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by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

Items to note: *Pericles, *Archidamus, [FN 1] the plague, *Cleon, *Mytilene, *Corcyra (Kerkyra), *Pylos, *Brasidas, *Nicias, *Alcibiades, *Melos, *Sicilian Expedition, *The Four Hundred (oligarchic coup in 411), *Lysander, *Aegospotami, *The Thirty

General Introduction

Thucydides, son of Olorus, [FN 2] was born c. 460-455 B.C. and was most likely a relative of Cimon. His family was wealthy and influential, owning a series of mines in Thrace; as a result, Thucydides was placed in charge of the Athenian fleet in the northern Aegean in the mid-420s, where, in 424, he failed to come to the aid of Amphipolis in time to defend it from the attack of *Brasidas (The World of Athens, H.I. 43). This led to his being exiled from Athens. He spent the next 20 years abroad, returning to Athens only after the conclusion of the war in 404. He is presumed to have died within four or five years of his return, before completing his history of the war (it breaks off in the winter of 411). Despite his conservative connections, Thucydides was an ardent supporter of Pericles. He was no friend of the radical democracy, however, which had exiled him (probably unjustly) and which he viewed as irresponsible, shortsighted, selfish, and fickle. (In this, Thucydides agrees with many authors of the period, particularly Aristophanes and Plato.) A good example of his attitude can be seen in his account of the revolt of *Mytilene (upon which the account at The World of Athens, H.I. 38 is based): the Athenian mob, no doubt led by the demagogue *Cleon (whom Thucydides thoroughly despises), [FN 3] at first votes to kill all of the adult male population and to sell the women and children into slavery; it is only a day later, at the prompting of more responsible leaders, that the Athenians are led to change their mind and exact a more reasonable punishment, despite Cleon's opposition.

Like Euripides, Thucydides is a product of the age of the sophists; where Euripides' sophistic leanings tend to place him directly at odds with Sophocles, Thucydides' approach to history is antithetical to that of Herodotus. In large part, however, the difference can be attributed to differences in the two authors' subject matter and the tempers of their times. Like a Homeric bard, Herodotus celebrates a glorious victory of the relatively distant past. The Greek triumph over Xerxes' forces provided ample room for comforting reflections on the superiority of the Greeks to the "barbarians," the glory of free men fighting for their gods and homeland against the mongrel hordes of the east. It also seemed to provide striking evidence of the truth of Solon's view of divine justice: here was koros-hybris-atê at work before our very eyes. What is more, the entire event was far enough in the past to be safely idealized. The case with Thucydides is very different: he is dealing with a contemporary war, not one fought two or three generations earlier, and it is a civil war fought between the Greeks themselves, not on idealistic grounds but as part of what Thucydides regards as a bald struggle for power. Moreover it is a very dirty war, as the episodes of *Corcyra and *Melos (below) demonstrate. To a great degree, then, Thucydides' subject differs from that of Herodotus as the Viet Nam War differs from World War II in the popular imagination of today's North Americans. The curious thing is the way in which the Peloponnesian War seemed to confirm so many of the sophists' teachings: it was a war in which self-interest and sheer power dominated, in which human society and humans as individuals were revealed as operating according to base physis and in which concerns for justice, fairness, religion, honor — all the baggage of nomos — were cast off, with no sign of retribution from any divine force.

Read the excerpts from Thucydides' history cited below. Consider ways in which his work reflects the new interests and outlook of the Greek Enlightenment, and contrast what we saw in Herodotus.


Thucydides and the medical writers

In his discussion of the plague Thucydides reveals an awareness of the methodology of contemporary medical writers. He is careful to record in detail the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the plague, the various symptoms, and the course of the disease. His purpose, he tells us (2.48), is to ensure that future generations will be able to recognize the disease if it should break out again and will know what to expect. This concern informs Thucydides' approach to history as a whole. In many ways it would be just to say that Thucydides' approach to history is "diagnostic." Herodotus sees the past as providing useful instances of divine justice in operation: as Solon and Aeschylus indicate, the justice of Zeus is obscure before it strikes, but plain to see after the fact; like the tragedians, Herodotus contemplates the event in retrospect, helping us to see the god's hand at work in the often apparently random minutiae of actual experience. Thucydides is quite different: he looks, not to the past, but to the future. He founds his approach on the belief that physis is fixed and unchanging. Individuals and entire cultures may appear to be distinct, but their differences are merely a matter of nomos, a sheer veneer of conventional behaviors and convictions that fall away in times of stress. Study the physis of the human animal and you will be able to predict its behavior — individually and collectively— in the future. This is what Thucydides tells us in his introduction (1.22) when he states that his work is intended to be "a possession forever," of use to anyone "who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things. [FN 4] (In the same passage Thucydides implies his contempt for those authors who employ "myth-like elements" to compose "a contest piece for present hearing" — i.e. to win immediate applause with a contemporary audience. Whom might Thucydides have in mind here?) This explains Thucydides' interest in what we would call mass psychology, most notable in his account of the plague and in his reflections on the civil war at Corcyra. Thucydides is very interested in the way humans behave in time of stress, in the way their veneer of civilization [nomos] drops away, revealing their essential physis. (In this regard he shows an affinity to Euripides: compare Euripides' study of Phaedra's plight and his reflections on the powerful psychological forces that drive Phaedra to violate society's sanctions against incest.) Re-read the accounts of the plague and of the civil war at Corcyra and consider what they tell us about Thucydides' view of civilized society.

We have seen that the author of "On the Sacred Disease" (Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus) has no patience for supernatural explanations or cures. The same holds true for Thucydides' account. Herodotus takes history and gives it the grandeur and the moral significance of myth; true to his sophistic tendencies, Thucydides does the opposite. Notice, e.g., the attitude toward the distant past displayed in his introduction: how does Thucydides view the Trojan War or the age of Minos? (Again, compare Euripides, who was often criticized for taking the grand heroes of myth and dealing with them as if they were contemporary people off the street.) One of the most remarkable "myth-like elements" in Herodotus is his use of oracles and the constant sense that events are subject to an inscrutable but ever present divine will: examine Thucydides' treatment of oracles in his account of the plague. [FN 5] Instead of Herodotus' or Sophocles' inscrutable hand of god, in Thucydides we find the amoral, impersonal world of the Presocratics and the sophists, where the only powers to be reckoned with are physis and brute force. Re-read the Melian dialogue and consider how it reflects Thucydides' view of the world.

Finally, consider the types of evidence Thucydides employs and the use he makes of this evidence. Here again we can see the secular, "scientific" approach of the medical writers and other proponents of the Greek Enlightenment in operation. Note, e.g., Thucydides' use of Homer in his introduction (e.g., the philological argument that Homer lacks a general term for the "Greeks" as a whole) or the archeological remains cited in 1.8. Like the Presocratics, Thucydides resolutely refuses to accept anything on faith but instead shifts through the evidence with a critical eye and with the conviction that the past is to be explained in human, down-to-earth terms rather than in accordance with traditional mythology and religion.


Select Passages From Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War


Here Thucydides introduces his subject, explains its importance, and discusses his methods as a historian. He begins by explaining how it is that he can claim that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest ever fought in Greek history. This provides him with the occasion to sketch all of Greek history, from the age of Minos through to the Persian Wars and the rising tensions between Athens and Sparta that followed. At 1.20 he turns to the difficulty of writing a reliable history and discusses his own methods. He then discusses the causes of the war (1.23), making a firm distinction between the immediate causes — those voiced at the time by the parties concerned — and what he regards as the ultimate and more telling cause, Sparta's fear of Athens' growing power.

Pericles' Funeral Speech: Book 2.34-46

This is one of the most famous passages in all of Greek literature. Ostensibly the speech that Pericles delivered over the war dead in the winter of 431/30, it represents Thucydides' evaluation of the age of Pericles. It presents an inspiring picture of an open, harmonious, democratic society where the individual human spirit is allowed to flourish, and where culture and discipline enjoy a natural symbiosis. The idealistic portrait of democracy in action stands in sharp contrast to the picture presented by Aristophanes, Plato, and other conservatives, including Thucydides' own account of post-Periclean Athenian politics. Throughout the speech the closed, harshly militaristic society of Sparta is used as a foil to highlight the Athenian accomplishment. [The World of Athens, pp. 56-61 offers a useful translation.]

The Plague

Thucydides' account of the plague that broke out in Athens in 430/29. The fact that this passage immediately follows Pericles' funeral speech, with its idealistic picture of Athenian society, is often taken as ironic. Before reading this passage, re-read Herodotus 1.19-22 (Alyattes' illness).

The Melian Dialogue

Thucydides' account of the Athenian attack on the island of *Melos. Compare the fragment by the sophist Antiphon translated in the Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus.

Civil War in Corcyra: Book 3.82-83 (Porter)

Thucydides has just described a violent civil war on the island of *Corcyra fought in the year 427 between two opposite political factions, one favoring an extreme form of democracy and supported by the Athenians, the other advocating a more conservative, oligarchic form of government and supported by Sparta. Having set out in gory detail the various atrocities that occurred, Thucydides proceeds to speak in more general terms of the significance of this revolt and the demoralizing effects of war on politics and public mores in general. For Thucydides the events of Corcyra are an indication of what was to occur throughout the Greek world in the latter years of the war.


[FN 1] The Peloponnesian War is divided into different phases. The first phase, from its beginning in 431 to the Peace of Nicias in 421, is often referred to as the Archidamean War. (Notice how the titles we use for these wars reflect the Athenian perspective.) [Return to text]

[FN 2] Do not confuse this Thucydides with Thucydides, son of Melesias, a prominent conservative politician and opponent of Pericles whose career comes to an end with his ostracism in c. 433. [Return to text]

[FN 3] The picture of Cleon that you find throughout The World of Athens and in most modern histories is essentially that of Thucydides. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Thucydides does not use the term physis here, but an equivalent expression. [Return to text]

[FN 5] Consider as well the use of dreams in each author. As Garbara Goward indicates (Telling Tragedy [London, 1999] 169 n. 3), "Herodotus lists 33 dreams and makes great play with the inevitability of their outcome .... Thucydides has none." [Return to text]

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