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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
Ruins in Samos
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.
Additionally, 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.
Illustration of Aristophanes
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
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 traveling 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 a thirst to learn.