Three Views of Thucydides

Why do we read Thucydides? Few authors have been read and re-read in quite the same way as Thucydides, from different disciplinary perspectives and with different questions asked of the text and its author. But does Thucydides’ own claim that his work was of permanent value – ‘a possession for all time’ – mean that it can be approached without consideration of the context in which it was written, or is being read? Has Thucydides’ claim about his work, and instruction on its use, created a history of anachronistic readings in which his methodology and analysis have been placed beyond criticism? Assertions of the timeless value of his text suit the purposes of some readers better than others, generating soundbites (or sententiae, as they were known in ancient times) that can add classical gravitas to political argument, without demanding any critical engagement. Likewise, the ‘belief in the veracity of his History’, as Neville Morley describes it, and the associated belief in his successful development and use of a scientific historical methodology, has led readers whose goal isn’t the critical exploration of classical Greek history to be curiously unquestioning about the relationship of his narrative and analysis to the world he describes.

Syracuse’s former stone quarries, less idyllic in classical times

Reading Thucydides with these beliefs in place would be methodologically disastrous for present-day ancient historians. They need to take a more critical approach in comparing Thucydides’ account with other material and documentary evidence from fifth-century Greece, exploring his omissions and understanding the shape that he gives to events. The possibility of such an approach to Thucydides was exemplified by speakers at last term’s Corpus Classical Seminar, who investigated the Peloponnesian War beyond Thucydides. While Thucydides presents his account of the war as all-encompassing, ancient historians have long found gaps in his coverage and questioned the way his account shapes the conflict; as is well-known, the war became a single conflict when Thucydides identified it as such in his preface, creating an entity comparable to the Trojan and Persian Wars, that in turn justified his focus on it. As Hans van Wees pointed out, Thucydides’ actual narrative contains accounts of multiple distinct conflicts, involving many different cities, but his direction encourages readers to link them together. But Thucydides is not necessarily right, either in his reporting or his analysis of events. As the seminar progressed, speakers demonstrated that the practice of treating Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian, whose text has a superior status to other ancient evidence and deserves different treatment, was thoroughly anachronistic.

Kostas Vlassopoulos identified some of the gaps that a modern historian might like to fill to gain a better picture of the political culture of fifth-century BCE Greece than Thucydides provides, and the difficulties in filling those gaps, given the absence of much other written evidence, and the paucity of documentary and material sources from this early period. Understanding both Thucydides’ own intellectual context and our own preconceived ideas about the Greek world are necessary for such a project. Alastair Blanshard took one of the accepted truisms about Thucydides’ text – his lack of interest in cultural and social history, and the omission of women as a subject of history – and found hints of these missing themes in his brief discussions of the capture of cities.

The developing history of Thucydides as an icon beyond criticism was explored in Kinch Hoekstra’s Carlyle lectures, which traced the reception of Thucydides in classical and early modern political thought within their own historical and political contexts, starting with historiographers Lucian, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with notably critical attitudes to the author), and ending with Hobbes. Hoekstra pointed to early modern readings of the text, which were not necessarily of the full text, but selections from the speeches, possibly even selected sententiae; such readings show that the contemporary focus on specific extracts, such as the Funeral Speech and the Melian Dialogue, is not a new phenomenon. Special luxury editions of selected speeches were prepared as gifts for princes; Thucydides’ account of the wars of independent Greek poleis was read anachronistically as a mirror for princes, by focusing on its treatment of leadership and diplomacy. For these ‘readers’, Thucydides’ wisdom became a material talisman, in the form of an illustrated manuscript edition, to take on campaign. Hoekstra distinguished these readings from those of Reformation scholars such as Melanchthon, which returned the focus to the larger scope of the narrative, and generated analytical accounts, precursors to nineteenth-century treatment of Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian.

Attempts to contextualise these historical readings of Thucydides have their own risks – Hoekstra showed how Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides had been used to interpret, and interpreted in light of, his views on English military and diplomatic policy, when the tortuous and prolonged pre-publication history of the work made strong claims about Hobbes’ intent difficult to establish in a fast-changing political climate. But understanding the long traditions of reading Thucydides is helpful in understanding why his text has accrued such a distinctive status in intellectual history.

This term the Anachronism and Antiquity team will be re-reading book six of Thucydides’ histories, the first part of his account of the Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415 BCE, in a seminar series organised and introduced by Chris Pelling and our own John Marincola. The Sicilian Expedition has inspired many different responses, from antiquity to the present, through its vivid characters, its dramatic debates, set-piece battles and tragic account of Athenian defeat. It has become a stock figure to invoke when warning of the difficulties of military expeditions and invasion, with its own reception history; on June 5, Tim Rood will look at the early stages of this reception history in antiquity.

The speeches of book six contain some of Thucydides’ most explicit political theorising and commentary on political processes, including Athenagoras’ account of the epistemic strengths of democracy (Thucydides 6.39.1). On May 15, I will be exploring how the arguments of the Syracusan debate prefigure and problematise arguments on the role of speech and knowledge in democracy set out by later thinkers from Aristotle to Foucault. In reading Thucydides now we need to be aware of not only Thucydides’ own historical and intellectual context, to the extent that we can discover it, but also the many layers of reception through which our own reading of the text and its context is likely to be mediated.


Morley, N. (2014) Thucydides and the Idea of History (London: I.B. Tauris).

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Counting backwards: genealogy and anachronism

The shifting boundary between the near and the distant past is blurred by ancient Greek writers when they establish temporal frameworks by counting backwards in years and, once a more distant and less well-known period is reached, generations. With multiple lists in operation – one for every city and Panhellenic temple, victors from the Olympics – and with the genealogies of royal dynasties stretching back to incorporate divine ancestors, there was plenty of opportunity for the manipulation of lists, for error and invention, and for debates about accuracy. Generating synchronisms, placing the same event on points in different lists, was a particular challenge for historians, and so became a site of historiographical criticism. Failed synchronisms and arguments about them result in a type of anachronism that is characteristic of Greek historiographic debate and spills over into other genres whenever the past is debated, as their use by both Thucydides and Isocrates shows.

For writers of contemporary history such as Thucydides, the use of officer lists based on the records of cities is transparent and supported by documentary evidence. While Thucydides organises his account of the Peloponnesian War by seasons, he uses the officer-list system to establish its start date (2.1-2.2.1), and his Athenian readers could have referred to an inscribed version of the list (IG I 3 1031) that had been set up in Athens during the later part of the fifth century, possibly as late as 410 BCE:

My account sets out the events in chronological order, by summers and winters. The Thirty Years Treaty agreed after the conquest of Euboea lasted for fourteen years. In the fifteenth year, when Chrysis was in her forty-eighth year as priestess at Argos, Aenesias was ephor in Sparta, and Pythodorus had two more months of his archonship in Athens, in the sixth month after the battle at Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, in the first watch of the night an armed force of slightly over three hundred Thebans entered Plataea, a city in Boeotia allied to Athens. (Thucydides 2.1-2.2.1, translation Hammond)

inscription fragment
Athenian Archon List (527/6-522/1 BC?) IG I3 1031, fragment c. Agora Museum, Athens (I 4120); squeeze from Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford.

Thucydides found the practice of using office-holder lists to establish dates imprecise (5.20.2-3), and suggested his own improvements for greater precision in narrative and analysis. But not all historians were, like Thucydides, concerned with the very recent past. The further back in time the Greeks went, the less precise their dating systems became. In classical Athens, for example, before the list of annual archons began, there were lists of officials with longer terms in office, and kings stretching back to Kekrops, the half-snake figure who emerged from the ground to found and rule the city. The kind of information in the lists changes as they go back in time, a change perhaps marked by a shift from years to generations as the unit of counting, and the separation of these distinct lists in the Athenian tradition; although the origins and development of the lists are unclear, later writers transmitted complete versions of them.

Making temporal connections within the distant past posed a challenge. Genealogies, the typical form of lists from the distant past, could be used to establish the kind of synchronism that Thucydides uses at the start of his histories. This process permitted synchronism between the foundation myths of different poleis and the characters of different mythical cycles, but here there was less possibility of consulting records and more reliance on the conventional form of mythical narratives.

Arguing for and against the accuracy of synchronisms between myths became an important mode of criticism as such stories were used as examples in political contexts to establish relationships between cities. There were many possible causes of error; the corruption of ancestry lists, the need to establish synchronism with significant events such as the return of the Heraclids from the Trojan War to the Peloponnese, and the urge to assert priority for one’s patriotic account of civic origins. Myths involving culture heroes such as Heracles and Theseus generate problematic synchronisms as writers try to fit them into coherent narrative frameworks, or to establish a claim to temporal priority. Xenophon, for example, asserts that Lycurgus established the Spartan constitution at the same time as the return of the Heraclids (Xen. Lac. Pol. 10.6), a claim that is contrary to other developmental accounts of Spartan history that place Lycurgus after the early (mythical) history of the Dorian League founded by the returning Heraclids; Plato in his Laws suggests that the Lycurgan constitution resolved the problems of this earlier period, but again myth and history intertwine in a complex way (Pl. Leg. 3.683c-693c).

Arguing with myth in this way provided opportunity for parody and the comic repurposing of mythical material for rhetorical argument. Reading Isocrates’ Busiris, a complicated and paradoxical text that still puzzles commentators, shows how the critique of a claimed synchronism can be used as the starting point for broader criticisms. Isocrates is ostensibly writing to Polycrates the sophist, to point out errors in his defence speech in praise of Busiris, the infamous Egyptian king of heroic times. Busiris was said to sacrifice his guests, and was eventually killed by Heracles, as the Greek culture hero avoided this grisly fate, a scene frequently depicted on Greek vases.

vase painting - Heracles and Busiris
Heracles killing Busiris. Attic red-figure kalpis (hydria), ca 480 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2428.

Isocrates aims to show that earlier writers on Busiris have got their genealogical calculations wrong, and that the encounter between Heracles and Busiris could not have happened. Polycrates could have used this simple method in his defence of Busiris:

Furthermore, it could be easily proved on chronological grounds (tois chronois) also that the statements of the detractors of Busiris are false. For the same writers who accuse Busiris of slaying strangers also assert that he died at the hands of Heracles; but all chroniclers agree that Heracles was later by four generations than Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, and that Busiris lived more than two hundred years earlier than Perseus. (Busiris 36-37, translation Van Hook)

The evidence that the criticism of Busiris is misplaced in time is a piece of evidence (pistis) that is clear (enargê). Of course, the idea of establishing an accurate genealogy of characters from the far-distant past that operates in a similar way to the chronology of a contemporary historian like Thucydides is itself rather paradoxical and a long way from being ‘clear’; Although there were standard exchange rates between years and generations, Isocrates’ use of both emphasises the paradoxes involved in chronological calculations of mythical narratives. Isocrates’ subsequent comments expand the related problem of the difficulty of knowing the different past, given the lurid slanders (blasphêmiais) written by poets that attribute all kinds of bad behaviour to the gods (38-40).

Isocrates’ real target in the Busiris is probably not the obscure sophist Polycrates but his rival educator Plato. The criticism of poets for slandering the gods is reminiscent of Socrates’ arguments against poetry in the Republic. Using Heracles and Egypt to think about the possibility of knowledge of the past further links both writers, via Herodotus’ challenges to the genealogical reckonings Greeks used to date Heracles (2.142-6); Plato echoes this passage in his Timaeus-Critias, with Solon replacing Hecataeus as the Greek visitor to Egypt.

With the traditional criticism of Busiris destroyed by chronology, Isocrates aims to show instead that Busiris should be praised for establishing the Egyptian constitution. However, the constitution that Isocrates describes bears a detailed resemblance to that of Plato’s Kallipolis in the Republic. Plato, Isocrates seems to be hinting, has not revealed a timeless ideal of how we should live, but has borrowed from a historical model itself established by a notorious barbarian and in existence at a time that has been identified with precision.

Isocrates’ manipulation of history and myth in the pursuit of political argument is a feature of his work that deserves more exploration, along with the construction and argumentative use of genealogies and temporal frameworks by other Greek writers. I will continue to investigate the political activation of anachronism in imaginary time by Greek historians and political theorists as our project continues.