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Thucydides

Updated on December 21, 2011

460-395 B.C.

Thucydides was a Greek historian. Born in Athens, he was of the aristocratic family that included the generals Miltiades and Cimon and was connected with the royal family of Thrace, where Thucydides had an estate and control of some gold mines. He was raised in Athens during the Golden Age of Pericles. He greatly admired Pericles, contrary to the political tradition of his family, and was obviously well educated in the new style of the Sophists.

Thucydides caught the plague in Athens between 430 and 427 but survived and served in the navy during the early stages of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) between Athens and Sparta. Elected general in 424-423, he was stationed in Thrace, where he failed to prevent the Spartan general Brasidas' seizure of Amphipolis, an Athenian colony, in 422. As a result he was exiled and spent the rest of the war in Thrace or traveling about gathering material for and writing his History of the Peloponnesian War. He returned to Athens in 403 after the city fell to the Spartans, but is said to have died in Thrace.

Scope and Composition of the History

The unfinished History is divided into eight books. Book I describes the background, causes, and excuses for the war. It includes two long digressions, one outlining the development of early Greece, the other summarizing the events between 479 and 431 and the growth of Athenian power, which Thucydides insists was the true cause of the war. Books II-V (to Chapter 25) contain the narrative of the first 10 years of the war, which started with the Theban attack on Plataea in 431 and ended, more or less as a stalemate, with the Peace of Nicias in 421. The rest of Book V covers the period of nominal but ill-kept peace down to 415. Books VI and VII concentrate on the ill-fated Athenian expedition against Syracuse in Sicily, which ended in complete disaster for Athens in 413. Book VIII recounts the renewed war with Sparta in Greece and the Aegean and the internal troubles, of the Athenian government down to late in 411, where it breaks off, apparently in mid-sentence.

There has been much discussion and many different views have been proposed of how and when Thucydides composed his work. He himself states that he conceived the project and started keeping notes before the war began, but it is clear that even the first book had been revised after the end of the war. None of the many theories on the composition can be proven. All that can be said is that the History as it exists has a basic unity of ideas and purpose.

The Methodology of Thucydides

Thucydides was the first to write a history of strictly contemporary events, and he set for himself very high standards of accuracy.

He speaks of the difficulty of checking and reconciling the various versions of an event given by different eyewitnesses and complains about his predecessors: Herodotus, for including too many "mythical" elements and writing primarily to please his audience, and Hellanicus and others for being unclear on chronology. He himself was very precise on the latter, dating by seasons of the year.

He has often been hailed as the first and best of the "scientific" and impartial historians. Perhaps he comes as close as humanly possible to this ideal, even though he has an obvious bias against the Athenian demagogue Cleon, who was probably responsible for his exile, and omitted what seem to be some very important events such as the tripling of the tribute paid to Athens by its subjects in 425. Some scholars have accused him of misrepresenting events and attitudes because of an aristocratic political bias, but there is evidence to support him. Thucydides states that he composed his History to be useful to those who wish to have an exact knowledge of what happened in the past in order to predict or control future events. For future events will resemble those of the past, since human nature stays substantially the same. This is no mere statement that history repeats itself. The important element here is "human nature." Thucydides reflects the Sophists' interest in and emphasis on the individual. To him human nature is the basic causal factor of events and is a constant, so it is useful to know how it has reacted in the past.

This is the beginning of psychological positivism.

Psychological Positivism

In this view of history individual motive becomes all-important. To delineate motive and character, Thucydides generally relied upon speeches inserted in the narrative, often in contrasting pairs. He states that, since it was impossible to repeat the exact words spoken, he has written down what the speaker should have said on the occasion, yet keeping as near as possible to the sense of what was actually said. The ambiguity of this statement has led to much debate among modern scholars about the reliability of the speeches.

Thucydides saw three main motivating factors in human behavior, honor, fear, and advantage.

He was greatly interested in showing how the war affected the character and motivation of the Greeks- above all, the Athenians. In the famous Funeral Speech, attributed to Pericles at the end of the first year of the war in 431, he portrays the ideal Athens, and the emphasis is certainly upon honor, especially in the relationship of Athens to its subjects. Starkly contrasted with this is the Melian Dialogue, supposedly a discussion 15 years later, in 416, between Athenian and Melian officials at a time when Athens was threatening the island of Melos without provocation and forcing it into the Athenian Empire.

Here the Athenians argue and act on the basis of fear, greed, and a "might-makes-right" attitude. By "advantage," the third motivation, was meant primarily economic advantage, a concept that Thucydides and his contemporaries certainly understood.

Thucydides points out that these attitudes also arose in the relationships of the Athenians to one another. He stresses the attempt of the demagogue Cleon to set class against class, which led ultimately to the deterioration and temporary destruction of Athenian democracy. One can never know, of course, what Thucydides' final verdict would have been on the Athenians and their loss of the war, but what he did bequeath posterity yields enough insight into man and war to justify his claim that what he had written would endure as a possession forever."

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