Skip to Content

Category Archives: Historians

Euripides, The Great Greek Tragedian
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Euripides’ Early life Born on Salamis Island in 480 BC to mother Cleito
Read more.
Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past
Read more.
Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates
“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for
Read more.
Caesar and Alexander: The Story of Two Leaders
By Giuseppe Aiello, contributing writer, Classical Wisdom It is the year 69 before Christ. Gaius Julius Caesar, now more than
Read more.
The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this
Read more.
Quintus Servilius Caepio: A Terrible General, but an Amazing Thief
By Richardson Akande, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom The History of the Roman Empire is embedded with war conquests by mighty
Read more.
ALL HAIL CAESAR
Just how far did the ruler push his own perceived mortality? By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Julius Caesar
Read more.
The Routes of the Roman Emperors
The Republic of Serbia is one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia, which broke up in the
Read more.
Did Constantine Really Convert?
By NATALIA KLIMCZAK Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However,
Read more.
Thucydides Vs Herodotus: Which Historian Wins?
By Ben Potter There has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Herodotus and Thucydides. Both men
Read more.

Thucydides Vs Herodotus: Which Historian Wins?

by July 23, 2018

By Ben Potter
The Ancient Greek Historians

Herodotus and Thucydides

There has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Herodotus and Thucydides. Both men have been granted the ‘father of history’ accolade, but chronologically Herodotus must be the winner of the distinction as Thucydides picks up where he leaves off.
For those in need of a quick recap, Herodotus was born circa 484 BC into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.
Sculpture of Herodotus

Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Relief on the right of the left window, right part of the west façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris.

Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer. It was these journeys that he chronicled into his magnum opus, The Histories.
The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.
Meanwhile, Thucydides, was born in 460 BC in the center of the Ancient Greek world, Athens, but had considerable influence in Thrace due to owning gold mines. He is most famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War, which detailed the ongoings of the war between Athens and Sparta.
In the beginning he experienced the epic conflict first hand as an Athenian General…until he lost a crucial battle and was greatly disgraced. This action led to his exile, a surprising benefit and important step to becoming the outsider recorder of events.
Bust of Thucydides

This is the plaster cast bust currently in exposition of Zurab Tsereteli’s gallery in Moscow (part of Russian Academy of Arts), formerly from the collection of castings of Pushkin museum made in early 1900-1910s.
Original bust is a Roman copy (c. 100 CE) of an early 4th Century BCE Greek original, and is located in Holkham Hall in Norfolk, UK.

With essential historical data conveyed, we can return back to our comparison and contrast of the two historians. The differences between Herodotus and Thucydides are in style, interpretation and purpose.
Herodotus passes no judgement, but reports what he has heard, even when plainly ridiculous. Also, he is more holistic; concerned with nature, culture, speech, art, with the cornucopia of the human condition. Thucydides is reporting on war, and war alone.
Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in “The History of the Peloponnesian War”.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852)

Another key difference is that Herodotus’ chronicles show what moral lessons can be learnt. Thucydides isn’t concerned with morality, but pragmatism. He thinks men’s mistakes come in the deed, not the thought.
It is for this devotion to the pragmatic that Thucydides, together with Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, is considered the father of political realism – in other words, the need for a nation to be militarily and economically powerful rather than good, just or ethical.
This legacy flourishes right up to the modern day; Thucydides’ text is still standard issue at the U.S. Naval College in Newport.
In truth it is not really fair to compare Herodotus to Thucydides. Herodotus is a strange amalgam of Homer, Polybius and Pliny the Elder. He isn’t an historian, but an holistic compiler, almost an encyclopedia writer. Actually we’ve made an historiographical soap-opera out of a rivalry that doesn’t really exist.
But, supposed rivalry aside, it would be unfair and churlish to dwell on the limitations or bias of such a great and innovative source as Thucydides. This is a period of history which included such great writers as Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes – none are more enlightening on the politics of the times than our exiled historian.

The Talented Mr. Polybius

by March 24, 2018

By Ben Potter
Polybius was born 200 BC in Megaopolis, Arcadia. A town both geographically and politically at the heart of the Peloponnese, from where it seemed Polybius was destined for a lifetime of political greatness.
After being given the honor of publicly bearing the skilled Greek general and statesman, Philopoemen’s ashes in 182 BC, he was made envoy to Alexandria two years later and in 170/69 BC he served in the military as hipparch, or ‘the leader of the horse’.
However, this was (within the Confederacy) as good as it got for Polybius.
Map of Greece

Megaopolis, Arcadia

In 168 BC after the decisive battle of Pydna, the once-proud Macedonian Empire was reduced to a Roman client-kingdom.
Callicrates, the new leader of the Achaeans, was a man who knew on which side his bread was buttered. He agreed to send to Rome 1000 political hostages, people who had unsympathetic views towards the Latin powerhouse, people… like Polybius.
He was sent to Rome a hostage.
He was sent to Rome in chains?

Well… this is the key distinction – Polybius was not, like so many of the hundreds of thousands of Greek prisoners before him, a slave, but a hostage. And a hostage, unlike countless other captives tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Italy, who was lucky enough to be sent to Rome.

Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

He was sent to the centre of power, to the budding young capital of the new world where an educated man with a capacious mind and a thirst for knowledge would be recognised, not for his history of Roman antagonism, but for his great potential.
After all, at one point on its arc of dominance, every superpower is the land of opportunity.
So Polybius became a prominent and respected person (his skill in horse-riding and hunting are said to have endeared him to many). He had the appearance of possessing civic rights (and in reality he enjoyed some extra-civic privileges), but he was not permitted true freedom. He was de facto under house arrest within the city and not allowed to venture out except temporarily and under supervision.
However, it appeared he had no real desire to stray from his captors. This leads us to the point of how ‘Greek’ Polybius really was, because from the day of his captivity, he was in all but name, a Roman.
He was much like Christopher Hitchens – a new talent from the old world.
Polybius was not merely a heavyweight dinosaur. He rejected the old world in favor of the new; was seduced by a constitution, an organization, an unstoppable drive from the corridors of power.
He was ideally and uniquely placed to chronicle, in his own words, how “almost the whole of the known world was conquered and fell under the single rule of the Romans in a space of not quite 53 years”.
However, this was not his day job. He was also the mentor to Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson of Scipio Africanus – the scourge of Hannibal.
Scipio Aemilianus

Scipio Aemilianus

In such a capacity, Polybius travelled with the aristocratic young soldier all over the empire, witnessing first-hand just how the Romans got things done.
He was impressed… really impressed.
The irony would not have alluded Polybius that he was originally exiled to Rome because of his sufficiently unsympathetic stance vis-à-vis the thundering juggernaut, only then to become the great Roman apologist for a state which became his sanctuary, his home and his happiness.
His travels with Scipio continued to Spain and Africa in 151 BC and it was on this jaunt he supposedly retraced Hannibal’s steps by returning to Italy over the Alps!
Shortly after this, in 150 BC, the Achaean hostages, of which Polybius was originally a part, were released, but Polybius opted to remain in Rome with his friend and protégée, Scipio. On his journeys, Polybius witnessed firsthand Scipio’s destruction of Carthage, the sacking of Corinth, and the ‘settling’ of Greece after the ‘liberation’.
A more active or dynamic life for an historian is hard to imagine. Thus it seems fitting that he died, not through idleness, but after a throw from his horse at the age of 82.
He is survived by his magnum opus: his Histories.

Statue of Polybius

Though only books one to five of the original 40 survive intact, they are of such importance and quality that they sing through the ages without an echo of distortion.
Polybius told history in a far less higgledy-piggledy fashion than had been done before. In fact he was the first ancient historian who can be held up to modern standards of historiography; not rambling like Herodotus or slapdash like Thucydides.
He chronicled by Olympiads (4 yearly cycles), conveniently breaking them down into quarters and cross-referencing these by territories (reading from the North and West). A sensible and obvious way of organizing a history? Well… yes it is now, thanks to Polybius.
He studied documents and other written texts, being one of the first to prioritize them as a key component to fully understanding historical events. He also recognized the value in talking with veterans and any other source who was as close to the action as was possible.
He thought a historian should explain rather than merely describe – he didn’t want to merely present the facts, but discuss their significance:
“The mere statement of a fact may interest us, but it is when the reason is added that the study of history becomes fruitful: it is the mental transference of similar circumstances to our own that gives us the means of forming presentiments about what is going to happen”.
And although he was not neutral, he was honest – sometimes brutally so. He wore his heart on his sleeve and was happy to justify what he considered to be correct.
However, leaving style and method aside, why all the vehement pro-Roman sentiment from a man imprisoned for the exact opposite?
Polybius was a Roman hostage, but he was writing for Greeks. Greeks whose sovereignty was being eroded by Roman imperialism. Was he trying to get them to swallow what was inevitable – Roman domination? Did he believe it was actually for the best? Or was he a mere pragmatist?
He would surely have viewed Rome as magnificent and frightening, perhaps even an unstoppable, force.
Polybius had known a Macedonia which had dominated Greece for over two centuries. To him, Macedonian power must have seemed an absolute, a constant which could at best be resisted, rued or run from, but could never be stifled, stripped and certainly never stopped.
Therefore any force which could unfetter Greece from Macedon must have been such a mighty superpower that it could only continue to dominate throughout the ages.
Polybius believed the Roman behemoth achieved its success via its constitution (his writing on the subject greatly influenced John Adams). However, he didn’t foresee that it would fail to evolve with the demands of the empire and would effectively be no longer fit for purpose by the time Julius Caesar and then Augustus decided to respectively circumvent and then dismantle it with relative ease.
In the 2nd century BC, western superpowers were in their infancy, thus Polybius didn’t have that luxury we do – the ability to look back upon two millennia of growth, stagnation, decay and failure of the greatest (or, if you prefer, most terrible) nations on Earth.
So, although the Roman rocket was still rising, and although he covered its trajectory with great vim and gusto, Polybius had no idea that his captors-turned-hosts had taken their first step towards losing a great empire… they had established one.

Thucydides: Scientific Historian and Political Realist

by March 8, 2018

By Ben Potter
424 BC: Seven raging years after the start of the Peloponnesian War. Seven years of Greek on Greek, sword on sword, blood on blood. Seven years which have brought pain and pride to Spartans and Athenians alike.
Now is the time for a great man to come to the fore, to turn the screw, to be a hero.
The venue? The city of Amphipolis (literally ‘around the city’) up in the Thracian heartland. The players? The Spartan commander Brasidas and the newly elected Athenian strategos (general), Thucydides.
Ancient Siege

Ancient Siege

Brasidas has assaulted Amphipolis and is attempting to negotiate with its people. Thucydides marches his troops on the city knowing he has the upper-hand. After all, this is his territory.
Though an Athenian, the wealthy and aristocratic Thucydides owns land and gold mines in this area of Northern Greece. He can thus exert considerable influence over the local populace.
So he and his men arrive prepared for battle, ready to whet their double-edged xiphos swords on the briny blood of ignoble Spartans.
But…. disaster strikes. The perfidious Brasidas has talked the Amphipolitans round with terms of moderation.
The city is lost; Thucydides is disgraced.
His voted honour of strategos is stripped from him, as are all his rights of citizenship. He is cast out to wander a lonely and forlorn figure, branded forever with the stigma of exile.
However, it’s hard to keep a good man down….
Harder too if a man is independently wealthy, well-educated and related, not only to Miltiades and Cimon, but also to Thracian royalty.
He was also blessed with a robust constitution. Despite falling ill, Thucydides survived the great Athenian plague (430 – 426 BC). He commented on this truly catastrophic event in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’:

“As the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became equally contemptuous of the gods’ property and the gods’ dues.”

Athenian Plague

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654

Throughout the war (431- 404 BC), Thucydides had been making copious notes and recording important speeches in order to write his History.
Now, unfettered from partisanship, exile gave him the freedom to travel extensively and unmolested. Not only because he was no longer occupied as a solider, but because he was not viewed as an enemy by any state. Instead he became that strangest of creatures; an ex-patriot expatriate.
The father of ‘scientific history’ and ‘political realism’ originally embarked upon his writing project as he had been able to augur the magnitude of the war from its outset.
Thucydides was well aware, much like a muddied, bloodied and bewildered soldier at Ypres would have been, that he was living through a time of unusually powerful danger and destruction.
Thucydides considered the war to be an event, not a time-frame and tackled it thus.
He considered the history of the war unique unto itself; hermetically sealed away from entertaining trivialities like art, literature and society.
The great man himself said:
“To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.”
Bust of Thucydides

The historian, Thucydides

Thucydides, though with the noblest of intentions, would be considered by modern standards something of a hack. He was well-intentioned and capable, but never enlightens with the scholarly cut and thrust of Polybius.
Regardless of his bias for the politician Pericles (or against Cleon) there is one overriding problem with the text. Buckley put it succinctly: “The thorniest problem in using Thucydides as a reliable historical source concerns the authenticity of his speeches”.
Thucydides himself reinforces this:
“It has been difficult for me to remember the exact words that were spoken in the speeches that I myself heard, and for those who brought me reports of other speeches. Therefore it has been my method to record speeches which I thought were the most appropriate for each speaker to give in each situation, while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of what was actually said”.
However, quarter must be given as, at the time of Thucydides, historiography is in its infancy, still being fired in the crucible of time.
As Terry Buckley concludes: “Thucydides is by far the best of our literary sources and where there is a direct conflict in the evidence supplied by him and by other historians, his version is to be preferred”.
His usefulness and legacy outstrip those of all his contemporaries. If, for no other reason, than the fact that his work increased accountability – it let leaders know that their blunders wouldn’t be lost to the ages, but read, reread and analysed, potentially to their detriment.
Regarding the outcome of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides claims it pivoted on the fate of the perverted genius Alcibiades who was also forced into exile: “they personally objected to his private habits; and so speedily shipwrecked the state”.
Thus the destiny of the war may have been decided by hot-headed voters exiling their brightest and their best as a consequence of short-term outrage.
Thucydides, despite his supplies of gold was no mere member of the idle-rich, but a dynamic, wealthy warrior and thinker, who the Athenians were also foolish enough to turn away from their society.
It is because of Thucydides’ tenacity and foresight that his wisdom, and the folly of the Athenian demos, live on.

3 Historians Who Changed the World

by February 13, 2015

By Francesca Leaf
Over the centuries, civilizations have endeavored to preserve a record of their existence for future generations. This effort has taken the form of compiling chronologies, building monuments, and creating art.
The ancient Greeks took it a step further.

They invented an entirely new literary genre, solely dedicated to recounting important events in narrative form for the benefit of posterity—history. Among the ancient Greek historians who created and defined the genre are Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

1. HERODOTUS (C. 484–425 BCE): THE FATHER OF HISTORY

“I am bound to tell what I am told, but not in every case to believe it.”—Herodotus, The Histories

Dubbed “The Father of History” by Cicero, Herodotus is arguably the first writer to narrate a series of events of global importance and recount them in relations of cause and effect. In The Histories, Herodotus examines the Greco-Persian Wars, the rise and rule of the Persian Empire, and the history and cultural background of Scythia and Egypt.
Before he was the father of history, Herodotus was a globe trotter. He traveled throughout the Persian Empire, which at the time extended into Egypt. Herodotus was profoundly interested in the people he met; their customs, worldviews, and achievements. He listened to their stories, heard their myths, and collected their narratives.
Herodotus bust
In between trips, Herodotus returned to Athens, where at gatherings, large and small, he recounted his travels. The combination of his novel tales and delightful storytelling made him wildly popular.
Herodotus later wove his stories and knowledge together, creating his masterpiece: The Histories. An engaging read, the series of events is interspersed with interventions from the gods, fables, and small stories often reminiscent of tall tales. To Herodotus, legends and cultural memory held just as a significant place in history as wars and politics.

Overall, Herodotus has opened a window into the values and worldviews of ancient Greece. I think that Reginald Macan put it best, stating:

“There is, indeed, no ancient historian, whether upon his own ground or on general grounds, with whom Herodotus need fear comparison. . . . in the larger view of history, which embraces every experience of humanity [and] treats no aspect of human life as common or unclean . . . Herodotus keeps his rank as the premier historian of antiquity.”
2. THUCYDIDES (C. 460–395 BCE): THE SCIENTIFIC HISTORIAN
“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
Thucydides bust


Best known for his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides is recognized by many as the father of scientific history. Written at the time of the conflict, Thucydides based this work on eyewitness accounts, interviews, and records.

Unlike Herodotus, however, he generally interpreted significant events as having human, not divine, causes. Thucydides’ concise prose, adherence to chronology, and exploration of timeless themes such as ethics, leadership, and nationalism, has won him admirers across the centuries.
It is believed that the father of scientific history was born in the Athenian suburb of Halimos, c. 460 BCE. During Thucydides’ time, democratic Athens was a prominent sea power, but to the south, one would find the Peloponnese, home to militaristic Sparta and its mighty land force. Thucydides would later argue that fear of Athens’ ever-growing influence motivated Sparta’s attack.
During the war, Thucydides’ defining moment came in 424 BCE when he was blamed for losing the city of Amphipolis to Sparta. Believing he would be condemned to death, he fled to his Thracian estate.
While in exile, Thucydides found himself in a unique situation. He was privy to accounts of the war from both sides.
Later he would write, “It was . . . my fate to be an exile from my country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.”
And thus he began to write The History of the Peloponnesian War. In total, he chronicled nearly 30 years of conflict.

While there is no record of Thucydides’ contemporaries admiring his work, over the centuries he became regarded as a great historian. Several copies of his History were made, securing its survival through the ages. His keen analysis of the human condition has influenced notable philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

3. XENOPHON (C. 430–354 BCE): THE ATTIC MUSE
“There is small risk a general will be regarded with contempt by those he leads, if, whatever he may have to preach, he shows himself best able to perform.”—Xenophon, The Cavalry General


A man of many talents, Xenophon distinguished himself as a soldier, historian, and memoirist. He wrote beautifully on a multitude of topics, his prose earning him the nickname of “Attic Muse.”

Xenophon bust
Xenophon was born during the tumult of the Peloponnesian War, in Erchia—just an hour’s journey from Athens. A member of the equestrian class, Xenophon received a solid education and military training.

Xenophon put his military training to use in 401 BCE when he and his friend volunteered to serve as mercenary soldiers. They believed that they would be lending their skills to a Persian governor whose territory was under threat… but this was not the case. Instead, they found themselves involved in a veritable game of thrones, aiding Cyrus the Younger in an assault on the Persian king, Artaxerxes II.
However, early on Cyrus the Younger was killed and his generals were subsequently executed.
Xenophon and the other soldiers found themselves stranded in hostile territory, haunted by dark thoughts and filled with despair. The situation was dire.

Fortunately for those involved, Xenophon displayed great courage and was elected leader of the 10,000-man army. He successfully led them to safety, enduring nearly ceaseless battle, dwindling supplies, and snowstorms along the way. Xenophon later recorded his harrowing tale in Anabasis, which has inspired countless similar works throughout the centuries.

A LASTING LEGACY


For ancient Greek historians, writing history entailed both recording events of note and creating works of literary merit. Engaging with their works is an opportunity to learn about the past, gain insight into ancient Greek culture, and read masterful prose… and hopefully not repeat any of their mistakes.

Thucydides and 2000 Years of Political Realism

by September 22, 2014

While I tend to enjoy my time reading obscure philosophy texts and various translations of Homeric epics, I simply can’t contain my literary habits to one genre. The ancient classics are like ice cream. I love ice cream, but one can’t live off of frozen desserts alone.

One of my favorite newsletters to get into, when I’m not writing my own, is The Daily Reckoning.
XXXAnything from international affairs to the tenuous state of the global market, they got it all in healthy doses.

The following excerpt is from their September 18th edition, and it got me thinking on a few things:
“And so, Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko bellyached to Congress…
“With just one move,” he told in his scariest voice, “the world has been thrown back in time — to a reality of territrial claims, zones of influence, criminal aggression and annexations,”
One fist was pounding the podium. The other, extended in the hopes of getting military assistance. Apparently, fighting the Russians is trying… even after the U.S. has given $219 million in aid.
“The post-war international system” Poroshenko pleaded, “of checks and balances [is] effectively ruined.” -Peter Coyne (The Daily Reckoning)
That last little bit about how the international system of checks and balances being destroyed got me particularly riled up. Are you saying that the balance of power has been upset upon the international stage? Athens and Sparta will surely be at war!
Isn’t that what you were thinking? No? Well, maybe it should be.
Hostile annexations? Growing foreign powers? Unstable system of checks and balances upon the world stage? Those certainly are all charges that have been laid before us today, especially when considering the uneasy situation in Eastern Ukraine. Then again, it’s not the first time we have heard of such things.
That’s right everybody, we got all the proper ingredients to have ourselves a full-blown Peloponnesian War here. For it was the rising power of Athens, the continued expansion of the Athenian empire, and the subsequent fear it inspired in Sparta, more than anything else that lead to the bloody Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.
XXX
For almost three decades, the Athenians and the Spartans would butt heads in one of the most costly and most violent wars of the ancient world. And there all the while, eager to report on the occurrences and the causes of such a fiasco, was Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War.
I know what you are probably thinking. All that happened over two thousand years ago! Surely things have changed since then. And I suppose I would have to agree with you on that point, but I wouldn’t necessarily say things have changed for the better.
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein explained this rather simply within their book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… when they write…


“Social and political philosophy examines issues of justice in society. Why do we need government? how should goods be distributed? How can we establish a fair social system? These questions used to be settled by the stronger guy hitting the weaker guy over the head with a bone, but after centuries of social and political philosophy, society has come to the conclusion that missiles are much more effective.”

– Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar)
Now that might get a laugh (try using it at cocktail parties) but the humor is also rather dark. For while we might think we have grown up over the millennia, evolved and become more civilized, the truth is that we are still killing each other for the same reasons that we were killing each other for back in 400 BCE. We’ve just become more efficient about the whole business.

XXX
Perhaps to explain this, we ought to take a quick peak at what is known as “political realism”, a school of philosophical thought that Thucydides is sometimes credited with founding (that is to say he was writing on it before Thomas Hobbes or Nicolai Machiavelli ever got the chance to.)

At the heart of political realism is the assumption that humans, deep down, are selfish, fearful, ambitious, and self-interested. This brutish nature of humanity is something of a dirty little secret. However, if we are to understand the causes for war, we must accept people for what they are, not what we would like them to be.
Fear, honor, and advantage are all factors that contribute to “normal human interactions” and by extension, they also contribute to actions between countries.
Political realism takes a rather pessimistic view of world affairs. The world stage is something of an amoral, value-free environment in which each and every country finds itself in constant conflict with every other player on the board.
Lacking some over-arching world government, each state is under constant fear of invasion or betrayal from its neighbor. States react to threats in the same manner that an individual human might react. We look upon weaker neighbors with ambitious thoughts of subjection and gaze at our growing enemies with dread.

“I will first write down an account of the disputes that explain their breaking the Peace, so that no one will ever wonder from what ground so great a war could arise among the Greeks. I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” -Thucydides (The History of the Peloponnesian War)

In the case of Thucydides, it was the Athenian empire that grew so rapidly and with such determination, that it would be inevitable that they would one day clash swords with the only remaining super power in the region, Sparta. That is perhaps one of the truest lessons we can learn from Thucydides. Any state growing too powerful, too fast will garner the disdain of its neighbors, and violence is often an inevitable conclusion.
XXXThe world view of political realists like Thucydides casts a rather bleak picture of human nature and the patterns of world affairs. The Greeks were cast into war much the same way the Romans were time and time again as their empire expanded. The American government of the 50’s and 60’s watched the rise of communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union with dread and concern. And again, we were cast into war.
Now, this is all very easy for me to say. Here I am sitting comfortably at my desk, reading philosophy while the tea kettle warms. The ins and outs of any armed conflict can never be explained as easily as this. Even the Peloponnesian war of Thucydides consisted of innumerable variables that lead to the bloody confrontation.
I will never be the first to say that I am intimately informed with the goings-on of the international community. I would perhaps say that I am slightly more informed than the average citizen (most of my friends watch too much reality television), but that does not give me the right to look down and judge an entire region.
I am, however, acquainted with political philosophy, and I am familiar with ancient history. Several months ago Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This prompted a military engagement and the Ukrainian government is now asking for the support of the United States.
Two thousand years ago, the city of Corinth was annexed by the Athenian empire. What ensued was a military engagement where the Corinthians, you guessed it, turned to their neighbor, Sparta, for aid.
Are they exactly the same? No. Are there some similarities? Oh yes. And that, my friends, I find rather curious.
Thucydides gave us a dark picture of the world. Whether or not it was entirely accurate is a topic of some discussion. However, the same problems between nations do tend to repeat themselves, whether it is in the Mediterranean region in 400 BCE or Eastern Europe, circa 2014. I suppose the bottom line is that when it comes to war, war never changes.

Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?

by April 12, 2013

Insatiably curious, prone to whimsy, a talented writer, a slave to gossip, an innovator, a barbarian apologist, a cosmopolitan, a partisan egoist; Herodotus has been praised for and accused of much since the publication of his Histories.
He was both denigrated and venerated in his own time…and has remained so ever since.
However, it is almost as difficult to understand his legacy as it is to chronicle his life. Because, for the latter, in the words of George Rawlinson: “the data are so few…that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards”.
mausoleum of Halicarnassus

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

It was circa 484BC that Herodotus was born into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). However, from hereon in, there is little solid evidence of the precise movements of his extraordinary life.
We know he was exiled at least once. It is possible that, with his family, he fled to the island of Samos due to conflicts with the tyrant Lygdamis. Indeed, some fancifully think Herodotus may later have returned to lead an uprising against his oppressor.
It is likely that Herodotus experienced an unusually multicultural upbringing. Halicarnassus, originally a Greek colony, was also a key trading post with Egypt and would thus have been awash with a diversity of peoples.
Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.
Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer.
bust of HerodotusAdditionally, the fact that his work was known in his lifetime and was thought (by Lucian) to have been performed at the Olympic Games, indicates his contemporaries did not doubt, as some later did, that these journeys really happened.
His fame seems to have been largely to his benefit, though not quite enough to win him a citizenship vote in Athens. However, even to be considered for this was a great honor in itself.
His literary clout was respected by the tragedian Sophocles; there are echoes of The Histories in Antigone. Herodotus also received the ultimate back-handed compliment of being important and well-known enough for comic playwright Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Acharnians.
The final resting place for a famous writer of no fixed abode is almost inevitably open to dispute. The main contenders are Thurii in Southern Italy, Thurium in Macedonia or, of course, Athens. However, the notion that he was buried alongside Thucydides is fantastic in the extreme.
So why does this debate about his reputation constantly flare up? How could he manage to be of differing credibility to men like Plutarch, Strabo, Aristotle and Cicero (not to mention a host of modern scholars)?
The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.
In fact, there is no logical reason to presume he was anything other than what he claimed to be, a publisher of inquiries.
So, was he the father of history or the father of lies? Well, he could simultaneously be considered both and neither.
herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Most problems with Herodotus arise when inspecting him from a ‘modern’ point of view. Modern in the sense that we view history as a series of hypotheses and probabilities which must be investigated, debated and, ideally, resolved. Herodotus is far detached from this, content merely to play the role of reporter. Consequently, we cast over him a patronizing and judgmental eye, an eye that isn’t compatible with his method.
Thucydides used a different ‘modern’ eye to belittle his contemporary.
Herodotus was interested in a range of human and natural characteristics as well as customs (together with their backgrounds). In contrast, Thucydides was primarily concerned with tangible facts that were directly relevant to him (i.e. politics and warfare). He considered his work historically definitive in a way Herodotus never did.
Indeed the very problem arises because of our obsession with viewing Herodotus as an historian, something he himself never claimed to be for the simple reason that the word didn’t exist! ‘History’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greek historia – ‘inquiry’.
As John P.A. Gould succinctly put it: “He nowhere claims to have been an eye witness or participant in any of the major events or battles that he describes”.
So, if not an historian, then what?
One could argue he was more of a travel writer, a chronicler of a general encyclopedia, or a journalist. Though actually calling him a novelist is perhaps a stretch too far.

Herodotus made it perfectly clear that he was not reporting truth or fact, but making a record of what others had told him: “I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”. [7.153-2]

If he were an historian, then he could only be said to have been a war, or anti-war historian. This is made clear from the preface to his work in which he states his wish to record how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife. Thus, everything else (topography, local customs etc) becomes entertaining garnish.
And it is precisely the garnish, the tall-tales, the meandering yarns, the detailed landscapes, the curious dress and peculiar fauna, that have brought him in for such weight of attack.
However, as one man travelling in an unknown world, desperate to learn and share all it had to teach him, he is no more worthy of censure then the authors of obsolete entries in the Lonely Planet.
Modern assumptions and misinterpretation wound Herodotus. It is not up to him to justify himself to us, but up to us to read him as he wrote, without certainty, without authority, but with keen interest, enthusiasm, a willingness to think and an thirst to learn.
And, naturally, a pinch of salty skepticism.

Interested in reading the Histories by Herodotus? You can access it here for Free:
https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/herodotus-histories-book-i/

“Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?” was written by Ben Potter