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Kirralee Shay 5740319 HIST259

Did Thucydides believe he was a better historian about the past than other Greek writers?

Justify your response

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Thucydides, citing his differences from

Herodotus.

The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) famously wrote his

account of the Peloponnesian war which was fought at the end of the 5th century BC between

the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, and the Delian League, led by Athens. His work was

divided into 8 books, however, the 8th book was never completed. While there are certainly

strengths and weaknesses to Thucydides report, it is clear that he believed he was a better

historian than others of his time. When assessing the verity of this claim, it is important to note

Thucydides' purpose, the audience for which he was writing, the sources he used, his reliability,

his biases and his ideologies which are present in his writing. This essay aims to discuss these

points with a focus on Thucydides’ description of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, his

recollection of Pericles’ Funeral Oration and his interpretation of the Melian dialogue, in

addition to his differences from fellow Greek historian, Herodotus and others.

In terms of Thucydides’ purpose, his main aim was to report factual accounts. He paid

particular attention to the time in which he lived and wrote relatively concurrently to its

occurrence. For example, Thucydides allegedly began to write his account of the event as soon

as it broke out as he believed the war was of unprecedented importance and would be

devastating with many ramifications.1 Thucydides’ believed this as the war was fought between

two major Greek cities who were both immensely powerful at the time, which would result in

a large portion of the Ancient Greek world becoming involved, in addition to both being

equipped with strong militaries.2 Unlike Herodotus, who often relied on supernatural factor

1
(Thuc.1.1).
2
(Thuc.1.1).
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and sought to include a moral lesson for his audience, Thucydides believed that the war

was a result of underlying human factors.3 This is a prominent reason as to why Thucydides

felt he was a greater historian than others before him as he wrote his account to be logical and

factual with meticulous reasoning. This intention was to ensure the account was relevant for

the future.

It is clear that Thucydides wrote his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, for

those in the future to know about the experience. Thucydides stated that he wrote his account

“as a possession for all time” rather than a fleeting narrative.4 Quite unlike Herodotus who

wrote for his immediate Greek audience, it was Thucydides’ intention to help people in the

future understand what he believed to be a significant event. He achieved this through his report

of the facts and eyewitness accounts which he noted would be useful, albeit less fantastical

than other sources.5 This is a particular strength in Thucydides’ writing which differentiates

him from other historians of his time, as he bears more similarities to modern ones. Another

strength of his writing was that, by taking his audience into account, Thucydides wrote his

report in chronological order. This further validates Thucydides belief that he was a better

historian than others such as Herodotus, particularly for the modern audience.

Thucydides does not cite sources, however, he notes that only his own personal

experiences and the accounts of other eyewitnesses who were alive at the time were included.

In 424 BC, Thucydides was elected as a ‘stategos’ or general, however, after being blamed for

Sparta gaining control of the Athenian colony Amphipolis, he was exiled. The fact of

Thucydides being highly ranked in the military allowed him to understand the intricacies of

the Peloponnesian war and the politics that surrounded it through his first-hand experience. As

a result, he could speculate and analyse the reasons for the outbreak of the war. He deduced it

3
(John A. Whichousk?).
4
(Thuc.1.22)
5
(Thuc.1.22)
Kirralee Shay 5740319 HIST259

was inevitable due to Athens experiencing growth in power which caused fear and

apprehension in Sparta.6 In relation to his accounts of Pericles’ speeches, most notably the

Funeral Oration, Thucydides explained: “I heard them myself or when they were reported to

me by other sources… while keeping as closely as I could to the overall intent of what was

actually said”. 7 While the speeches are not exactly transcribed, it is clear that Thucydides

intended to maintain the essence of what was being said. Although, this also leaves room for

fallibility and weakness in his account due to interpretation, imperfect human memory and

subconscious biases. It is important to note, however, that Thucydides’ perpetual reflection and

investigation to assist in the strength of his account, but do not leave him impervious to biases.

While Thucydides intended to provide an objective account of the Peloponnesian war,

perhaps subconsciously, his work displays a certain degree of bias. It is also important to

understand that Thucydides was an Athenian from a noble family, writing his account, such as

the underlying reason for the outbreak of the war, from a pro-Athenian viewpoint.8 The most

obvious example of bias would relate to the Athenian politician, Pericles. After the first year

of the war, Pericles delivered a funeral oration for those who had fallen. This speech that was

recorded also served the purpose of building morale among Athenian subjects by praising

Athens itself and imploring the living to exhibit the same spirit as those who perished.9

Thucydides was a particular supporter of the politician. His work recounts three of Pericles’

speeches but depicts him to be an almost infallible hero through the complete omission of

contrary views. Plato and Plutarch both criticised Pericles for his public fee system claiming

that it made the Athenian people lazy, greedy and prone to other similar habits.10 11 Thucydides

instead fully believed Pericles was guiding the Athenians. Thucydides, as was stated earlier in

6
Thucydides 1.23
7
Thucydides. 1.22
8
Rhodes (1994): 165
9
Thucydides 2.43
10
Plato (Gorgias). 515e
11
Plutarch (Pericles) 9.1
Kirralee Shay 5740319 HIST259

this essay, indicated that the war was inevitable which would mean that Pericles was

not to blame for the war. Biases are necessary to be aware of and should be taken into account

when reviewing Thucydides’ historical account. However, he explicitly stated that while the

speeches were written as they appeared to him, his account of the war was not.12

Although Thucydides is imperfect, as was described in the paragraph above, his

reliability should not be completely abandoned. Thucydides’ main concern when writing The

History of the Peloponnesian War was to remain impartial and to provide an objective account

of the war. Some historians question whether Thucydides preferred to capture a particular

rhetoric or narrative rather than a completely factual account.13 though he overtly states this is

not his intention even going so far as to state that the speeches were not recorded verbatim.14

Much like any study of history, investigations and recounts should be studied with the context

of the source and human fallibility in mind. Thucydides had clear biases, but his commitment

to the investigation and reporting of facts that he could confirm through his own travels,

experiences and other eyewitness accounts create a large amount of reliability. This contrasts

Herodotus who wrote based on oral accounts of events supposedly occurring before his time.15

Thucydides level of reliability is a key factor in his relevance even in modern times and a

strength in his writing.

The most pertinent example of Thucydides’ ideologies is perhaps his dramatization of

the dialogue between the Athenians and the neutral island of Melos which demonstrates

political realism.16 Meaning that conflict is necessary and expected by those who seek power.

Since this is Thucydides’ interpretation of what would lead Athens to kill all their men of

military age and sold the women and children into slavery, it is possible that this was his

12
Thucydides. 1.22
13
Rhodes (1994): 165
14
Thucydides. 1.22
15
Whitehouse (2009): 6
16
Thuc.5.85-116
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ideology as well. That is, “the dominant exact what they can, and the weak concede what they

must”.17 Therefore, Thucydides saw such conflict as a political tool rather than a completely

negative occurrence. This ideology contributed to the understanding of political realism in a

modern context, further cementing his historical importance.

Thucydides was undeniably flawed, however, he was imperfect in the same way that

many historians are. His belief that he was better than other historians of his time is not

unsubstantiated for the main reason that he sought to provide a factual account of occurrences

that he could confirm. For these reasons and those listed above, it is justifiable that his factual

account of history causes him to be a better historian than others of his time.

17
Thucydides. 5.89
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Bibliography

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