By Ben Potter
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.
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.
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.
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.