Thucydides (c. 460 BCE – c. 395 BCE) (Greek Θουκυδίδης, Thoukydídēs) was a Greek historian from Alimos and author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of "scientific history" because of his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods, as outlined in his introduction to his work.
He has also been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the relations between nations as based on might rather than right. His classical text is still studied at advanced military colleges worldwide, and the Melian dialogue remains a seminal work of international relations theory.
More generally, Thucydides showed an interest in developing an understanding of human nature to explain behavior in such crises as plague, massacres, as in that of the Melians, and civil war.
In spite of his stature as a historian, modern historians know relatively little about Thucydides' life. The most reliable information comes from his own History of the Peloponnesian War, which expounds his nationality, paternity and native locality. Thucydides informs us that he fought in the war, contracted the plague and was exiled by the democracy. He may have also been involved in quelling the Samian Revolt.
Evidence from the Classical Period
Thucydides identifies himself as an Athenian, telling us that his father's name was Olorus and that he was from the Athenian deme of Halimous. He survived the Plague of Athens that killed Pericles and many other Athenians. He also records that he owned gold mines at Scapte Hyle (literally: "Dug Woodland"), a coastal area in Thrace, opposite the island of Thasos.
Because of his influence in the Thracian region, Thucydides wrote, he was sent as a strategos (general) to Thasos in 424 BC. During the winter of 424-423 BC, the Spartan general Brasidas attacked Amphipolis, a half-day's sail west from Thasos on the Thracian coast, instigating the Battle of Amphipolis. Eucles, the Athenian commander at Amphipolis, sent to Thucydides for help. Brasidas, aware of Thucydides's presence on Thasos and his influence with the people of Amphipolis, and afraid of help arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Thus, when Thucydides arrived, Amphipolis was already under Spartan control.
Amphipolis is of considerable strategic importance, and news of its fall caused great consternation in Athens. It was blamed on Thucydides, although he claimed that it was not his fault and that he had simply been unable to reach it in time. Because of his failure to save Amphipolis, he was sent into exile.
Using his status as an exile from Athens to travel freely among the Peloponnesian allies, he was able to view the war from the perspective of both sides. During this time, he conducted important research for his history, having claimed that he pursued the project as he thought it would be one of the greatest wars waged among the Greeks in terms of scale.
This is all that Thucydides wrote about his own life, but a few other facts are available from reliable contemporary sources. Herodotus wrote that Thucydides' father's name, Όloros, was connected with Thrace and Thracian royalty. Thucydides was probably connected through family to the Athenian statesman and general Miltiades, and his son Cimon, leaders of the old aristocracy supplanted by the Radical Democrats. Cimon's maternal grandfather's name was also Olorus, making the connection exceedingly likely. Another Thucydides lived before the historian and was also linked with Thrace, making a family connection between them very likely as well. Finally, Herodotus confirms the connection of Thucydides' family with the mines at Scapté Hýlē.
Combining all the fragmentary evidence available, it seems that his family had owned a large estate in Thrace, one that even contained gold mines, and which allowed the family considerable and lasting affluence. The security and continued prosperity of the wealthy estate must have necessitated formal ties with local kings or chieftains, which explains the adoption of the distinctly Thracian royal name "Όloros" into the family. Once exiled, Thucydides took permanent residence in the estate and, given his ample income from the gold mines, he was able to dedicate himself to full-time history writing and research, including many fact-finding trips. In essence he was by then a retired, well-connected gentleman of considerable resources who, by then retired from the political and military spheres, decided to fund his own scientific project.
The History of the Peloponnesian War
After his death, Thucydides's history was subdivided into eight books: its modern title is the History of the Peloponnesian War. His great contribution to history and historiography is contained in this one dense history of the 27-year war between Athens, Sparta, and their respective allies. The history breaks off near the end of the 21st year; the last sketchy book suggests that his death was unexpected and may possibly have been sudden or violent. Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War represented an event of unmatched magnitude. His intention was to write an account of the events of the late fifth century which would serve as "a possession for all time."
Thucydides is generally regarded as one of the first true historians. Like his predecessor Herodotus, known as "the father of history", Thucydides places a high value on eyewitness testimony and writes about events in which he himself probably took part. He also assiduously consulted written documents and interviewed participants about the events that he recorded. Unlike Herodotus, whose stories often teach that a foolish arrogance—hubris—invites the wrath of the gods, Thucydides does not acknowledge divine intervention in human affairs.
Thucydides omits discussion of the arts, literature, or the social milieu in which the events in his book take place and in which he himself grew up. He saw himself as recording an event, not a period, and went to considerable lengths to exclude what he deemed frivolous and / or extraneous. Some consider this framing in itself as constituting a form of value judgment.
Thucydides versus Herodotus
Thucydides and his immediate predecessor Herodotus both exerted a significant influence on Western historiography. Thucydides does not mention his counterpart by name, but his famous introductory statement is thought to refer to him.
“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.”
Herodotus records in his Histories not only the events of the Persian Wars but also geographical and ethnographical information, as well as the fables related to him during his extensive travels. Typically, he passes no definitive judgment on what he has heard, In the case of conflicting or unlikely accounts, he presents both sides, says what he believes and then invites readers to decide for themselves. The work of Herodotus is reported to have been recited at festivals, where prizes were awarded, as for example, during the games at Olympia.
Herodotus views history as a source of moral lessons, with conflicts and wars as misfortunes flowing from initial acts of injustice perpetuated through cycles of revenge. In contrast, Thucydides claims to confine himself to factual reports of contemporary political and military events, based on unambiguous, first-hand, eye-witness accounts, although, unlike Herodotus, he does not reveal his sources. Thucydides views life exclusively as political life, and history in terms of political history. Conventional moral considerations play no role in his analysis of political events while geographic and ethnographic aspects are omitted or, at best, of secondary importance. Subsequent Greek historians — such as Ctesias, Diodorus, Strabo, Polybius and Plutarch — held up Thucydides' writings as a model of truthful history. Lucian refers to Thucydides as having given Greek historians their law, requiring them to say what had been done (ὡς ἐπράχθη). Greek historians of the fourth century BC accepted that history was political and that contemporary history was the proper domain of a historian. Cicero calls Herodotus the "father of history;" yet the Greek writer Plutarch, in his Moralia (Ethics) denigrated Herodotus, as the "father of lies". Unlike Thucydides, however, these historians all continued to view history as a source of moral lessons.