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Thucydides (2,974 words)

[2] T. of Athens Greek historian, 2nd half of 5th cent. BC
Important Greek historian, author of a history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) in 8 books.
[German version]
I. Origins and life
Son of Olorus, of the Athenian Halimus deme, born in c. 460 BC, died at an unknown date. T.
certainly experienced the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 (Thuc. 2,65,12; 5,26,1), and
some passages of his work allow the inference that he knew events from the early 4th cent.
For instance, the assessment of the Macedonian king Archelaus [1] (died in 399) sounds like
an obituary (2,100); a speech of the Syracusan Athenagoras (6,36-40) may reflect experiences
with Dionysius [1] I, who had admittedly founded his military monarchy as early as 406, but was
only able to establish himself after a number of years. Everything considered, T. may still have
been writing in 397, if the Lichas referred to as still living on an inscription from Thasos (CRAI
1983, 376-403) is identifiable with the one whose death T. (8,84,5) reports.
The name of his father, Olorus, indicates Thracian - and royal - descent (Hdt. 6,39). Although
foreign names more often entered the Athenian repertoire through diplomatic or amicable
contacts than through blood relationship, there is much to suggest that he had close
connections with Thrace (Thraci): T. certainly had inherited mining concessions and political
influence there (4,105), his observations on the wildness of Thrace (7,29,3), its economy (2,97)
and mythology (2,39) have a ring of expert knowledge, and his deployment as one of the
two 'strategoi in Thrace' in 424 (4,104,4) is probably no coincidence, but the result of specialist
experience in the sphere of the northern Aegean, of which the Athenians availed themselves on
this occasion.
Nothing certain is known of T.' life up to 431, when he started writing his history of the war as
it began (1,1). Like other young Athenians of good family, he will have visited the games at
Olympia, Delphi and elsewhere in the 440s and 430s, and in the course of this will probably also
have metPindarus [2], whose homeland of Boeotia was controlled by Athens from 457-446. T.
fell ill with plague in 430, but survived. Although his perceptive, seemingly medically competent
description of the disease (2,48-53), whose impact on morality and religion he recounts, is
less technical in its medical vocabulary than the Hippocratic treatises, it surpasses the medical
writings in terms of close inspection: T. recognizes the phenomena of infectious transmission
and of immunity acquired through the disease (cf. Epidemic diseases). Although medical
metaphors are widespread in early Greek poetry (e.g. in Pindar), it may be assumed that T. was
more specialized in his familiarity with medicine when he draws an analogy of a medical maxim
as a piece of advice from Nicias [1] to the prytanis, namely that as 'physicians' to a city badly
advised they should "do (...) as much good as they can, or in any case no harm that they can
avoid" (6,14).
T. probably served as a strategos in the mid-420s, and is known to have been active in the
northern Aegean in 424 (4,104,4). There, in the winter of 424/3, he failed to forestall a surprise
attack by the Spartan general Brasidas on Amphipolis. The loss of the city, partly settled by
Athenians and important for its shipbuilding timber, led to T.' banishment (or flight to forestall
conviction; phyge ). His report of events betrays no trace of an attempt to exonerate himself
or to shift blame to his co-strategos Eucles. Nor is his exaltation of Brasidas as a kind of
second Achilles, whose aura and charisma obviously had their effect on T., attributable to
the petty motive of excusing his own failure: Brasidas is in no way idealized. T. coolly reports
his "seductive untruths" (4,108,5; cf. 4,85,7), to which cities like Scione enthusiastically
succumbed (5,32,1) before suffering a cruel fate at the hands of the Athenians when Sparta
soon relinquished them again (4,121,1).
Banishment allowed T., who was still wealthy thanks to his Thracian possessions, the leisure
to travel and gain information at first hand. The break in his biography thus approximates to
the recognizable break before the second half of his book (5,25-8,109) and the change in its
subject. Where prior to the truce of 423, T. had been an active member of the Athenian political
and military elite, his access to official information from Athens now dwindled while his scope for
unhurriedly collecting evidence from outside Athens increased. Other than this, T.' life over the
next decades is a matter for speculation. Ancient biographers assumed that he lived in Thrace.
Some modern scholars attempt to place him at Corinth, citing his detailed knowledge of the
city. He may equally have spent time on Sicily, researching the locations of the battles whose
catastrophic course he exhaustively recounts in a convincing blend of rhetoric and factual report
(7,43-4; 70-87). The wealth of detail sometimes seems to betray T. the eye-witness, as in the
account of the games at Olympia in 420 (cf. 5,49-50), but the departure of the Athenian fleet for
Sicily is just as vividly described (6,30-32), and that he cannot have seen.
II. Works
[German version]
A. Content Significant contribution to Greek History, 2nd half of the 5th cent. BC
T.' masterpiece, his description of the war between Athens and Sparta and their respective
allies, covers the 'Ten Years' War' (dekts plemos: 5,25,1) or Archidamian War (Archidamus
[1]) from 431 to the truce of 423 and the Peace of Nicias [1] of 421 (1,1-5,24), the six-year
phase of uneasy (hpoptos: 5,26,3) peace following 421 (5,25-116), Athens' Sicilian Expedition
of 415-413 (books 6 and 7) and, in the eighth book, the war in Attica and the eastern Aegean
(Decelean War and Ionian War) and the oligarchic coup ( oligarcha ) of 411 at Athens
(Peloponnesian War D. and E.).
T.' account ends abruptly in the summer of 411. This has led scholars to speculate on the
possible construction of the unwritten ninth and tenth books and even to speculations that the
entire work may have been structured in two pentads (of 5 books each). As in a diptych, there
would be comparable features of the one pentad reflected in the other. There are indeed striking
correspondences, e.g. in the introductory passages to Books 1 and 6 with the reports of the
beginnings of the Archidamian War and the Sicilian Expedition. But firstly, the order of books
as it is today need not be as it was intended by T., although the length of an ancient papyrus
scroll is approximately the same as that of a book of T. (Scroll). Secondly, there are also striking
correspondences which do not fit into the pentad scheme, e.g. between the first third of the
fourth book (Spartan rout at Pylos in 424) and Books 6 and 7 (especially 7,71,7; Athenian defeat
in Sicily).
The only other work ascribed to T. in Antiquity was an epigram on the tragedian Euripides [1].
This attribution is usually doubted, but the quality of the poem is high and it does betray echoes
of 'T.'; moreover, T. was interested in epigrams as an art form, and often quoted them.
[German version]
B. Method
Like Herodotus [1] before him and like the poets Homerus [1], Pindarus [2] and Bacchylides, T.
included carefully prepared speeches in his work (approximately a quarter of its total length).
The high level of abstraction gave problems even to erudite ancient readers with expertise
in Greek (cf. Cic. Orat. 9,30), although the speeches may have entirely reflected the tastes
of the time. However, unlike his predecessors, T. perceived authenticity as a problem, and
in his unique chapter on methodology (1,22) claimed to have furnished his speakers with the
rhetoric suitable (ta deonta) for the particular situation and to have reconciled this with the
essence of what was really said at the time. This methodological self-awareness gives his work
the particular tint which has led to T.' being called the 'historian's historian'. This, however,
underplays his consistent appeal to scholars outside the historiographical discipline, whose
interest lies in issues of politics and human nature.
[German version]
C. Research problems
As well as biographical investigations of individual phases of T.' life, research work seeking
to isolate particular layers of T.' text deserves attention. This work is also biographical to the
extent that it is assumed that T. further developed the plan for his work as he grew older (and
matured). If we observe the internal evidence for the time of composition ('early' and 'late'
passages) and indications of a certain unfinished quality (excepting the abrupt end), there
is a kind of stratigraphy of his work available for discovery. A 'unitary' approach opposes
this 'analytical' one: the former sees in T.' work - in spite of its rough corners and edges -
an artistically-conceived, undivided whole, composed only after the Peloponnesian War.
This dispute on the work's composition constituted for many decades and long into the 19th
cent. the 'Thucydidean Question' par excellence. But while the analytical approach has fallen
completely out of fashion, a tendency is perceptible over the past 20 years for the unitary
concept of the artistic wholeness of the eight books to be carried to extremes.
Supporting the analytical direction, it can be said that certain passages clearly anticipate
subsequent events, most obviously the allusions to the fall of Athens (e.g. 2,65,12). But these
may equally be later insertions, in no way proving that the material and speeches surrounding
them were written later. Other passages seem early because they in fact demonstrate no
knowledge of developments which T. later placed in the foreground. The role of the Persians
and the use of their money in the war is one example. In the sketch of the war up to 404
BC (2,65,10-12), i.e. in spite of its location in the second book clearly a late passage, the
subsequent Persian subsidies to Sparta are crucial factors explaining the progress of the war,
while in the eighth book the Great King and his satraps play a major role in diplomatic efforts.
The likewise important financial relations of Athens with the Persians after 412, conversely, are
only explained inadequately, indeed scarcely mentioned (cf. 5,26). It seems, therefore, that no
parenthesis was made here.
It has been seen as a sign of incompleteness that large sections of the work (e.g. the last
book and much of the fifth book from 5,25) lack otherwise common characteristics, especially
direct speech. Moreover, those sections also have peculiarities such as unprocessed treaty
documents (two in dialect) which are not found elsewhere (except in the documents of the truce
of 423 in 4,118). For the years after 421, this kind of unfinished impression is augmented by the
sense that T. only had an incomplete knowledge of the details of the Peace of Nicias. He may
have had to wait for the end of the war to insert the treaties.
For the advocates of the unitary view, however, these supposed weaknesses are in fact a
sign of innovation and ingenuity: the treaty documents supposedly show in an ironic way the
gulf between the intentions of diplomacy and the realities of politics. Apparent changes of
opinion, e.g. on the Sicilian Expedition's chances of success (optimistic in principle in 2,65,11;
essentially pessimistic in books 6 and 7), are, they argue, not contradictory, but indicate shifts
of emphasis and perspective. With such resourcefulness almost any trait can be explained, but
presumably not the repetition of two identical lists of people, of 17 names apiece, at a short
interval (5,19 and 5,24). The conclusion remains that contra the unitary view, the text as we
have it was not thoroughly revised, and that T. meant to work further on it.
However, the unitary approach does offer the advantage that it promotes interest in the
fundamental structure of the work and thus in its 'Homeric' technique of drawing comparisons
across wide expanses of text by using similar phrasing, as e.g. in the words "That close had
(...) come to danger" which T. uses of Mytilene in book 3 and of Syracuse in book 7 (3,49,4
/ 7,2,4). Ignoring 'analytical' questions of composition also frees the mind to perceive the
genuinely literary character of T.' work, i.e. its poetic parallels, perhaps even borrowings. These
are especially clear in the dramatic 'Sicilian Books' (books 6 and 7): the euphoric start of the
Athenian fleet has something in common with Pindar's departure of the Argonauts (Pyth. 4),
and the last chapter of book 7 contains a plethora of metrical phrases and words from the
vocabulary of Sophoclean tragedy. Homer is the common source for the tragedy and for T.
[German version]
III. Appraisal
The work of T. is neither a ponderous chronicle of war nor a platitudinous political pamphlet, but
a supple and complex work of art, whose intended impact, if it had one at all, is extraordinarily
difficult to guess. It is difficult to check the historical correctness of its account, because T.
seldom cites variant views of events from other authors, and because other literature which
might be able to amplify or correct his statements and dates (e.g. Antiochus [19] of Syracuse
and Philistus for the Sicilian history) survives only in fragments. The epigraphical record offers
a corrective. It shows much greater Athenian interest in the Italian and Sicilian spheres even
before the war than are recognizable in T.' account. Inscriptions may also put the image of the
Athenians at the annihilation of the Melians (5,84- 116; Melos [1]) into perspective, or even hint
at positive traits in the hated Athenian demagogues (cf. 2,10 f.; 4,27,5-28,5). A little-considered
opportunity for corroboration intimately connected with inscriptions is personal names. Their
study in general or by region supports T.' claim to precision in detail.
T. takes much for granted with his readers. Subjects such as women, cults or contests,
highlighted by Herodotus and Pindar, are far less prominent in T. His selection criteria cannot
easily be reduced to a common denominator, e.g. a reaction to Herodotus (though much
suggests it). However, he occasionally affords his readers a fleeting glimpse of the world to
which he usually pays no attention. His report of the Olympic Games of 420 BC (5,49 f.) and his
digression on the end of the Athenian tyrannis (6,54-59) read almost like attempts to measure
himself against Pindar and Herodotus or even to outdo them.
The reception of T.' work was not as broad in ancient times as that of the everywhere ever-
popular Herodotus. But T. never faded from sight, neither in the 4th cent. BC (Philistus) nor
in the Hellenistic period (Polybius [2]; Poseidonius [3]), and he enjoyed a certain popularity
in the Roman Imperial period among historians who were also interested in politics, e.g.
Tacitus;Sallustius [II 3] also occupied himself with T., while Dionysius [18] of Halicarnassus
engaged with him especially on a level of literary and stylistic criticism. T. was known
only in indirect transmission to mediaeval western Europe, while his work was not without
significance to the Byzantine historiographic tradition. On reception from the Renaissance, cf.
Historiographical models, Historiography and Thucydidism.
Athens [1] III.; Historiography II.; Peloponnesian War; Sparta I.
h. s. jones, 2 vols., 1900/01, amplified and reviewed by j. e. powell, 1942
c. hude, 1913-1925 (ed. maior), 1920-28 (ed. minor), new ed. by o. luschnat (books 1-2), 1954
g. b. alberti, 2 vols. (books 1-5), 1972-1992.
j. classen, j. steup, T. erklrt, 8 vols., 1920-1922
a. w. gomme, k. j. dover, a. andrewes, A Historical Commentary on T., 5 vols., 1945-1981
s. hornblower, A Commentary on T., 2 vols., 1991-1996
p. j. rhodes, T. (book 2), 1988
Id., T. (books 4,1-5,24), 1998.
h. weinstock, 1938 (German)
a. horneffer, g. strasburger, 1984 (German)
p. landmann, 19762 (German)
ch. forster smith, T., 4 vols. 1969-1976 (reprint; English)
j. de romilly, T., 8 vols., 31964-1972 (French).
l. canfora, Tucidide, 1988
w. r. connor, T., 1984
j. h. finley, Three Essays on T., 1967
k. von fritz, Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung, 2 vols., 1967, 523-823
s. hornbower, T., 1987
v. hunter, The Composition of T.' History, in: Historia 26, 1977, 269-294
h. leppin, T. und die Verfassung der Polis, 1999
k. meister, Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung, 1990, 45-62
h. patzer, Das Problem der Geschichtsschreibung des T. und die thukydideische Frage, 1937
h. r. rawlings III, The Structure of T.' History, 1981
g. rechenauer, T. und die hippokratische Medizin, 1991
t. rood, T., Narrative and Explanation, 1998
c. schneider, Information und Absicht bei T., 1974
e. schwarz, Das Geschichtswerk des T., 21929
h.-p. stahl, T., 1966.
Cite this page
"Thucydides." Brills New Pauly. Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth
Schneider. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Francisco Corts Gabaudan. 15 December 2013