Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thucydides (c. 460–c. 395 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Herbert Weir Smyth (1857–1937)
 
GOETHE’S aphorism that the ancients are children is less true of Thucydides than of any other Greek historian. Herodotus looked on the world with the open-eyed wonder of the child; Thucydides subjects it to the critical scrutiny of the man. After the age of story-telling, which finds as much delight in its art as in the truth, comes the age of sober investigation. The first step in Greek history was to record the past, the second was to narrate the events of the writer’s own time. Thucydides is the first writer of contemporaneous history, as he is the first critical historian in the literature of Europe.  1
  The author of the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ is our only authority for the few facts that are known concerning his life. He tells us that his father’s name was Olorus; that he was a person of local importance from his ownership of mines in Thrace; that he was attacked by the plague which ravaged Athens; and that in 424 his ill success in his military command was the cause of his exile from Athens for twenty years. As one of the generals of the Athenian forces, he was summoned from Thasus by his colleague Eucles to assist him in holding Amphipolis against Brasidas. Though he made all speed, he failed to reach that city in time to prevent its surrender; while his successful defense of Eion failed to mitigate the anger of his countrymen at the loss of their chief stronghold in the north.  2
  It was not till long after Thucydides’s death that interest was awakened in the lives of the great literary artists. In order to satisfy the craving for anecdote and novelty, students of literature had to piece out the facts of tradition by fanciful inferences, by confusing persons of the same name, and by downright fabrications in the interest of picturesqueness. This process is illustrated in the story that when Herodotus was giving a public recital of his history at Athens, the youthful Thucydides, as if to presage his future distinction as a historian, burst into tears. “Olorus,” said the Father of History, “thy son has a natural impulse toward knowledge.” A sifting of the material in the ‘Life’ by Marcellinus, and in other late writers, yields little that is trustworthy.  3
  Thucydides was born in the deme Halimus, on the coast of Attica, near Phalerum. The date of his birth is uncertain. It was roughly referred to 471 by Apollodorus, who calculated that in 431 the historian would have reached the age of forty,—the period of intellectual prime. By others the date was brought down as low as 454. We must rest content with the historian’s statement that at the outbreak of the war in 431 he had attained an age that permitted maturity of judgment. His death probably took place before 399; certainly before 396, since he fails to take account of an eruption of Ætna in that year.  4
  Like Demosthenes and Aristotle, Thucydides had northern non-Hellenic blood in his veins. His father Olorus was no doubt an Athenian citizen; but he was a descendant, probably the grandson, of the Thracian prince of that name, whose daughter Hegesipyle became the mother of Cimon by Miltiades, the victor at Marathon. It may not be a fanciful suggestion that a severe love of truth was a part of Thucydides’s intellectual inheritance; for he is the only Greek historian who prefers that truth shall be unrefracted by the medium of poetry through which the naïve Hellene loved to view the history of his race. By birth Thucydides was, as we have seen, connected with Cimon, the leader of the aristocracy, whose policy guided Athens until the rise of Pericles. His youth and early manhood may have been spent partly in Athens, and at a time when the city which had taken the lead in rolling back the tide of Persian invasion was filled with the dreams of an external empire and the vision of a new culture in which reason and beauty were to make life richer than it had ever been before; when Sophocles was exhibiting his ‘Antigone,’ and Pheidias working at the Parthenon; when Pericles was fashioning those ideals which were to make his city renowned as the home of the highest possibilities of his race. The Sophists were grappling with the problem of the relation between words and things; Anaxagoras was opening new vistas to thought, in proclaiming the doctrine that it was mind which created the order and harmony of the universe. Who the actual teachers of Thucydides were, we do not know; nor did the ancients busy themselves with the question until the ‘History’ had been canonized in the first century B.C. But we may safely conjecture that the youth felt himself under the spell of the time, and animated by that free intellectual life on which the Athenian State rested its claims to superiority.  5
  When the war broke out in 431, believing that it was to exceed in importance any other known in history, Thucydides set himself to collect the materials for his work,—a determination that shows him to have been rather a man of letters than a man of affairs. We do not hear of his holding office before 424, the year of his generalship and of his banishment. The fatal tendency of the fierce democracy of Athens to punish their generals whose only fault was ill success, afforded the historian the opportunity to acquaint himself with the policy and operations of both sides; and by withdrawing him from further share in the conflict, made possible in a man of his judicial mood an unprejudiced inquiry into the events of the time. Whether Thucydides was indeed culpable at Amphipolis we cannot discover, because of his customary reticence in personal matters. But it is hazardous to assume that his dislike for Cleon is due to the agency of that demagogue in bringing about the sentence of condemnation.  6
  During his exile, the historian made excursions to the Peloponnese,—perhaps even to Sicily and Italy,—in order to gather trustworthy accounts of the war. He is thought to have been present at the battle of Mantinea in 418. The vividness of his narrative, the detailed picture of intricate military operations, are evidence that he depended on the testimony of his own eyes or on the words of credible witnesses. He himself tells us that the search for truth was attended by labor; and that he did not rely on hearsay from any chance informant, nor presume to set down the facts of the war on his own assumption as to their probability. The hand of death overtook him before he had brought the narrative of the war beyond the oligarchical revolution and the battle of Cynossema, in 411, the twenty-first year of the contest that lasted twenty-seven years. Whether he died peaceably, or was killed by robbers in Thrace or in Athens (the biographers are ready with their conjectures), we do not know. Polemon saw his grave about 200 B.C., in the family vault of Cimon at Athens.  7
  The current division of the ‘History’ into eight books is not that of the author, but the work of Alexandrine scholars. We hear of two other arrangements, into nine and thirteen books respectively. As it stands, the work falls into three parts. First, the ‘Archæology,’ or masterly survey of ancient history; the causes of the final rupture between Athens and Sparta; and the history of the ten years to the Peace of Nicias in 421 (i.–v. 25). Secondly, the doubtful truce, the struggle for allies in the Peloponnese, the battle of Mantinea (v. 26–116), and the Sicilian Expedition (vi., vii.), where the historian attains his highest excellence in sustained, brilliant, and vigorous composition. Thirdly, the Decelean War down to 411 (viii.), where the story breaks off abruptly. That the work is a torso is evident. A final revision would have smoothed out the inequalities and given greater unity to the whole. The treaties inserted in the text as it now stands do not square in all particulars with the narrative, or the narrative with the treaties. Repetitions occur; and the eighth book, which alone contains no speeches, bears numerous marks of incompleteness.  8
  The genesis of the ‘History’ has caused scholars almost as much difficulty as the evolution of Plato’s philosophy. Some conclude that Thucydides thought the war had come to an end in 421; and that his narrative down to that point constituted the original deposit, to which were added the later accretions due to the unexpected renewal of the war. Others with more probability maintain that he began to compose the ‘History’ after the war was over, though certain portions—such as the Ten Years’ War and the Sicilian Expedition—had before this received comparatively final treatment.  9
  Thucydides’s ‘History’ is pre-eminently a military history, a chronicle by summers and winters of the events of the war. Everything is subordinate to the main theme. Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, may be holding Athens captive by their dramas, Socrates may be shaking the foundations of the old philosophy,—to Thucydides discussions on literature, philosophy, and art are of less immediate importance than some petty foray in Acarnania. Nor will he touch on social conditions, or State policy, unless they have to deal with the course and conduct of the war. To this method he surrenders himself with rigid severity, except in a few instances; such as the early history of Sicily, and the corrective account of the assassination of Hipparchus in Book vi.,—which seems to represent a separate investigation that has there found an inorganic resting-place.  10
  But under the hand of an artist to whom motives mean more than things, his story rises above the level of a vivid recital of campaigns. It becomes a tragic drama of incomparable interest, in which the Athenian ideal is matched against the Spartan ideal,—expansive intellect against vigorous self-restraint,—a drama which is to close with the eclipse of the supremacy of his native city. The events of these years, so pregnant with change to the national life of Greece, are passed in review before a cold and penetrating intellect. The drama becomes a philosophy of life. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides sees in human affairs, not the immanence of Providence, but the calculation of man unsustained of God. It is the intellect, not the gods, that holds the master-keys of life. Oracles and prophecies are to this ancient skeptic the lure of the foolish, not the support of the reverent. Whatever statesmen may say, Thucydides scarcely ever substitutes chance for the logic of events. He compels complex motives to the sincerity of the elemental law of selfishness,—let him get and keep who can. He strips off the cloak of pretense, and makes men disclose their real purposes. Man is misled by fatal passion, and unexpected success breeds wanton hope. In this world of calculating logic it is the emotive forces that disturb the judgment. The Athenian boasts of his superior acuteness, and his wisdom turns to folly. Thucydides is no moralist, and moral conventions play no part in the struggle he depicts. Virtue may vaunt itself, but it may often be resolved into mere generous shame. The nobility of simple-minded sincerity is the butt of unscrupulous cleverness; justice and self-interest have not acknowledged the identity to be set forth by philosophy; suspicion, born of a suicidal over-acuteness, inaugurates a reign of distrust. No doubt the picture of society in Thucydides is that of an organism tainted by the moral poison of war-times. Man tramples under foot his creation, law. But between abstinence from moral judgment, and cynicism, there is a gulf; nor must we look, with some, for the sardonic smile of the cynic when the historian relates some new sad reversal of fortune. It did not lie in Thucydides’s purpose to let fly the shafts of a stæva indignatio, when in the very pity of all these atrocities, these treasons, these travesties of justice, lay their tragic pathos, needing no word of his to interpret them. To be the apostle of an evangel of a higher ethical code while narrating the miseries of a war fruitful in miseries, is more than we can demand of any Greek historian.  11
  Thucydides gives us the impression of a man of noble character, and of a powerful intellect ripened by converse with enlightened men. He possessed a soul capable of rising to the greatness of his theme. The most authentic bust (belonging to the Earl of Leicester) displays, according to Professor Mahaffy, those qualities of sternness, strength, and modernness which stamp the character of the history. He is distinguished by dignity, elevation, and calm. He disdains trivialities, the accidental sides of personality. Gossip and scandal he puts aside, as he finds no place for those kindly familiarities which awaken interest at the expense of elevation. He looks at men and things with a large vision. Raised above a traditional prejudice for aristocracy, while he recognizes the wisdom of Pericles, whose policy his work may be said to vindicate, he confesses that Athens was never better governed than under the oligarchy of 411 B.C. He is a master in the art of suppressing his emotions. “Under the marble exterior of Greek literature,” says Jowett—and the remark is true of Thucydides—“was concealed a soul thrilling with spiritual emotion.” Probably no other writer possesses the tremendous reserve force of Thucydides, in recounting disasters that must have been heart-breaking to a patriot. Rarely indeed do we find such an expression as “sufferings too great for tears,” used when he is describing the disasters of the Athenians before Syracuse. He may even affect us with the hostility of impatience, as in the bald narration of the utter brutality of the Athenian policy toward the Melians. But as his inquiry must not be liable to assault on the ground of bias, he withdraws his personality to a safe distance from the scene. From personal judgment he abstains, except when his readers might be tempted to form false conclusions.  12
  If in the narration of contemporary events Thucydides is the most objective of the ancient historians, from the point of view of style he is, with the possible exception of Tacitus, the most subjective of all. When he began to write, Attic prose was in its infancy. His predecessors were the Ionic chroniclers, whose easy-flowing, unperiodic style was ill suited to a theme demanding a powerful and compressed idiom. The problem before Thucydides was to chisel out of the rough marble of Attic speech a form of expression that would comport with the gravity of his subject and the philosophic character of his mind. Tragedy could be called upon to augment his vocabulary; the formal rhetoric of the Sophists could supply him with devices for varying his native power of plain but vigorous description. The chief difficulty was to find adequate expression for the new and pregnant political and philosophical ideas of the time. Here he had to create a style from the stubborn material of an unsettled speech; and here it is that we find the chief examples of his austerity. When Thucydides was exiled, men had only just been awakened to the power that lies in the artistic arrangement of words in prose. The result was a conventional and high-strung rhetoric, which Thucydides in his exile could not unbend by contact with the newer teachers. When he returned to Athens, his style, like his ideals, had become irrevocably fixed. Meantime, at Athens, the process of adjusting expression to the spirit of the age had resulted in the plain and ungarnished style of Lysias. While much of Thucydides’s harshness may be ascribed to the unformed condition of nascent Attic speech, and some part of his irregularities may be charged to the account of the copyists, enough remains to show that the peculiarities of his diction are largely individual. When he wishes, he can write simply and nervously (“The lion laughs,” says an ancient commentator), as in the description of the siege of Platæa. When we come from the reading of Plato or Demosthenes, we feel that it is from his very striving after clearness that Thucydides becomes obscure. His particularity is too minute. He uses high where we should use low relief. Naturally terse, his brevity leads him to pack a paragraph into a sentence, a sentence into a single word. The very words seem to pant for air. He hurries us on to a new thought before we have grasped the one that preceded (“semper instans sibi,” 1 says Quintilian). He is especially fond of antithesis,—a mark of the time. He differentiates synonyms as if Prodicus were at his elbow. Formal grammar he rarely violates, and verbal association will generally explain the apparent irregularities. If the style is rugged it is never mean; it often attains a noble beauty and grandeur; and throughout, it mirrors the deep moral earnestness of the man. Irony he possesses, but no humor.  13
  The peculiarities of this style are most marked in the speeches; which are either deliberative (including the hortatory addresses to the soldiers), panegyrical as in the famous oration of Pericles, or judicial. They are usually arranged in pairs, so as to set forth the interest and policy of the conflicting parties. It is interesting to note, however, that no speaker voices the opposition to Pericles. In one case, instead of two speeches, we have a dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians; placed with fine dramatic irony at that point where the recital of Athenian insolence is to be succeeded by the story of Athens’s downfall. The speeches serve not only to relieve the monotony of annalistic narration: they illuminate the character of the great personages; they personify a national cause; and they enable us to realize with intense vividness the policy of the leading statesmen of the time. Not that they are authentic. Thucydides says that he has merely put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as he thought the speaker would be likely to express them, while at the same time he has endeavored to embody the substance of what was actually said. The idealized and majestic form is undoubtedly Thucydidean, though some attention has been given to differentiating the styles of the speakers. The speech of the ephor Sthenelaïdas has a laconic brevity; that of Alcibiades is as full of metaphors as it is of egotism. All the speeches, even that of Cleon the tanner, show an elevated style. The longer orations display a subtle acquaintance with the character of the speakers, and are truly Thucydidean in keeping our intellectual faculties on the stretch. In inserting these public harangues, Thucydides set the type which becomes merely artificial in imitators like Sallust and others. In him they are a natural product of that period in the growth of Attic prose when prose writing was almost entirely confined to oratory.  14
  The Greek standard in matters of literary indebtedness was not the modern standard. Failure to acknowledge one’s debt in ancient times is generally to be regarded as merely evidence of agreement; and Thucydides passes over the name of Stesimbrotus who wrote on Themistocles, and of Antiochus of Syracuse to whose work he was largely indebted. Allusion to a predecessor serves only as an opportunity to bring him to penance. Herodotus castigates Hecatæus, Thucydides castigates Herodotus and Hellanicus. How far is Thucydides himself invulnerable?  15
  If we consider the difficulties of composing contemporaneous history in ancient times, when inscriptions were the only written records, we shall not wonder if Thucydides may have blundered here and there. One inscription shows that he (or was it the defenseless copyist?) misstated the name of a general. There are a few variations of minor importance between a treaty inserted in the text and the actual document discovered on the Acropolis. It has been reserved for our generation to produce an advocatus diaboli, who, in the person of Müller-Strübing, endeavors to shake our belief in the general accuracy of the historian. He charges him with suppressing frequently facts of prime importance. When the last word on this score has been said, we may still believe that if Thucydides, a writer of contemporaneous history, had been inaccurate, he would have raised up a cloud of witnesses ready to impeach him. The ancients regarded him as fair-minded, and he makes upon us the impression of a truthfulness and a candor that are free from all simulation. In the third century B.C., Thucydides was the ideal truthful historian, who, as Praxiphanes the pupil of Theophrastus says, “though mostly unknown in his lifetime, was valued beyond price by posterity.” Conscious of the single purpose to narrate events as they really were, Thucydides says with lofty confidence that he “will be satisfied if his work shall prove useful to those who wish to see the truth, both of what has happened and will happen again, according to the order of human things.” Dionysius, his chief student in antiquity, learned from him that history is philosophy teaching by examples. Only a profound conviction of the truth could have led Thucydides to the belief that by the past we can foresee the future; and emboldened him to the statement that “unlike the narratives of those who intermingle fables with history to delight the hearer for the moment, his work is a possession to keep forever.”  16
 
  BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—The first edition of the text is that of Aldus (1502). The elaborate edition in eleven volumes by Poppo (1821–40) is still a storehouse of information. Stahl has re-edited (1886 ff.) the abbreviated Poppo (four vols.) in a convenient and serviceable edition with Latin notes. The edition by Arnold (1831–35) is interesting for its historical comments. Grammatical interpretation is the strong feature of the German edition by Classen, several of whose volumes have appeared in an English dress. The best critical edition is Hube’s (Leipzig, 1898–1901); Jones’s (Oxford) is convenient. Hobbes, the author of the ‘Leviathan,’ translated Thucydides in 1628. The most recent translation is that of Jowett (1881), from whom the following extracts are taken.  17
 
Note 1. “Ever pressing close upon his own heels.” [back]
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.