One of the greatest ancient historians, Thucydides (c.460 B.C.–c.400 B.C.) chronicled nearly 30 years of war and tension between Athens and Sparta. His “History of the Peloponnesian War” set a standard for scope, concision and accuracy that makes it a defining text of the historical genre. Unlike his near-contemporary Herodotus (author of the other great ancient Greek history), Thucydides’ topic was his own time. He relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses and his own experiences as a general during the war. Though specific in detail, the questions he addressed were timeless: What makes nations go to war? How can politics elevate or poison a society? What is the measure of a great leader or a great democracy?
Little is known about Thucydides’ life apart from the few biographical references in his masterwork. His father’s name was Olorus, and his family was from Thrace in northeastern Greece, where Thucydides owned gold mines that likely financed his historical work. He was born in the Athenian suburb of Halimos and was in Athens during the plague of c.430 B.C., a year after the war began. In 424, he was given command of a fleet, but was then exiled for failing to reach the city of Amphipolis in time to prevent its capture by the Spartans. He wrote of his exile: “It was…my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties [Athens and Sparta], and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely.”
Observe he did. During 20 years of exile, he worked on his history—collecting information, writing and revising. Estimates for Thucydides’ date of birth (c.460) hinge on his probable age upon entering military service. Since his history makes no mention of events after 411, it is likely Thucydides died before Athens’ final surrender in 404.
Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War
In his opening lines, Thucydides says he wrote about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, “beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” At the time, Athens was a great sea power with a democratic political system and innovative leadership that made it a formidable force. Sparta, located in the Peloponnese (the southern peninsula of mainland Greece), was most powerful as a land force. Its system of government favored austere militarism and adherence to tradition. It was the Spartans’ fear of Athens, Thucydides argues, that led them to make their first, preemptive attack in 430.
The initial 10 years of the conflict saw annual Spartan land raids countered by Athenian sea attacks. In 422, the Athenians under their leader Cleon made an unsuccessful attempt to retake Amphipolis. Both Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas died in the battle, pushing the war-weary sides to negotiate a treaty. An uneasy peace followed, but six years later Athens launched a seaborne expedition against Syracuse, an ally of Sparta in distant Sicily. This proved disastrous, and the Athenians were driven from the island in 413 by the combined Sicilian and Spartan forces. Thucydides writes, “they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army—everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.”
The final section of the “History of the Peloponnesian Wars” is an incomplete description of revolts, revolutions and Spartan gains that cuts off in midsentence. The war’s closing years saw Athens rally in a series of battles only to have its remaining fleet ravaged by the Spartans under Lysander at Aegospotami. Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404.
Thucydides’ Style and Themes
In its chronologies and narrative, the “History of the Peloponnesian War” is a marvel of direct prose, as Thucydides combines multiple sources into a single compelling voice. In the completed sections of the work, the narrative is interrupted by speeches from the warring sides’ principal leaders. Thucydides is careful to note that at times he records only the gist of what was said, or what he thinks should have been said. The greatest of these speeches, such as the Athenian leader Pericles’ oration for his city’s war dead, offer lasting insight into the politics of war and the complexities of human nature.
At other times the speeches form dialogues, as stronger and weaker parties debate the ethics of war. The Mylitene speeches, from early in the conflict, show Athens’ ability to choose mercy when crushing a revolt. The Melian dialogue, from just a few years later, records the leaders of a neutral island pleading with Athens for their survival. The Athenians reply that, although Melos has done nothing to offend them, they are justified in destroying them simply because they can: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power.”
Thucydides vs. Herodotus
Thucydides, unlike Herodotus, makes very little reference to the Greek gods as active agents in history, preferring to understand events in terms of their human causes. Nevertheless, he sculpts a cohesive narrative in which Athens’ loss in Sicily is both the logical outcome of poor leadership and an almost-cosmic punishment for a society’s ethical decline.
It took several generations for Thucydides to attain his now-unassailed place as one of the greatest historians of all time. Aristotle, who lived a few decades later and wrote about the same era, never mentions him. By the first century B.C. writers such as Cicero declared him as a great historian. Over the next centuries, numerous copies were made of the work, ensuring its survival past the dark ages. After the Renaissance, political philosophers from Thomas Hobbes to Friedrich Nietzsche extolled Thucydides’ clear vision and realist’s grasp of politics and warfare.