Saturday, December 1, 2007

Thucydides' History

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War :
A Short Study

by Ioanes Rakhmat

We have no direct and certain information about the personal life of Thucydides (ca. 459/4 [?]– 399 BCE), nor his public career in Greece,[1] save for what is contained in his only extant work, History of the Peloponnesian War.[2] In Book 4.104.4, referring to himself as “the author of this history” (hos tade xunegrapsen), he notes that he is (a) son of Olorus, and mentions that, in 425/4 BCE, he was the general or commander (stratēgos; cf. 1.117.2) of the Thracian district. He also mentions that in 429 he contracted but survived the plague (2.48.3).

In the opening paragraph of his work, Thucydides wrote: “Thucydides, an Athenian [Thoukydidēs Athēnaios] wrote the history [xunegrapse] of the war [ton polemon] waged by the Peloponnesians and the Athenians against one another” (1.1; cf. 5.26.1). By “Peloponnesians” Thucydides meant the Spartan alliance, or the “allies of the Lacedaemonians” who were at war with the Athenians and their allies, ostensibly because of the expansionist actions of the latter (2.9). Concerning the expanding Athenian political and naval power, under the democratic leadership of Pericles, son of Xanthippus, the foremost man of the Athenians (1.139.4; see also, e.g., 1.23.6; 1.115.3), Thucydides notes that “the greater part of Hellas was already subject to them” (1.88), and he opines that, fearful of the growing strength of the Athenians, to oppose them, the Lacedaemonians resorted to war (e.g., 1.23.6; 1.86.5; 1.88.6).

Each side blamed the other for the breaking of the previously established peace treaty (1.53.4; 1.78-79; 1.87-88; 1.118.3), and each side claimed superiority in numbers and resources, in armaments, and in military experience and effective strategy in warfare (e.g., 1.81; 1.121). Also, each side was convinced that the god was with them (1.78.5; 1.86.5; 1.135.1) although Thucydides mentions that the Delphic oracle favoured the Peloponnesians (1.118.3; 1.123.1-2; 2.54.4-5). Actually, at that time, not just the Spartans and their allies, but a majority of Hellenes were either trying to free themselves from the sway of the Athenians or fearful of falling under that sway (2.8.5). Concerning the war, Thucydides writes, “Never had so many cities been taken and left desolate,... while several, after their capture, underwent a change of inhabitants. Never had so many human beings been exiled, or so much human blood been shed, whether in the course of the war itself or as the result of civil dissensions” (1.23.2-3). The modern classical historian T. J. Luce assesses the Peloponnesian War as “horrific because of the unprecedented destruction and suffering it caused. This came about because the conflict lasted for nearly a generation and because eventually most of the Greek world was drawn into it. Most of all, it unleashed the worse impulses of man’s nature, which had a long time and a wide field to display itself, as the civilized veneer of Hellenic culture cracked and fell away.”[3] The Peloponnesian War lasted for twenty-seven years (431-404 BCE; see 5.26.1,4) and ended with the defeat of the Athenians. Thucydides notes that “I lived through the whole war, being an age to form judgments, and followed it with close attention, so as to acquire accurate information” (5.26.5). However, for about twenty years until 404, Thucydides was in exile from the Athenian territories because of a failure of his military leadership, and during this time he tried to collect data from both sides of the battle lines so that he would have fuller knowledge of the course of events (5.26.5; 4.104.1-5).

This study, however, is not so much concerned with Thucydides’ reconstruction of the Peloponnesian War in his eight-book History,[4] but rather with his epistemology and his method in writing history. In the opinion of one modern writer, Thucydides’ History is “a barometer by which to gauge the writing of history both past and present,” for his methodology set a precedent for the writing of history, especially by other ancient authors, whether they did or did not agree with Thucydides.[5]

Thucydides’ Method and Epistemology

Thucydides repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of accuracy in the information and data concerning the war and its background which he gathered and made use of in his History (5.26.5; cf. 1.21.1-2; 1.22.4). He did not intend that his historical narratives were primarily to be a source of pleasure and entertainment for his readers or listeners, as chroniclers had previously done (1.21.1; 1.22.4). He did not hesitate to question the reliability of Homer and other poets (1.9.4; 1.10.3; 1.11.2; 1.21.1). He was cautious of the fact that eye-witnesses could rarely be truly impartial or objective (1.22.3). Eliminating traditional reports of former events which he judged to be based only on hearsay (1.20.1) as well as incredible fables or mythologies (1.21.1; 1.22.4), he stressed that he was only concerned with historical facts which were to be presented and narrated with sufficient accuracy on the basis of the clearest indications of those events (1.21.1).

However, as will be shown below, Thucydides’ History, or, as he calls it, his syggrafē (which can be translated either as “historical work” or even as “case study” as employed in modern social science) is not a work of history written by an “objectivist”, “positivist” or “secularist” historian in the modern sense of such terms. As one scholar has rightly stressed, ancient Greek history was not the pseudo-science as it is sometimes claimed to be; but rather it was a form of philosophy; if Thucydides’ work is still a classic today, that is because it combines various levels of causality which satisfy the minds of both the political pedant and the philosopher of history.[6] In the discussion of the Greco-Roman literary environment and the place of historiography within it, Thomas Louis Brodie has shown that ancient historiography, including Thucydides’ History, was governed by practices which were literary rather than merely objective or “scientific.” Rhetoric, poetry, tragic drama, the invention of speeches, pragmatic instruction or moralizing, and archaizing or the use of archaic vocabularies, are the elements of great influence in the writing of ancient Greek history.[7] In particular regard to the speeches in Thucydides’ History, G.H.R. Horsley asserts that “Thucydides’ approach provided the yardstick for subsequent Greek and Roman historians, even when they consciously rejected it.”[8]

When, in Thucydides’ History, the elements of tragic drama and the role of speeches or rhetoric are considered, it quickly becomes clear that the ancient historian had blended historical facticity with literary and rhetorical creativity. In other words, it can be shown that, in his History, Thucydides applied a dialectic or interactivist epistemology in the pursuit of historical truth. In his work, the objective and the subjective sides of the author interface. What is to be found in his History, therefore, is the interfusion of essential fidelity to the factual events of recent history with literary imagination and creativity; that is, the interfusion of historical and literary objectives.

The Divine in Thucydides’ History

More than once in his account, Thucydides mentions that the Delphic oracle was questioned as to which side would be the victor in the war (see also 1.25.1.; 1.118.3; 1.126.4; 2.54.4.; 2.102.5; 3.92.5; 5.32.1). Though he was impatient with oraclemongers and soothsayers (2.8.2.; 2.21.3.; 8.1), Thucydides never criticized the oracle per se.[10] He even admitted explicitly that the oracle (to manteion) could predict the future (2.17; cf. 5.26.4). Although it cannot be known whether Thucydides personally believed in the god(s) or not, or whether he could be called an agnostic, as modern scholars might suspect, in his History he did make room for the role of traditional Greek religious beliefs. An important example of this is to be found in his accounts of the pattern of Athens’ downfall in history. The accounts are dominated by tragic elements which illustrate divine interference in establishing justice, e.g., the element of peripeteia or the reversal of fortune (see 4.55.3; 5.104; 7.68.1; 7.75.7; 7.71.7; 7.77.3; 7.79.3). As Marinatos has stressed, the tragic effect in a work of history would be inconceivable without a divine framework in the Greece of the fifth-century BCE, when the drama of existential atheism had not yet been discovered.[11] Thus, in Thucydides’ History, religious imagery and historical event have been merged.

Thucydides’ Programmatic Statement

As declared in his programmatic statement in Book 1.22, the method which Thucydides used in writing his History is a rational, inductive one.[12] It was the objectivity of historical truth, solid facts, which he attempted to gain, on the one hand; but at the same time, he offered his own interpretation, understanding, and reconstruction of the facts and enveloped them with literary elements such as speeches, rhetoric and tragic drama which were framed as historical narratives. This twofold effort in historiography displayed not the positivist or objectivist, but rather the interactivist or dialectic epistemology with which Thucydides worked. In Book 1.22.1-2, Thucydides declared his compositional procedure in composing the speeches that he put into his History.

“As to the speeches that were made by different men, either when they were about to begin the war or when they were already engaged therein, it has been difficult to recall with strict accuracy the words actually spoken, both for me as regards that which I myself heard, and for those who from various other sources have brought me reports. Therefore the speeches are given in the language in which (ta deonta), as it seemed to me, the several speakers would express, on the subjects under consideration, the sentiments most befitting the occasion, though at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense (tēs xumpasēs gnōmēs) of what was actually said (tōn alēthōs lechthentōn). But as to the facts of the occurences of the war, I have thought it my duty to give them, not as ascertained from any chance informant nor as seemed to me probable, but only after investigating with greatest possible accuracy each deatil, in the case both of the events in which I myself participated and of those regarding which I got my information from others.”

The problem with this programmatic statement is the difficulty of interpreting such enigmatic expressions as ta deonta (“the language in which the speakers would express” or “what the speakers had to say or so did say” or “what the various occasion demanded”), tēs xumpasēs gnōmēs (“the general sense” or “the general intention”of the speeches) and tōn alēthōs lechthentōn (“what was actually said” or “what in truth was said”). The last two phrases in particular have led to considerable discussion in the scholarly literature; but, for the purposes of this study, it is not necessary to enter into that seemingly endless debate on the Thucydidean policy of structuring and composing the speeches.[13]

Comparing Thucydides’claims about the speeches with their contents and his use of them throughout his History, J. Wilson has drawn the conclusion that, within the limits or rules of literary license, Thucydides constructed the speeches as follows: 1) reportage in his own literary style, not that of the speaker; 2) a selection from a number of speeches actually made by the speaker under discussion; 3) a selection of some, but not all, of the ideas or thoughts (gnōmē) contained in the speeches; 4) a reporting which contains nothing that does not count as gnōmē; 5) the adding of words to make the gnōmē clearer; 6) an abbreviating or expanding the material, as long as the gnōmē remains clear; 7) a casting of the gnōmē in terms which might serve his particular purposes (for example, the pairing of remarks in two different speeches, such as in 1.69 and 144, or the arrangement of material into a formal dialogue, as in 5.84-133).[14]

In other words, the construction of the speeches in Thucydides’ History consists of two interfused elements: what was actually said by the original speakers from both sides during the war, and the historian’s interpretation of the war through the use of narratives and speeches which have their source primarily in the historian’s own thinking and literary creativity. No writing on history is totally impartial; Thucydides’ History was the result of the interaction between two epistemological poles: objectivity and responsible subjectivity.[15] With this conclusion, it is appropriate to question those modern scholars who label Thucydides a positivist or objectivist.[16] For instance, Hornblower apparently missed the main epistemological characteristic of Thucydides’ work when he commented on the function of the speeches in History that “The speeches offer further evidence that two hearts beat in Thucydides’ breast. In particular, the famous programmatic statement about the speeches in Book I contains another unresolved contradiction between the criteria of subjectivity and objectivity”, and that “Thucydides’ aim in speeches, as in narrative, was to record truthfully to give ‘what was really said’; but again there was present an opposite and inconsistent aim, to omit, select and concentrate, giving instead ‘what was appropriate.’”[17]

It was Thucydides’ hope that his history of the war would be “a possessian for all time” (1.22.4). Viewed from the perspective of subsequent history, the Peloponnesian War was not the greatest disturbance (kinēsis) and certainly did not have an impact on the majority of humankind (cf. 1.1.2; 1.21.2.; 1.23.1; 7.87.5). Nevertheless, as Luce has written, the causes of the war “go to the heart of what the war was about generally and instruct us not just about Greek factionalism, but human nature itself.”[18] And, for Thucydides himself, human nature in this regard is constant, as he emphasizes repeatedly (1.22.4; 1.76.2-3; 2.50.1; 3.39.5; 3.45.7; 3.82.2; 4.19.4). For this reason, Thucydides wrote that the things which have already happened will, in the future, in all probability “happen again in the same or a similar way” (1.22.4).


[1] For an informative study of Thucydides, his work, his time, and his philosophical sophistic framework, see W. R. Connor, “Thucydides” in Torry James Luce, ed., Ancient Writer: Greece and Rome, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1982) 267-289; see also Luce, The Greek Historians (London, New York: Routledge, 1997) 60-98.

[2] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I and II (LCL; Thucydides I of 4 volumes; E.T. by Charles Forster Smith; Cambridge: Massachusetts/London: Harvard University Press/William Heinemann, 1969 [19191]) 2, 3. The opening twenty-three chapters of the History which are commonly called the “Archaelogy” contain Thucydides’ challenge on the widespread notion of the epic grandeur of early Greece as described in, e.g., Homer’s works.

[3] Luce, The Greek Historians, 98.

[4] For a discussion on the historico-literary problem as to whether the first two books of Xenophon’s Hellenica which contain “a very sufficient history of the final period of the Peloponnesian War” were written as the completion of Thucydides’ History that so abruptly breaks off in the middle of a sentence when dealing with the year 411 BCE (Book VIII, lxi-cix.1) within the story of the final conflict (413-404 BCE) in Greece, see, for example, W.P. Henry, Greek Historical Writing: A Historiographical Essays Based on Xenophon’s Hellenica (Chicago: Argonaut, 1967) esp. ch. 1 (pp. 14-54).

[5] W.J. McCoy, “In the Shadow of Thucydides” in Ben Witherington, III (ed.), History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts. Collection of essays dedicated to the memory of F. F. Bruce and C.J. Hemer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 3, 7 -10 [3-23 (+ ed.’s Addendum pp. 23-32)].

[6] Nanno Marinatos, Thucydides and Religion (Königstein/TS: Verlag Anton Hain, 1981) 61.

[7] Brodie, “Greco-Roman Imitation of Texts as a Partial Guide to Luke’s Use of Sources” in Charles H. Talbert, ed., Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar (New York: Crossroad, 1984) 26-32 [17-46]. See also Connor, “Thucydides”, 280.

[8] G.H.R. Horsley, “Speeches and Dialogue in Acts” in New Testament Studies 32 (1986) 609 [609-614]; see also K.S. Sacks, “Rhetorical Approaches to Greek History Writing in the Hellenistic Period,” in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1984, ed. K.H. Richards (SBL Seminar Paper 23; Chico, CA, 1984) 123-133.

[9] For the full treatment of this subject, see Marinatos, Thucydides and Religion.

[10] See further Marinatos, Thucydides and Religion, 47-55.

[11] Marinatos, Thucydides and Religion, 58.

[12] See, e.g., J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Gill and Wiseman, eds., Lies and Fiction, 108 [88-121]; William T. Bluhm, “Thucydides” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 7, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan & Free Press/London: Collier Macmillan, 1967) 123-124.

[13] See the literature cited in McCoy, “In the Shadow of Thucydides,” 12-13 nn.48-50. In relation to the study of Luke-Acts, Thucydides’ speeches have drawn scholarly attention; see, e.g., Brodie, “Greco-Roman Imitation of Texts as a Partial Guide to Luke’s Use of Sources”; Stanley E. Porter, “Thucydides 1.22.1 and Speeches in Acts: Is there a Thucydidean View?” in Novum Testamentum 32,2 (1990) 121-142; G.H.R. Horsley, “Speeches and Dialogue in Acts”; K.S. Sacks, “Rhetorical Approaches to Greek History Writing in the Hellenistic Period”; B.W. Winter and A.D. Clarke (eds.), The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting (Grand Rapids, 1993) 260-303.

[14] J. Wilson, “What Does Thucydides Claim for his Speeches?” in Phoenix 36 (1982) 103 [95-103]; cited by Ben Witherington, III, in his Addendum to McCoy’s article, “In the Shadow of Thucydides,” 26 [23-32].

[15] Cf. J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides,” 89, 106; it is useful to cite the statement of W. R. Connor, “A Post-Modernist Thucydides?” in Classical Journal 72 (1976-1977) 298: “As we open our eyes wider it may be possible to behold in Thucydides the fusion of an historian of integrity with an artist of profound intensity.” .

[16] E.g., Bluhm, “Thucydides,” 123. See also the literature cited in McCoy, “In the Shadow of Thucydides,” 18 n. 68.

[17] S. Hornblower, Thucydides (Baltimore, 1987) 45, 71.

[18] Luce, The Greek Historians, 79.