The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. Thucydides - History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I
There is a famous statement by Thucydides that before his time nothing of importance (oυ µεγαλα γεvεσθαι) had happened in history: For although it was impossible, due to the great amount of elapsed time, to find out clearly about events before these and especially about events even longer ago, nevertheless from the indications which it occurred to me to trust when looking back over as long a time as possible, I think that previous times were not great ones, neither with respect to their wars nor as regards anything else. .... Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Thucydides (c. 460/455 BC near Athens - 400/399 BC) was a historian, a wealthy Athenian noble the son of Olorus the King of Thrace (there was another Thucydides, the son of Melesias, an opponent of Pericles). His wealth came from his family's goldmines at Scapte Hyle on the Thracian coast. Thucydides was connected through family to Miltiades and Cimon, leaders of the old aristocracy supplanted by the Radical Democrats. Thucydides lived between his two homes, one in Athens and one in Thrace. His family connections brought him in to contact with the very men who were shaping the history he wrote about.
Timeline of his life
Before 431 he took no prominent part in Athenian politics.
He was in his twenties when the Peloponnesian War occurred, and was in active service at the time.
In 427 he caught the plague and recovered.
In 424 (his mid thirties) he was appointed strategos (general), commander of 7 ships.
He failed to save Amphipolis from Brasidas during the War in 424 (see Battle of Amphipolis). He was exiled for seven years.
From 423 to 404 he lived in Thrace. During this time he travelled the Peloponnese, using his status as an exile from Athens to assimilate in to the Peloponnesian allies. He may have travelled to Sicily for the Sicilian Expedition, as there are excellent examples of local knowledge. During this period of time he conducted important research.
He returned to Athens in 404, but was only there for a short time before he returned to Thrace to work on his book. His book contains the description of the war up until the year 411.
The sudden end of his work suggests that he may have died a sudden death, and there is strong evidence to suggest he did not live longer than 399.
His remains were returned to Athens and were laid in Cimon's family vault.
Who was Thucydides?
His character was said to be dry, humourless and pessimistic. Thucydides admired Pericles and approved of his power over the people, though he detested the more pandering demagogues who followed him. Thucydides did not approve of the radical democracy Pericles ushered in, but thought that it was ok when in the hands of a good leader.
Thucydides would have been schooled by Sophists. They were the teachers in Athens but today would be considered more like Philosophers and Astronomers Thucydides would have been taught by them not to accept things at face value, to question things. They would have taught Thucydides the mechanics of his writing, and they endowed him with his skills to assess the truth.
Thucydides is generally regarded as one of the first true historians, along with Herodotus (who wrote "The Histories" about a generation prior). However, Thucydides, unlike Herodotus (who is often called "the father of history"), did not include references to myths and the gods in his writing. He vigorously consulted written documents and interviewed participants in the events that he records.
Even for someone disputing his status as the first historian, no-one would deny his status as the first and last historian of naked real-politic. Actors on the world stage who had read his work would all have been put on notice that someone would be scrutinizing their actions with a reporters dispassion, rather than the mythmakers and poets compassion and thus consciously or unconsciously participating in the writing of it. His Melian dialogue is a lesson to both reporters and to those who believe ones leaders are always acting with perfect integrity on the world stage.
The Peloponnesian War
Thucydides does not take the time to discuss the arts, literature or society in which the book is set and in which Thucydides himself grew up. Thucydides was writing about a event and not a period and as such took to lengths to discuss anything which he considered unrelated. Thucydides goes to great pains to make each event as graphic as the one which preceded it.
The Peloponnesian War was under major revision by Thucydides at the moment of his death, following a renewed realization on his part of the significance of the Persian influence to the events of the war.
Writings by Thucydides
Three major periods described:
The conflict between Athens and Sparta 431 421 BC
The Sicilian expedition of the Athenians 415 411 BC
The renewed war between Athens and Sparta 413 404 BC
Robert B. Strassler ed., The Landmark Thucydides: a Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (The Free Press, 1996) ISBN 0-684-82815-4