Historian, Statesman, General (c.460BC – 395 BC)
The greatest historian of the ancient world and the first to write down history as a science. Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the 30-year conflict between Athens and Sparta during the 5th century BC. He is, to date, the most widely and extensively studied historian of all time. He is the one who set the scientific principles of history.
Thucydides was born in Athens and came from a wealthy family. As a young man he was a student of philosopher Anaxagoras and rhetorician Antiphon. Thucydides became a general of Athens and participated in the Peloponnesian War. In 424 BC, having failed to save the city of Amphipolis from the Spartans, led by general Vrasidas, he was exiled by the Athenians. During his 20 years of exile, Thucydides devoted full time to collecting data from both opposing sides and compile The History of the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides was the first to use research as a scientific method to write history. He set the foundation on how modern history is written down, examined and studied. Before him, history was based on observation and mere conjecture. In antithesis to Herodotus, for example, who relies on sentiments and admiration, Thucydides’ only tool is strict logic. He dismisses any information that is unreliable, discredited or without sources, uses first-hand knowledge and primary sources to express the true, the exact, the precise. He clarifies every cause he presents with logical aetiology, stripped of his own psychological influence and self-benefit. His writing is exemplary subjective. His thought runs in the context of reality, with the ultimate aim to document the truth using nothing but facts. For him, truth and prognosis are the two factors that guide him to writing his treatise.
Thucydides possessed first-hand experience in the military affairs. He acknowledged the importance that economics played in the war and recognized the significance of key players of the events, such as Themistocles’ and Pericles’ contributions for Athens. He was an avid proponent of the Athenian democracy, which he attributed to the “power of the first man (of Athens)”. In his work Epitaph or Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides underlines the importance of the one man, the aristos that governs the state in the name of democracy.
The History of the Peloponnesian War was written with the intention that the war would be more worthy of relation than any other that had occurred in the past. The treatise was later divided into 8 books. The first book opens with an introduction to the war, the external factors that led to it and the diplomatic movements of the two opposing forces prior to the outbreak. Thucydides’ last book closes with the events of 411 BC, 7 years before the end of the Peloponnesian War. Even though he had lived through the entirety of the war, Thucydides left his work incomplete because of his death in 395 BC.
Thucydides’ influence was immediate right after his death. Ancient Greeks and Romans alike were drawn to his work, some of which continued it, such as Xenophon, and others who proceeded in writing their own historical treatises, namely Polybius, Sallustius and Tacitus. It is said that the Athenian rhetorician Demosthenes was a fanatic reader of Thucydides’ work. Modern scholars from England, France and Germany have meticulously studied his works, most notably Leopold von Ranke and Jacqueline de Romilly. Already from antiquity, Thucydides had secured his place among the giants of Western thought and civilization. He is recognized worldwide as the father of scientific history.
- Arnold Wycombe Gamme. Thucydides. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica.com Web. February 8, 2018.
- “Thucydides”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens: 1946. Print.
- Διαλησμά, Δρουκόπουλος, Κουτρουμπέλη, Χρυσάφης. Αρχαίοι Έλληνες Ιστοριογράφοι. Ινστιτούτο Τεχνολογίας Υπολογιστών και Εκδόσεων «Διόφαντος». Αθήνα. Υπουργείο Παιδείας και Θρησκευμάτων, Ινστιτούτο Εκπαιδευτικής Πολιτικής.