Among ancient historians, Thucydides was the most insightful. He analyzed the effect of the Peloponnesian War (432–404 bce) on Greek society with apparent detachment and amazing precision, but his cool tone belied a love of Athens and dismay at its defeat. Thucydides wrote his narrative prose in a clear, austere style but is famous for including highly rhetorical set speeches.
The Greek historian Thucydides, and the history he wrote of the war between the Athenians and Spartans in the fifth century bce, influenced not just the historians from the Greco-Roman world who were to follow him, but also the scholars of the nineteenth century such as Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), laying the foundations for the modern professional study of history based on the principles of empiricism.
We know very little about Thucydides that he does not tell us himself. He states that he began work on his history when the war started. Although he refers to the end of the war, Thucydides did not live to complete his history. The narrative of the text, known today as The Peloponnesian War, breaks off in the middle of 411 bce, which led ancient biographers to speculate that Thucydides died a sudden death. Most scholars conclude that he died around 401 bce, though there is disputed evidence that he was still working on his history as late as 397 bce. His date of birth is conjectural too. Pamphila tells us that at the start of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides was forty, and this is probably a fair guess, based upon his own remarks. Thucydides asserts that he was old enough to follow the course of the entire war and that he was elected as a general by the Athenians for a campaign in Thrace (in 424 bce), but was exiled after failing to relieve the city of Amphipolis. He held rights to gold mines in the Thraceward area and was well respected there. He caught but survived the plague of 430–426 bce, which he described in great detail. His father’s name was Olorus and he came from the deme (smallest political unit in Athens, used to identify citizens) Halimous. Marcellinus (who wrote a biography of Thucydides) says that Thucydides’s mother’s name was Hegesipyle; the name of his father is identical with that of a Thracian prince whose daughter, also named Hegesipyle, married an important Athenian aristocrat named Miltiades. Thucydides was thus related to important members of the Thracian and Athenian aristocracies, including his Athenian namesake Thucydides, the son of Melesias. Plutarch tells us that Thucydides’ tomb was in the Athenian suburb of Koile Meletides, next to those of Miltiades and Cimon’s sister Elpinice. Thucydides had one son that we know of, named Timotheus.
The Peloponnesian War is structured chronologically, with each year of the war described by summer and winter. Since Hellenistic times, the work has been divided into eight books (though in antiquity other divisions were made, including division into thirteen books). Book 1 includes the Archaeology, a brief survey of Greek history down to the Persian wars, the Pentecontaetia, a brief outline of events from the end of the Persian wars (described by Herodotus) to the start of the Peloponnesian War, and a lengthy introduction on the causes of the war. Books 2–4 describe the first ten years of the war (known as the Archidamian War). In Book 5 are the Peace of Nicias, the Mantinean War, and the subjugation of Melos (which includes the Melian Dialogue). Books 6–7 describe the Sicilian campaign and the renewal of hostilities in Attica, and in Book 8 the Ionian War and the revolt of many of Athens’s allies are described. The narrative of the Peloponnesian War was completed by Xenophon, who, in the Hellenica, takes up his account at the exact point where that of Thucydides finishes.
The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom, Courage.Thucydides (460–404 BCE)
Thucydides wrote his narrative prose in a clear, austere style. His historical methodology was innovative, and he drew a distinction between his research methods and those of his predecessors, criticizing Hellanicus by name, and by implication, Herodotus. He tells us that he took great care to ascertain the truth about events by finding reliable witnesses, did not even rely on his own observations, and took into account just how unreliable or partisan his witnesses may have been. He also declares that he has designed his history for posterity, not just for the pleasure of the listener (in his day histories were read aloud to an audience) or to win a particular competition.
Thucydides is famous for the set speeches that he included in his history. These are highly rhetorical, making use of complex abstract expressions and antitheses that often obscure their meaning. Here we see the results of his training under Antiphon, with the rhetoric also owing a great deal to the influence of the sophist Gorgias. It has been argued that these speeches are Thucydides’ own free compositions, based upon what he deemed appropriate for the speakers to say in the circumstances. Thucydides himself claims that they were based on what had actually been said, while paradoxically admitting that he made each speaker say what he himself thought that speaker ought to have said.
Thucydides focused his history on war and politics—establishing these as first and foremost the subject for history. In describing the suffering caused by war and the way in which war destroyed the morals of a society, however, Thucydides moved from narrative of the particular to a general exploration of human nature that makes his history an invaluable possession for all time.
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