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Thucydides - The Historian
by Jack Wellman
2007-10-04 09:14:20
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Many feel the birthplace of history was Ancient Greece. If that is true, the child prodigy was Thucydides. The word 'history' comes from the Greek historia, and literally means investigation or research. While there is disagreement whether Herodotus is the father of history, historians generally agree that Thucydides (c.460-c 400 B.C.E.) “...was by far...the greatest historian of the ancient world (Duiker et. al. 129).”

Thucydides seems to take the definition historia very seriously. He had a more rational approach than Herodotus did. Importance was placed on “...accuracy and the precision of facts (Duiker et. al. 129)”. He tried to link events while revealing purposes behind them. He wisely considered human tendencies. He saw a connection between what happened “...in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other...be repeated in the future (Duiker et. al. 129).” This investigative process was extraordinarily ahead of its time.

Thucydides example became the model of historical writing in Western Civilization. Thucydides was elected general for Athens when he was stationed at Thrace with orders to prevent the capture of Amphipolis against Spartan general Brasidas (424 B.C.E.) during the Peloponnesian War. When Thucydides failed to hold Amphipolis, he was exiled for twenty years, nearly coinciding with the remaining length of the war. It was during this twenty-year period that Thucydides did his writing. He was fortunate to have access to both Athenian and Spartan sources during the war (Crawley, vii). It took the remainder of his life to attempt the completion of The History of the Peloponnesian War, a reflection of his dedication to history.

Thucydides was not immediately recognized as a significant historian until the time of “...Sallust and Tacitus and...for those who witnessed in Rome a still more violent political evolution than that which he had observed and tried to analyze (Crawley, viii).” Thucydides went “...to great pains for accuracy...”, yet his specific emphasis was to explain the “...errors which cost Athens the war despite her initial advantage (Crawley, ix).”

An important and distinctive trait of Thucydides was antithetical approach to history. Antithetical history tries to entertain both sides of a conflict in order to bring contrast to it. With this approach, Thucydides sets one clause or member of a sentence against another to which it is opposed. This oppositional contrast brings out differences more easily. For example, Thucydides compares the ideologies of the Athens and Spartan social systems. Athens’ democracy is contrasted by Spartan oligarchy, or the Athenian power is in her navy while Spartan’s is in its land army (the powerful phalanx).

Thucydides’ wanted his history to reverberate down the long hall of time in the hope that other generations will benefit. During the Spartan siege of Athens a plague killed many in the city-state. He kept a detailed record (II 48) of “...symptoms, in the hope...that it may be of use...on any later recurrence” even though he would later die from this plague (Crawford, xiii). Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher, was the first to translate Thucydides from the Greek.

Rex Warner, translator of The Peloponnesian War thinks Thucydides was the "...greatest historiographer that ever writ...the greatest work on politics...that ever has been written (Warner, 5).” Thucydides would be thrilled to know his writings are being used by colleges and universities today. Thucydides wanted his writings to be “...judged useful” by all who believe that it is possible to learn anything from experience (Warner, 8).

Thucydides must have realized the great significance of the Peloponnesian War. A. R. Burn’s introduction in Herodotus the Historian believed Herodotus the father of history, yet concedes that “Thucydides, a trained soldier, would not have been [as] misled...” by his sources as Herodotus was (Selincourt, 36). Thucydides correctly noticed that Sparta looked at democracy as being more like imperialism (Samons II., 313).

Thucydides apparently gained credibility when the Delian League reported that “...our documents confirm the report of Thucydides (I. 99)...over [Athenian] control over the allies...[having]imposed humiliating oaths (Norton, 159).” Thucydides history was written with boldness, not shy in stating that Athens expansion, even encroachment, to near Sparta compelled the Spartans into war (Crawford, 303). Thucydides said that his own writings were not meant “...to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to the last forever (Warner 6).”

History is a story by humans about humans. Thucydides has not lost this point. It is more than a pitched battle on a field. It is a war on a moral battlefield. Thucydides might have been the first historian to look for cycles and to link those to human nature. He had hoped that the cycles or patterns might be helpful to future generations.

Thucydides does have critics however. Many think that the lengthy dialogues and word for word orations could not possibly have been accurate. Many events were recorded with him not actually being present. The Mylean Dialogue is the best example. It is extremely long and detailed, with multiple statements and rebuttals. Also, Thucydides unbounded zeal for democracy, toward the end of the war, becomes unlimited contempt for it. He blames democracy, among other things, as being responsible for Athens's perilous condition (Waldron,83).

Many historians that will follow him will slant events to match their national agenda or pride. One such example is the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War in the States. This battle actually occurred on Breed's Hill, but Bunker had a much more romantic and dignified sound to it, so American History books, for decades, state (incorrectly) that this battle was fought on Bunker Hill. The same goes for Teddy Roosevelt, at the start of the 20th Century, who was supposed to have stormed San Juan Hill on horseback. It simply did not happen this way.

How many historians condemn their own nations or city-states in such a bold way? Thucydides is not afraid too tell you what he thinks, giving indication that history can not be reduced to a science. It must have orientation and influence from humans; otherwise we read only a dry, chronological list of events.

In conclusion, Thucydides brought the originality of the antithetical method. He importantly looks at human nature in writing his histories. He also points to motives behind occurrences, not simply the events themselves. Finally, he is honest enough to criticize (simply stating facts to him) Athens herself, even at the expense of critiquing his own nation. History is better for his deliberate and dedicated service.

Works Cited
Crawford, Michael and David Whitehead. Archaic and Classical Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Crawley, Richard., translator. The Complete Writings of Thucydides. New York: Random House, 1951.
Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History: Comprehensive Volume. 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Inc., 1998.
Norton, Beth A., ed. Guide to Historical Literature. Vol. I. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Rozwenc, Edwin C. The Causes of the American Civil War. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1966.
Sammons II, Loren J., Athenian Democracy and Imperialism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Selincourt, Aubrey de., translator. Herodotus. The Histories. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972.
Waldron, Arthur. Review of The Landmark Thucydides. A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. New Criterion Vol. 10, Issue 10, June 1997.
Warner, Rex., translator. History of the Peloponnesian War. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Great Britain: Penguin Books Ltd., 1956.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-10-04 13:49:55
Intereesting article. Some musings: undoubtedly both Herodotus and Thucydides were pioneer in the field of history and obviously both Greeks and Romans had a great history that needed to be duly chronicled and recorded. However, in the philosophy of Plato, the greatest of Greek philosophers, there is a definite prejudice against history holding that history is not the proper subject of science, that it represents a dimension of being in which the question of truth has neither purpose nor answer. As far as Plato is concerned tradition and the senses are sources of permanent deception and therefore truth cannot be found in them (see his “Georgias’). The Greek world could not, and in fact never produced any genuine philosophy of history. For the Greek philosophers the contingencies of historical events did not yield truth and could not therefore be the content of authentic philosophical reflection. Truth could only be derived from the calculability and rationality of nature. When Herodotus dares to philosophize on history he finds in it the law that human hubris brings down the punishment of the gods.

In other words, try as one may, one will not find in the Greek world an historical consciousness. They had a different paradigm of reality than we have. We need to wait for that for Augustine’s “City of God” and then for its true fruition for Vico’s “New Science” to arrive at the historical consciousness in the West. Vico anticipates by two centuries contemporary Man’s most profound discovery concerning himself; the fact that he has a history, because by creating history Man discovers and actualizes his own humanity. Which is to say, this history that Man makes freely expresses his freedom vis a vis events, nature and social life. Man is his history.

Max2007-10-04 18:07:46
I always wondered whether history was some kind of hysterical heist of yeast in formenting hystorectomic relays, only to be aborted when the next hydra's head of histronics emerged.

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-04 18:58:25
Hurrah for free speech, even in insane asylums!

Jack2007-10-04 21:26:16
Science can thank historians for recording incremental progressions thru human history, the sciences of earth, water and fire. New discoveries are more appreciated against the backdrop of the "before" [i.e. before, we had to do it this way]. This at least for posterity's sake. And time itself can be a prejudice against what happended before, producing an age-centric ego in our present day society vs. prior societies.

If societies utilize not their respective rear-view mirrors (objects are closer than they appear) a change in lanes could be catastrophic. Who changes lanes without at least checking the side rear-view mirrors? And strange as it sounds, looking behind you gives glimpse of what's ahead.

As for man being history, I like you wording Emanuel. In fact could we say that History is actually his-story?

It is hoped that Historians will strive for facts and not call it truth, for truth is highly subjective. Sadly though it seems impossible to make a complete seperation, since being human, there must be at least some pre-disposed personal philosophies. Then, history is no longer history, but has metamorphasized into and has become a philosphy.

Seth2007-10-06 05:19:00
Even families value the history of their own distant realatives at they tell us something about ourselves.

Mike2007-11-06 22:06:00
Good article helped w/ honors west civ project, TYSVM

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