Thucydides, son of Olorus (ca. 460–400 BCE), was a Greek author and historian. In spite of the renown of his History of the Peloponnesian War (1629), relatively little is known about him. The best available information, then, comes from his work in History. Rough evidence of his date of birth is provided by his remark that he lived through the entire war, which lasted from 431 to 404 BCE, “being of an age to understand what was happening.” The apparent defensiveness expressed suggests that, although mature, he was relatively young when the war began and so probably less than thirty years old. Thucydides reports that he lived through the entire war, witnessing the final defeat of Athens in 404 BCE. However, History covers events only up until 411 BCE, and the final book, Book 8, is incomplete, which suggests that Thucydides died soon after the war ended. In his work, Thucydides reports owning gold mines in Thrace, and this fact, along with his election as general, suggests an upper-class background.
History of the Peloponnesian War has a strong claim to being the first extant “scientific” history. Thucydides corrects factual errors of his predecessors and takes pride in the care he took to assess his sources for accuracy. He also moves away from divine explanations of the events he witnessed, for example, attributing the outbreak of the war to “the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.”
An outstanding feature of History is Thucydides’s use of speeches to reflect the thinking of the war’s participants. The juxtaposition of the political leaders’ reasoning and the relevant events produced powerful literary effects. In describing his method of reporting speeches, Thucydides says that, while he attempted to keep “as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used,” he also made the speakers say “what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” The clear conflict between these two remarks raises difficult issues of interpretation, although the language of all the speeches is clearly Thucydides’s own. Many of the speeches have achieved independent renown. These include the Book 2 celebration of Athens in the funeral speech delivered by Athenian statesman and general Pericles, and the so-called Melian dialogue, in which unnamed Athenian envoys invoke brutal power politics to persuade representatives of Melos to surrender to Athens. According to the Athenians, “The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Views along these lines, expressed by numerous figures in History, have given Thucydides a claim to be a founder of political realism.
Aside from invaluable, detailed information on the Peloponnesian War and surrounding events, History of the Peloponnesian War provides a bitingly critical account of Athenian democracy. The Athenian population is depicted as highly emotional and inconsistent, easily swayed by self-interested orators. According to Thucydides, the power and success of Athens was due to the restraining influence of Pericles. Although the city was nominally a democracy, “Power was really in the hands of the first citizen.” In spite of Thucydides’s claims of objectivity, a strong case can be made that he shaped his account of the war to reflect badly on Athens’s extreme democracy, as opposed to the kind of moderate oligarchy he claimed to favor.
- Connor,W. Robert. Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
- Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Stahl, Hans-Peter. Thucydides: Man’s Place in History. Swansea, UK: Classical Press of Wales, 2003.
- History of the Peloponnesian War, edited by M. I. Finley, translated by R.Warner. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1972.
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