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The Core Curriculum


460 BCE – 395 BCE
Dates are approximate

Bust of Thucydides. 3rd c. BCE: Louvre Museum. Paris, France. ArtStor: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts ArchivesBust of Thucydides. 3rd c. BCE: Louvre Museum. Paris, France. ArtStor: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives The Athenian Thucydides was an historian of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta, in which he also fought. The first historian to write about his own times, Thucydides in antiquity was a paradigm for accuracy, and today he is a paradigm for vivid narrative, as well as for unsentimental “realist” political analysis. Thucydides gives some scant information about his own life in his History: he owned mines and had some influence in Thrace (4.105.1), and suffered from the plague in Athens (2.48.3). He also served as one of the board of ten elected Athenian generals in 424 BCE, and was sent to defend the northern Greek city of Amphipolis from Spartan attack. However, he arrived too late (4.102–4.108). In a subsequent passage (5.26) he adds that he was exiled from Athens after this campaign. Given this information, it seems that Thucydides' portraits and judgments of Athenian leaders would have been based on personal knowledge, and perhaps political alliances. He reports that after his exile he spent time among Athens’ enemies (5.26); whether he returned to Athens at war's end is uncertain, but it is usually assumed that his history was cut short by death soon after.

Source: Adapted from Oxford Encyclopedia of Greece and Rome

Historical Contexts

History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (431-411 BCE)

A war between Athens and Sparta—the two leading Greek city—states—and their respective allies. Thucydides' narrative covers the first 20 years of the conflict, which came to a final end in 404 BCE (It is unknown why the narrative is incomplete. It was continued by Xenophon who covers the last seven years of the Peloponnesian War in his Hellenica.) A number of sources of friction sparked it off, notably Athenian intervention in a quarrel between Corinth (Sparta's ally) and her colony Corcyra, but the real reason for the conflict, according to the Athenian historian Thucydides, was the rise of Athens to greatness, which made the Spartans fear for their own position. Athens was morally the aggressor, but it was Sparta who declared war. Sparta's army was far superior in quality and quantity, but the Athenians had an even bigger advantage at sea. The defences of Athens were strong and the city could not be starved into surrender, as it was connected to the port of Piraeus by the Long Walls and could import supplies almost with impunity. It had sufficient finances to buy supplies and pay the fleet (and army). This was the assessment of the situation made by Pericles, the Athenian leader, and his strategy was based upon it. He persuaded the country population to move themselves and their possessions into the city and into the space between the Long Walls, temporarily sacrificing their farms.

The Delian League (Athens) and The Peloponnesian League (Sparta): The Delian League is in Yellow. The Peloponnesian League is in Red.The Delian League (Athens) and The Peloponnesian League (Sparta): The Delian League is in Yellow. The Peloponnesian League is in Red.

The first ten years of the war, known as the Archidamian War from the name of the Spartan king who led the incursions into Attica, were indecisive. The Peloponnesians who invaded and ravaged Attica in 431 found it deserted, and after about a month returned home; this was to be, in general, the pattern for the next six years. In 430 a devastating plague broke out in Athens and the city lost more than a quarter of her population. Pericles died as a result of it in 429, his death depriving Athens of the only man who could impose a single policy on the Athenians. Nevertheless the Athenians won a number of victories on land and at sea in the next few years, notably the capture of Pylos in 425, and Sparta gave up her annual invasions of Attica and made overtures for peace. Cleon, who had succeeded Pericles as the most influential politician in Athens, persuaded the Athenians to reject the Spartan offers, but both he and the outstanding Spartan general Brasidas were killed at Amphipolis in 422, and thus the two chief opponents of peace were removed (the ‘pestles of war’ as they were called in Aristophanes' Peace). The Peace of Nicias was concluded in 421. It was in the main a victory for Athens, especially since she kept her empire intact while her enemies were divided, Corinth and Boeotia refusing to sign the Peace.

The truce was unstable and broke down completely in 415, when Athens, under the influence of Alcibiades, sent a great fleet to attack Syracuse—the Sicilian Expedition. The expedition was a disaster, ending in 413 with the defeat of the Athenian fleet and army and the exhaustion of their finances. Sparta, meanwhile, was developing a good fleet of her own, financed by Persia. The war at sea continued to go Athens' way for several years, but in 405 the Spartan commander Lysander destroyed the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami. Besieged by land and sea, without money or allies, Athens capitulated in April 404 and became virtually the subject-ally of the victor.

Source: Adapted from Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature

Thucydides: Transformation of the Historiographic Tradition.

In the tradition of Greek historical writing Thucydides does not betray influence but rather shows radical innovation. The early 5th cent. BCE produced several prose narratives—now preserved only in fragments—of genealogies beginning with the mythical past or of traditional stories centered on one particular geographic area. By contrast with these, Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars, which may have appeared as late as the 420s, was a sprawling masterpiece, eschewing most myth but transporting the reader to distant lands, with frequent, long, and marginally relevant digressions, written in the most artful and delightful prose that the classical Greek language ever achieved. Herodotus’ work presented his readers with assorted theories and moralizing by a genial author happy to pass on information that he hears from any source.

Thucydides’ intimate knowledge of Herodotus is probable, but his formal project is completely different—and he never mentions Herodotus’ name, nor Herodotus’ word “history.” Implicit for Thucydides is that history must be useful, and to that end it must deal with a contemporary event whose accuracy is painstakingly verified, the structure must be strictly chronological, and the historical event must be of sufficient duration, magnitude, and unity to have exemplary significance. With a few notable exceptions, his authorial voice is withheld after book 1: once begun, the narrative is impersonal, analyses and generalizations being offered by the characters themselves in speeches to each other.

These historical innovations are matched by his prose style. In reaction against the extended parallel sentences of rhetoricians like Gorgias, Thucydides’ disjointed syntax in the speeches and other analytical passages is characterized by abstraction and expresses complex ideas concisely. Here his Greek was, even in antiquity, notoriously difficult—and is seldom imitated in modern translations.

Source: Adapted from Oxford Encyclopedia of Greece and Rome