Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Thucydides (ca. 465-ca. 395 B.c.) Greek historian

The inheritor of HERODOTUS’S pioneering cultural history, Thucydides elevated the genre to the more scholarly discipline of political historiography. A native of a fishing village in Helimous, a region southwest of Athens, Greece, he was the son of Hegesipyle and Olorus, a substantial landowner. He may also have been a nephew of Miltiades the Younger, the victor at the battle of Marathon, and a cousin to Miltiades’ son Cimon, a hero at the battle of Salamis. In boyhood, Thucydides studied under the rhetorician Antiphon of Rhamnus and under Anaxagoras, the philosophy teacher of Euripides, Pericles, and Socrates. His wealth came from ownership of gold mines at Scapte Hyle in Thrace, the home of his wife, with whom he had a daughter and a son, Timotheus. Because of the estate’s distance from Athens, the historian was later able to take a dispassionate view of imperialist struggles in Greece. His fastidious use of cause and effect derives from teachings of the peripatetic Sophists and perhaps from his contemporary Hippocrates, the famed diagnostician of Cos. In 444 B.C., he reputedly wept at the Olympic Games during Herodotus’s reading from his Histories.

Thucydides took part in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), the bitter struggle between Sparta and Athens that involved every other citystate in Greece in a series of constantly changing alliances and conflicts. Being in the thick of things, he compiled details that gave his writings immediacy. In summer 430 B.C., he survived a plague—possibly epidemic typhus or typhoid fever—that had moved north from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Libya into Athens via the harbor at Piraeus. During a Spartan siege that confined citizens behind the walls of Athens, the pestilence swept the city. As conditions worsened from close contact and unsanitary conditions, infection and suicide killed a third of the populace, including many soldiers and also the statesman Pericles, Thucydides’ political idol.

The historian criticized battlefield atrocities for undermining Athenian humanity and openly disparaged the Athenian demagogues Hyperbolus and Cleon. The latter was the butt of stage SATIRE by the comedy writer Aristophanes in The Knights (424 B.C.). That same year, Thucydides was elected strategos (general) on the island of Thasos in the north Aegean. After the Spartan general Brasidas forced a surrender from the people of Amphipolis (present-day Amfipoli in Macedonia) in 422 B.C. at a cost of 600 Athenian soldiers, Athenians blamed Thucydides for arriving too late with his fleet of seven ships. Cleon exiled him to Thrace, a 20-year banishment that Thucydides accepted, perhaps as an alternative to execution.

Biographers portray Thucydides as a principled, rational historiographer. Supported by income from his gold mines, he apparently traveled widely, reaching the Athenian colony of Syracusa, Sicily. After Athens lost its Aegean empire along with its sources of revenue, he seems to have returned to Athens in 404 B.C., but he left in a few months to work on his history at leisure, free from urban political turmoil. At the historian’s death, reputedly murdered at about age 40, survivors honored him with burial southwest of the Acropolis at Koile in the Cimon clan’s vault alongside his sister Elpinice. Thucydides left his history incomplete. His daughter Archedice finished Book VIII; XENOPHON, a cavalryman during the Peloponnesian War, added the Hellenica, an inferior account of subsequent events from 411 to 362 B.c.

The History

Thucydides is remembered today for his uncompromising life work, The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.c.), a disciplined study of the decline of Athens shortly after the building of the Parthenon and the sculpting of its gold-clad statue of Athena. The impartial, frankly realistic chronology ignores artistic developments and examines all but the last six years of the 27-year conflict from 431 to 404 B.c. between Sparta and Athens, a nation obsessed by over-ambitious imperial objectives. Freedom of speech under Pericles allowed for public dispute about the nature of Athenian imperialism, which threatened the trade routes of rival states Corinth and Sparta to Aegean ports. The historian correctly predicted that the clash would be catastrophic for Greece and destabilize and jeopardize its environs. For research, he undertook a lengthy overview of prewar debates and embassies, verbatim speeches, interviews with informants on both sides of the conflict, and his own eyewitness view of events. He deviated from Herodotus’s style by omitting superstition and references to anthropomorphic gods and focused on causes of Athens’s downfall, which he put down to human greed and stupidity.

In the opening book, Thucydides establishes his belief in the “great men” theory of history, a concept in vogue when the Jewish chronicler FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS wrote Bellum Iudaicum (History of the Jewish War, A.D. 75). Thucydides’ text lauds Pericles as the brilliant and decisive leader whom Athenians needed to counter the Spartan threat. Rivalry sharpened the military might of both nations, but dogged diplomacy promoted coexistence, an achievement that marked civilized behavior between adversary states. During a period of imperial affluence that followed the Greek-Persian wars, Athenian aristocrats substituted money for commitment: “The majority of them shirked military service to escape absence from home… . The Athenian navy was increased as a result of their contributing to its cost while they themselves were always untrained and unprepared for war” (Thucydides 1963, 40). The visible threat to the rest of Greece forced Spartans to prepare for an inevitable conflict by land and sea. By emphasizing the moral lapse in Athenians, Thucydides demonstrates his grasp of objectivity.

Accounting for War

In Book II, Thucydides illustrates the unforeseeable factors that affect the destiny of empires. He cites the collapse of 14 years of peace with the outbreak of war on the north slope of Mount Cithaeron in southern Greece, where Athens supported Thebes against the Boeotian city of Plataea (a Spartan ally). In retaliation, Sparta attacked Athens; Athens, in turn, sent a fleet against Sparta. Thucydides stresses the cost of warfare with the crowding of peasants into the safe confines of Athens’s walls and in the winter memorial to fallen warriors, whose bones filled the cypress coffins of individual tribes. Pericles eulogized Athenian heroes as models of a unique national character that “respects the majority and not the few” (66-67). He lauded Athens for strength at home and on foreign soil and belittled Sparta for its fanatic training of warriors from childhood through old age. In summary, Pericles declared Athenians contenders “for a higher prize” (69), an allusion to imperial ambition. As though speaking through the leader’s oratory, Thucydides offers us his view of the importance of right thinking and honor.

From the height of oratory, the historian moves to the devastation of the epidemic in Athens and the death of Pericles from fever in 429 B.c., two causes of social and moral breakdown. The Spartans, under the command of Archidamus, directed some 65 percent of their forces into Attica (the area around Athens), but the pestilence halted their advance. Against an insidious infection that doctors could not treat, the Spartans withdrew. The Athenians faced the sapping of their strength from death and terror as well as the rise of hedonism. The chronicle reflects on the fact that “life and riches were alike ephemeral” (65) in a land where survivors feared neither God nor the law. While the Spartans seized the advantage to plunder the Laurion silver mines south of Athens, the Athenians remained behind city walls, as Pericles had advised. Thucydides allows himself a burst of hero worship: “[Pericles] kept Athens safe, and she reached the height of her greatness in his time” (83). The historian’s concern for ordinary Athenians reflects his regret that imperial decision makers often sacrifice citizens for token victory.

The Spread of Violence

With Book III, Thucydides characterizes the imperial struggle as a political epidemic that afflicted neighboring peoples. The first to fall was Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesbos, which capitulated to Athens in autumn 428 B.c. The victors under Cleon killed only the 1,000 rebels who caused Mytilene’s revolt; Cleon then subdivided Lesbos into 3,000 plots designated for colonial occupation and subjugation. One by one, the Aegean states of Corcyra, Megara, and Aeolus yield to Athens, followed by Messina, Leucas, and Ionia. Sparta took Plataea through a scorched-earth method and converted it to public land as a sop to their allies, the Thebans. In a vivid account of the civil war on Corcyra, Thucydides comments on the extremes of wartime barbarity. Describing constant killing, he notes that “the whole Hellenic world, one may say, was in commotion” (115), spreading senseless violence and a first-strike mentality among men eager to establish their battlefield reputations. The author blames vengefulness and lack of scruples on “the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition” (116), one of the bolder indictments of imperialism in ancient history.

At the height of international conflict, Thucydides meditates on the shift in imperial hopes in Book IV which opens in spring 424 B.c. At a pivotal point, Sicily revolted against Athens under the influence of the Spartan general Brasidas, who deliberately ran his own ship aground, giving his soldiers no choice but to fight. A subsequent Athenian defeat in Boeotia at Delium (outside present-day Tanagra, Greece) forced the truce of 423 B.c. Here Thucydides inserts his own small part in the lengthy war by explaining how loss of confidence in Athens caused the people of Amphipolis, which Thucydides had failed to protect, to surrender to Brasidas. In his own behalf, he describes his dilemma as being “on the spot” (159). Two more years of fighting concluded in 421 B.c. by the Peace of Nicias. The competition for an alliance with the Argives, Sparta’s neighbors, caused a debilitating struggle on both sides. Minor conflicts between small cities allied to Athens or Sparta led to a renewal of war. Book V concludes with the Melian controversy, Thucydides’s critique of Athenian savagery at Melos in 416 B.c. The onslaught resulted in GENOCIDE through killing all the men and in the sale of women and children into SLAVERY.

A Critique of Empires

Book VI demonstrates a pervasive theme of imperialism: overreaching ambition based on delusions of grandeur and shortsighted projections of risks and losses. The Athenian attack on Sicily began without the scouting necessary to assure success. The historian puts into the mouth of General Nicias a warning that Athens should complete old business before venturing so far from home. The blunder, which Thucydides compares to the folly of the entire Peloponnesian conflict, forced an Athenian leader, Alcibiades, into the Spartan camp. He galvanized them with a depiction of Athens as a military monster bent on devouring all of Hellas. In explanation of his betrayal of Athens, Alcibiades defined patriotism with a fervor anticipating the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine’s PROTEST treatise “The Crisis” (1776): “The patriot is not one who would not attack his own country when unjustly deprived of her, but one who in warmth of his passion would try to win her back by every means in his power” (242). In 414 B.C., turmoil in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War forced the Athenians to send a fleet to fortify Syracuse while Sparta sent forces to support the Sicilians. Following a sea battle at Syracuse, Demosthenes and the Athenians were defeated and surrendered to the Sicilians. The victors executed Demosthenes and Nicias and sold survivors as slaves. Thucydides honors Nicias as “[undeserving] of so miserable an end, for he had invariably conformed to the rules of good conduct” (306).

The chronicle turns to another theme: the inability of imperialists to rein in rogue leaders. Racked by military losses and desertions, the Athenian citizenry abandoned democracy for oligarchy under a consortium of plutocrats known as the Four Hundred. At this low point in national unity, Sparta seized the advantage to mount a coastal invasion. Although Athens recovered hope with a victory at the Hellespont, by 411 B.c., the Athenian empire faced doom. Thucydides seizes the historian’s right of retrospect to contrast Athens and Sparta as adversaries: “The two peoples were of very different tempers; the one quick, the other slow; the one enterprising, the other deficient in daring; and this was of the greatest service to the Athenians” (332).

Critical Opinion

Critics tend to lionize Thucydides as a brilliant but modest and impeccably objective war historian. With utter detachment, he described scenes of moral decline and of the erosion of traditional values. Unlike Herodotus, who looked to the past, Thucydides, from line one, looked at the effects of disastrous imperialism. Like the 20th- century battlefield journalist JOHN HERSEY, author of Hiroshima (1946), the Greek historiographer apparently took notes day by day, but in his history he remains aloof and nonjudgmental. He admits that eyewitness accounts differ on both sides, but he accepts contradictory memories as a natural outgrowth of battlefield confusion and misinformation. He recognizes the conflict between the individual and the state by depicting Pericles as an egalitarian who pursued Athenian national aims while hiding his personal disapproval of conflict against Greek neighbors.

Thucydides’ unemotional, densely packed reportage is relentless in its search for truth. He constantly winnows out details, and avoids embellishments to maintain a microscopic focus. Because he absorbed himself in details of embassies, fleets, and the military, his work remains one of the most perceptive perspectives of war in the ancient world. His precision and control earned the respect of Xenophon, who narrated the events of the last seven years of the war. Later critiques by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Roman satirist Lucian belittle Thucydides’ history as overly grim and the speeches pompous and melodramatic. Nonetheless, the historian’s incisive method inspired a series of historical analysts, including Polybius, Josephus, Sallust, TACITUS, PROCOPIUS, and ANNA COMNENA, the Byzantine author of the Alexiad (1148).


Crane, Gregory. The Blinded Eye: Thucydides and the New Written Word. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

Sahlins, Marshall. Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian Wars. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963.