Thucydides- ancient Greek General and Historian

Thucydides

Thucydides (born circa 460 BC and died circa 395 BC) is an ancient Greek general and historian. He is considered by many scholars to be the first to use rigorous methodology in the presentation of history.

Thucydides Picture

Very little is known of his life beyond a few glimpses provided by what he writes in his own text. At some point he contracted the plague, but recovered. He owned gold mines in Thrace (modern day Hungary). He served as an Athenian general in Thasos during 424 BC.

His work “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (431-421 and 421- 404) is his only surviving work. He was not only a historian of the conflict, but he fought in it.

He was the commander of an Athenian fleet against the Spartan invasion of Thrace in 424-423 B.C. His failure to defend Amphipolis from conquest by the Spartan General Brasidas resulted in his exile for 20 years.

While in exile in Athens, he decided to write about the history of the war. His account, his divided into four sections and eight books: an account of the Ten Years War (431-421 B.C.- Books 2 to 5.24), the interwar period (421-415 B.C.- Books 5.25- 116), the Sicilian Expedition (415 B.C.- 413 B.C.- Books 6 & 7), and the so called Decelian War (413B.C. – 411 B.C.- Book 8).

It was clearly written or heavily edited after the conclusion of hostilities in 404 BC, but nevertheless ends mid-sentence during the summer months of 411 BC. No one knows why.

Background

Thucydides tells the reader that he began his work sometime after the war began. Much of it is written in the character of eyewitness accounts. The twenty years in Thucydides telling, describes in arc of political and moral decline for Athens. Athens is defeated in Sicily.

This long war had all the social and economic impact of World War I and II in the modern age. The death toll was high and the war stretched into several generations.

The real accomplishment of Thucydides work is his attempt to be as truthful as possible. He wanted his history to be a scientific study of men at war. His writings was not about assigning blame but an exploration in studying power and the workings of man. He believed this to be the true purpose of history.

His work of history is a military record without social or political commentary apart from war. Much of the history is told through speeches.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

The most famous passage of Thucydides; history is the funeral eulogy by Pericles. In it, he describes the moving ideals of Athenian democracy versus the harsh world of the Spartans.

In 431, shortly after the Peloponnesian War had broken out, Pericles delivered his famous speech. It is to commemorate those troops who had fallen in battle. It was recorded, and may have been rewritten by Thucydides.

It is one of the primary sources on which our understanding of ancient Athens is based. It provides a unique insight into just how Athenian democracy understood itself.

In the speech Pericles relates the special qualities of the Athenians. The speech redefined many traditional Greek virtues in a radically new light.

Historical Impact

Throughout history Thucydides’ text has been used by all the great empires as a learning tool. From the Romans to the British Empire in the 19th Century Thucydides was taught as a key text to understand the power and warfare.

His work became the standard by which all recorded history was later judged. Many historians compare Pericles’ Speech to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Whether Lincoln was inspired by Pericles no one really knows.

Thucydides Statue
Statue of Thucydides

Most striking of all, both speeches conclude by challenging the living to live up to the standard set by the fallen. “So dies these men as became Athenians,” says Pericles. “You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field.”

I think Lincoln expresses that thought better: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.

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