Authors: Thucydides

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Ancient Greek historian.

c. 460 BCE

Probably Athens, Greece

c. 402 BCE

Unknown

Biography

Thucydides (thyew-SIHD-uh-deez) was the son of Olorus, an Athenian citizen. The date of his birth is uncertain; it has been put as early as 471 BCE and as late as 455 BCE. He may have spent part of his youth in Thrace, where his family owned gold-mining rights. He says that he began his history of the Peloponnesian War at the moment when the war broke out, so he was presumably living at Athens in 431. He was certainly there the following year during the plague, of which he fell ill.

Thucydides

(Library of Congress)

In 424 he was appointed, jointly with Eucles, to defend the coastal region bordering on Thrace and was entrusted with a naval squadron. His failure to prevent the capture of Amphipolis when it was invaded by the Spartans provoked the Athenians to send him into exile. He passed his twenty years of banishment in visiting the cities of the enemy and the principal battlefields of the war and in collecting from veterans of the war the historical materials needed for his work. He returned to Athens about 403. He did not live to complete his great work—the History of the Peloponnesian War ends in 411, seven years before the peace was finally made. His death is supposed to have occurred at the hands of an assassin about 402 BCE. Thucydides is classified as the first scientific historian. Compared with Herodotus, his predecessor, whom Thucydides criticized for his failure to verify facts and stories before using them, he went to extremes to guarantee the accuracy of his own work.

Thucydides’ History is both highly objective and highly dramatic. In the numerous orations which he reports or constructs, he shows his precise understanding of ideological issues. His narratives are marvelously vivid; among the most memorable are his accounts of the plague in Athens and of the Syracusan campaign, which ended with the imprisonment of the expeditionary force in the rock quarries and which had a direct effect on the defeat of Athens by Sparta.

Author Works Nonfiction: Historia tou Peloponnesiacou polemou, 431–404 B.C.E. (History of the Peloponnesian War, 1550) Bibliography Connor, W. Robert. Thucydides. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A meditation on Thucydides and an analysis of the text, especially to determine the source of Thucydides’ emotional impact on his readers. Debner, Paula. Speaking the Same Language: Speech and Audience in Thucydides’ Spartan Debates. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Edmunds, Lowell. Chance and Intelligence in Thucydides. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. A study of Thucydides’ theory of reason and chance in human affairs and of the interplay of pessimism and optimism in his work. Gomme, Arnold W. A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. 5 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1945-1981. Gomme’s monumental work is a classic of Thucydides scholarship. Gustafson, Lowell S., ed. Thucydides’ Theory of International Relations: A Lasting Possession. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Essays by nine political scientists consider Thucydides as a theorist of international relations, including his concepts of how history informs modern events, realism vs. pluralism, the impact of internal events on international politics, and culture as it operates in world affairs. Hornblower, Simon. Thucydides. London: Duckworth, 1994. Places Thucydides in the intellectual atmosphere of Periclean Athens and carefully distinguishes the various influences on his thought. Luginbill, Robert D. Thuycidides on War and National Character. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Examines Thucydides’ analysis of human character and its tendency toward war, behaviors of individuals and states in times of stress, and what lessons can be drawn by modern audiences. Pouncey, Peter R. The Necessities of War: A Study of Thucydides’ Pessimism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. A study of Thucydides’ theory of human nature and its influence on history; Pouncey finds an "essential pessimism" that holds that human nature carries within it drives that destroy human achievements. Price, Jonathan J. Thucydides and Internal War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Argues from internal evidence that Thucydides viewed the Peloponnesian War as an internal war, or stasis. Readable and accessible to nonscholars. Rawlings, Hunter R., III. The Structure of Thucydides’ History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Provides insights into Thucydides based on an analysis of the structure of his work. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. This translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by M. I. Finley, is highly regarded and easily accessible. Zagorin, Perez. Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. A concise introduction to the Greek author and historian, Thucydides, including a look at the background behind his writing and the reasons why it is relevant today.

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