Reflections on Thucydides

Reading Thucydides is familiar to modern audiences. His succinct style of political and military history is perhaps the most commonly mirrored practice for writing contemporary history. However, his project is still somewhat elusive. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not explicitly call his work a “history” (historia), and he calls his book a work for all time, a claim that modern historians cannot make because their many varying histories do not claim to be definitive. Additionally, he claims the focus of his work is of the “greatest” motion of the city, thus undermining the authority of all earlier texts on war, including Herodotus and Homer.

Unlike the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the objective of Thucydides is not to discover the best possible regime, or a “city in speech.” Instead, he stands among the clamor of the crowd as we experience the chaos of battle between two cities engaged in bloody struggle for dominance. Thucydides presents us with the speeches of great men, and unlike Plato, he sympathizes with leaders who look to expand the Athenian empire, like Pericles, though he notes the blame for the war lies primarily with Athens and its character. In another similarity to Plato, Thucydides presents a particular skepticism toward the poets with his opening lines praising the greatness of the Peloponnesian War over all previous wars, thus drawing swords with, and questioning the authority of, Homer.

Although, Thucydides and Plato may have differences, we can find common ground in Plato’s Timaeus, the sequel to the Republic, in which Socrates longs to see his mere “city in speech” put into “motion,” which implies a city at war. In this way, Thucydides provides what the Timaeus dialogue was unable to deliver: a real city in “motion.” The recollection of Critias in the Timaeus is dependent on a distant rumor, though the story, including Atlantis, mirrors the failed Sicilian Expedition in the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides makes several explicit judgments: first, that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest war, thus diminishing the splendor of the ancients. He devotes considerable time to this judgment in Book I. Because of the poverty of their soil, Athens was able to grow in relative peace much earlier than Sparta. Does Thucydides believe the power and success of a city comes from peace or from war? His statements about the growth of Athens would seem to indicate the former. Athens was the first city to relax ancient barbaric practices and engage in luxury -the seeds of empire. Meanwhile Sparta enjoyed an ordered life of republican simplicity, and consequently their regime remained the same for roughly 400 years. Here, Thucydides agrees with Plato in his praise of moderation.

The question of moderation forces us to ask: what did Thucydides think of moderation? He reveals to us his tastes when describing the general depravity that overcame the Greek world during the war: abandonment of custom, praise of recklessness, decay in speech and respect for law. Peace is preferable to war. War is a teacher; a teacher of violence. War is an intermediate stage between peace and civil war. Depravation destroys moderation in situations of war.

Pericles, and his popular funerary speech, is the example of Pericles being the superior leader of Athens, guiding the city safely peace and in war. His speech is fundamentally a praise of the Athenian way -a praise of daring and hope, as opposed to the caution and fear of the Spartans. The fact that Athens under Pericles became the most powerful does not mean Athens became the “best”. Thucydides is concerned primarily with cities and their character. The great men in each are subordinate to the cities and their laws, which are ultimately subordinate to divine laws.

Thucydides’s work points to the universals from the particulars. He shines a light on the character of the city at war. It is not merely a polemic, in favor of Athens or Sparta, but rather it is a book which brings to light the nature of political things.

As with many ancient writers, we know very little about the life of Thucydides other than what he subtly reveals to us in his sole surviving work.

Thucydides notes that he was an Athenian, old enough at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War to understand its significance and document its unfolding. He was elected by Athens to be a strategos, or a military leader. He was likely a generation younger than his predecessor-historian, Herodotus.

Thucydides was related in some way to Miltiades, the great Athenian general of the Persian Wars. His father was Olorus, a Thracian. As a result, Thucydides was a businessman of influence in Thrace, including the ownership of mining rights on the islands of Thasos. He lived in Athens during the plague of 430-429BC, as he notes in the text, and he even caught the disease himself. He later commanded an Athenian fleet in Thrace, where he was called upon by Athens to defend the city of Amphipolis, but he arrived too late and the city fell to Sparta. Thucydides was recalled to be tried and exiled. His exile to foreign lands allowed him to focus on his text, and gain exposure to the Spartan perspective on the war.

He lived through the war, but some have suggested he met a violent demise because his notable text abruptly ends before the end of the war. He was later celebrated by the Athenians, as a monument and Athenian tomb to Thucydides were still seen in Athens in the 2nd century AD.

Three other writers picked up on Thucydides’s history where his text ends: Crattipus, a younger contemporary; Xenophon, the noted writer who lived a generation after Thucydides; and Theopompus, a late 4th century BC Greek writer.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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