Thucydides of Athens (c. 455-400 BC) was an Athenian aristocrat of supreme intelligence and a failed politician who turned his 20 years of political exile to excellent account by turning himself into the most acute analyst and historian of the great Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404. Thucydides was born within the world’s first democratic political state but was out of sympathy with the rule of the majority, the masses – except when they themselves were kept in check and did what they were advised by a superior statesman of the unique calibre of Pericles (c. 493-429).
Thucydides outlived the end of that War, which was a major defeat ultimately for his own home city by the Spartans aided financially by the old enemy, the Persians. But he did not live long enough to complete his History, which breaks off in mid-sentence in what we call the summer of 411 BC – what he called the 20th summer of ‘his’ War. I put it that way because Thucydides’s view that there had been just the one War, interrupted by a period of phoney peace, was not shared by all his contemporaries. One reason he wanted it to be a single, 27-year conflict was that that made it so much longer than not only Herodotus’ wars (only 2 years, 480 and 479) but also than Homer’s 10-year Trojan War! So much longer and therefore so much more memorable – so much more demanding a historian of his quality and stature. Thucydides was nothing if not agonistic, competitive, a very Greek character trait.
But he was very much more than a descriptive, narrative historian. Rather, he regarded his war as a kind of laboratory sample which should be dissected and analysed so as to bring out the constants in human behaviour, not so much personal as collective: what was it that made states behave towards each other in the ways they did, especially in terms of peace and war. He seems to have thought there were three main motivations: fear (in the security sense, that is), economic advantage, and self-esteem or ‘honour’. Rather like a dramatist, he composed speeches which he put in the mouths of the chief actors at key moments of decision. Being a historian, concerned overridingly with historical accuracy, he was careful to state that he didn’t just make these speeches up off the top of his head, but did so on the basis of such primary reports from reliable eyewitnesses as he could get access to as well, of course, as his own experience of those speeches he himself had actually heard – for example, some by the master-orator Pericles.
Pericles died, as did many thousands of Athenians, of some devastating plague, probably either typhus or typhoid fever. Thucydides too caught the plague but lived to describe its symptoms, in horrifyingly graphic detail. But for Thucydides the death of Pericles had a much wider significance – as a key part of his explanation of why, 25 years later, the Athenians lost the War. This was, he believed, because after Pericles’s death the Athenians no longer possessed such a leader of genius and were persuaded by inferior, self-serving democratic politicians (‘demagogues’) to abandon altogether th strategy and policy laid down so wisely and foresightedly by Pericles. Actually, things were not quite as black and white as that, and Thucydides is guilty of being blinded somewhat by his excessive admiration for his fellow-aristocrat and by his class prejudice both against democracy as such and against lower-class politicians.
Fortunately for us, Thucydides lived long enough to write up in detail the civil strife into which the Athenians sadly fell in 411 following their disastrous attempt to extend the scope of the war to Sicily and conquer (democratic) Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. He thus was able to complement his earlier, excoriating analysis of another Greek civil war, the one that afflicted the island-state of Corfu in 427. For Thucydides, as well as being a brilliant historian, was also a quite exceptional political theorist and analyst, even philosopher. Consider, for classic instance, the so-called ‘Melian Dialogue’: set in the winter of 416/5 at a pivotal moment of the entire War, the Dialogue – invented entirely by Thucydides – pits the oligarchic rulers of the small, Cycladic island-state of Melos against representatives of the greatest Aegean naval power of the day, democratic Athens, in a debate about Power and Might. It was for the Melians a matter of life and death – in actuality, the Athenians entirely destroyed the Melian state, killing the males, and selling the females and children into slavery abroad. But what interests Thucydides, and he thinks should interest us (since his work as a whole is he claims ‘a possession for ever’), is what factors motivate a large state in its power-relations with a small one, and how best that differential power ought pragmatically to be wielded. Thucydides, quite clearly, believed that the Athenians had got it quite seriously wrong. After the Melian episode the path to Athenian defeat was set.
Translating Thucydides’s Athenian Greek into English is notoriously difficult. One of the most widely used translations, now rather antiquated, is that of Richard Crawley, which has been helpfully reprinted as the core text of The Landmark Thucydides, subtitled A comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. R. Strassler. The Strassler edition comes equipped with all sorts of aids, including a multitude of maps, and footnotes, and appendixes on various aspects both of Thucydides’s work and of the Greek world about which he wrote. But for me the best translation on the market, because the most faithful to Thucydides’s often contorted Greek, is that of Jeremy Mynott, done not for a straight history series but for Cambridge University Press’s Texts in the History of Political Thought series (2013). Note the title Mynott gives: not History of the Peloponnesian War, but The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians – clumsier, less snappy, but (it would have delighted Thucydides himself) more accurate.