• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Thucydides - The History of the Peloponnesian War - Preface to Podcast

Every man, in the opinion of the great English Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is born either an Aristotelian or a Platonist. For his own part, Coleridge was most decidedly a follower of the latter school, to whose sublime and exclusive Academy—along with such luminary figures as Plotinus, Augustine, Clement, and Philo—he was forever proud to claim membership. The alternative school, that led by Aristotle, was by no means lacking in its own list of distinguished and brilliant alumni. Among its most celebrated students, it flaunted such names as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Maimonides, and Alexander the Great.


In a similar manner, every man is born with a natural preference either for Thucydides, on the one hand, or Herodotus on the other. Those, like Coleridge, who feel themselves inclined toward Plato will likely find in Herodotus a congenial spirit with whom to converse and pass their time. Herodotus, born at Halicarnassus in the year 484 BC, had the temperament of a poet, the eloquence of an actor, the curiosity of a child, and the experience of a man well-qualified to speak about the world. Exiled from his home at the age of thirty-two, Herodotus bore his punishment lightly, viewing it as a golden opportunity on which to capitalize as he entered his third decade of life. If nothing else, it was a fine justification to escape the political intrigue in which he found himself enmeshed, and the tedium of a life of which he’d grown quite weary.


Now, marked by the state as persona non grata, Herodotus was suddenly impelled to leave his home, to roam the earth as he’d always wished, to interact with and observe diverse peoples living far afield, and to think about history and the progress of man.


Like a real peripatetic, Herodotus covered every inch of the Eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, venturing south from Asia Minor to Phoenicia, Judea, Egypt, and then to Libya. It’s possible he went as far east as Susa in modern-day Iran, and north to the Pontic shores of the Black Sea. At long last, he returned to Athens, breathed the sweet, learned air of that university city, compiled his voluminous notes, organized his thoughts, and set out to write the greatest history yet conceived. Beginning with the legendary origins of the eastern states through which he traveled, he traced their history and development all the way up to the Persian War—that first, truly international conflict of which, against all odds, his adopted city of Athens was the undisputed victor.


Cicero, the great Roman consul and orator of the late Republic, deemed Herodotus the “Father of History”. Those less impressed by the author’s historiographic rigor, and more conscious of his tendency to conflate myth, conjecture, and fact, preferred to call him the “Father of Lies”. Strabo, a contemporary of Cicero, offers an intermediate, and I think relatively unbiased assessment of history’s grand patriarch. He makes the inarguable claim that there is, “much nonsense in Herodotus”. Indeed, there is (see, for instance, his claim that the semen of Ethiopians matches the dark color of their skin, that the Spartans avail themselves of Orestes’ magical bones) but not so much that the entire narrative is spoiled. Yes, Herodotus is quick to embrace nearly every superstition with which he makes contact, and to invoke the mighty gods and spirits with whom the heavens above are allegedly filled, but so much is to be admired in this work.


If Herodotus was, as Cicero averred, the “Father of History”, Thucydides would have to be his wayward son. Aside from the genre in which he wrote, Thucydides inherited little from his famous predecessor, a man of unsurpassed genius from whom, so it would appear, he tried very hard to distinguish himself.


Yet, that said, though Thucydides is, by about twenty-five years, Herodotus’ younger, he’s of a much more mature disposition. Herodotus, the imaginative, sublime, poetic Platonist—doubtless Coleridge’s choice for an historical muse—is an adolescent when viewed next to his more adult-minded successor, the Aristotelian Thucydides.


Of Thucydides’ own history, we know frustratingly little. In his great work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, he discloses only the information about himself without which, in his rather frugal opinion, the educated reader simply cannot do. He was born at Athens to parents of Thracian roots: His father owned and operated gold mines in that expansive and rugged country, and his mother was the daughter of an aristocratic family.


Perhaps, upon his selection to serve as a general in the Athenian army, Thucydides’ commanding officers bore his Thracian ancestry in mind. After finishing his education in that same city around which, like the probing gadfly to which his many detractors equated him, the great Socrates still buzzed, Thucydides was commissioned at the age of thirty-six to lead a naval expedition to Amphipolis (amphi, meaning, “on both sides”; polis, meaning “city”). Amphipolis lay on the fertile coast of Thrace, securely within the realm of Athenian influence. It was, for the acquisition of essential commodities, a vital city by which Athens was reliably provisioned. From Thrace, she received such important items as grain, silver, and timber—or, in other words, food, coins, and ships—the very things by which an army is supported, and a decades-long war sustained.


Brasidas, the daring Spartan leader, recruited an unusual mix of freed helots, mercenaries, and disgraced sons of Lacedaemon with whom he proceeded to assault, and finally to overtake Amphipolis. A battle ensued during which Brasidas, and his equally remarkable Athenian counterpart, Cleon, died. It was Thucydides’ task to relieve his besieged countryman, Cleon—a budding demagogue of whom the hoi polloi was enthusiastically supportive—and to regain control of the falling garrison around which Spartan troops were swarming.


His failure to do so was the reason for his exile, which he, like Herodotus, passed in fruitful and instructive travel. For the next two decades, Thucydides spent the bulk of his time in the Peloponnese, that area south of Attica of which Sparta was the undisputed capital. There, he lived as one among the enemy, sitting at its hearth, eating at its table, all the while gaining an unexpected appreciation of its austere, noble, indefatigable soul. If his thinking was polluted by even the slightest taint of a patriotic feeling, or blighted by the heightened regard for the place in which he was reared, his time spent in exile had a curative effect. No longer would his eyes be clouded by the thick film of bias and nationalism through which so many of us view the world. He was, rather, able to adjust his sight, focus his view, and tell the history of this war in as clear and impartial a manner as he could.


Thucydides’ history begins where that of Herodotus leaves off, but the continuity linking the two masters proceeds no further. Stylistically and thematically, the two are completely different. Whereas Herodotus ranges from one country to another, indulging every digression that suggests itself along the way, Thucydides is narrowly, unwaveringly focused. Often, at the expense of a flowing and smooth narrative, Thucydides adheres too rigidly to chronology, causing him to jump from one scene to another, only to return back again. The months and years impose upon him an unnatural constraint, and he labors beneath them as though time itself were an unbending tyrant.


His work is seldom seasoned by the various foibles and achievements of memorable personalities, whereas Herodotus’ pages are overflowing with the unique character sketches of so many vibrant men. Thucydides, with the exception of such figures as Pericles, Nicias, and Alcibiades—all of them larger than life, and impossible to ignore—prefers events to humans, action to dialogue, the sword to the pen, Ajax to Homer, whereas Herodotus wants to capture it all. Of course, to the readers’ delight, Thucydides is occasionally apt to excuse himself from this rule of his own making, and to conjure up some of the finest, most eloquent speeches never to have been given voice.


For a scholar as punctilious and earnest as he, it’s shocking to find Thucydides putting into the mouths of men like Pericles and Alcibiades (with whose distinctive and refined oratorical skills, no doubt, every Athenian was well-acquainted) a script of his own contrivance. On account of the supreme beauty, sustained eloquence, and unmatched gravity of these great speeches, though, we’re quick to forgive Thucydides this literary predilection—this tendency to concoct words to which no man really gave voice. Pericles’ funeral oration, for example, is one of the noblest eulogies every written (if not delivered) and the Western canon would be so much the worse had its true author withheld it from his book. What a loss it would be, had Thucydides chained himself too tightly to historicity, and redacted these words for the silly little reason that they were never actually spoken?


Of course, like any man, Thucydides has his faults. While he overflows with precision, numbers, dates, and detail, he lacks wit, creativity, grace, and imagination—features and adornments of which not a single Athenian soul would be found wanting. The severity of this Thracian roots, at times, rise up and suffocate the reading, and his sole fixation on the war produces a somewhat blinkered view. We hear nothing, for example, of the art, the culture, the drama, the tragedy, the life of Athens and Greece in this most dynamic of ages. We mustn’t forget that, at least until the installment of the thirty oligarchs at war’s end in 404 BC, Athens represented the very summit of humanity—the very apex toward which our lowly species had been climbing. It was an era during which Socrates, Plato, Phidias, Pericles, Gorgias, Themistocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles lived—possibly the greatest concentration of genius that’s ever existed—and that these men went unmentioned registers as something on the level of a sin.


Equally unmentioned is an entire half of the human population—the female sex. Apparently, women are utterly inconsequential during a time of upheaval and war, a span of nearly thirty long, tempestuous years during which only men are relevant or needed. I cannot but deem this a literary crime against humanity, of which only the most unreformed misogynist is capable. But, alas, Thucydides—the aristocratic, conservative Athenian general—had little to say about women beyond his pithy remark at the end of Pericles’ Funeral Oration.


Toward the speech’s end, he says:


And, if I am to speak of womanly virtues to those of you who will henceforth be widows, let me sum them up in one short admonition: To a woman not to show more weakness than is natural to her sex is a great glory, and not to be talked about for good or for evil among men”.


The women aren’t alone in their neglect; Thucydides also excludes from his work any reference to the gods. It would be, in Thucydides’ remarkably secular and, therefore, modern opinion, unmeet for an historian of his professional rank to begin offering supernatural explanations for events occurring right here on Earth. Thus, we hear nothing of Athena interceding on behalf of her eponymous city, nor Heracles joining his Doric descendants in their perilous fight. Poseidon offers no guidance to the Attic triremes destined for Sicily, and Mars withholds his power from the Syracusean hoplites. Zeus exercises his typical aloofness and restraint, while Hera, his wife, refrains from endorsing one side or the other as her favorite. This is, in every way, a godless, purely human confrontation, in which the author won’t allow the intrusive caprice of the bickering gods to meddle.


To compensate for what this history lacks, Thucydides gives us the assurance of a tale told by an impartial eye witness. In many instances, he is himself the primary source (he tells us firsthand, for example, of the terrible plague by which he personally was infected; modern scientists believe it to have been a variant of typhoid, and it utterly decimated the tightly-concentrated, unusually-urbanized Athenian population). When this isn’t the case, he’s diligent—to an exhaustive and admirable degree—in finding such a person, interviewing him thoroughly, double-checking his proclamations, and incorporating his offerings of knowledge as the verified, certifiable gems of a primary source. This is, even when measured against our own modern standards, the kind of methodological rigor of which there are few examples. Without the assistance of the internet and its limitless trove of digitized books, Thucydides exceeds in accuracy most of our current writers.


And, if that weren’t enough, he also writes much better. Indeed, after Thucydides, only two historians—Tacitus and Edward Gibbon—can be thought of as serious competitors.


And so, with that, let’s go through a few of his most gripping passages, upon which we might dilate, as we find ourselves willing.


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