Thucydides († probably between 399 BC and 396 BC) was an Athenian strategist from an aristocratic background, but above all one of the most important ancient Greek historians. Thucydides” view of historical forces is particularly significant for his assumptions about human nature and the motives of human action, which also fundamentally influence political conditions.

Although he left his work The Peloponnesian War (the original title has not survived) unfinished, it was only with this work that he methodically established a historiography that is consistently committed to the spirit of a neutral search for truth and that aims to satisfy an objective scientific claim. Today”s research on Thucydides is divided about the extent to which he lived up to this claim when writing his work. Among other things, his account of the role of Pericles in the Peloponnesian War is partially questioned.

Thucydides himself saw the purpose of his records in leaving “a possession forever” to posterity. The most striking example of the success of this undertaking is the distinction between the various short-term causes of the Peloponnesian War and its long-term causes, which were rooted in the rivalry between the great Greek powers of the time, the sea power Athens and the land power Sparta. Of its own timeless importance is also the power-political exemplary Melier dialogue.

Due to the lack of sources, it is not possible to give an even approximately complete description of Thucydides” life. The little that can be considered certain is based on personal testimonies of Thucydides, which he included in four places of his work about the Peloponnesian War without autobiographical intention. Individual references can be found in Plutarch. A first surviving discussion of his life story dates to about a millennium later; other obscure short vitae were even more remote from his era. Glaring gaps and remaining uncertainties are consequently essential features of the following overview.

Origin and career

For the year of Thucydides” birth it can only be said that it could have been 454 BC at the latest, because he had to be at least 30 years old to be able to hold the office of strategist, which he held in 424. Like his father, he possessed Attic citizenship on the basis of his affiliation with the demos Halimos of the phyle Leontis on the west coast of Attica. On his father”s side there was a Thracian lineage, because his father bore the Thracian name Oloros and bequeathed to his son possessions in Thrace as well as the use of the gold mines there. Thucydides therefore had considerable wealth and was finally able to devote himself entirely to his historical studies.

The family ties to Thrace suggest in another respect that Thucydides belonged to prominent circles of Attic society. Oloros was also the name of the Thracian king whose daughter Hegesipyle married Miltiades, the victorious general at Marathon, and whose son Kimon, who was politically highly influential in Athens for a long time, was related to Thucydides, according to Plutarch. The interest in state affairs, power issues, and military operations that characterizes Thucydides” account of the Peloponnesian War may therefore have been innate in him. His late antique biographer Markellinos sees him as a student of the philosopher Anaxagoras and the sophist Antiphon; he probably also listened to lectures by Herodotus.

Already at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides emphasizes right at the beginning of his work, he was aware of the unprecedented importance of this warlike confrontation of the great Greek powers, and so he immediately began to record the events. Thucydides mentions himself once again in connection with the description of the Attic Plague, which broke out among the Athenians who were trapped within their walls by the Spartans in 430 B.C. and spread devastatingly; Thucydides also fell ill from it. His vivid and expert account of the disease is an important source for medical historians today. Not only is Thucydides” knowledgeable description of the epidemic remarkable, but also his knowledge of the immunity gained by the survivors against later re-infection:

However, it is disputed which disease was involved. More than 200 publications on the subject bring at least 29 possibilities (from the Ebola virus to typhus abdominalis) into play. Thucydides” precise description of the event, often interpreted as plague, had considerable repercussions, for example in Lucretius” De rerum natura in antiquity, and in Camus” novel The Plague in the 20th century.

Strategist in the Archidamian War

For the year 424 B.C. Thucydides was elected to the College of Ten Strategists, a military leadership position that also functioned as the last politically significant elective office of the Attic democracy. The ten colleagues exercised the office under division of tasks in parallel. Thucydides was faced with the task of protecting the Thracian city of Amphipolis from being taken over by the Spartan commander Brasidas, who had erected a siege ring around the city and wanted to force its surrender. The citizenry of Amphipolis tended differently; but at first those determined to defend were still outnumbered, so Thucydides, stationed half a day”s journey away on Thasos, rushed to the rescue with seven trier.

According to Thucydides, Brasidas, aware of the influence of the advancing enemy in Thrace, had intensified his efforts to capture Amphipolis and had promised the inhabitants of the city such attractive conditions for staying or leaving that they actually handed over the city to him before Thucydides arrived in the evening. When he arrived, all that remained for him to do was to secure the neighboring settlement of Eion on the Strymon, which he estimated would otherwise have fallen to Brasidas the next morning. Nevertheless, the Athenians blamed the loss of Amphipolis, the important base in the northern Aegean, on their strategist Thucydides as a culpable failure and passed a resolution for his banishment. It is uncertain whether he even waited for the condemnation or whether he already anticipated it by voluntarily staying away from Athens.

The historian describes this event, from which two decades of forced absence from Athens followed for him, just as soberly and seemingly uninvolved as the other events of the Peloponnesian War, as if the chronicler Thucydides had nothing to do with the strategist Thucydides. To his Spartan war adversary Brasidas, however, Thucydides paid the highest praise – as he did to very few others – for what he did for Sparta: “For at that time alike, by his just and measured conduct in the cities, he induced most to apostatize, and for the subsequent war after the Sicilian events, nothing like Brasidas” noble bearing and insight of that time, which some knew from experience, others believed the rumor, made Athens” allies eager for Sparta.”

History researcher banned for many years

In the course of his chronological account of the events of the war, however, Thucydides does not at first report on the fundamental change in his own life associated with the exile. He brings it up only after a long delay, nine years after the fall of Amphipolis and his departure from Athens, when he connects the resumption of open hostilities, which replaced the peace of Nicias, with a transition to his description of the progress of the war. Also missing is any reference to the concrete circumstances of his dismissal as strategist and to the indictment, trial, and decision underlying the banishment:

It is possible that Kleon, whom Thucydides describes very negatively, was significantly involved in the banishment. About where and how Thucydides spent the 20 years in exile, there is no certain knowledge. It is assumed that he spent most of the time on his Thracian possessions. The quoted reference in his history work, that he was able to investigate more about both warring parties as a result of his exile, has been understood in part as meaning that he conducted a lot of on-site research while traveling. This is supported, for example, by his detailed knowledge of the political conditions in Corinth. Because of his detailed description of the circumstances of the exclusion of the Spartans from the Olympic Games in 420 B.C., his personal presence in Olympia at that time is also considered probable. However, it is equally possible that he had informants for the individual events at his disposal.

That Thucydides” banishment ended with the outcome of the Peloponnesian War is attested not only by himself, but also by Pausanias, who mentions a people”s assembly resolution containing permission for Thucydides to return. Again, it is unclear how much time the historian had left after that to work on his work, which breaks off unfinished in mid-sentence. However, one can find clues in it until when he was still alive. His description of the Macedonian king Archelaus sounds like an obituary. Since the latter died in 399 BC, one can assume that Thucydides was still alive at that time. If an inscription dated to 397 BC and found in Thasos, which names a Lichas as living, concerns the same Lichas whose death Thucydides reports, then the historian was still writing his work at least in 397 BC.

The circumstances of Thucydides” death are also unclear, which led to the creation of all kinds of legends in later times. Different versions of a murder of Thucydides circulated and were possibly inspired by the abrupt end of his writing. According to Pausanias and Plutarch, his funerary monument was located at the family tomb of the Kimon family in the Demos Koile.

Thucydides” account is significant not only as a unique source for the course of events of the inner-Greek power struggle between 431 and 411 BC. It is, as Bleckmann points out, also the decisive reason for considering this period in particular as an independent epoch of Greek history. This is, as every historical epoch division in general, the result of a mental decision based on conscious historical analysis: “That the total events between 431 and 404 were to be regarded as a unity, as a single war, was in any case not at all conscious to many contemporaries and is a (quite well-founded) view of things, which is only to be owed to Thucydides and later to the Greek historical interpretation of the fourth century.”

Creative motifs

According to Bleckmann, the sobriety of the presentation and the demonstration of superior insight indicate an effort for enlightening political work in Thucydides; for such an ability also characterizes the good politician. Landmann also emphasizes the political dimension of the work. Only when illuminated by the spirit can history – “the daily growing pile of dumb, stupid facts” – shed light on the present. Thucydides is concerned with leading to the right action through fruitful knowledge, not through specific situational instructions, but through the training of thinking in the linking of causes and effects, so that the appropriate orientation for one”s own current actions can ultimately be found by oneself.

From another point of view, Thucydides is essentially concerned with showing history to be an irreversible process in which it is necessary to make use of the favor of the historical hour – on the part of Athens, for example, the Spartan peace offer of 425 B.C. – because rejected opportunities do not return under the conditions that have changed in the course of events. Last but not least, Thucydides is primarily concerned with the motives underlying human action. According to Will, they explain not only the behavior of important individuals, but also that of cities and states. Bleckmann counts the increasing brutalization of the actors in the events of war among the aspects of representation that are particularly important to Thucydides:

Pioneering methodological accents

Even if researchers rightly warn against confusing the Thucydidean way of working with the completely different approach and claim of modern historians, his influence was enormous. Quite clearly, Thucydides lays claim to a new, forward-looking form of historiography. He emphasizes the effort it took him to reconstruct the prehistory of the Peloponnesian War because, unlike his peers, he did not take reports and statements about the past without checking them. While others aimed more at an effective performance, for him everything depended on the truth:

Thus, Thucydides used his own observations and the eyewitness accounts of others to get to the bottom of the facts in a consciously critical discussion of possible sources of error. Not only with regard to Attica, but also with regard to a number of other sites of the war, the exact description of topographical conditions suggests that Thucydides could have informed himself on the spot. Thus, with emphatic justification, he calls upon us to follow his account, which is free of embellishments and strictly committed to the truth, and not simply to adhere to the conventional views:

Accordingly, the work is not designed for pure fact-finding and representation. Thucydides aimed at a more profound truth than the one resulting from the daily political business with its consequences of events. According to the now classical reading, this becomes particularly clear in the treatment of the reasons for the Peloponnesian War, which Thucydides immediately follows the references to his methodical care. He addresses the end of the peace agreed between Athens and Sparta a decade earlier and points to the current disputes and local entanglements that were cited by the participants as reasons for the war and perceived as such by contemporaries, but he additionally states:

Not the propagandistically handy occasions and reasons for dispute (αἰτίαι καὶ διαφοραί aitíai kaì diaphoraí) thematized in the mutual reproaches of the powers involved are for Thucydides, who here exceptionally judges in the first person, The most important motive for the decision to go to war is the hardly admitted fear of the Spartans of the growing power of Athens (ἀληθεστάτη πρόφασις alēthestátē próphasis).

Structure of the work

From the content-related accents and compositional features set by Thucydides himself, there are mainly five parts of the work that can be distinguished. The division into eight books, which was made only in Hellenistic times and serves as the basis for all passages, corresponds only partially to this.

In the introductory part, which is identical with Book I, Thucydides not only formulates and explains his representational motif that the war between the great powers Athens and Sparta was the largest and most significant ever for all Greeks (1,1-19), but also refers to his own methodological precautions (1, 22) and develops the distinction between war-triggering current entanglements and the deeper cause of the war, giving a detailed account of the occasions (1.23-88) and illuminating the growing tension between Sparta and Athens over the period of the preceding 50 years (1.89-118). This first part concludes with the immediate preparations for war and justificatory speeches of both sides (1,119-146).

In the second part of the work Thucydides describes the course of the Archidamian War (2,1-5,24), which began in 431 B.C., up to the agreed 50-year peace between Athens and Sparta in 421 B.C. As a chronological principle of order he uses the individual years, in which he again regularly distinguishes between events of the summer and winter half-year – a novelty for the Greeks, who did not yet know a uniform yearly count.

The third part of the work (5,25-116), which Thucydides himself outlines precisely with six years and ten months, is the “suspicious truce” that came about as a result of the Peace of Nicias and that did not mean a lasting end to the war because of agreements that were not kept and mutual attempts by the Spartans and Athenians to take advantage of each other. Thucydides concludes this part with an account of the brutal subjugation of Melos in 415 B.C. At the center of this violent coup, successful from the Athenian point of view, is the famous dialogue between Melians and Athenians (5.85-113), a unique example in the complete work of rapid alternating speech, in which the tension between power and right is drastically brought up for discussion. For Will, this striking episode is at the heart of the work: “Had Thucydides been able to take his history of the war to 404, Melos would have been the pivotal point.”

Also to the immediately following fourth part of the work, which describes the attempt of the Athenians, by a large fleet expedition 415-413 BC. (Books VI and VII), the events around Melos are closely related in Thucydides research, either as a prelude and incentive for the much larger subsequent enterprise, or as a sign of growing hubris in Athens, which encouraged the disastrous outcome of the Sicilian expedition with the decisive defeat of the Athenian fleet and hoplite force at Syracuse.

The unfinished fifth part of the work deals with the Dekeleian-Ionian war in the years 413-411 BC, the overthrow of democracy in Athens by the oligarchic regime of the 400, and its replacement by the constitution of the 5000 (Book VIII). Soon after, the account breaks off abruptly.

With his Hellenica, which immediately followed, the historian Xenophon, among others, continued Thucydides” account until the end of the Peloponnesian War and beyond (and thus established an ancient historiographical tradition in the form of the historia perpetua). However, the accuracy and density of the account found in Thucydides was not achieved in the successor.

Style and means of presentation

Considering that historiography in Greek and Roman antiquity was generally assigned to the arts, Thucydides clearly set himself apart from them with his mostly sober style of presentation:

Condensation and concise brevity characterize his style, for which the frequent use of substantiated infinitives, participles, and adjectives is characteristic. The rhetoric teacher Dionysius of Halicarnassus criticized him for this as unclear, excessively brief, complex, austere, harsh, and dark. Scardino thinks this style stimulates the active intellectual participation required of the reader. Landmann finds the sentence periods often heavy and awkward: “No word stands for the sake of the word; there is always a thought behind it which, rethought, creates for itself new expression, concise, polished, cogent.”

According to Sonnabend, the work is not an exciting read over long stretches in which military actions are dealt with in great detail or notations on the history of events have to be processed without indexing aids to their historical significance. But these passages are also part of a historical concept in which care and meticulousness dominate. In particular, however, the reader is compensated by those parts of the work “which without question belong to the classics of historiography” and which impressively underline Thucydides” historical-literary ability.

In addition to gripping descriptions such as the outbreak and devastation of the Attic plague among the besieged Athenians (Thuk. 2,47-54) and the downfall of Mytilenes (3,35-50), which was first decided and then averted, the speeches in which the political actors present their respective views are especially important. They make up about a quarter of the entire work. The design of the speeches is influenced both by sophistical rhetoric and by tragedy poetry. Speech and counter-speech (the dissoi logoi) as means of presentation correspond to a pattern common at the time. Speeches are frequently used, especially in the first book, where the decision between war and peace is at stake, and also elsewhere, especially when the motives for important decisions are to be clarified. Thucydides also explains his methodical procedure for this means of representation:

Thus Thucydides does not claim a literal reproduction of the speech text; they are creations of the author, but in a deeper sense they can be regarded as historically faithful, since they refer to the particular historical situation (περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντων perì tṓn aieì paróntōn), aim at the demands it makes on the speaker (τὰ δέοντα tà déonta), and at the overall political attitude of the speaker (τῆς ξυμπάσης γνώμης tḗs xympásēs gnṓmēs). Thucydides has used typical elements of a real speech and enriched them, among other things, with puns and rhetorical tricks. This puts the reader in the situation of a listener who, on the basis of the actual course of events, has to form his own judgment of the various points of view presented by the parties. By confronting the respective rhetorical strategy and argumentation effect, the reader, according to Hagmaier, “gets a more vivid and deeper picture than an analytical account could bring to light.”

The unity of the Thucydidean work is supported by over- and introductory formulas as well as by the meaningful linking of flashbacks and foreshadowing even beyond the predominantly chronological mode of presentation. The selection and arrangement of facts as well as the logically interrelated interplay of speeches and narrative also contribute to this.

The non-completion of the work by Thucydides and the inconsistent organization of various parts of the work by the historian continue to puzzle Thucydides scholars today and stimulate them to questions and interpretations. The history of the work, which was published by an unknown editor, the intentions of Thucydides with it and in it, as well as his personal orientation in terms of socio-political and constitutional policy, are discussed in depth.

“Analysts” and “Unitarians”: the “Thucydidean Question”.

A new view of Thucydides” work was developed in 1845 by the philologist Franz Wolfgang Ullrich, who noticed that Thucydides did not already refer to the 27-year total duration of the conflict between Sparta and Athens in his extensive introduction before the description of the Archidamian War, but only did so in the context of a second preface in view of the failed peace of Nicias. For Ullrich, in connection with further deductions, the conclusion was that Thucydides had initially only wanted to depict the Archidamian War, but was then prompted by the revival of the fighting in the course of the Sicilian expedition to a new approach, which he put into action after the defeat of Athens in 404 BC. By trying to prove a layering and overlapping of original parts with elements of a new interpretation of the overall events by Thucydides, Ullrich founded the branch of interpretation of the “analysts”.

While the latter, in their exegesis of the work, point to passages in the text that stand for different periods of composition and are supposed to mark a change in Thucydides” conception, the Unitarian branch of interpretation is concerned with proving that Thucydides realized his work in one go after 404 BC. “It is easy to see,” Will writes, “that mediation between the sometimes diametrically opposed points of view was hardly possible; a ”Unitarian” interpretation produced an ”Analytic” reaction and vice versa.”

The analysts” references to “early indications” on the one hand and to “late indications” on the other hand in the work of Thucydides, which are supposed to serve the assignment to an early or late period of writing of the respective section, become concrete objects of discussion. Thus, for example, Thucydides” assertion and explanation of the completely new dimensions of this war as well as his methodological accents are mainly assigned to an early phase of the work in the assumption that at that time Thucydides had wanted to distinguish himself from and assert himself against Herodotus, who had just become particularly popular. After 404 B.C., however, this no longer played a role: “Thucydides now wrote for the generation of the lost war, a readership,” says Will, “which, under the fresh impression of the Spartan tyranny, was indifferent to the glory of its ancestors and instead desired to know who had waged this war, the beginnings of which few had yet consciously experienced, for the sake of which goals, and who had ultimately also been responsible for the catastrophe.”

Only in the knowledge of the final defeat of Athens, or at least in the awareness of its inevitability, had Thucydides, who had now also developed a more negative attitude toward Sparta, come the insight into what for him was the true cause of the war: namely, the irreconcilable dualism of the two great Greek powers, from which war inevitably resulted to the destruction of one side. “This conviction,” says Will, “is not at the beginning but at the end of his preoccupation with the matter.” It was only with this late realization that the depiction of the Pentekontaetie, directed toward the elaboration of the increasing rivalry of the two great powers, became meaningful and necessary, which is why, among other things, these two components of the work can clearly be assigned to the late indications.

Disagreeing with such a theory of complementary set pieces in the first book of the work is, for example, Hagmaier, who sees it rather as a self-contained unit “that can hardly be the result of subsequent explanations, insertions, or additions.” A skeptical-mediating attitude in the dispute between analysts and Unitarians is taken by Scardino, for instance, who sums up:

Subsequent Transfiguration of Pericles?

From Will”s analytical point of view, the phase-differentiated wholeness of the Peloponnesian War, finally discovered by Thucydides, was the guideline for the “last-hand editing”, which was especially dedicated to the introductory part and the time until Pericles” death. Thucydides was in his work at all essentially concerned with the picture to be drawn by Pericles. The description of the numerous remaining years of the war appears almost as a footnote to the final appreciation of Pericles (2.65).

As a result of this portrayal, however, it is not the politician who led Athens into war who is shown, but rather a wishful image, namely the strategist who, due to his superior war plan, would have ultimately made the confrontation with Sparta victorious. “What was initially planned as an apologia of the hero ends in a kind of apotheosis,” Will writes in the preface to his work Thucydides and Pericles. The Historian and His Hero. If one follows him, Thucydides does not meet his own methodological standards and demands. In comparison with other pre-war subjects of dispute broadly elaborated by Thucydides, the trade blockade against Megara (the Megaric Psephism), initiated by Pericles and defended by him even against threats from outside, is purposefully marginalized, Will believes.

Not even a “semblance of historicity” is to be found for Will in Thucydides” rendering of a speech by Pericles at the beginning of the war, where he urges upon his fellow citizens the realization that Athens” rigid exercise of rule in the Attic naval league might be based on injustice (2.63). “The initial phase of the war, in which Euripides celebrated Athens as a haven of freedom in his tragedies, was not the situation in which Athens drew such injustice, the Pnyx not the place where the indictment was formulated.”

On several occasions Will doubts Thucydides” declared intention to render the content of the speeches correctly: “Confronted by the initially unexpected continuation of the war and the defeat of Athens, which was finally foreseeable only very late, Thucydides shaped his speeches in a way that no longer fully met the guidelines established at the beginning; Thucydides probably not only faked speeches like the logos of the Athenians in the first book, but also occasions and perhaps even the person of the speaker.” The famous Epitaphios (Speech on the Fallen, Thucydides 2:35-46) reflects far more the thoughts of Thucydides the historian than the words of Pericles the statesman. “In thirty years Periclean thoughts turned into Thucydidean, Thucydidean views congealed into Periclean.” In sum, Will concludes, “Pericles is the self-portrait of the historian as statesman.”

Will sees the willingness of Thucydides to identify with Pericles as essentially promoted by the Thracian possessions of the historian, for which an improved connection and better possibilities of use opened up in the course of Athens” imperial policy supported by Pericles. As a result, he says, the Kimon relative, thus by nature an opponent of Pericles, became his supporter and a proponent of war-“in the role of political convert with all the psychological implications that entails.”

In contrast, Bleckmann considers Thucydides” interpretive approach and the attitude he attests for Pericles in the genesis of the Peloponnesian War to be quite understandable: “The ultimate demands of Sparta culminated in the demand to return autonomy to Athens” allies, thus calling into question a large part of the organizational development of the League. These demands came at the end of a series of attempts by Sparta and its allies to blow apart the Attic Sea League.” Athens” provisioning, prosperity, and democracy, however, had by this time been far too closely tied to the instrument of the Attic Sea League for the Athenians to have yielded easily to such demands: “Going to war carried great risks, but avoiding it could not secure the integrity of the dominion.” Since Thucydides, as a member of Athens” aristocratic elite, had known Pericles personally and had first-hand knowledge of considerations for entering the war, Bleckmann argues for agreeing with Thucydides” judgment regarding Pericles” motives for entering the war.

Aspects of political thinking

The historian Thucydides hardly shows any one-dimensional positioning in the political debate and open political partisanship in his work. Thucydides almost ostentatiously does not deal at all with the process of appointment to the office of strategist and with the personal experiences made in this most important state-political function at the time, and in this way conveys that he is aiming at something other than the generalization of individual experiences. According to Hartmut Leppin, even his aristocratic milieu of origin does not allow any simple conclusions, for example, about an oligarchic orientation.

Important impulses for his view of man and his judgment on formative political forces as well as on constitutional aspects may have been given above all by the contemporary Sophists, who were active with an Enlightenment claim, especially in the Athenian public. Since Thucydides avoids any kind of direct political confession, only the interpretation of his works can provide information about his political thinking.

His conception of man is of decisive importance for Thucydides” understanding of history and his political thinking. A human nature that is common to all people and transcends time determines historical events as a regulative principle, as Hagmaier deduces, for example, from Thucydides” generalized assessment of the events of war and civil war in Kerkyra:

With such reflections Thucydides wants to guide, Hagmaier concludes, “to grasp the regularities of historical-political processes resulting from the basic driving forces of the ἀνθρωπεία φύσις, using the Peloponnesian war as an example, in order to apply the insights gained from reading his historical work to future courses of events.”

As an essential component of human nature addressed by Thucydides many times and especially in the Melier dialogue, the striving for power of individuals, groups as well as entire states presents itself, driven by ambition, selfishness and fear. “Whoever shows weakness must succumb to the stronger,” Will sums up the experiences prepared by Thucydides, “whoever sees the possibility to rule does not shy away from crime.” The desire to rule is based on greed, on the desire to have more for one”s own advantage, and on the desire for honor and glory.

Moreover, according to Scardino, Thucydides assumes that man acts rationally in the sense of his own advantage, unless he is prevented from doing so by lack of knowledge, by emotions he is carried away by, or by external circumstances. Often, however, he is guided more by desires and hopes than by rational consideration – “as people usually leave what they desire to thoughtless hope, but push away what is not convenient with self-important justifications.” That is why, according to Leppin, the speeches treated by Thucydides mostly appeal to the self-interest of the listeners, while moral and legal considerations take a back seat to this.

As much as Thucydides emphasized the influence of natural human characteristics on political and historical events – thus countering the conventional notion of the determining influence of the gods on human destiny – his view of man, on the other hand, proves to be neither predetermined (deterministic) nor static: “His statements about human nature do not in themselves permit precise predictions, for the historian knows that natural disasters and coincidences can influence development.” While human nature (φύσις phýsis) remained the same, behavioral patterns (τρόποι trópoi) were, for Thucydides, quite capable of change, for better or worse. In Athens of the 5th century BC, with the tributes of the confederates in the maritime alliance, with the comfortable position of power of the city also in economic terms, and with the democratization of the citizenry, the desires to increase wealth had become widespread. Thus, according to Thucydides, monetary gain became the motive of individuals, groups, or the population as a whole.

By moving from individual psychology to social-psychological deductions with regard to the reactions and behaviors of crowds – in particular the Athenian mass assembly – and noting there an increased tendency to affect and passion at the expense of reason, Thucydides expects politicians who, like Pericles, are characterized by rationality and personal integrity, according to Scardino, to steer the people in the right direction through analytical and communicative skills. This is all the more necessary, according to Thucydides, because other detrimental qualities are strongly developed in the mass assembly:

In order to neutralize such tendencies of the masses, leading politicians with opposing qualities are needed who, in addition to their unselfish love for their own polis, have an analytical mind, are able to communicate well with others, are assertive and prove to be incorruptible in their work for the community. Thucydides finds such qualities in Pericles, but also in Hermocrates and Themistocles. Alcibiades, on the other hand, despite his brilliance, did not satisfy this profile of characteristics, insofar as he mainly followed his own interests and did not have the ability to win the trust of the people in the long run. In his concluding tribute to Pericles, Thucydides praises him:

Questions of constitutional theory are not at the center of Thucydides” work, nor are there any coherent, purposeful reflections on them by him at all. Thucydides did not explicitly discuss the best polis constitution. Nevertheless, Thucydides scholars have a widespread interest in clarifying how an often so meticulous and broadly oriented observer of contemporary events was disposed with respect to the constitutional spectrum of the Greek poleis with which he was familiar.

Will takes as a decisive point of reference for Thucydides” constitutional ideal his judgment that Athens in the era of Pericles was democracy in name but in fact the rule of the first man, and concludes that Thucydides was concerned with reconciling the democratic world with the oligarchic one by propagating aristocratic rule within the democratic one as a new model of state.

Leppin”s analysis of these works is more open-minded. The speeches treated by Thucydides with reference to the constitution, for example, do not necessarily reflect Thucydides” own thinking about it, but are primarily aimed at sharpening the reader”s awareness of the problem. The special appreciation of a stable legal order and the warning against anomie, which occurred, for example, as a result of the Attic plague, are clear. In what is probably the most detailed account of a democratic constitutional system by the Syracusan Athenagoras, the validity of the law and the legal equality of citizens are identified as basic principles; with regard to their political function, however, the population groups, which form a whole as a demos, are subdivided: “The rich (the understanding (the masses (οἱ πολλοί hoi polloí) is best suited to decide after it has informed itself about the facts of the case.”

Within the debate on constitutional typology, the democratic side tends to argue in an “institutionalist” way, for example by emphasizing the lack of office, while the oligarchic side tends to argue in a “personalist” way, i.e. essentially with reference to the special political qualities of the ruling elites. Thucydides apparently does not make a principled qualitative difference between democracies and oligarchies. The problem of the masses being led by emotions arises in both types of constitutions. According to Thucydides, the criterion of a good constitution is essentially the successful balance of interests between the masses and the few.

His greatest explicit approval was of the Constitution of 5000 practiced after the oligarchic tyranny of the 400 in Athens in 411 B.C., in which a popular assembly limited in size to the number of hoplites had political decision-making power:

According to Leppin, Thucydides” positive judgment of democratic Athens at the time of Pericles does not contradict this, if one takes as a basis that Thucydides was hardly concerned with a definition within the framework of the classical constitutional typology (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy), but rather with the unity and political functionality of the polis in the given historical-political environment.

“The first page of Thucydides is the only beginning of all real history,” wrote Immanuel Kant in agreement with David Hume (“The first page of Thucydides is the commencement of real history”). The reception of Thucydides, which thus reached the peak of appreciation even among those interested in the philosophy of history, has not, however, consistently assumed such an extent of devotion. It is not only the persistently intensive recent research on Thucydides that has added critical accents to the reverence for the protagonist of a scientifically reflected presentation of history. Especially the beginning of his history of impact suggests different resonance.

The tradition of the work probably goes back to a non-preserved archetype from the time before Stephanos of Byzantium in the 6th century. It is divided into two manuscript families addressed as α and β with 2 and 5 manuscripts from the 10th and 11th centuries, respectively. Family β contains partly older traditions. Nevertheless, both families go back to a text Θ, whose origin is to be put in the 9th century. Fragments of the work can also be found in about 100 papyri.

Antiquity and European Middle Ages

While Cicero, as a critic of style, was dismissive of Thucydides” speeches contained in the work, both Sallust and Tacitus drew heavily on it in some instances. However, Cicero is very familiar with the Thucydidean work, for he quotes from it in his letters to Atticus and elsewhere, praising both the historian”s achievement and the style of his exposition. In general, the interest in the work of Thucydides apparently increased significantly in the Roman imperial period: Lucian of Samosata, in his work How to Write History, made fun of the fact that several historians (such as Crepereius Calpurnianus) based their works entirely on that of Thucydides and adopted whole passages from him only slightly modified. In the 3rd century Cassius Dio was influenced by Thucydides, as was Dexippus, but only fragments of his work have survived.

In late antiquity, too, Thucydides often remained a model, for example for Ammianus Marcellinus (with regard to his approach in the contemporary books), Priskos (who partly borrowed topically from Thucydides in his descriptions) or for Procopius of Caesarea. The works of Byzantine historians written in the classical high language were also influenced by Thucydides.

In the West, Thucydides was only known in excerpts and indirectly from Byzantium during the Middle Ages, while during the Renaissance he became popular again. In 1502 Aldus Manutius published the Greek Editio princeps in Venice. A Latin translation was completed by Lorenzo Valla in 1452 and printed in 1513. The first translation into German, made by the theology professor Johann David Heilmann, appeared in 1760.

Modern times and present

In modern times, Thucydides was celebrated as the “father of political historiography” and praised for his objectivity. In addition to Hume and Kant, he was praised by Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, who was strongly influenced by him and who translated him into English and interpreted his work, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Friedrich Nietzsche noted:

Max Weber recognizes in his way of writing history a “Thucydidean pragma” and sees in it a characteristic of the Occident.

Wolfgang Will calls Thucydides” meticulousness unrivaled; but above all, anyone who wants to understand great power politics in the 21st century will have to follow him. Little help can be expected from contemporary works of history.

In many respects, Thucydides” orientation towards the principle of the greatest possible objectivity is understandable. Although not all information can be verified, a significant part can, as epigraphic and prosopographical studies prove. The fact that Thucydides is often available solely as a source for certain historical events and that he does not cover all interesting socio-historical aspects must always be taken into account in this context. The effectiveness of his work should not tempt one to adopt his account without reflection. Thucydides” outline of early Greek history (Archaiologia) cannot stand up in the light of recent research, and the account of the so-called Pentekontaetia also has considerable gaps.

Despite its complexity, which does not make it easy to grasp the work in its entirety, it developed a broad impact right up to the present day. The characterization of democracy contained in it – before its deletion – stood as a motto in the draft text of the EU Constitution. At the Naval War College in Newport, USA, as at other military academies, the work is required reading. In view of the steadily growing global influence of the People”s Republic of China, political scientist Graham Allison warned in the 2010s of the Thucydides” Trap: A warlike confrontation between the previous world power, the USA, and China looms, analogous to Thucydides” idea that the (Peloponnesian) war had become inevitable because of the fear of the established great power, Sparta, of Athens” increase in power.


  1. Thukydides
  2. Thucydides
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