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Category Archives: Historians

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Xenophon: A Biography of the Historian, Poet and Military Strategist

by December 15, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Xenophon’s Early life
Not much is known of Xenophon from his early years, except that he was son of Gryllus, a wealthy citizen of Erchia, a suburb of Athens. He was born circa 430 BC, and not much is known of his life up to 401 BC. This is when he was, according to his work Anabasis, invited by his friend Proxenus to join the military expedition…one that marked his life and lifetime work. He became a mercenary for Cyrus the Younger against his elder brother, King Artaxerxes II of Persia.
There was, however, one small problem. He was not aware of that fact.
Statue of Xenophon

Xenophon in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna

Xenophon’s Career

Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men
This endeavor was hugely influential for both Xenophon, as well as military leaders throughout history. In the end, it provided important lessons on military logistical operations, flanking maneuvers, feints, attacks in specifics and retreat, in general.
Why retreat, you ask? Well, mostly because that’s exactly what the Greeks did. They were expecting a much easier obstacle, a Persian satrap named Tissaphernes (do not forget this name, we will come back to him later). Instead, they faced a great Persian army. Moreover, soon into the expedition the main financial and logistical provider, Cyrus, was killed in the middle of a battle. The chain of events got even worse when shortly thereafter, Greek leaders, generals, and captains were invited to a peace conference… where they were betrayed and executed.
So, the Greek army was left with a simple plan. One, retreat. Two, have Xenophon lead the way back home.
Map of Xenophon's retreat

The Route of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand Men

Anabasis, one of Xenophon’s greatest works, is where you can read in detail his struggles and strategies. This epic adventure is the reason why “the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior”, as quotes military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge. We, however, will cut the story short here and say that he got his men safely back home.
Tissaphernes – a name we told you not to forget
Tissaphernes was a Persian satrap and a historical knot that entangles many individual destinies as well as the regions Persia, Athens, and Sparta, among others.
First, he got in between two brothers – Persian King Artaxerxes II and his younger sibling Cyrus the Younger (a price he will pay with his life to their mother Parysatis). After first betraying Cyrus, and later killing him at the Battle of Cunaxa, Tissaphernes pursued Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men in retreat with a vast force. We already said that Xenophon brought his men home, but Tissaphernes became an enemy of both Sparta and Athens because of all the events mentioned above.
Now, it’s important to remember at this moment that Athens and Sparta were not particularly friendly to each other… indeed, they were sworn enemies. Despite this, Xenophon of Athens (as he was called) did not hide his profound admiration for Sparta and Spartan leaders (Agesilaus II and Lysander, in particular).
Coin of Tissaphernes

Coinage of Phokaia, Ionia, circa 478-387 BC. Possible portrait of Satrap Tissaphernes, with satrapal headress.

But Tissaphernes was the main reason why Xenophon came to respect the military wisdom of the Spartans. While he was seeking refuge from Tissaphernes, he noticed the respect Spartan leaders had for one another while successfully fighting the Persian satrap in Asia Minor.
So much, in fact, that he mentioned them extensively in his works Anabasis, Agesilaus, Polity of the Lacedaemonians, and Hellenica.
Excerpt from Agesilaus, Xenophon:
«It would be hard to discover, I imagine, anyone who in the prime of manhood was as formidable to his foes as Agesilaus when he had reached the limit of mortal life. Never, I suppose, was there a foe-man whose removal came with a greater sense of relief to the enemy than that of Agesilaus, though a veteran when he died. Never was there a leader who inspired stouter courage in the hearts of fellow-combatants than this man with one foot planted in the grave. Never was a young man snatched from a circle of loving friends with tenderer regret than this old graybeard.»
illustration of Xenophon's friend

Spartan King Agesilaus

Excerpt from Hellenica, Xenophon shows the relationship between the Spartan Rulers, in particular the king Lysander and king Agesilaus:
“But here was Lysander back again. Everyone recognized him and flocked to him with petitions for one favour or another, which he was to obtain for them from Agesilaus. A crowd of suitors danced attendance on his heels and formed so conspicuous a retinue that Agesilaus, anyone would have supposed, was the private person and Lysander the king.
«All this was maddening to Agesilaus, as was presently plain. As to the rest of the Thirty, jealousy did not suffer them to keep silence, and they put it plainly to Agesilaus that the super-regal splendor in which Lysander lived was a violation of the constitution.
«So when Lysander took upon himself to introduce some of his petitioners to Agesilaus, the latter turned them a deaf ear. There being aided and abetted by Lysander was sufficient; he sent them away discomfited.
«At length, as time after time things turned out contrary to his wishes, Lysander himself perceived the position of affairs. He now no longer suffered that crowd to follow him and gave those who asked him help in anything plainly to understand that they would gain nothing, but rather be losers, by his intervention.
«But being bitterly annoyed at the degradation put upon him, he came to the king and said to him: “Ah, Agesilaus, how well you know the art of humbling your friends!” “Ay, indeed,” the king replied: “Those of them whose one idea it is to appear greater than myself. If I did not know how also to requite with honour those who work for my good, I should be ashamed.”
«And Lysander said: “Maybe there is more reason in your doings than ever guided my conduct” adding, “Grant me for the rest one favour, so shall I cease to blush at the loss of my influence with you, and you will cease to be embarrassed by my presence. Send me off on a mission somewhere; wherever I am I will strive to be of service to you.”
Illustration of Lysander

The multitude saluting Lysander with loud acclamations.

Apostle of Socrates
From Xenophon’s excerpts on Sparta, as well as from other historical facts, we must understand two things before we can go to one of the most important roles Xenophon played in the history of humankind.
One, Athens was on its decline and the trial of Socrates only illustrated how Athens represented, or rather failed to represent, a pedestal of democracy. Sparta, on the other side, as Xenophon underlines “even though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece. And I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.”

The Death of Socrates

Second, Sparta was admired as a whole, envied because of its unity. Athens, however, produced magnificent individuals, who were free to question, write, and influence one another, even if it meant an inevitable fall in the end, as Socrates clearly demonstrates.
Thus, it is very important to appreciate this polarity both in general and with regards to Xenophon specifically. Xenophon had the opportunity to perceive both sides and thus produce works that reflect a wider, more honest, spectrum of Ancient Greece.

Thalatta! Thalatta! (The Sea! The Sea!) — painting by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901 – A famous scene from Xenophon’s works

Xenophon’s admiration for Sparta was only equalled by his love for his mentor, the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought, Socrates.
Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium were all Xenophon’s gospels to Socrates. He admired his teacher very much (along with fellow protege Plato). So much so that some conjecture that Socrates would not have been sentenced to death if Xenophon had been in Athens instead of on a military expedition in Persia.
Per Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of the Greek philosophers:
“They say that Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.’ And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.”
Socrates Illustration

Drawing of Socrates

Xenophon’s Works
Xenophon was greatly prolific. Of the 14 works we know of, they can be broadly categorized into three categories. His ‘Historical and biographical’ works include: Anabasis, Cyropaedia, Hellenica, Agesilaus, and Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.
Next are his ‘Socratic’ works, which are: Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium. Finally his ‘other’ works are: Hiero, On Horsemanship, Hipparchikos, Hunting with Dogs, and Ways and Means.
Xenophon’s Death
There is no firm record on how Xenophon spent his last days. There is one version of him being exiled (or self-exiled) from Athens to Scillus and later in Corinth. It is estimated that he died circa 354 BC.
It is recorded that he had two sons, Gryllus and Diodorus, who fought at the Battle of Mantinea as members of the Athenian army.
Bust of Xenophon

Xenophon, Aphrodisias Museum

Xenophon’s Achievements and Legacy
Aside from what we have previously mentioned, it is important to emphasize that Xenophon was a sort of practical philosopher. This is what made him a successful military strategist, leader, soldier, politician, poet, and historian.
His Anabasis was used as a field guide by none other than Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia. Moreover, Memorabilia had a huge and important impact on the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in particular. Clearly Xenophon’s influence on mankind can not be overstated.

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.


“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.”
“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.

“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.


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.
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.

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.