1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thucydides
THUCYDIDES (Θουκυδίδης), Athenian historian. Materials for his biography are scanty, and the facts are of interest chiefly as aids to the appreciation of his life’s labour, the History of the Peloponnesian War. The older view that he was probably born in or about 471 B.C., is based on a passage of Aulus Gellius, who says that in 431 Hellanicus “seems to have been” sixty-five years of age, Herodotus fifty-three and Thucydides forty (Noct. att. xv. 23). The authority for this statement was Pamphila, a woman of Greek extraction, who compiled biographical and historical notices in the reign of Nero. The value of her testimony is, however, negligible, and modern criticism inclines to a later date, about 460 (see Busolt, Gr. Gesch. iii., pt. 2, p. 621). Thucydides’ father Olorus, a citizen of Athens, belonged to a family which derived wealth and influence from the possession of gold-mines at Scaptē Hylē, on the Thracian coast opposite Thasos, and was a relative of his elder namesake, the Thracian prince, whose daughter Hegesipyle married the great Miltiades, so that Cimon, son of Miltiades, was possibly a connexion of Thucydides (see Busolt, ibid., p. 618). It was in the vault of the Cimonian family at Athens, and near the remains of Cimon’s sister Elpinice, that Plutarch saw the grave of Thucydides. Thus the fortune of birth secured three signal advantages to the future historian: he was rich; he had two homes—one at Athens, the other in Thrace—no small aid to a comprehensive study of the conditions under which the Peloponnesian War was waged; and his family connexions were likely to bring him from his early years into personal intercourse with the men who were shaping the history of his time.
The development of Athens during the middle of the 5th century was, in itself, the best education which such a mind as that of Thucydides could have received. The expansion and consolidation of Athenian power was completed, and the inner resources of the city were being applied to the embellishment and ennoblement of Athenian life (see Cimon; Pericles). Yet the History tells us nothing of the literature, the art or the social life under whose influences its author had grown up. The “Funeral Oration” contains, indeed, his general testimony to the value and the charm of those influences. But he leaves us to supply all examples and details for ourselves. Beyond a passing reference to public “festivals,” and to “beautiful surroundings in private life,” he makes no attempt to define those “recreations for the spirit” which the Athenian genius had provided in such abundance. He alludes to the newly-built Parthenon only as containing the treasury; to the statue of Athena Parthenos which it enshrined, only on account of the gold which, at extreme need, could be detached from the image; to the Propylaea and other buildings with which Athens had been adorned under Pericles, only as works which had reduced the surplus of funds available for the war. He makes no reference to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the architect Ictinus; the sculptor Pheidias; the physician Hippocrates; the philosophers Anaxagoras and Socrates. Herodotus, if he had dealt with this period, would have found countless occasions for invaluable digressions on men and manners, on letters and art; and we might almost be tempted to ask whether his more genial, if laxer, method does not indeed correspond better with a liberal conception of the historian’s office. No one can do full justice to Thucydides, or appreciate the true completeness of his work, who has not faced this question, and found the answer to it.
It would be a hasty judgment which inferred from the omissions of the History that its author’s interests were exclusively political. Thucydides was not writing the history of a period. His subject was an event—the Peloponnesian War—a war, as he believed, of unequalled importance, alike in its direct results and in its political significance for all time. To his task, thus defined, he brought an intense concentration of all his faculties. He worked with a constant desire to make each successive incident of the war as clear as possible. To take only two instances: there is nothing in literature more graphic than his description of the plague at Athens, or than the whole narrative of the Sicilian expedition. But the same temper made him resolute in excluding irrelevant topics. The social life of the time, the literature and the art did not belong to his subject.
The biography which bears the name of Marcellinus states that Thucydides was the disciple of Anaxagoras in philosophy and of Antiphon in rhetoric. There is no evidence to confirm this tradition. But Thucydides and Antiphon at least belong to the same rhetorical school and represent the same early stage of Attic prose. Both writers used words of an antique or decidedly poetical cast; both point verbal contrasts by insisting on the precise difference between terms of similar import; and both use metaphors somewhat bolder than were congenial to Greek prose in its riper age. The differences, on the other hand, between the style of Thucydides and that of Antiphon arise chiefly from two general causes. First, Antiphon wrote for hearers, Thucydides for readers; the latter, consequently, can use a degree of condensation and a freedom in the arrangement of words which would have been hardly possible for the former. Again, the thought of Thucydides is often more complex than any which Antiphon undertook to interpret; and the greater intricacy of the historian’s style exhibits the endeavour to express each thought. Few things in the history of literary prose are more interesting than to watch that vigorous mind in its struggle to mould a language of magnificent but immature capabilities. The obscurity with which Thucydides has sometimes been reproached often arises from the very clearness with which a complex idea is present to his mind, and his strenuous effort to present it in its entirety. He never sacrifices thought to language, but he will sometimes sacrifice language to thought. A student may always be consoled by the reflection that he is not engaged in unravelling a mere rhetorical tangle. Every light on the sense will be a light on the words; and when, as is not seldom the case, Thucydides comes victoriously out of this struggle of thought and language, having achieved perfect expression of his meaning in a sufficiently lucid form, then his style rises into an intellectual brilliancy—thoroughly manly, and also penetrated with intense feeling—which nothing in Greek prose literature surpasses.
The uncertainty as to the date of Thucydides’ birth renders futile any discussion of the fact that before 431 he took no prominent part in Athenian politics. If he was born in 455, the fact needs no explanation; if in 471, it is possible that his opportunities were modified by the necessity of frequent visits to Thrace, where the management of such an important property as the gold-mines must have claimed his presence. The manner in which he refers to his personal influence in that region is such as to suggest that he had sometimes resided there (iv. 105, 1). He was at Athens in the spring of 430, when the plague broke out. If his account of the symptoms has not enabled physicians to agree on a diagnosis of the malady, it is at least singularly full and vivid. He had himself been attacked by the plague; and, as he briefly adds, “he had seen others suffer.” The tenor of his narrative would warrant the inference that he had been one of a few who were active in ministering to the sufferers.
The turning-point in the life of Thucydides came in the winter of 424. He was then forty seven (or, according to Busolt, about thirty-six), and for the first time he is found holding an official position. He was one of two generals entrusted with the command of the regions towards Thrace (τά έτί θράκης), a phrase which denotes the whole Thracian seaboard from Macedonia eastward to the vicinity of the Thracian Chersonese, though often used with more special reference to the Chalcidic peninsula. His colleague in the command was Eucles. About the end of November 424 Eucles was in Amphipolis, the stronghold of Athenian power in the north-west. To guard it with all possible vigilance was a matter of peculiar urgency at that moment. The ablest of Spartan leaders, Brasidas (q.v.), was in the Chalcidic peninsula, where he had already gained rapid success; and part of the population between that peninsula and Amphipolis was known to be disaffected to Athens. Under such circumstances we might have expected that Thucydides, who had seven ships of war with him, would have been ready to co-operate with Eucles. It appears, however, that, with his ships, he was at the island of Thasos when Brasidas suddenly appeared before Amphipolis. Eucles sent in all haste for Thucydides, who arrived with his ships from Thasos just in time to beat off the enemy from Eion at the mouth of the Strymon, but not in time to save Amphipolis. The profound vexation and dismay felt at Athens found expression in the punishment of Thucydides, who was exiled. Cleon is said to have been the prime mover in his condemnation; and this is likely enough.
From 423 to 404 Thucydides lived on his property in Thrace, but much of his time appears to have been spent in travel. He visited the countries of the Peloponnesian allies — recommended to them by his quality as an exile from Athens; and he thus enjoyed the rare advantage of contemplating the war from various points of view. He speaks of the increased leisure which his banishment secured to his study of events. He refers partly, doubtless, to detachment from Athenian politics, partly also, we may suppose, to the opportunity of visiting places signalized by recent events and of examining their topography. The local knowledge which is often apparent in his Sicilian books may have been acquired at this period. The mind of Thucydides was naturally judicial, and his impartiality—which seems almost superhuman by contrast with Xenophon's Hellenica— was in some degree a result of temperament. But it cannot be doubted that the evenness with which he holds the scales was greatly assisted by his experience during these years of exile.
His own words make it clear that he returned to Athens, at least for a time, in 404, though the precise date is uncertain. The older view (cf. Classen) was that he returned some six months after Athens surrendered to Lysander. More probably he was recalled by the special resolution carried by Oenobius prior to the acceptance of Lysander's terms (Busolt, ibid., p. 628). He remained at Athens only a short time, and retired to his property in Thrace, where he lived till his death, working at his History. The preponderance of testimony certainly goes to show that he died in Thrace, and by violence. It would seem that, when he wrote chapter 116 of his third book, he was ignorant of an eruption of Etna which took place in 396. There is, indeed, strong reason for thinking that he did not live later than 399. His remains were brought to Athens and laid in the vault of Cimon's family, where Plutarch (Cimon, 4) saw their resting-place. The abruptness with which the History breaks off agrees with the story of a sudden death. The historian's daughter is said to have saved the unfinished work and to have placed it in the hands of an editor. This editor, according to one account, was Xenophon, to whom Diogenes Laërtius (ii. 6, 13) assigns the credit of having “ brought the work into reputation, when he might have suppressed it.” The tradition is, however, very doubtful; it may have been suggested by a feeling that no one then living could more appropriately have discharged the office of literary executor than the writer who, in his Hellenica, continued the narrative.
The History. — At the outset of the History Thucydides indicates his general conception of his work, and states the principles which governed its composition. His purpose had been formed at the very beginning of the war, in the conviction that it would prove more important than any event of which Greeks had record. The leading belligerents, Athens and Sparta, were both in the highest condition of effective equipment. The whole Hellenic world— including Greek settlements outside of Greece proper—was divided into two parties) either actively helping one of the two combatants or meditating such action. Nor was the movement confined within even the widest limits of Hellas; the “barbarian” world also was affected by it—the non-Hellenic populations of Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Sicily and, finally, the Persian kingdom itself. The aim of Thucydides was to preserve an accurate record of this war, not only in view of the intrinsic interest and importance of the facts, but also in order that these facts might be permanent sources of political teaching to posterity. His hope was, as he says, that his History would be found profitable by “ those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past. The work is meant to be a possession for ever, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour.” As this context shows, the oft-quoted phrase, “ a possession for ever,” had, in its author's meaning, a more definite import than any mere anticipation of abiding fame for his History. It referred to the permanent value of the lessons which his History contained.
Thucydides stands alone among the men of his own days, and has no superior of any age, in the width of mental grasp which could seize the general significance of particular events. The political education of mankind began in Greece, and in the time of Thucydides their political life was still young. Thucydides knew only the small city-commonwealth on the one hand, and on the other the vast barbaric kingdom; and yet, as has been well said of him, “there is hardly a problem in the science of government which the statesman will not find, if not solved, at any rate handled, in the pages of this universal master.” 
Such being the spirit in which he approached his task, it is interesting to inquire what were the points which he himself considered to be distinctive in his method of executing it. His Predecessors. His Greek predecessors in the recording of events had been, he conceived, of two classes. First, there were the epic poets, with Homer at their head, whose characteristic tendency, in the eyes of Thucydides, is to exaggerate the greatness or splendour of things past. Secondly, there were the Ionian prose writers whom he calls “chroniclers” (see Logographi), whose general object was to diffuse a knowledge of legends preserved by oral tradition and of written documents—usually lists of officials or genealogies—preserved in public archives; and they published their materials as they found them, without criticism. Thucydides describes their work by the word ξυvτιθέυαι, but his own by ξυγγράΦειυ—the difference between the terms answering to that between compilation of a somewhat mechanical kind and historical composition in a higher sense. The vice of the “chroniclers,” in his view, is that they cared only for popularity, and took no pains to make their narratives trustworthy. Herodotus was presumably regarded by him as in the same general category.
In contrast with these predecessors Thucydides has subjected his materials to the most searching scrutiny. The ruling principle of his work has been strict adherence to carefully Distinctive Aim of Thucydides. verified facts. “ As to the deeds done in the war, I have not thought myself at liberty to record them on hearsay from the first informant or on arbitrary conjecture. My account rests either on personal knowledge or on the closest possible scrutiny of each statement made by others. The process of research was laborious, because conflicting accounts were given by those who had witnessed the several events, as partiality swayed or memory served them.”
It might be supposed that the speeches which Thucydides has introduced into his History conflict with this standard of scientific accuracy; it is, therefore, well to consider their natureThe Speeches. and purpose rather closely. The speeches constitute between a fourth and a fifth part of the History. If they were eliminated, an admirable narrative would indeed remain, with a few comments, usually brief, on the more striking characters and events. But we should lose all the most vivid light on the inner workings of the Greek political mind, on the motives of the actors and the arguments which they used — in a word, on the whole play of contemporary feeling and opinion. To the speeches is due in no small measure the imperishable intellectual interest of the History, since it is chiefly by the speeches that the facts of the Peloponnesian War are so lit up with keen thought as to become illustrations of general laws, and to acquire a permanent suggestiveness for the student of politics. When Herodotus made his persons hold conversations or deliver speeches, he was following the precedent of epic poetry; his tone is usually colloquial rather than rhetorical; he is merely making thought and motive vivid in the way natural to a simple age. Thucydides is the real founder of the tradition by which historians were so long held to be warranted in introducing set speeches of their own composition. His own account of his practice is given in the following words: “As to the speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.” So far as the language of the speeches is concerned, then, Thucydides plainly avows that it is mainly or wholly his own. As a general rule, there is little attempt to mark different styles. The case of Pericles, whom Thucydides must have repeatedly heard, is probably an exception; the Thucydidean speeches of Pericles offer several examples of that bold imagery which Aristotle and Plutarch agree in ascribing to him, while the “Funeral Oration,” especially, has a certain majesty of rhythm, a certain union of impetuous movement with lofty grandeur, which the historian has given to no other speaker. Such strongly marked characteristics as the curt bluntness of the Spartan ephor Sthenelaïdas, or the insolent vehemence of Alcibiades, are also indicated. But the dramatic truth of the speeches generally resides in the matter, not in the form. In regard to those speeches which were delivered at Athens before his banishment in 424—and seven such speeches are contained in the History—Thucydides could rely either on his own recollection or on the sources accessible to a resident citizen. In these cases there is good reason to believe that he has reproduced the substance of what was actually said. In other cases he had to trust to more or less imperfect reports of the “general sense”; and in some instances, no doubt, the speech represents simply his own conception of what it would have been “most opportune” to say. The most evident of such instances occur in the addresses of leaders to their troops. The historian’s aim in these military harangues—which are usually short—is to bring out the points of a strategical situation; a modern writer would have attained the object by comments prefixed or subjoined to his account of the battle. The comparative indifference of Thucydides to dramatic verisimilitude in these military orations is curiously shown by the fact that the speech of the general on the one side is sometimes as distinctly a reply to the speech of the general on the other as if they had been delivered in debate. We may be sure, however, that, wherever Thucydides had any authentic clue to the actual tenor of a speech, he preferred to follow that clue rather than to draw on his own invention.
Why, however, did he not content himself with simply stating, in his own person, the arguments and opinions which he conceived to have been prevalent? The question must be viewed from the standpoint of a Greek in the 5th century B.C. Epic poetry had then for many generations exercised The Greek View. a powerful influence over the Greek mind. Homer had accustomed Greeks to look for two elements in any complete expression of human energy—first, an account of a man’s deeds, then an image of his mind in the report of his words. The Homeric heroes are exhibited both in action and in speech. Further, the contemporary readers of Thucydides were men habituated to a civic life in which public speech played an all-important part. Every adult citizen of a Greek democracy was a member of the assembly which debated and decided great issues. The law courts, the festivals, the drama, the market-place itself, ministered to the Greek love of animated description. To a Greek of that age a written history of political events would have seemed strangely insipid if speech “ in the first person ” had been absent from it, especially if it did not offer some mirror of those debates which were inseparably associated with the central interests and the decisive moments of political life. In making historical persons say what they might have said, Thucydides confined that oratorical licence to the purpose which is its best justification: with him it is strictly dramatic, an aid to the complete presentment of action, by the vivid expression of ideas and arguments which were really current at the time. Among later historians who continued the practice, Polybius, Sallust and Tacitus most resemble Thucydides in this particular; while in the Byzantine historians, as in some moderns who followed classical precedent, the speeches were usually mere occasions for rhetorical display. Botta’s History of Italy from 1780 to 1814 affords one of the latest examples of the practice, which was peculiarly suited to the Italian genius.
The present division of the History into eight books is one which might well have proceeded from the author himself, as being a natural and convenient disposition of the contents. The first book, after a general introduction, sets forth the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The first nine The Eight Books. years of the war are contained in the second, third and fourth books—three years in each. The fifth book contains the tenth year, followed by the interval of the “insecure peace.” The Sicilian expedition fills the sixth and seventh books The eighth books opens that last chapter of the struggle which is known as the “Decelean” or “Ionian” War, and breaks off abruptly—in the middle of a sentence, indeed—in the year 411.
The principal reason against believing that the division into eight books was made by Thucydides himself is the fact that a different division, into thirteen books, was also current in antiquity, as appears from Marcellinus (§ 58). It is very improbable—indeed hardly conceivable—that this Origin of that Division. should have been the case if the eight-book division had come down from the hand of the author. We may infer, then, that the division of the work into eight books was introduced at Alexandria—perhaps in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. That division was already familiar to the grammarians of the Augustan age. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who recognizes it, has also another mode of indicating portions of the work, viz. by stichometria, or the number of lines which they contained. Thus, in the MS. which he used, the first 87 chapters of book i. contained about 2000 lines (equivalent to about 1700 lines in Bekker’s stereotyped 8vo text). (On the order of composition, see Peloponnesian War, ad init.; and Greece: Ancient History, § Authorities).
The division of the war by summers and winters (κατά Θέρος καί χειμώυα)—the end of the winter being considered as the end of the year—is perhaps the only one which Thucydides himself used, for there is no indication that he made any division of the History into books. His “summer” Mode of Reckoning Time. includes spring and autumn and extends, generally speaking, from March or the beginning of April to the end of October. His “winter”—November to February inclusive—means practically the period during which military operations, by land and sea, are wholly or partly suspended. When he speaks of “summer” and “winter” as answering respectively to “half” the year (v. 20, 3), the phrase is not to be pressed: it means merely that he divides his year into these two parts. The mode of reckoning is essentially a rough one, and is not to be viewed as if the commencement of summer or of winter could be precisely fixed to constant dates. For chronology, besides the festivals, he uses the Athenian list of archons, the Spartan list of ephors and the Argive list of priestesses of Hera.
There is no reference to the History of Thucydides in the extant Greek writers of the 4th century B.C.; but Lucian has preserved a tradition of the enthusiasm with which it was studied by Demosthenes. The great orator is said to have copied it out eight times, or even to have learnt it by heart. The Alexandrian critics acknowledged Thucydides as a great master of Attic. Sallust, Cornelius Nepos, Cicero and Quintilian are among the Roman writers whose admiration for him can be traced in their work, or has been expressly recorded. The most elaborate ancient criticism on the diction and composition of Thucydides is contained in three essays by Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
Among the best MSS. of Thucydides, the Codex vaticanus 126 (11th century) represents a recension made in the Alexandrian or Roman age. In the first six books the number of passages in which the Vaticanus alone has preserved a true reading is comparatively small; in book vii. it is somewhat MSS., &c. larger; in book viii. it is so large that here the Vaticanus, as compared with the other MSS., acquires the character of a revised text. Other important MSS. are the Palatinus 252 (11th century); the Casselanus (A.D. 1252); the Augustanus monacensis 430 (A.D. 1301). A collation, in books i., ii., of two Cambridge MSS. of the 15th century (Nn. 3, 18; Kk. 5, 19) has been published by Shilleto. Several Parisian MSS. (H. C. A. F.), and a Venetian MSS. (V.) collated by Arnold, also deserve mention. The Aldine edition was published in 1502. It was formerly supposed that there had been two Juntine editions. Shilleto, in the “Notice” prefixed to book i., first pointed out that the only Juntine edition was that of 1526, and that the belief in an earlier Juntine, of 1506, arose merely from the accidental omission of the word vicesimo in the Latin version of the imprint. Some papyrus fragments were published in Grenfell and Hunt’s Oxyrhynchus papyri (1908), vi., which also contains an anonymous commentary (pub. 1st century) on Thuc. ii.
The most generally useful edition is Classen’s, in the Weidmann Series (1862–1878; new ed. by Steup, 1882–1892); each book can be obtained separately. Arnold’s edition (1848–1851) contains much that is still valuable. For books i. and ii. Shilleto’s edition (1872–1876) furnishes a commentary which, though not full, deals admirably with many difficult points. Among other important complete editions, it is enough to name those of Duker, Bekker, Goeller, Poppo and Krüger. For editions of separate books and selections (up to 1895) see J. B. Mayor’s Guide to the Choice of Classical Books. Special mention may be made of those by E. C. Marchant. Later editions of the text are by H. Stuart Jones (1900–1901), in the Oxford Scriptorum classicorum bibliotheca, and C. Hude (“Teubner Series,” 1901; ed. minor, 1903). Bétant’s lexicon to Thucydides (1843) is well executed. Jowett’s translation (1883) is supplemented by a volume of notes. Dale’s version (Bohn) also deserves mention for its fidelity, as Crawley’s (1876) for its vigour. Hellenica (1880) contains an essay on “The Speeches of Thucydides,” which has been translated into German (see Eduard Meyer, Forschungen zur alten Geschichte, Bd. ii. pp. 269-436). The best clue to Thucydidean bibliography is in Engelmann’s Scriptores graeci (1880), supplemented by the articles by G. Meyer, in Bursian’s Jahresbericht, (1895) lxxix., (1897) lxxxviii. Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, iii. 616–693, is invaluable. For the life of Thucydides, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, “Die Thukydidcs-Legende,” Hermes, (1878) xii., is all important. All works on ancient Greek History contain discussions of Thucydides, and an interesting criticism is that of J. B. Bury, Ancient Greek Historians (1909). F. M. Cornford, Thucydides mythistoricus (1907), sought to prove that the History is really only an historical tragedy, i.e. a dramatized version of the facts, but this view has not been adopted.
- Christ (Gesch. der griech. Litt.) gives the date of birth as “about 455.”
- See Jebb’s Attic Orators, i. 35.
- Freeman, Historical Essays, 2nd series, vol. iii. ; on the general questions of the structure of the work and the view of the war which it represents see Peloponnesian War; and Greece; Ancient History, § Authorities.