The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides (continued and concluded)

What did Thucydides himself think? It is exceptionally hard to excavate his own ideas from behind his carefully polished façade of objectivity. It is clear that, in common with almost all Athenian intellectuals, he opposed the democratic institutions of his own city, explicitly favouring a “mixed” (i.e. oligarchic) constitution in which power would lie in the hands of the wealthy. It is less evident that he favoured Spartan institutions (a common theme among renegade Athenian opponents of democracy). He has often been identified as a deeply amoral thinker, to be ranked along with Hobbes and Machiavelli as the founding fathers of hardheaded Realpolitik in inter-state relations, and thus an attractive antecedent for Cold Warriors and neo-conservatives. For instance, Daniel Mendelsohn writes of his graduate school days in the USA during the Cold War:

To be an admirer of Thucydides’ History, with its deep cynicism about political, rhetorical and ideological hypocrisy, with its all too recognizable protagonists — a liberal yet imperialistic democracy and an authoritarian oligarchy, engaged in a war of attrition fought by proxy at the remote fringes of empire — was to advertise yourself as a hardheaded connoisseur of global Realpolitik.(The New Yorker, April 28, 2008)

These ideas are certainly present in Thucydides. In the (in)famous Melian dialogue, in which the Athenians present the Melians with a simple choice – join us, or die – he has the Athenians argue:

You know as well as we do that, when these matter are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel, and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept….it is a general and necessary law of nature that men rule wherever they can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way…

The outcome: “The Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves.”

It is no surprise that Thucydides’ first English translator was Thomas Hobbes (who held Thucydides to be “the most politic historiographer that ever wrote”). Whether we can attribute these positions to Thucydides himself is more elusive.

Title Page of Thomas Hobbes' 1629 translation of Thucydides

Let us return to Herodotus, over whose work the young Thucydides allegedly wept. Thucydides does not mention his great predecessor once by name, but it is evident that he is conducting implicit polemic against him. From his first sentence (effectively the “title page” of ancient works written on scrolls) he dismisses the Herodotean term historia, preferring his own syngraphia (which we could perhaps translate as “compilation”) to describe his work.  He evidently has Herodotus in mind as one of those “who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public”, and (again without naming his adversary) he pedantically corrects a couple of trivial points of Herodotean error. Although he takes from Herodotus (and beyond him, from Homer) a great war as the overarching theme of his work, he is adamant that his war is bigger and more important than that of Herodotus – an absurd claim in the broader perspective of world history. Indeed he devotes a substantial section of his work to attempting to demonstrate this superiority of his theme and therefore of his work. As Peter Green writes, Thucydides set out “first to learn everything he could, without acknowledgment, from his famous predecessor, and then to work out a methodology that would bury him without trace as a gullible and frivolous popularizer.”

Herodotus and Thucydides

Where Herodotus is vast and discursive in theme and geographical scope, Thucydides focuses tightly on what Edward Gibbon later described as the principle subjects of history: war and the administration of public affairs. Where Herodotus ranged across the face of the known world in his enquiries, Thucydides is resolutely concerned only with the Greek world (to the grave distortion of his understanding of the war, as argued by Simon Hornblower – his resolutely Hellenic focus blinds him to the decisive role of Persian intervention on the Spartan side):

Confronted by a broadminded, witty, and tolerant cosmopolitan, for whom the infinite varieties of human custom offered a source of inexhaustible fascination, Thucydides presented himself as a humourless nationalist, an intellectual given to political aphorisms and abstract generalizations. (Green)

Thucydides is intoxicating; reading his work you can feel an immensely powerful intellect, grappling with new problems, contorting the language itself in his attempt to bend it into the shape that his new purposes require. John Burrow concludes that “no more lucid, unillusioned intelligence has ever applied itself to the writing of history.” But is Thucydides even a historian? Perhaps we should rather consider him to be the “father of journalism” – constrained by his own methodological principles to write only about contemporary events, unverifiable in terms of his sources of information, closely tied to the interests of elite power. Certainly he has exerted a profound, yet baleful, influence upon the historians of the subsequent 2000 and more years, from which historians have only begun to free themselves in recent decades. I concur with Peter Green:

The cleverest intellectual move Thucydides made was the severe limiting of what he deemed permissible as elements of historiography, on the grounds that everything else outside this canon was not only irrelevant but unserious. Out went personal anecdotes, most foreign ethnography, and domestic or private motivation: out, above all, went anything to do with women. Religion was women’s business, and mostly nonsense anyway, so that could be discarded too. The essence of history was war and politics, as conducted by men in authority. His exclusive privileging of the male political association, in its most public form, became accepted, and historians (being political males themselves) were not inclined to argue. His revisionism not only won out at the time, but established the basic principles of historiography for over two millennia.

Further Reading

I am aware of three great translations of Thucydides: Thomas Hobbes’ (published 1629 and freely available here), Richard Crawley’s (published 1874 and freely available here), and Rex Warner’s (published 1954 as the Penguin Classics edition). I have not yet looked at Martin Hammond’s version.

The Greek text can be found here, along with translations, commentaries and lexicographical support.

Simon Hornblower’s Thucydides is a very good overview but might be difficult for a newcomer to the ancient world.


One thought on “The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides (continued and concluded)

  1. Pingback: The Greek “fathers of History” – Part III – Thucydides | The Rational Colonel

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