The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides


Thucydides the Athenian was, probably, slightly younger than Herodotus (an ancient biographer recounts the, likely fictional, anecdote of an adolescent Thucydides bursting into tears – of admiration? envy? hatred? – at a public recital of Herodotus’ work in progress). He was perhaps born between 460 and 455 BCE, dying around 400 (or maybe slightly later). The most significant fact in the scanty biographical knowledge that we possess is Thucydides’ service as one of the 10 Athenian generals (strategoi) in 424. The generals were elected annually (being indeed almost the only role in the Athenian democracy to be chosen by the anti-democratic device of election) and thus this does not imply that Thucydides was a military “professional”. Disgraced and exiled for the failure of his command to save the city of Amphipolis from a Spartan army led by Brasidas, Thucydides apparently devoted the rest of his life to compiling his account of the great war between Athens and Sparta.

Athens and Sparta

These two city-states had emerged in 479 from the wars against Persia (recounted by Herodotus) as the leading powers in the Greek world – Sparta at the head of a land-based league of allies and subordinates, the Athenian democracy as the dominant power of a maritime coalition which (arguably) evolved into an Athenian empire (arkhe is the Thucydidean word). They fought between 460-445 in what is now known as the First Peloponnesian War, and again between 431-404 BCE (with an intermission from 421) in what has subsequently been seen (largely thanks to Thucydides) as one great conflict which ended with Athenian surrender and the dismantling of her power. It is this long and terrible war, characterised by mass-scale atrocities on both sides, that is the subject of Thucydides – although his work breaks off uncompleted in mid-sentence in 411.

You will find Thucydides’ work today under the title History of the Peloponnesian War, but this has no basis in Thucydides himself. He in fact had no one word for the war that he made his own, referring to it variously as the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians (i.e. Sparta and her allies), or the war against the Athenians/Peloponnesians depending on context. More significantly, Thucydides never uses the words historia (history) or historikos (historian) at all. Writing as he was at the very dawn of genre labels and intellectual specialisation, this of course does not mean that we cannot regard Thucycides as (in some sense) a “historian” in our terms – but it give a clear indication that Thucydides was implicitly trying to do something very different from his predecessor Herodotus, who had coined the designation “historia” for his enquiries about the past.

We found in Herodotus the presence of two key concerns that we might regard as central to the practice of History: the epistemological question – how do we know about the past? and the aetiological question – why did things happen about the past? The acquisition of certain knowledge about the past was a central preoccupation of Thucydides. As he claims in his prefatory remarks:

In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way – even when these stories concern their own native countries.

[He gives two examples of such misconceptions – both of which come from Herodotus]

However, I do not think that one will be far wrong in accepting the conclusions I have reached from the evidence which I have put forward. It is better evidence than that of the poets, who exaggerate the importance of their themes, or of the chroniclers [logographers], who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be checked, and whose subject-matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology…..

And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described, or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories. And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever.

It is this (apparent) “scientific” and “positivist” project of recording objective, verifiable information about the past that has given Thucydides such high repute in the subsequent two millennia. To David Hume:

[T]he first page of Thucydides is, in my opinion, the commencement of real history. All preceding narrations are so intermixed with fable, that philosophers ought to abandon them to the embellishments of poets and orators. (David Hume, “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations”, 1742)

To the real founders of positivist academic history (Leopold von Ranke and his ilk), Thucydides was likewise the model of objective, dispassionate historical writing. But we can already identify some very serious problems with this interpretation of Thucydides. Essentially, we have to take him on trust. He criticises the logographers, “whose authorities cannot be checked”, but this is doubly true of Thucydides himself. Although he does occasionally refer to written documents, as stated above, his work depends almost entirely on his own personal autopsy or on (he claims, carefully checked and cross-referenced) eye-witnesses. But this primary testimony is almost entirely suppressed from his narrative. Thucydides very rarely admits to uncertainty and he very rarely (unlike Herodotus) offers alternative accounts without adjudication.

More astonishing is Thucydides’ statement about the speeches which form a significant component of his work:

In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

This explicit statement of two absolutely contradictory criteria should have proved more troubling for those who hold Thucydides to be the father of scientific history.

So there is much scope for scepticism about Thucydides’ narrative. We can search for omissions, silences, and self-exculpation (was the Spartan commander Brasidas, who Thucydides failed to defeat and thus suffered disgrace and exile, really so great a general as Thucydides makes out?), but more broadly the scholarship of recent decades has shifted towards considering Thucydides as an “artful reporter”, who presents a facade of apparent accuracy and precision within a baldly factual and chronological narrative, but who uses a sophisticated battery of techniques drawn from rhetoric, philosophy, and epic and tragic poetry in order to do so, and in order to present an essentially tragic tale of the hubris and nemesis of democratic Athens.

Thucydides’ thinking about causation is more obviously impressive:

War began when the Athenians and the Peloponnesians broke the Thirty Years Truce which had been made after the capture of Euboea. As to the reasons why they broke the truce, I propose first to give an account of the causes of complaint which they had against each other and of the specific instances where their interests clashed: this is in order that there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about what led to this great war falling upon the Greeks. But the real reason for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.

We have here the first ever elaboration of a model of causation that will be familiar to any A level historian: the distinction between apparent, ostensible, surface causes, and the alethestate prophasis, the truest, underlying causal force.

Continued and concluded here.

3 thoughts on “The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides

  1. Pingback: The Greek “fathers of History” – Part II – Herodotus (continued and concluded) | The Rational Colonel

  2. Pingback: Back to School | The Rational Colonel

  3. Pingback: The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides (continued and concluded) | The Rational Colonel

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