Rehabilitating Thucydides

Thucydides gets a bad wrap. Okay, so he was not a great general and drastically changes tone when he was ostracized from Athens, but he also is clear and decisive about what he is doing. He does his best to use valid sources and get accurate information. Often he is derided in the text for doing exactly what he said he would do within the first few pages.

An admitted participant and therefore biased observer, Thucydides starts off by saying that he started writing his text because the war that started would be more worth writing about than any that had previously happened, and then elaborates as to why this is so. One may argue the merits of his particular argument, but he is quite clear that for Greeks, this was a world war, one for the supremacy of the most important region of the world. Compared to this long, bloody conflict, the issues with Persia were child’s play. Following the pronouncement, Thucydides introduces his world and how it became the way it was. This is mythic history and the familiar characters abound, but it is also a linear progression taken as fact for the purposes of creating the setup for the land of Hellas, rather than the war between East and West in Herodotus. Each had their own modus operandi.

Unlike Herodotus, who heard different stories and then laid them out for interpretation, Thucydides makes the judgments for you. Thucydides uses evidence and attempts to cross check them. He purposely discards information that is exaggeration and comes to conclusions to the best of his ability. This also opens the door for accusations of bias, but such can always be said about historians, and that is no reason for dismissal.

Perhaps the most common accusation leveled is that he made up speeches, but this claim ignores a line straight from the introduction:

“I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”

Okay, in an age of mass media, recording devices and the like, Thucydides’ methods would be deplorable, but he didn’t live in such an age. He lived in one where he made do as he could and when it came to such speeches what should have been said was second best to the actual speeches when it came to overarching view of this world war.

Say what you will, Thucydides has his faults, but does do what he set out to do and did so in a manner much more reminiscent of modern history than any other author before him and afterward for hundreds of years.

Macedonians: Greek or other?

As I tossed back at my advisor in my thesis defense, this question in short comes down to the eye of the beholder. To Greeks, the Argead king may have been Greek, but usually just when he insisted upon this right. To Macedonian kings they sure were Greeks, to the Macedonians themselves they were not. Yet they are notably included in the Iliadic tradition of Greeks. Philip married women who clearly were barbarians, yet also a woman who traced her lineage to that great Greek hero Achilles and lived in the same mixed state as he, all the while holding a majority vote on the Amphyctonic council through his position as tagus of the Thessalian League. Although this quagmire of evidence leads nowhere or in circles quite quickly, there is much that suggests that Macedonia was in fact Greek-esque, but resembled the less civilized, Homeric kingdoms of Greece, rather than truly civilized peoples.

One of the leads I would like to know more about is marriage practice in Macedonia. By all accounts men were permitted to have multiple wives if they could take care of them and Philip went so far as to marry in order to solidify his conquests and allies. There was differentiation between prostitutes and wives, but other than that I have been unable to make out much. In contrast, each Greek group had their own practices, and while some were eccentric, they were also largely monogamous. From this angle, Macedonians were not Greek.

A second, non-Greek, aspect to the Macedonian identity was the distinct lack of poleis. There were some of these city-state units, but they were usually reduced solely to the city limits, while the surrounding farmland, which was always the second constituent piece of a polis, became property of the king who then distributed that land amongst his supporters. Such was the case with Amphipolis and the Olynthian League on the Chalcidice. Macedonia did have limited representation in the form of the Army Assembly and the King often yielded to the political wisdom that consulting and heeding advisors often resulted in smoother function of the kingdom, but he didn’t have to.

In short Macedonians were not Greek, but they were Greek enough to push that identity when it suited their needs. All of this took place while keeping a distinct ethnic identity.


The world we live in is very much the product of the world our parents grew up in. Sure, fashion, music, media, technology and the like have advanced or regressed, dependent upon your taste, but the groupings that the nation-states of the world are in are a product of the Cold War. NATO, the UN, and the EU are perhaps the most obvious examples of this, especially without the Warsaw Pact, but there is also SEATO, the African Union and the OAS, to name a few.

There is some argument that NATO, ostensibly a mutual defense pact against the Soviets has outlived its usefulness, but there are others that disagree. NATO was the driving force behind the interventions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Another indicator that perhaps this is untrue is that France, a country that had pulled out of full membership in 1966 under President De Gaulle, returned two weeks ago to reintegrate its military function with the organization.

The move was immediately criticized as it would “bring France further under the American thumb,” so to speak, and there is some truth to this since the overall commander of NATO forces (SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) is always an American, although his deputy is always a European. From a participatory sense this makes sense as the United States provides far and away the most manpower and equipment, yet it also breeds resentment (though NATO actions must be approved unanimously and any “no” prevents action from being taken).

President Sarkozy offered his position up for a confidence vote as a result, which is took place today. My personal take is that this is an overreaction, but one that is typical of the French who want to preserve their position in the world. Of course this is best done by them holding the United States at arm’s length while fostering the strength of the European Union, of which they are a driving member. As unhelpful as this is, France and the United States are operating and have been operating in very similar ways; both want to be leaders, and both want their military to operate solely under their guidance.

I don’t know how to resolve this issue and there will always be jostling for predominance, but the world has also been becoming more closely knit over the past 50 years. Countries from around the world are less and less isolationist and certain parity is required in interactions. No country wants to give up their sovereignty and yet all must do so at some level if organizations such as the UN are to work.

The conclusion of the story is that Sarkozy survived the vote, winning approximately 60% of the vote. This fact suggests both that a slim majority believe that NATO is still the predominant western military alliance in the world and that France should have more input into the operations of it, and that a large minority believe that if France did not need NATO for the past 40 years and should never surrender military command into this outdated system. Both groups likely support the EU as the most important vehicle for French foreign policy, one simply believes that the wider military alliance has a place in the world for the foreseeable future–to the extent that France should rejoin fully.

Edit: I lied. This very well could be that most French do not want the reintegration, but that this one policy issue is not enough to drive the President from office.

History and the human experience

“A single thread in a tapestry
though its color brightly shines
can never see its purpose
in the pattern of the grand design”
~Through Heaven’s Eyes, The Prince of Egypt

Even those historians who promote a sweeping narrative generally do so for a small region or group of peoples. At a certain level it is impossible for there to be an all inclusive history text and invariably those texts that cross cultures are either segmented by culture or have chosen certain facets with which to restrict their inquiry, or both.

One of the tasks of historians is to investigate how the cultures and events throughout history play into the growth and development of humanity as a whole. Of course the study of each culture as an individual and its place within the grand tapestry is as important as those points where they intersect with others; without the whole portion, the specific part that intersects would mean far less. Thus the study is both that of individual pieces in isolation and filling out the richness of the human story.

It is the discussion that takes place among people who have read history, who like history and who want to understand history that bring these isolated and esoteric factoids and stories together into this tapestry. No matter how much one person studies history there is simply too much for one person to know it all. Each person will take away a different nuanced message from readings, notice a different section, interpret it differently. This richness makes history among the most frustrating to study, but also makes it among the most rewarding.

I don’t look at the news because I don’t like what I see.

I went onto the BBC today on a whim and lo and behold, I saw an intensely disturbing Austrian Court case. Since I have had my head in books for far too long, this may be old news to some, but here it is.

Josef Fritzl kidnapped his daughter in 1984 by leading her into a cellar that he had prepared since 1981. Once there he locked her in and, depending on who you believe, either raped her repeatedly (she birthed seven children while down there) or had consensual sex with her. Some of the children were adopted or fostered by Josef and his wife, three others remained with their mother in the cellar, one died as an infant.

In 2008 his daughter persuaded him to take their eldest child to the hospital whereupon suspicion was aroused and eventually Josef was brought in.

Basically the case seems to boil down to three conflicting reports:

1) Neighbors and acquaintances and who say that he was polite, hard working and nice.

2) Tenants and children who claim he was strict and authoritarian. This includes his daughter who claims to have been chained up while he raped her.

3) His own view that he knew he was doing something wrong, but never forced anything. He knew he was crazy and was misbehaving, but brought his children by his daughter whatever he could and cared for them well. And of course that he was doing what was best for his daughter who had been frequenting bad bars and drinking and smoking.

At present Fritzl is pleading guilty to most of the charges and merely disputing words in others.

Two pieces of the story are what struck me the most and neither of them has to do with the rape, kidnapping, death of children, or how seven children managed to be born in a basement over the course of 20 years.

First, it is the psychology of this man, for whom: “The cellar in my building belonged to me and me alone. It was my kingdom, which only I had access to. Everyone who lived there knew it.” This leads me to suspect very much that he was a domineering person and obsessed with control.

Second, under Austrian law, anyone with a criminal record who is then released and arrest free must have that struck from their criminal record in not more than 15 years. Fritzl had previously been convicted of rape, but he did not raise eyebrows at the adoption of these children because that little fact was not on his criminal record.

For the BBC coverage of this story:

Seeing with eyes unclouded

Two of my most recent reads were A History of Modern Greece by C.M. Woodhouse and Alexander the Great by W.W. Tarn. Each has value; Woodhouse endeavours to document Greece from 306 C.E. up through 1977, while using just 300 page; Tarn almost single-handedly launched the modern study of Alexander III. They also have deficiencies. Most glaring for each is their tendency towards racial, ethnic or other stereotypes, combined with unabashed judgments about people or events. Tarn believes that Alexander was the first person to suggest the universal brotherhood of mankind, began the two main trends in political theory (monarchism and universal brotherhood, from what I can tell) and that if Alexander hadn’t died, we would be living in a Utopia under his descendants; Woodhouse hates Mussolini with a passion and is perfectly willing to deride him as an absolute monster without justification other than that he attacked Greece and felt petty jealousy toward Hitler.

If I actually had to use these two authors as sources, I would find myself in a deep dilemma. On one hand they know what they are talking about for the actual narrative, on the other, their arguments and their methodology is weak (in fact, I would go so far as to say that Thucydides, writing thousands of years earlier had better methodology, but that is a pet argument for me). To my mind, outrageous arguments such as the ones suggested above tarnish what could otherwise be very good work. The same is true of primary sources and ancient secondary sources, though in the latter case they often suffer from source problems as well and make do with comments such as “I don’t know how they did it, but here is what should have been done or what I would have done.”

As I do not need them for any sources (and even in Alexander studies, I find Tarn usually of secondary import), I can be somewhat amused at their eccentricities, but it goes to show that historians must always be vigilant lest their sources lead them astray. Of course this doesn’t mean that simple narrative with no explanation or analysis takes place, but the historian should make up their own mind rather than allowing the biases of their sources play a prominent role.

The Hellenistic Age

Typically the Hellenistic Age is defined as the years between Alexander’s death and the Battle of Actium. I humbly offer another definition. My own interpretation of Hellenistic is Greek-ish, Greek-like, Greek-esque, etc. Perhaps I am misguided in this definition, but there it is.

The Hellenistic Age should be considered begun after the Battle of Chaeronea, or alternatively at the foundation of the second League of Corinth when Philip essentially declared Hegemony over Greece. If the Macedonians were taken to be Greek-esque in and of themselves, then the rise of Pseudo-Greeks as the dominant force, and in particular a force that begins to expand, heralds the rise of the Hellenistic Age.

In my as-of-yet unwritten Master’s thesis, I endeavour to show that Philip II actually had more to do with the creation than did Alexander, whereas Alexander only incorporated the territory, which in turn made these separate kingdoms significantly larger than they could have been otherwise.

Philip’s rise over the traditional power of mainland Greece brought about a significant change in the balance of power and brought about a new epoch in history far more than did Alexander or Alexander’s death, ergo the Hellenistic Age should be dated to Philip’s ascension, not Alexander’s death. That the Hellenistic age is not taught as a cohesive period is another issue altogether.


In a political context this is perhaps the most controversial issue; does the person in power actually have the power they are laying claim to? Did they actually win the election? In the second case, however you boil it down, he did win, the courts upheld the decision and however upset this fact made people, they upheld the rule of law, which in its own way made the presidency legitimate.

Throughout much of history, though, the question has been two-fold. Does the person have the power they are claiming and to whom was that person born? The answer to the first often stemming as much from the second as from any other source.

Such was the case at Philip II’s wedding when the guardian of the new Macedonian wife stood up and proposed a toast that Philip could now get down to creating a legitimate heir. While there is no evidence to suggest that Alexander was somehow tainted by bastardy, or even that such a concept existed beyond recognizing that some children were born of more important women; yet there was some notion of an ethnic identity and that at least some people saw or wanted to see that Alexander was outside of it.

Of course Macedonia had no rules about monogamy other than that you must be able to provide for your women and children (at least that was the idea), and in fact Kleopatra was Philip’s sixth wife, and the only one from Macedon. If he and his other primary advisors truly believed in purity of Macedonian blood, then he would have chosen a Macedonian wife earlier in his reign, rather than so late. The incident, too, must be regarded carefully in that Alexander had been considered the heir for the previous 18 years and only now, by the man who had the most to gain from Kleopatra’s child, was he called an illegitimate child. When Philip died shortly thereafter, Alexander promptly became king, receiving acclaim from the army and from a large portion of the nobility, even from Lower Macedonia, wherein true legitimacy theoretically resided.

Of course there were two additional factors at play. First, Attalos could not have been alone in his perception as his words did find receptive ears and at the same time struck home with Alexander. It was not an unknown bias, if not a majority one. Second, Alexander suffered residual resentment from his mother, who, by all accounts was a psychotic lunatic. So too were the rest of Philip’s women (Kleopatra aside), but that is another matter. Olympias went above and beyond to the point where Philip exiled her. Oh, and she simply became crazier as time went on, having Kleopatra and her child killed, as well as Philip’s bastard child (and one of Alexander’s heirs), and his wife, some of these supposedly with her own hands. Meanwhile she and her daughter plotted to take over Epirus and Macedonia respectively, to which Alexander claimed his mother chose well because Macedonians would never consent to be ruled by a woman.

But I digress. Whatever Olympias’ reputation and its impact on Alexander’s legitimacy, Philip recognized Alexander as his son and raised him as heir. Perhaps had Philip lived his son by Kleopatra, Caranus, would have become heir, but then he would have had to compete with Alexander. But that is no more than idle speculation. Alexander had all the prerequisites for a Macedonian king: charisma, skill at arms, skill as a general, and born of the king. Every question about his place in society comes back to two points: Alexander, no matter his mother, was more legitimate than Philip had been and that did not hamper Philip overly much because of his success. Second, Philip died and Alexander, unlike the infant or even unborn Caranus, was mature; he came, he saw, he conquered. Legitimacy stems as much from the subjects as the rulers; to them Alexander was legitimate.