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Birth of Thucydides c. 460

Plague at Athens, from which Thucydides suffers but recovers 430-426

Thucydides was an Athenian general in Thrace 424/3

Thucydides exiled from Athens 424/3-404

Death of Thucydides c. 400

On several occasions in the History Thucydides refers to himself; these references are the best surviving evidence about his life. Thucydides recalls that at the opening of the war people cited a prophecy which predicted the war would last “thrice nine years” (Thuc. 5.26.4) and he tells us that he began work on his history at the beginning of the war (Thuc. 5.26.5, Thuc. 1.1.1); this implies that he was at least a young adult in c. 431.

Thucydides informs us that the plague at Athens began at the beginning of summer in 430. (Thuc. 1.47.1 and 3). Later on he comments that the plague continued for two years unabated, then let up a bit in the summer of 428 (though never entirely dying out), only to flare up again in the winter of 427/6 for one more intense period which lasted about one year. Sometime during this period, Thucydides himself became ill with the disease, and his description, he tells us, thus draws from personal experience as well as observation (Thuc. 2.48.3).

Thuc. 4.102-108 provides an overall description of the campaign which the Spartan Brasidas waged against Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in the north of Greece, and Thucydides himself emphasizes the strategic significance of this site (Thuc. 4.108.1).

Thucydides (the one “who composed this history,” the text carefully informs us) happened to be the Athenian general nearest to Amphipolis. At the time of Brasidas invasion, he was in command of forces at Thasos, an island just a half day's sailing away from Amphipolis (Thuc. 4.104.4), departed immediately with the seven ships that he happened to have with him. His intention was to secure Amphipolis, if possible, or, failing that, at least to prevent Eion, the port town a few miles down river from Amphipolis, from falling into Brasidas’ hands. Brasidas knew that Thucydides was in charge and, more importantly, that Thucydides owned a mining concession in the area and had excellent contacts among the leading citizens on the mainland (Thuc. 4.105.1). The Athenian general knew the area well, and Brasidas had to act quickly. He gained control of Amphipolis first, but Thucydides was just able to reach Eion late in the day, preventing Brasidas from seizing the town at dawn the next morning (Thuc. 4.106.3-4). Brasidas did make an attempt on Eion, but was beaten back and the situation stabilized (Thuc. 4.107.2).

Because he had failed to save Amphipolis, Thucydides spent the rest of the war in exile, a period of twenty years (Thuc. 5.26.5). He thus had the opportunity to meet with people of both sides, Peloponnesians no less than Athenians, and could investigate matters “at his leisure” (καθ᾽ ἡσυχίαν). Thucydides’ unsuccessful campaign plays a key role in our analysis of his career, not simply because it informs us roughly when and why he went into exile. If Thucydides was a general in 424/3, then he must have been at least 30 years old at the time, and scholarship traditionally dates his birth to c. 460 BC.

Paus. 1.23.9 mentions that a certain Oinobios successfully pushed a decree through the Athenian assembly which allowed Thucydides to return home from exile after the war was over. In the same passage, Pausanias also claims that Thucydides was treacherously murdered on his way home. Whether or not we believe this story, Thucydides did live past the end of the war, but he did not live to complete his history. Thuc. 5.26 contains the so-called “second preface,” in which Thucydides introduces the second phase of the Peloponnesian War. In this passage, Thucydides states that the war as a whole lasted twenty-seven years and he thus was clearly writing after the war had ended (404). Earlier in the history, Thucydides defends the strategic vision of the statesman Pericles (Thuc. 2.65), and at the conclusion of this passage he points out how difficult it proved for Sparta and its allies to prevail in the end Thuc. 2.65.12-13. Some have seen Thuc. 2.100.2 as a kind of epitaph summing up the career of the Macedonian king Archelaus, and, if true, this would indicate that Thucydides was still alive in 399 when Archelaus died.

A recently published inscription, dated to 397, mentions someone named Lichas. If this is the same Lichas whose death is mentioned at Thuc. 8.84.5, then Thucydides must still have been working in 397 ([Pouilloux, 1983]), but relatively few scholars are convinced that the Lichas in the inscription is the same as the Lichas in Thucydides (e.g., [Hornblower, 1987] 151). Most still assume that he died sometime around 400 B.C.

Thucydides’ Family

Thucydides thus came from one of the leading families of Athens, with long standing connections to the leading families of Thrace as well as access to considerable sources of wealth in this area. He was thus clearly familiar not only with others from all factions of the Greek world, but with non-Greeks in Thrace and doubtless elsewhere as well. His background was thus elite and cosmopolitan.

Thucydides’ father was named Olorus, a Thracian name and thus very odd for a Greek. He was thought in antiquity to belong to the same family as Cimon (Plut. Cimon 4.1-2; Paus. 1.23.9; see also Marcellinus, Life of Thucydides 16-17), and his tomb was among those of Cimon's family, and very near to that of Elpinice, Cimon's sister. The inscription relates that he was of the deme Halimous. While there is some question as to the precise family tree, Thucydides’ great-great grandfather was a Thracian king named Olorus (whence the name entered the family). Where the Athenians as a whole prided themselves on their ethnic homogeneity-they had sprung from the soil itself-Thucydides’ family based its identity on connections with those who were not just non-Athenian, but non-Greek as well. Both his family and his subsequent exile made Thucydides both an Athenian and an outsider, and this surely affected his outlook and his actions as he composed his history.

Even within Athens, his family connections are significant and place the history in a particular light. The Thracian king Olorus’ daughter Hegesipyle married Miltiades, the victorious general at Marathon. Cimon, the leading figure at Athens after the Persian War, was Miltiades’ son, while Thucydides was Miltiades’ great-grandson. Thus, Cimon was Thucydides great uncle-an important point, since the Athenian statesman Pericles was Cimon's enemy and helped drive him from Athens. Finally, another Thucydides, the son of Melesias, succeeded Cimon to the leadership of conservative forces in Athens and was an opponent of Pericles until he was ostracized in 443 B.C. The name Thucydides is not a common one, and at least one scholar has tried to work Thucydides the son of Melesias into the family tree of Thucydides the son of Olorus (for two family trees for Thucydides, see [Rusten, 1989] 2). To the extent that Thucyides supported a populist Pericles, he was turning his back not only on the interests of his own elite background, but he was supporting someone who had attacked the most prominent members of his family.

Surviving Works

Work begins on the History c. 431

Work ceases on the unfinished the History c. 400

importance and Influence of Thucydides

prose as an emerging medium

When Thucydides composed his history, prose literature was a relatively new medium. Most of his contemporaries looked to poetry as the dominant mode of expression. Children learned large stretches of the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, and well-educated Greeks grew up citing passages from Homer and other poets wherever possible. Even recent poets such as Simonides and Pindar had enormous prestige. At Plat. Prot. 339a, for example, the fifth century intellectual Protagoras is portrayed arguing that an understanding of poetry is the basis of education. The discussion which follows illustrates how, in this view, the moral judgments inscribed in famous poems are the basis for the moral evaluation which people should make in their daily life.

thucydides and Homer

Thucydides was not the first author to contrast his own truthful account with the distortions of Homer, and such a critique of Homer had already appeared in poetry (see, for example, the lyric poet Pindar's comments on Ajax and Odysseus at Pind. N. 7.20-21). Nevertheless, Thucydides dedicates himself to a level of accuracy far greater than the looser genre of poetry. He claims to make his points without distortion or exaggeration.

On several occasions, Thucydides distinguishes his work from that of the poets, especially Homer. He opens his work with a summary of Greek history that portrays the heroic period as a weak and violent time, vastly overrated (Thuc. 1.2-21). Thucydides argues that the Greece of his day is far more powerful and important than it ever was before (Thuc. 1.1). Where the lyric poet Bacchylides (Bacch. 3 portrays the mythical Cretan king Minos as an evil tyrant who oppresses the Greeks, Thucydides claims that he brought order and prosperity to a Greek world in which piracy had heretofore flourished (Thuc. 1.4). The Greeks of the heroic period were so backward that they exhibited no shame or horror at the prospect that someone newly-met was a pirate (Thuc. 1.5.2). Thucydides refers to “the poets of antiquity” (οἱ παλαιοὶ τῶν ποιητῶν), and he certainly had Homer specifically in mind (see, for example, the four line formula which reappears at Hom. Od. 3.71-74, Hom.Od. 9.252-255, and HApol. 452-455). He has no great faith in the accounts of events as they appear in Homer, and openly raises the question of how far one could trust the epic poet (Thuc. 1.9.3, Thuc. 1.10.3). When the statesman Pericles boasts that Athens will not in future generations need some poet like Homer to exaggerate its achievements Thuc. 2.41.4, the history in which this statement appears is itself intended to prove Pericles’ point.

thucydides and other prose works

Thucydides was not the first person to compose prose history. He explicitly criticizes his contemporary Hellanicus at Thuc. 1.97.2. He almost certainly has Herodotus at least generally in mind when, in a famous passage, he contrasts his history from that composed by others. He went to great pains to verify his sources, carefully weeding out the inconsistencies which memory or partiality caused (1.22.3). The audience may, Thucydides observes, find his work less pleasant (1.22.4: ἀτερπέστερον) because it is not not full of elaborate stories (τὸ μὴ μυθῶδες αὐτῶν). But whoever looks to history for typical events which will find parallels in the future, Thucydides asserts, will be able to determine that his work is quite useful (ὠφέλιμα κρίνειν αὐτὰ ἀρκούντως ἕξει). Thucydides composed his history as a possession to be kept for all time rather than a piece to win a particular competition (κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ μᾶλλον ἀγώνισμα ἐς τὸ παραχρῆμα). The cool precision of his work may cost Thucydides something in terms of his immediate popularity, but the accuracy and reliability of his account will give his work far more value in the long run.

impact of Thucydides' History

If Thucydides had Herodotus specifically in mind at Thuc. 1.22.4), his expectations were only half true. Herodotus’ history did not vanish, but came to occupy a secure role in the canon of Greek historians. Thucydides himself, however, not only acquired enormous prestige over the centuries, but his work quickly established itself as a classic. Thucydides’ history breaks off unexpectedly (in mid-sentence!) while describing events the summer of 411. Xenophon, who was about thirty years younger than Thucydides, wrote a history which continued Thucydides. Xenophon did not even compose an introduction to his history. He not only opens his own history Xen. Hell. 1.1.1, at the precise point at which Thucydides’ narrative breaks off, but the very first words of his work are “after these things,” (μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα). Xenophon foreswore adding an introduction to his own history, and his abrupt leap into the change of events described by Thucydides reflects the authority which Xenophon attributed to it. At least two other historians, Cratippus and Theopompos of Chios, wrote histories likewise designed to begin where Thucydides left off. Already in the fourth century, Thucydides’ History occupied a commanding position in the eyes of those who wrote about Greek affairs.

Thucydides' criteria for historical importance

Thucydides justifies his history in terms similar to those which Herodotus adduces at the beginning of his history. Herodotus’ history will prevent the memory of great and marvelous events from growing dim (Hdt. 1.0). Thucydides argues that the events which he will relate command attention because they are the greatest in the history of the Greek peoples (e.g. Thuc. 1.1, Thuc. 1.23). Where Herodotus briefly compares the magnitude of Xerxes’ invasion with the Trojan War and other major events (Hdt. 7.20), Thucydides devotes the opening of his history to illustrating how much greater the Peloponnesian War was than any previous historical event in the Greek world (Thuc. 1.2-21). In this regard, Thucydides accepts traditional categories in which the magnitude of events determine their importance.

Thucydides' method

Methodologically, however, Thucydides seeks to draw a sharp distinction between his work and that of his predecessors. At Thuc. 1.22.2-3, he describes the care which he took in ascertaining he truth about what happened (τὰ ἔργα τῶν πραχθέντων). He sought out the best possible sources, not relying simply on the first informant he met nor even on his own limited perspective on events in which he personally participated. This research required a great deal of effort (ἐπιπόνως δὲ ηὑρίσκετο), because different people said contradictory things about the same events, whether for personal reasons or because their memories played tricks on them.

Thucydides contrasts the manner in which he records events (ἔργα) and things spoken (λόγοι). Thucydides, however, had no transcripts of the debates and speeches discussing crucial decisions during the Peloponnesian War. Nevertheless, these speeches were themselves events and readers needed, in Thucydides’ view, a clear idea of what was said if they were to understand why events took place as they did. Thucydides thus offers a compromise. In a sentence that has been much disputed by modern scholarship, Thucydides explains that he will give the best possible reconstruction of speeches, “keeping as close as possible to the overall idea of what was in fact said,” (Thuc. 1.22.1: ἐχομένῳ ὅτι ἐγγύτατα τῆς ξυμπάσης γνώμης τῶν ἀληθῶς λεχθέντων). While many scholars have offered varying interpretations of this section, Thucydides seems to promise that while the speeches recorded in his history are not faithful copies of what was spoken (in the way that the text in a reader's hand strives to be an accurately transcribed copy of Thucydides’ history) but are the best possible reconstructions of speeches which did in fact take place.

Thucydides' work has perplexed many modern readers. On the one hand, it aims at a level of precision unparalleled in previous historians: when Thucydides says how many troops were engaged or who was in charge or where they went or when a battle took place, he claims to offer the best possible data. And yet, he openly fills out the speeches with his own reconstructions of what must have been said. Thucydides includes these semi-fictionalized speeches because they give his readers a clearer and more insightful view of why things happened than would be possible without them. Nevertheless, the speeches violate the canons of documentary accuracy now in force. It should, however, be recalled that Thucydides had nothing remotely comparable to the infrastructure or records and archives on which modern academic historians base their work. Thucydides did not simply produce an excellent history of a particular war. He transformed the conception of what history was and could be as thoroughly as anyone who has ever attempted to analyze human events.

For discussions of what we know about Thucydides’ life and career, see [Lesky, 1966] 455-481, [Easterling, 1985] 441-456, 784-786. [Rusten, 1989] 1-28 gives an excellent introduction into Thucydides’ style as well.

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Gregory Crane
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