Thucydides was an Athenian general and historian, most notable for his work known as the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Whilst Herodotus, a near-contemporary of his, is often hailed as the Father of History, Thucydides himself has been dubbed the Father of Scientific History. This is due to the methods that Thucydides employed whilst writing his History of the Peloponnesian War.
For instance, Thucydides had strict standards, which included the testimony of eyewitnesses and his own experiences as a general during the war, when it came to gathering evidence. Additionally, Thucydides wrote on events that were contemporary to his life, and he thought that an accurate inquiry into past events is impossible.
In his introduction, Thucydides wrote this (perhaps to implicitly rebuke Herodotus):
“Accurate research into earlier or yet more ancient history was impossible given the great gap of time,”
Herodotus and Thucydides. (Public Domain)
The Life of Thucydides
Much of what we know about Thucydides’ life comes from the few biographical references in the History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides is speculated to have been born around 460 BC. This estimation is based on the probable year during which the historian entered military service. Although he was born in the Athenian suburb of Halimos, his family is said to have been originally from the region of Thrace in northeastern Greece. It has also been claimed that Thucydides owned gold mines in this area, the proceeds of which probably funded his writing.
Thucydides was in Athens in 430 BC, the year when the city was struck by the plague. This was also the year after the Peloponnesian War had begun. This was a war that pitted the Athenians and the Spartans (and the allies of both city-states), which had emerged as the leading Greek city-states following the Graeco-Persian Wars. Thucydides expressed his belief that “this would be a major war and more momentous than any previous conflict.”, and that “on the evidence which I [Thucydides] can trust I think there was nothing then on a larger scale, either in wars or in anything else.”
Ruins of Ancient Sparta, Greece. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Father of Political Realism and the Thucydides Trap
In 424 BC, Thucydides was given the command of a fleet, with which he was to prevent the city of Amphipolis from being captured by the Spartans. He failed to reach the city in time, thus failing in his mission. As a punishment for this failure, Thucydides was exiled.
For the next 20 years, Thucydides focused on writing his historical work. It may be mentioned that the History of the Peloponnesian War does not mention events that happened after 411 BC, including Athens’ final surrender in 404 BC. Based on this, it has been speculated that Thucydides did not live to complete his work.
The ruins of Amphipolis as envisaged by E. Cousinéry in 1831: the bridge over the Strymon, the city fortifications, and the acropolis. (Public Domain)
Other sources that deal, to a certain extent, with the Peloponnesian War include inscriptions, references in Aristophanes’ comedies, and several figures in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Still, Thucydides’ work is the main source of information for this conflict. Whilst it is commonly said that Thucydides tried his best to remain objective, it has also been pointed out that the historian occasionally allowed his personal judgment to prevail in his writing. As an example, Thucydides was sympathetic to such figures as Hermocrates and Nicias. On the other hand, he seemed to have a negative perception of Cleon and Alcibiades.
Thucydides’ contribution to world history extends beyond the realm of Classical studies and historical methodology. Some have suggested that this 5th century BC writer ought to be considered as the ‘Father of Political Realism’. This is a school of thought which “posits that interstate relations are based on might rather than right.” To illustrate, Thucydides asserts the true cause of the Peloponnesian War is as follows,
“In my view the real reason, true but unacknowledged, which forced the war was the growth of Athenian power and Spartan fear of it.”
A statue of Thucydides in Munich. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
This state of affairs has been coined the ‘Thucydides Trap’, and has been applied to various instances of strained international relations, including the rise of Germany and the threat it posed to the British Empire shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the rivalry between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc during the Cold War, and, more recently, the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea between China and several Southeast Asian nations (who are backed by the USA).