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Thucydides Essay, Research Paper

What makes Thucydides such an unsatisfactory historian is that he suppresses the evidence that would have allowed us to disagree with him.

Jonathan HannaThucydides ignored social, economic and cultural matters and excluded topics that he felt unable to write about, such as women. Further inadequacies can be found throughout the History, especially when the search for truth seems to have become subordinate to artistic considerations. The narrative is punctuated by speeches, the primary literary device used in the ‘History’ and these are unreliable and subjective. In refusing to verify his sources we are forced to accept or reject his testimony based on the satisfactory (or otherwise) nature of the account of the war as a piece of history. However, there are inconsistencies throughout and from the few sources available to modern historians we must consider Thucydides’ creditability as questionable. The reader’s dissatisfaction with Thucydides as an historian is derived from a combination of the suppression of evidence, which leads us to decipher his validity from the consistency of the text, and the problems we have with the text when we do so.

Thucydides systematically ignores certain issues for instance religious, economic and social issues. He abandoned breadth to achieve depth, but in ignoring these issues he missed certain aspects of the war. Further and even closer to his chosen topic he completely ignores Persia as a factor in the background to the war and only alludes to the Megara decree which in other accounts has an important role to play in the out break of war. Religion had an important role to play in the lives of many of the Greeks, Thucydides himself may have rejected Religion but he also underplayed its role. It is clear that Religion was a vital part of the decision making process, for instance the Spartan’s, on deciding whether or not to declare war, first went to enquire to the god’s at Delphi and only then met with their allies . Further Thucydides dismissed the idea of plague as an object of Divine intervention , yet if this was believed to be the case by the Spartans then it would have been of great encouragement and would have had the opposite effect on the Athenians. He also leaves economic and financial concerns out of his history, yet the build up of Greece contained in the brief pre history of the introduction and the growth of Athenian Power (the “Truest cause” for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war) are both borne out of economic expansion. His concentrations on inter Greek conflict as the cause of the war excludes the Persia from the picture. There was, in accordance to Thucydides, no conflict or entente with Persia from either side for forty years and then suddenly the Persians and Spartans are in alliance putting the Spartans in a much stronger position to go on and defeat Athens.

Thucydides unwillingness to widen his focus forces him to ignore events that had immense consequences within his focus. His style of historical interpretation leads him to suppress the degrees of Megara.

“All non-Thucydidean accounts of the outbreak of the war make the negotiations turn solely on the Megarian decrees. Thucydides records none of these decrees and keeps Megarian affairs in the background, suppressing Pericle’s connection to them.”

There is a suggestion here that Thucydides suppresses this factor in the outbreak of the war in order that he doesn’t conflict with his approach to the History. Thucydides has chosen to ignore economics, yet a link can be seen between the commercial interests of Athens and Pericilian policy on this occasion, especially the establishment of a free trade route excluding Corinth. The degrees (from other sources we can see there were three) are alluded to in Thucydides:

“War could be avoided if Athens would revoke the Megarian degree which excluded Megara from all the ports in the Athenian empire.”

Thucydides downsizes the importance of the decrees of Megara as they devalue Pericles himself, either showing him to be vindictive or as Cornford argues to have a less tenuous grasp on power than Thucydides, in his usage of Pericles as a heroic character, would like to admit:

“Pericles had to throw himself into it (the Megara decree) or advertise to all Greece that his influence was not supreme”

Thucydides treatment of Pericles and in antithesis Cleon is an example of the artistic and dramatic interpretation he uses to illustrate his history. His usage of poets and concentration on Human history are examples of the dramatic nature of his history. The role of speeches and the polarisation of speakers further extenuate this. The History can be read as a tale in the mould of classical Greek tragedy, it shows the Hubris of Athens and the course of her demise, in this case because she does act in concurrence with those who have the moral strength not to be corrupted by power. The drama is helped by the language used, especially the use of Superlatives:

“It was certainly the greatest battle?fought by the most renowned cities in


The History can be seen as a series of dramatic events in the course of relations between two great powers. Hence the exclusion of Persia and of commonalities between the two powers, such as religion. It is important for this dramatisation that there is a distinct dichotomy between the two powers, so they conform to the antithetic model. On one side there is Sparta, ruled by monarchs, the traditional power base in Greece and its military strength is predominantly land based, on the other there is Athens, everything that Sparta is not; it is a naval power, a new force and a democracy. Therefore both the Spartans and the Athenians are treated as collective entities, at least until later in the book, when the antitheses are shown between individuals.

Thucydides, much as he made claims to objectivity was influenced by his tradition, where even Plato cast his speculations in the dramatic form of dialogue. Consequently speeches are very important in the History, they allow Thucydides a pretext to:

“Make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for in each situation”

Which we can interpret as what was called for to carry the dramatisation of events. This is shown by the artificial nature of many of the speeches. For instance the long range dialogue between Pericles and the Corinthians , whereby Pericles speaking to the Athenian assembly answers point by point the arguments the Corinthians made to the Spartan assembly some time previously. The unsatisfactory nature of his History is also shown in the context of the two-day assembly convened to consider the appeals from Corinth and Corcyra. The assembly originally favoured Corinth but on the second day they changed their minds, but the historian neglects to tell us how many changed, or what was Pericles’ position. He is also vague at other points, for instance when the Corinthians condemn the Athenians to the Spartan assembly, there are some Athenians who were permitted to speak in defence of Athens, yet Thucydides doesn’t tell us what they are doing in Sparta, or if they are officials with a brief. Indeed he leaves us to guess their motives, just as Thucydides guesses, or superimposes motives, especially with Cleon. This leads us to question his historical judgement.

The speeches of Thucydides are problematic for accepting the adequacy of Thucydides as a historian. They are not exact transcripts and unlike reports of events, they could have been presented in word for word transcription. They are one part of his history where the precision he so craves could have been absolute; there should be no need for him:

“To make speakers say what was called for on each occasion”

The reported speech draws a comparison between his account and an idealised representation of an exact account. Also, if he felt able to manufacture parts of what was said to furnish a speech, or to achieve antitheses, then he may of invented some of the speeches entirely; especially as they all appear in his style with no attempt to reproduce any of the speakers’ idiosyncrasies, he thus conceals their individuality so they can conform to his stereotype’s of them.

The dramatisation of events and manipulation of characters is to fit his narrative and far from there being an:

“Absence in it of a Romantic element.”

He is in actuality not that different than the poets he derides for exaggerating their themes; indeed he relies on them for much of his introduction.

Thucydides views on society dictated to his history. The factors that make a society grow and prosper and those that make it fall are all alluded to in his account. As a result of this he excludes references to the family and the individual.

“Thucydides defined his work as much by the topics he excluded as by those issues he chose to address” .

Thucydides lack of interest in women and the family is striking , even within the realms of the patriarchical nature of Greek society. He speaks through Pericles on this matter:

“If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence?great be your glory in not falling short of your national character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad.”

Throughout the History women are only referred to as wives and children as sons (never daughters).

Thucydides suppresses evidence when it doesn’t correspond to the story he wants to write. This makes him an unsatisfactory historian. One of the consequences of the suppression of evidence by Thucydides is that:

“We are soon tempted to talk about the author and his personality, rather than about the work and its complexities”

For a writer who mentions himself so infrequently he comes across very strongly, for instance at the start of the book:

“Thucydides the Athenian wrote up the war of the Peloponnesian and the Athenians” Thucydides is the nominative subject; the war is the object he is the actor and it is his setting. Thucydides unlike Herodotus does not focus on the evidence but on an intellectual synthesis he draws from the sources. This puts the reader in a position of either accepting the conclusions he draws or rejecting them.

The evidence available to the modern historian invites scepticism toward Thucydides the historian, for instance an inscription suggests that he is wrong about the commander of an Athenian expedition in Leukimme. Also later writers have disagreed about the composition of the committee, which paved the way for the oligarchy of the four hundred in 411. Also he ignores some figures who in other accounts receive great notoriety; for instance Hyperbolus. Hyperbolus has a play named after him by Plato comicus and is named in the Archanorus of 425 and is generally seem as an influential figure but he doesn’t feature in Thucydides. As he doesn’t fit in the story he wants to tell.

Thucydides was a good researcher and a good storyteller; he shaped the individuals and events of the Peloponnesian war to suit a dramatic story, but as a historian he doesn’t quite succeed; The Oxford English Dictionary defines a historian as:

“A writer or author of a history; esp. one who produces a work of history in the higher sense, as distinguished from the simple annalist or chronicler of events, or from the mere compiler of a historical narrative.”

Thucydides, through suppression and exclusion of evidence became a dramatist as he did not produce history in the higher sense, in terms of evidence he was a mere compiler of historical narrative. He made too many assumptions to remain an adequate historian, but he is not inadequate because he disables us from disagreeing with him by suppressing evidence; it is also because he is more concerned with providing a

“Piece of writing?done to last for ever”

To do this he has first to prove that the Peloponnesian war was the greatest war ever fought and then to make it relevant he has to draw generalisations (especially in terms of characterisation) that will be significant to subsequent generations. However because of this he suppresses the evidence that would have provided us with a genuine picture of the period and he doesn’t allow us to disagree or agree with him from a position of knowledge.

Gregory Cane The Blinded eye Rowam&Littlefield 1996

Thucydides History of the Penguin 1972

Peloponnesian war

Connor Thcuydides Princetown 1988

University Press

Cornford Thucydides Mysthiotoricus

Cartwright Historical Commentary on University of Michigan1997 Thucydides Press

Cawkwell Thucydides and the Routledge 1997

Peloponnesian war

Abbot Thucydides Routledge 1925

Hornblower Thucydides. Duckworth 199

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