This lesson discusses the Greek historian, Thucydides. Learn more about his life and how he changed the way in which history was recorded, then test your knowledge with a quiz.
Biography of Thucydides
C. to 400 B.C.
He came from a wealthy family that earned its money from the gold mines on its land. When Thucydides commanded a fleet for the Athenian Army during the Peloponnesian War in 422 B.C.
, he could not reach Amphipolis in time to prevent the Spartans from taking control of the city. Thucydides was blamed for the loss and was exiled from Athens. He took that opportunity to spend the next 20 years traveling around Greece and writing about the war.
His Approach to History
Herodotus and Thucydides are compared because they are the first historians of ancient Greece and they had very different approaches to history. Herodotus liked to tell stories. Not every story that he told was true. In fact, Thucydides accused him of inventing fables just to make history more interesting.
Thucydides was a scientific historian. He stressed the importance of facts and getting both sides of a story. Thucydides interviewed men who had actually fought in battles instead of just relying on what he heard from others. The quality of his sources was important. He talked to people who were in command and more likely to have accurate information.
Another significant difference from Herodotus was that Thucydides did not place an emphasis on the importance of gods in the outcome of events.
The History of the Peloponnesian War
The product of Thucydides’ research is The History of the Peloponnesian War. It is eight books that chronicle the war between Sparta and Athens that began in 431 B.C. and ended in 404 B.C. The fact that Thucydides wrote about events that occurred in his lifetime was unusual, but he did it because he believed the war was more important than any war that came before it.
While not the first historical text, it set the standard for historical texts to come because it is factual and concise. Eight volumes may not seem concise but it must be remembered that the war, which Sparta eventually won, lasted 27 years. However, Thucydides only got as far as 410 B.C.
before the eighth volume abruptly ends in mid-sentence. Most historians believe that Thucydides died before he could finish it.
The History of the Peloponnesian War includes several speeches that Thucydides said were given over the course of the war. He wanted to include these speeches in his work because he believed they offer important insight into the reasons for the war, as well as the ability of the military and political leaders to use persuasive speaking.
Thucydides’ speeches are not transcripts and he never claimed that they were. He said he wrote the speeches the way he thought they would have been said. This has led some modern historians to suggest that the speeches are better classified as literature. However, other scholars point out that taking notes during speeches and debates was a common practice.
If Thucydides was as thorough about gathering those notes as he was with other sources, it is highly possible that his interpretation of the speeches were based on fact.
Pericles Funeral Oration
One of the most famous speeches in Thucydides’ work is the ‘Pericles Funeral Oration.’ Pericles was a general during the Peloponnesian War. He gave the speech to honor those who died after one of the first battles in the war, to praise Athens, and to challenge Athenians to be as honorable as the fallen.
Thucydides was present for the speech but, like the other speeches, it is his interpretation. There is a striking resemblance between the funeral oration and another famous speech that also occurred after a tremendous battle. In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Pennsylvania to dedicate a national cemetery following the Battle of Gettysburg. Like Pericles, Lincoln uses the Gettysburg Address to honor the patriotism of the men who died for their country and asks those that remain to resolve ‘that these dead shall not have died in vain.
Greek Historian Thucydides Overview
Finishing this lesson on Thucydides prepares you to: