. Most Spartans predictably conform to their conservative and unimaginative stereotypes (1.86.1-1.87.6; 5.105.4), as if better to contrast a few Spartans of unquestioned dash and audacity, like Gylippus (7.1.1-7.7.2) and Brasidas especially (2.25.2; 4.11.4-4.12.1; 4.81; 5.6.3-5.11.5). The rash and amoral Alcibiades is as un-Periclean (6.15.2-4) as the conventional, cautious, and ineffective Nicias. Admiration for men of action like Hermocrates of Syracuse (5.32.3-5.35.1; 6.72.2-5) and the Athenian general Demosthenes (7.42.3-5) often outweighs their occasional failures and errors in judgment (6.103.4; 8.85.3; 3.98.5; 7.44.1-8).

More curious is Thucydides’ very limited angle of vision. Slaves and women are scarcely mentioned. Yet from snippets in Thucydides’ own text it is clear that women played crucial roles during times of sieges (2.4.2; 3.74.2), and must have suffered inordinately from the loss of male providers and especially during the great plague inside the walls of Athens (2.45.2; 2.51.2-5). From Thucydides and other sources we know that slaves provided at least some of the power for the triremes on both sides. Their flight in numbers was felt by all to have deleterious effects on their host cities (1.139.2; 7.27.5; 8.40.2). More mundanely, no hoplite army could easily march without a servile baggage corps, who carried both equipment and supplies (7.75.5). Yet again, both the unfree and the women remain virtually unknown, as Thucydides’ history deals almost exclusively with the free male citizenry of the Greek city-states, a group that constituted perhaps no more than a quarter of the adult resident population.

Thucydides’ concentration on political and military affairs is not to suggest that even he could possibly have given a comprehensive account of those events during the twenty-seven-year war (3.90.1). Both Plutarch and Diodorus, and extant official documents written on stone, all suggest that more went on than what we are told by Thucydides. No inkling, for example, is given about the transference of the Delian treasury to Athens (454), which marked the formal rise of Athenian imperialism. The purported “Peace of Callias” between Persia and Greece (449), the important Athenian colony at Brea (445), and the reassessment of the Athenian tribute (425) all help explain the rise and nature of Athenian power but are ignored by Thucydides. Events critical to an understanding of war itself are often scarcely mentioned or absent altogether, such as the “Megarian Decree” (the Athenian sanctions against Megara in 432) and the important treaties between Athens and Sicilian Egesta (418-417?). ‘Yet even that list of oversights is small, and it pales beside the information found only in The Peloponnesian War, completely unknown to later sources and undiscoverable from extant archaeological and epigraphic remains.


In the final analysis, what stands out about Thucydides is not his weaknesses but his strengths as a historian. We note his omissions, but no account of the Peloponnesian War or of fifth-century Greece in general is more complete. Some scholars worry over his cut-and-dried heroes and villains. But is there much evidence to suggest that these assessments were fundamentally wrong? Others argue that his speeches are biased distortions, but no one can prove that any are outright fabrications. At times Thucydides may be clearly mistaken in both detail and interpretation, but the extent of his accuracy and analysis astounds in a world where travel was difficult, written sources rarely available, and the physical obstacles to the writing of history substantial. For all the contributions of archaeology, epigraphy, and the wealth of Athenian literature, without Thucydides’ singular history we would know very little about fifth-century Greece

Even more extraordinary is Thucydides’ ability to use that knowledge to reach a higher wisdom about the nature of human behavior, whether it be unveiled by plague (2.53), revolution (3.82-84), or war (5.103). And never forget that Thucydides was much more than an accurate recorder, more even than a keen judge of human character and the role that natural law and chance play in men’s affairs (3.45.5-7; 3.84.1-3). He was a profound literary artist as well, emotional and poignant on so many surprising occasions. The trapped Athenians who died in the wilds of Aetolia were not anonymous unfortunates, but irreplaceable patriots “all in the prime of life, by far the best men in the city of Athens that fell during this war” (3.98.4). The boys at Mycalessus are tragically and ironically butchered in their school by Thracian barbarians hired by democratic Athens to fight in Sicily, but who, having arrived late, were sent home for reasons of economy and instructed almost capriciously “to injure the enemy” on the way. The disaster on Sicily was more than a grievous loss of triremes and infantry, more even than a warning about the dangers of national chauvinism and intellectual arrogance. It becomes in the end a human tragedy after all,

“most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army—everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.” (7.87)

And while Thucydides, a man of empathy and passion, was proud that he had written his history “not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (1.22.4),” The Peloponnesian War turns out to be no dry chronicle of abstract cause and effect. No, it is above all an intense, riveting, and timeless story of strong and weak men, of heroes and scoundrels and innocents too, all caught in the fateful circumstances of rebellion, plague, and war that always strip away the veneer of culture and show us for what we really are.

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