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Thucydides: Introduction

Today I leave behind my study of Greek tragedy and begin the second true history work of my Great Books project. Thucydides was a younger contemporary and sometime protégé of Herodotus. His book takes up roughly where Herodotus’ history leaves off, in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. His main focus is the Peloponnesian War, a long and bloody conflict which drew in the entire Greek world and ended the Golden Age of classical Greek Civilization.

Thucydides actually lived through the Peloponnesian War. As a young man in Athens he realized that the war was coming and, inspired by Herodotus and others, began gathering information for an eventual history. He served as a military officer in the early years of the war, eventually attaining the rank of strategos (general), but was cashiered and exiled when he failed to reach the important colony of Amphipolis in time to prevent its surrender. He spent most of the rest of his life observing the war from his country estate in Thrace. He finished the History shortly before his death in 395.

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Thucydides was a more rigorous scholar than Herodotus, and was much more careful about comparing multiple accounts and evaluating the credibility of his sources. He had the advantage over Herodotus of being able to gather information in real time and communicate with people involved while their memories were still fresh. He also seems to have had a more analytical mind, unlike Herodotus who couldn’t resist writing down a good story even if it seemed a bit too fantastic to be true. His career as an officer also gave him a much better grasp of tactics and strategy than Herodotus.

A good example of this is shown in the first chapter of the history, in which he gives an overview of former wars. He makes a very cogent argument that the reason it took Agamemnon ten years to capture Troy was that his supply lines were non-existent. Therefore, after winning the initial beachhead, the Greeks had to detach large portions of their force to forage and even farm, so they never had enough men actually on the spot at Troy to make up for the defensive advantage the Trojans enjoyed because of their fortifications.

At times he is almost prescient in his conclusions. For instance, while trying to estimate the forces that Mycenaean Greece could have mustered for the Trojan war, he points out that the size of the ancient cities cannot be estimated purely on the basis of their surviving ruins,

Now Mycenae may have been a small place, and many of the towns of that age may appear comparatively insignificant, but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition of the magnitude of the armament. For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is.

Though history, the Agora of Athens has contained some of the most impressive ruins in the world, while Sparta has been hardly worth the stop for most tourists. J.A. McClymont, writing a travel narrative of Greece in 1906, says of Sparta,

The site of the ancient city is for the most part covered over with olive-groves and corn-fields and other vegetation. Traces of a large theater have been found, and there is a massive stone structure which goes by the name of Leonidas’ tomb. There are a few other remains, but none of any great interest.

Sparta, of course, defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and ruled the entirety of Greece up to the time of the Macedonian conquest.

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Perhaps the most quoted line from Thucydides occurs in Book 1,

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.

He was right about this, as well. One of our criteria for a Great Book is that it is timeless and speaks to people of many different periods. It is interesting that so many histories are found on most great Books lists. After all, as skilled a writer as Thucydides was, do we really care about a blow-by-blow account of a war that happened in Greece two and a half millennia ago? We study history not for facts, dates, and names, but to find general principles. People don’t change, nor do politics, diplomacy, or war. At the start of the history, Athens is enjoying an era of prosperity where culture, art, learning and literature have been allowed to thrive for several decades. They have come out of one major war with a much stronger economy and bigger navy than most of their allies. They feel, with some justification, that they are the masters of their world, and are becoming more than a little arrogant.

Does that sound familiar? Exactly the same things can be said for the United States after World War II. It remains to be seen if a new Sparta will manage to drag us down, ending our dominance in our own civilization. Perhaps we would all be wise to read Thucydides closely.

A Note On Translations:

Several English translations of Thucydides exist. The first of these was by Thomas Hobbes, whom I will be writing about later in my Great Books project. His translation, written in 17th century English, might be hard work for many readers, although it would be good practice for reading Leviathan later. Project Gutenberg has Crawley’s 1876 translation, which was the standard for nearly a century and is still perfectly readable, despite some Victorian vocabulary (e.g. “40 sail” instead of “40 ships”). My favorite translation so far is Rex Warner’s 1954 work, published by Penguin. Warner’s language is thoroughly modern and he moves much of Thucydides parenthetical comments into footnotes, on the theory that Thucydides would have used them if they had been available. This makes for a text the reads more smoothly than many current non-fiction books.

Unless otherwise noted, all of my quotations will be taken from the Crawley translation, since all my readers have access to it through Project Gutenberg.