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Thucydides

Thucydides Thucydides[1†]

Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BC) was an Athenian historian and general[1†][2†][3†][4†][5†]. His most notable work is the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” which recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC[1†][2†][4†][5†].

Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the gods[1†]. He also has been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcomes of relations between states as ultimately mediated by, and constructed upon, fear and self-interest[1†].

His text is still studied at universities and military colleges worldwide[1†]. The Melian dialogue is regarded as a seminal text of international relations theory, while his version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration is widely studied by political theorists, historians, and students of the classics[1†]. More generally, Thucydides developed an understanding of human nature to explain behavior in such crises as plagues, massacres, and wars[1†].

Early Years and Education

Thucydides was born around 460 BC in the Athenian suburb of Halimous[1†][6†]. His father, Olorus, was from the Athenian deme of Halimous[1†][6†]. The family had connections to Thrace in northeastern Greece[1†][2†][6†], and it is believed that Thucydides owned gold mines there, which likely financed his historical work[1†][2†].

While still a youth of 10–12 years, Thucydides and his father are said to have attended a lecture by the historian Herodotus in the agora of Athens[1†]. According to some accounts, the young Thucydides was so moved by the lecture that he wept with joy and decided that writing history would be his life’s calling[1†]. Herodotus himself is said to have noticed the young Thucydides’ thirst for knowledge[1†].

Thucydides’ education likely included some study with the sophists, who were gaining popularity in Athens during his youth[1†][7†]. These early experiences and influences played a significant role in shaping Thucydides as a historian, setting him on the path to becoming one of the greatest ancient historians[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

Thucydides was an Athenian general and a historian[8†][1†][4†]. His work, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC[8†][1†][4†]. He has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the gods[8†][1†].

Thucydides also has been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcomes of relations between states as ultimately mediated by, and constructed upon, fear and self-interest[8†][1†]. His text is still studied at universities and military colleges worldwide[8†][1†].

In 424 BC, Thucydides was elected one of the 10 stratēgoi of the year and, because of his connections, was given command of the fleet in the Thraceward region, based at Thasos[8†]. He failed to prevent the capture of the important city of Amphipolis by the Spartan general Brasidas, who launched a sudden attack in the middle of winter[8†][3†]. This failure led to his exile for 20 years[8†][3†].

During his exile, Thucydides spent his time writing the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” which became his most significant contribution to history[8†][1†][4†]. His work was the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation’s war policies[8†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Thucydides is most renowned for his work, the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” which details the events of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC[1†][8†]. This work is considered the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation’s war policies[1†][8†].

The “History of the Peloponnesian War” is divided into eight books:

  1. The first book presents the causes of the war, the differences between the Athenians and the Spartans, and the preparations for war.
  2. The second book covers the first years of the war up to the plague of Athens.
  3. The third book details the events of the next few years, including the revolt of Mytilene.
  4. The fourth book continues the narration of the war events.
  5. The fifth book includes the Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition.
  6. The sixth book is dedicated to the Sicilian Expedition.
  7. The seventh book continues the story of the Sicilian Expedition.
  8. The eighth and final book breaks off in the middle of the story, suggesting that Thucydides died before he could finish his work[1†].

Thucydides’ work is still studied worldwide at universities and military colleges[1†]. His version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration is widely studied by political theorists, historians, and students of the classics[1†]. His text is regarded as a seminal work of international relations theory[1†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Thucydides’ work, particularly his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” has been subject to extensive analysis and evaluation over the centuries[9†][3†][10†][11†]. His rigorous critical method and literary artistry combine to produce an intellectually penetrating and emotionally gripping account of the past[9†]. For Thucydides, the key to accuracy is his interpretation of the facts—the use of critical reasoning to assess the realities, especially about the causes of events[9†]. Furthermore, Thucydides wanted his readers to experience events as he perceived them and thereby also experience the validity of his interpretations of the past[9†].

Thucydides dedicates most of his work to assessing the strategic decisions made in fervid political debates, evidencing his perception of polity and politics as key elements that dynamically interact with structural conditions to effectuate strategic choice[9†][11†]. His work presents the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation’s war policies[9†][3†], treating the causes of the conflict, the characters of the two states, and the technical aspects of warfare in a carefully drawn, strictly chronological narrative of events[9†][3†].

While Thucydides has been hailed as the ancient forebear of the scientific approach to history, some scholars argue that this interpretation underemphasizes not only the role of Thucydides’ own judgments and interpretations but also ignores the importance of narrative artistry in his presentation of the facts[9†]. Despite potential biases, his work provides a believable case for understanding cause and effect relationships in the Peloponnesian War[9†][10†].

Personal Life

Despite his significant contributions to history, relatively little is known about Thucydides’s personal life[1†]. He was born in the Athenian suburb of Halimous[1†][6†], and his father, Olorus, was believed to be from the Athenian deme of Halimous[1†][6†]. His family hailed from Thrace in northeastern Greece[1†][6†].

Thucydides was present in Athens during the plague of c.430 BC[1†][2†], a year after the Peloponnesian War began[1†][2†]. In 424 BC, he was given command of a fleet but was exiled for failing to reach the city of Amphipolis in time to prevent its capture by the Spartans[1†][2†]. 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”[1†][2†].

During his 20 years of exile, he worked on his history—collecting information, writing, and revising[1†][2†]. His history makes no mention of events after 411 BC, suggesting that Thucydides likely died before Athens’ final surrender in 404 BC[1†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Thucydides’s work, the “History of the Peloponnesian War”, set a standard for scope, conciseness, and accuracy that makes it a defining text of the historical genre[2†]. His account emphasizes the absence of grand strategy in antiquity, above all the absence of the necessary institutional framework[2†][12†]. It also raises important questions about the feasibility of any grand strategy, especially within a democracy, given the unpredictability of events and the poor track record of humans in anticipating them[2†][12†].

Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the gods[2†][1†]. He also has been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcomes of relations between states as ultimately mediated by, and constructed upon, fear and self-interest[2†][1†].

His text is still studied at universities and military colleges worldwide[2†][1†]. The Melian dialogue is regarded as a seminal text of international relations theory, while his version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration is widely studied by political theorists, historians, and students of the classics[2†][1†]. More generally, Thucydides developed an understanding of human nature to explain behavior in such crises as plagues, massacres, and wars[2†][1†].

The Peloponnesian War Thucydides recounts culminated in Sparta’s surprisingly late victory over the Athenians and ended a power dynamic that had shaped the ancient Aegean world for decades[2†][13†]. Everything changed in its aftermath[2†][13†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Thucydides [website] - link
  2. History - Thucydides - Biography, Peloponnesian War & Funeral Oration [website] - link
  3. Britannica - Thucydides summary [website] - link
  4. Great Thinkers - Biography of Thucydides [website] - link
  5. World History - Thucydides [website] - link
  6. The Famous People - Thucydides Biography [website] - link
  7. Cambridge University Press - Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists - Chapter: Thucydides [website] - link
  8. Britannica - Thucydides: Greek historian [website] - link
  9. Oxford Academic - The Oxford Handbook of Thucydides - Thucydides’ Historical Method [website] - link
  10. Air University Press - Thucydides: The Reinvention of History [website] - link
  11. Oxford Academic - The Chinese Journal of International Politics - Unravelling the Thucydides’ Trap: Inadvertent Escalation or War of Choice? [website] - link
  12. Oxford Academic - The Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy - Thucydides’ Legacy in Grand Strategy [website] - link
  13. The Conversation - Guide to the classics: Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War [website] - link
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