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Thucydides, historian of the Peloponnesian War

Most of our knowledge of the causes and the events of this decisive war depends on the history written by the Athenian Thucydides1 (c. 460-400 B.C.). Thucydides served as an Athenian commander in northern Greece in the early years of the war until the assembly exiled him for losing an outpost to the enemy.2 During his exile, Thucydides was able to interview witnesses from both sides of the conflict. Unlike Herodotus, Thucycdides concentrated on contemporary history and presented his account of the events of the war in an annalistic framework, that is, by organizing his history according to the years of the war with only occasional divergences from chronological order. Like Herodotus, he included versions of direct speeches3 in addition to the description of events. The speeches in Thucydides, usually longer and more complex than those in Herodotus, deal with major events and issues of the war in difficult and dramatic language. Their contents often address the motives of the participants in the war and offer broad interpretations of human nature and behavior. Historians disagree about the extent to which Thucydides has put words and ideas into the mouths of his speakers, but it seems indisputable that the speeches deal with the moral and political issues that Thucydides saw as central for understanding the Peloponnesian War as well as human conflict in general. His perceptive narrative and interpretation of the causes and events of the war made his book a pioneering work of history as the narrative of great contemporary events and power politics.

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