Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Historical Genius of Thucydides
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
From Historical Essays

BUT the greatness of Thucydides is, after all, of a somewhat cold and unattractive character. He does not, like many other writers, draw us near to himself personally. What reader of Herodotus does not long for a talk face to face with the genial and delightful old traveller, who had been everywhere and had seen everything—who could tell you the founder of every city and the architect of every temple—who could recite oracles and legends from the beginnings of things to his own day, and who could season all with a simple moral and political commentary, not the less acceptable for being a little commonplace? What would one not give for the chance of asking why it was, after all, that the Scythians blinded their slaves, or of finding out, in some unguarded moment, in honour of what deity the Egyptians submitted themselves to the discipline? Xenophôn again would evidently not have been the less agreeable a companion on account of his unpatriotic heresies and his historical unfairness. If he was a bitter enemy and an unscrupulous partizan, his very faults arose from carrying into excess the amiable character of a zealous friend. The pupil of Sôkratês could not help being unfair to the government by which his master was condemned; the officer of Agêsilaos could not mete out common justice to those pestilent Thebans by whom all the schemes of Agêsilaos were brought to nought. But Thucydides awakens no feelings of the kind. We might have highly esteemed the privilege of sitting at his feet as a lecturer; but we should hardly have been very eager for his company in our lighter moments. Genial simplicity, hearty and unconscious humour, are, after all, more attractive than the stern perfection of wisdom; a little superstition and a little party spirit, if they render a man less admirable, do not always make him less agreeable. Impartiality is a rare and divine quality; but a little human weakness sometimes commends itself more to frail mortals. There is something lofty in the position of a man who records the worst deeds of Athenian and Lacedæmonian alike, as a simple matter of business, without a word of concealment, palliation, or rebuke for either. But we feel quite sure that Herodotus would have told us that the massacre of Plataia and the massacre of Mêlos were each of them a [Greek]. We suspect that Xenophôn would have been so ashamed of the evil deed of that side on which his own feelings might be enlisted that he would not have set down both crimes in his history. But we get a little puzzled as to the moral condition of the man who minutely dissects the intellectual and political characters of Themistoklês and Periklês without a word of moral praise or dispraise of either. Our perplexity grows when we find the historian recording the treachery of Pachês towards Hippias without a word of comment. It grows yet more when we find him honestly recording the assassinations in which Antiphôn was at least an accomplice, and yet pronouncing this same Antiphôn to have been inferior to no Athenian of his day—Konôn and Thrasyboulos among them,—not only in ability but in virtue. Herodotus would have lifted up his hands in pious horror; Xenophôn would either have shirked so unpleasant a subject, or would at least have found out some ingenious sophism to cloak the crime. Then again, human nature craves for something like religion, and it does not always kick at a little superstition. We do not think the worse of Herodotus, Xenophôn, Pausanias, and Arrian for believing in oracles, visions, and the whole art and mystery of divination. It is perhaps very admirable, but is not altogether amiable, in Thucydides to have got so far in advance of his age as to make it pretty certain that he believed in nothing of the kind, and to leave it by no means clear whether he believed in any Gods at all. Finally, we cannot forget, possibly even a contemporary Greek could not forget, how easy, how pleasant, it is to read Herodotus and Xenophôn, how very hard it often is to read Thucydides. We admire, but we cannot bring ourselves to love, the man who has clothed the words of wisdom with a veil so hard to uplift. We are sometimes tempted to prefer a teaching less profound in substance, but more conformable to the ordinary laws of human and Hellenic grammar. There is no denying that a speech of Thucydides is far more profitable than one of Xenophôn, or even than one of Herodotus. But there are times of weakness when we prefer pleasure to profit,—the [Greek] to the [Greek],—times when, even in spite of the repeated exhortations of Periklês to prefer deeds to words, we still for a moment prefer the [Greek] even to the [Greek].

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