Thucydides: the First Historian

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Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is widely considered one of the first attempts at what we consider history. He moved away from Herodotus’s style, which presented stories ‘worth noting’, regardless of their reliability or reasonableness. By analysing events for his audience, inferring causation and suggesting the intentions of those involved, Thucydides took the next step in the historical process, setting the precedent for future historians.

Thucydides made clear that impartiality was fundamental to his work: his sources were “far from … the first source that came to hand,” making sure to subject “the accuracy of the report [to] the most severe and detailed tests possible.” In this way, he tries to justify why, in order to compile an accurate history, not all of what he wrote was based on first-hand accounts.

His analysis also made sure to explain the historic validity of the position he took, the most fundamental difference from Herodotus. It reconciled discrepancies in accounts to find the most probable truth, but made clear the ambiguities: “My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses.”

This refusal to tell interesting stories with no basis in fact was unusual given the twofold purpose of literature at the time, even in more serious philosophical or historical works: to educate and to entertain. Any text that only did the former, like Thucydides’s, was thought unlikely to garner a large audience.

Beyond its role as a history of an individual event, Thucydides also wanted his history to be “exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future … not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” In fact, the modern idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (whereby an existing and emerging power are ‘destined’ for conflict), though controversial, derives from his work, demonstrating its enduring applicability as he intended.

Nonetheless, one must consider the motives or underlying ideology within Thucydides’s supposedly impartial work. Thucydides himself was an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War but was exiled after an unsuccessful expedition to prevent the Spartan capture of Amphipolis in 424-423 BC. Despite claiming that it was not his fault, since he had arrived after the Spartans had already negotiated terms of surrender with the Amphipolitans, Thucydides was subsequently voted into exile from Athens for twenty years. He used his status as an exile to travel the Peloponnese and examine the war from both sides.

However, what Thucydides saw as his unrighteous exile by an ungrateful people may have altered Thucydides’s perspective on the responsible Athenian system of governance – democracy.

Indeed, his account of the Sicilian Expedition led by Alcibiades and Nicias clearly demonstrated the failures of democracy when not led decisively. Alcibiades was ambitious and convinced the people to send a force to Sicily that overstretched Athenian military resources; Nicias, in his caution, convinced the people of the need for a massive force to ensure victory, meaning a doomed excursion was even more wasteful than necessary. The result was a reckless expedition with its failure exacerbated by the contrary positions of the two leaders.

However, Thucydides’s antipathy towards democracy, created by his own personal status and later his exile, may have informed how he presented these events. That the narrative here was such a clear warning against democracy may suggest that it was in fact crafted to fit his existing biases.

It is difficult to do justice to the complexity and nuance of Thucydides’s history, informed by his own experiences of the war, or to its incredible significance. However, in short, his attempts at analytical rigour mark the most important shift of the historical paradigm, away from that of Herodotus, concerned more with stories than with facts, and towards the history of today.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.

McGregor, M. F., “The Politics of the Historian Thucydides.” Phoenix 10, no. 3 (1956): 93–102.