The Other Father of History

Fifth-century BC Athens is one of the keys to understanding Western thought and history. For better or worse, to this day, our politics, philosophy, architecture, and drama draw upon classical Athenian sources. This is equally true of the study of history, and two of the historians on our author bank are from this very time and place: Herodotus and Thucydides.

Details on the life of Thucydides are limited. He reports in The History of the Peloponnesian War that he was an Athenian by birth, that he fought in the said war, and that he was exiled by the Athenian democracy; beyond that, we have little data on him, at least dating to his own time. He was born some time around 460; he lived through the golden age of the Athenian empire and its collapse due to the Peloponnesian War, and died some time around 400.

The Peloponnesian War itself was a conflict between Athens and Sparta (which was in the Peloponnesus, a geographical region of Greece). The two cities had emerged as dominant powers among the Greeks during and after the Persians’ attempts to conquer Greece in the early fifth century, and at first they were on friendly terms; however, the relationship soured as the Athenian empire approached ascendancy throughout the Ægean Sea. War broke out in 431, Athens relying on its navy and its heavy siege walls to protect it from the massive land power of the Spartan army. Only a year later, a plague (still unidentified today) broke out in Athens, killing as much as a quarter of the populace, including the eloquent and popular leader Pericles who was largely responsible for the war. The conflict dragged on for ten years, was interrupted by a short-lived and uneasy peace, and then re-erupted after a disastrous attempt on Athens’ part to conquer Sicily. The second phase of the war ran from 413 to 404. The Spartans were victorious, the power and prestige of Athens were ruined—and Thucydides proceeded to write his book.

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (source).

The History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the most influential works in the discipline of historiography, or how we write about history. The existence of the past was not unknown before classical Athens, but the surviving Greek documents that discuss the topic are, for the most part, what we today call myth: a literary genre that is normally set in the past, sometimes the historical past, but which exists primarily for artistic and cultural reasons, rather than to tell us what that historical past was actually like. For example, there likely was a war between Troy and several Greek city-states near the end of the Mycenaean period, but the Iliad is not primarily trying to give an account of that war’s battle techniques—on the contrary, those things come in (often inaccurately, since accuracy isn’t relevant to the purposes of myth) for the sake of the story.

Herodotus and Thucydides, especially the latter, represent a marked change. Their primary interest is in what in fact happened. Thucydides was particularly dutiful in relying on eyewitness accounts (or so he tells us), and in seeking to trace natural cause-and-effect relationships. One of the innovative things about The History of the Peloponnesian War is that he does not attribute any events to the gods, even when the events seem almost to invite the interpretation of divine intervention to punish hubris.

This is not to say that Thucydides is immune to moral or literary considerations, however. His literary style is advanced (that is, difficult), and his characterizations are well-rounded. Justice, wisdom, and suffering are recurring themes in the book, and it is often treated as a sort of cautionary tale about the dangers that always attend political leadership in a democracy: no society can do without leaders, but they are, as such, a danger to democracy. Speaking of which, his attention to the frequently cynical realities of politics have drawn a great deal of comment as well. The Melian Dialogue in particular has remained one of the most famous passages in the History, as it illustrates some of the common principles and tropes in international relations. Students of political science, ethics, and rhetoric, as well as of history, have cause to read the Melian Dialogue, and for that matter the whole book, with interest.

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