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.