Ancient Greek Historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon

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Herodotus and Thucydides
The word history is based on Greek word for "inquiry," or "knowing by inquiry." Hecataeus of Miletus (550-489 B.C.) wrote early accounts of the myths: "account of what I considered to be true. For the stories of the Greeks are numerous and, in my opinion ridiculous." He also wrote about customs he observed on his travels. Euhemerus (300 B.C.) wrote “Sacred History” based on inscriptions he thought were written by Zeus himself on the island of Panchaea in the Indian Ocean. He said Gods were real people later deified.

One of the major things that distinguished historians from the myth makers that preceded them were the fact that they signed their names on their works, so that we know at least they were the sources. Only the works of three historians — Herodotus (484?-425? B.C.), Thucydides (471?-400? B.C.) and Xenophon — survived from the first 500 years of Greek history.

An ancient Greek version of “Who's Who” called “ Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning” was prepared between 280 and 250 B.C. by Callimachus. It contained lists and brief biographies of well known lyric poets, writers, tragedians, comedians, orators, philosophers and doctors. "Under Thucydides the description read: "Thucydides was of Athenian birth, the son of Olorus. Slanderers claim his father was a Thracian who migrated to Athens. A very able writer, he composed a history of war between Athens and Sparta."

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Herodotus (484?-425? B.C.) has been called the Father of History, a compliment initially given to him Cicero. He is given credit for recording information from all over but criticized for using less than reliable sources and sometimes espousing what seems like propaganda. Most of Herodotus's histories were stories he picked up from travelers, merchants and priests. He seems to have known many were exaggerations or unproven claims and he made some effort to pick out what was plausible. Occasionally he ascribed events to myths. Aristotle called him a “legend monger.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, April 28, 2008]

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study if what he calls “ta genomena ex anthrupon” or “things that result from human action”: he give us the truth about the way things tend to work as whole, in history, civics, personality, and, of course, psychology.”

Matt Bune of Minnesota State University, Mankato wrote:: “Herodotus was a Greek historian in the fifth century B.C. His birth was around 490 B.C. References to certain events in his narratives suggest that he did not die until at least 431 B.C.E, which was the beginning of the Peloponesian War. In his later years, Herodotus traveled extensively throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. There, he visited the Black Sea, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Egypt. He is best known for his work entitled Histories. Because of this, Cicero claimed him to be the Father of History. Histories is the story of the rise of Persian power and the friction between Persia and Greece. The battles that are described are the ones fought at Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. His story is the historical record of events that happened in his own lifetime. The first Persian War took place just before he was born, while the second happened when he was a child. This gave him the opportunity to question his elders about the events in both wars to get the details he wanted for his story. “Although early Egyptologists regarded his chronicles of Egypt as a valuable source of information, the accuracy of some of Herodotus' writings have been challenged. His eyewitness accounts are thought of as accurate, but the stories told to him are questioned. Some researchers think the people who told Herodotus information could have forgotten parts, or just humored him with an interesting answer having nothing to do with the truth." [Source: Matt Bune Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a town in Asia Minor that was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which was finished decades after he left. Halicarnassus was also regarded as a major intellectual center for a time. Herodotus spent some time in Athens and was a friend of Sophocles. He traveled widely and wrote extensively about the places he visited and people and places he heard about. He visited Egypt, southern Italy, Mesopotamia, Persian, the Levent and the Black Sea area. He wrote about the Scythians based on things he heard and pieced together the Persian Wars from oral traditions and things he observed. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Book: “Herodotus” by James Romm is a “lively short study.” “The Way of Herodotus” by Justin Marozzi (De Capo 2009) is an excellent travelog and encounter with Herodotus. “The Landmark Herodotus “ edited by Robert B. Strassler (Pantheon, 2008) is richly illustrated and filled with accounts by experts on everything from designs of ships to ancient measurements but the translation leaves much to be desired. The 1858 translation of “Histories” by George Rawlinson (Everyman Library) captures the “rich Homeric flavor and dense syntax” according to The New Yorker. The 1998 translation of Robin Waterfield (Oxford World Classic) is not bad.

Herodotus’s History

20120220-Herodotus history_of_the_Greek_and_Persian_Wars_1502.jpg
History of the Persian Wars (1502)
Herodotus wrote “Histories” , a nine-volume account of Persian wars between 490 to 479 B.C. Sometimes called “The Persian Wars” or “History”, the work contains frequent and lengthy digressions and seems to leave no detail unturned. Herodotus’s style was lucid but poetic. Some regard him as the first master of prose. Cicero asked “what was sweeter than Herodotus.” A 20th century translator said, “Herodotus’s prose has the flexibility, ease and grace of a man superbly talking.”

Herodotus called his book “Historie” . In his time the word meant “research” or “inquiry” and has come to mean “history” in our sense of the world because of him. The book was so full of details and curious facts it is sometimes considered the first tourist guides and in fact was still the standard travel guide in the 19th century.

Herodotus observed a variety of local customs and concluded that men were servants to customs to which they were born. He noted that when Darius offered to pay his Greek subjects to eat the bodies of their fathers instead of burning them as was their custom, they refused no matter how much was offered them. He then offered to give money to Indians, who customarily ate the bodies of their deceased fathers, if they would burn their bodies. They also refused no matter how much was offered them. On the Egyptians he reported "In any home where a cat dies" the residents "shave off their eyebrows" and “sons never take care of their parents if they don’t want to, but daughters must whether they like it or not." He also noted “Women urinate standing up, men sitting down.”

His accounts of the natural world are no less entertaining. In the case of vipers and snakes he said the male is killed by the female during copulation but the male is “avenged” by their young who kill the female. In Book 3 he describes how Indian gold is produced by a species of ants—“huge ants, smaller than dogs but larger than foxes.”

Herodotus’s Life

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), was born at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, then dependent upon the Persians, in or about the year 484 B.C. Herodotus was thus born a Persian subject, and such he continued until he was thirty or five and thirty years of age. At the lime of his birth Halicarnassus was under the rule of a queen Artemisia (q.v.) The year of her death is unknown; but she left her crown to her son Pisindelis (born about 498 B.C.), who was succeeded upon the throne by his son Lygdamis about the time that Herodotus grew to manhood. The family of Herodotus belonged to the upper rank of the citizens. His father was named Lyxes, and his mother Rhaeo, or Dryo. He had a brother Theodore, and an uncle or cousin Panyasis (q.v.), the epic poet, a personage of so much importance that the tyrant Lygdamis, suspecting him of treasonable projects, put him to death. It is probable that Herodotus shared his relative's political opinions, and either was exiled from Halicarnassus or quitted it voluntarily at the time of his execution. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Herodotus was from Halicarnassus, home of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World

“Of the education of Herodotus no more can be said than that it was thoroughly Greek, and embraced no doubt the three subjects essential to a Greek liberal education-grammar, gymnastic training and music. His studies would be regarded as completed when he attained the age of eighteen, and took rank among the ephebi or eirenes of his native city. In a free Greek state he would at once have begun his duties as a citizen, and found therein sufficient employment for his growing energies. But in a city ruled by a tyrant this outlet was wanting; no political life worthy of the name existed. Herodotus may thus have had his thoughts turned to literature as furnishing a not unsatisfactory career, and may well have been encouraged in his choice by the example of Panyasis, who had already gained a reputation by his writings when Herodotus was still an infant. At any rate it is clear from the extant work of Herodotus that he commenced that extensive course of reading which renders him one of the most instructive as well as one of the most charming of ancient writers. The poetical literature of Greece was already large; the prose literature was more extensive than is generally supposed; yet Herodotus shows an intimate acquaintance with the whole of it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are as familiar to him as Shakespeare to the educated Engliskman. He is acquainted with the poems of the epic cycle, the Cypria, the Epigoni, &c. He quotes or otherwise shows familiarity with the writings of Hesiod, Olen, Musaeus, Bacis, Lysistratus, Archilochus of Paros, Alcaeus, Sappho, Solon, Aesop, Aristeas of Proconnesus, Simonides of Ceos, Phrynichus, Aeschylus and Pindar. He quotes and criticizes Hecataeus, the best of the prose writers who had preceded him, and makes numerous allusions to other authors of the same class.

“It must not, however, be supposed that he was at any time a mere student. It is probable that from an early age his inquiring disposition led him to engage in travels, both in Greece and in foreign countries. He traversed Asia Minor and European Greece probably more than once; he visited all the most important islands of the Archipelago-Rhodes, Cyprus, Delos, Paros, Thasos, Samothrace, Crete, Samos, Cythera and Aegina. He undertook the long and perilous journey from Sardis to the Persian capital Susa, visited Babylon, Colchis, and the western shores of the Black Sea as far as the estuary of the Dnieper; he travelled in Scythia and in Thrace, visited Zante and Magna Graecia, explored the antiqmties of Tyre, coasted along the shores of Palestine, saw Ga~a, and made a long stay in Egypt. At the most moderate estimate, his travels covered a space of thirtyone degrees of longitude, or 1700 miles, and twentyfour of latitude, or nearly the same distance. At all the more interesting sites he took up his abode for a time; he examined, he inquired, he made measurements, he accumulated materials. Having in his mind the scheme of his great work, he gave ample time to the elaboration of all its parts, and took care to obtain by personal observation a full knowledge of the various countries.

Herodotus Travels

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The travels of Herodotus seem to have been chiefly accomplished between his twentieth and his thirtyseventh year (464-447 B.C.). It was probably in his early manhood that as a Persian subject he visited Susa and Babylon, taking advantage of the Persian system of posts which he describes in his fifth book. His residence in Egypt must, on the other hand, have been subsequent to 460 B.C., since he saw the skulls of the Persians slain by Inarus in that year. Skulls are rarely visible on a battlefield for more than two or three seasons after the fight, and we may therefore presume that it was during the reign of Inarus (460-454 B.C.), when the Athenians had great authority in Egypt, that he visited the country, making himself known as a learned Greek, and therefore receiving favour and attention on the part of the Egyptians, who were so much beholden to his countrymen (see ATHENS, CLEON, PERICLES). On his return from Egypt, as he proceeded along the Syrian shore, he seems to have landed at Tyre, and from thence to have gone to Thasos. His Scythian travels are thought to have taken place prior to 450 B.C. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“It is a question of some interest from what centre or centres these various expeditions were made. Up to the time of the execution of Panyasis, which is placed by chronologists in or about the year 457 B.C., there is every reason to believe that Herodotus lived at Halicarnassus. His travels in Asia Minor, in European Greece, and among the islands of the Aegean, probably belong to this period, as also his journey to Susa and Babylon. We are told that when he quitted Halicarnassus on account of the tyranny of Lygdamis, in or about the year 457 B.C., he took up his abode in Samos. That island was an important member of the Athenian confederacy, and in making it his home Herodotus would have put himself under the protection of Athens. The fact that Egypt was then largely under Athenian influence (see CLEON, PERICLES) may have induced him to proceed, in 457 or 456 B.C., to that country. The stories that he had heard in Egypt of Sesostris may then have stimulated him to make voyages from Samos to Colchis, Scythia and Thrace. He was thus acquainted with almost all the regions which were to be the scene of his projected history.

Herodotus Returns Home

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “After Herodotus had resided for some seven or eight years in Samos, events occurred in his native city which induced him to return thither. The tyranny of Lygdamis had gone from bad to worse, and at last he was expelled. According to Suidas, Herodotus was himself an actor, and indeed the chief actor, in the rebellion against him; but no other author confirms this statement, which is intrinsically improbable. It is certain, however that Halicarnassus became henceforward a voluntary member of the Athenian confederacy. Herodotus would now naturally return to his native city, and enter upon the enjoyment of those rights of free citizenship on which every Greek set a high value. He would also, if he had by this time composed his history, or any considerable portion of it, begin to make it known by recitation among his friends. There is reason to believe that these first attempts were not received with much favour, and that it was in chagrin at his failure that he precipitately withdrew from his native town, and sought a refuge in Greece proper (about 447 B.C.). We learn that Athens was the place to which he went, and that he appealed from the verdict of his countrymen to Athenian taste and judgment. His work won such approval that in the year 445 B.C., on the proposition of a certain Anytus, he was voted a sum of ten talents (£2400) by decree of the people. At one of the recitations, it was said, the future historian Thucydides was present with his father, Olorus, and was so moved that he burst into tears, whereupon Herodotus remarked to the father-"Olorus, your son has a natural enthusiasm for letters." [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Herodotus world map

“Athens was at this time the centre of intellectual life, and could boast an almost unique galaxy of talent-Pericles, Thucydides the son of Melesias, Aspasia, Antiphon, the musician Damon, Pheidias, Protagoras, Zeno, Cratinus, Crates, Euripides and Sophocles. Accepted into this brilliant society, on familiar terms with all probably, as he certainly was with Olorus, Thucydides and Sophocles, he must have been tempted, like many another foreigner, to make Athens his permanent home. It is to his credit that he did not yield to this temptation. At Athens he must have been a dilettante, an idler, without political rights or duties. As such he would have soon ceased to be respected in a society where literature was not recognized as a separate profession, where a Socrates served in the infantry, a Sophocles commanded fleets, a Thucydides was general of an army, and an Antiphon was for a time at the head of the state. Men were not men according to Greek notions unless they were citizens; and Herodotus, aware of this, probably sharing in the feeling, was anxious, having lost his political status at Halicarnassus, to obtain such status elsewhere. At Athens the franchise, jealously guarded at this period, was not to be attained without great expense and difficulty. Accordingly, in the spring of the following year he sailed from Athens with the colonists who went out to found the colony of Thurii (see PERICLES), and became a citizen of the new town.

“From this point of his career, when he had reached the age of forty, we lose sight of him almost wholly. He seems to have made but few journeys, one to Crotona, one to Metapontum, and one to Athens (about 430 B.C.) being all that his work indicates. No doubt he was employed mainly, as Pliny testifies, in retouching and elaborating his general history. He may also have composed at Thurii that special work on the history of Assyria to which he twice refers in his first book, and which is quoted by Aristotle. It has been supposed by many that he lived to a great age, and argued that "the nevertobemistaken fundamental tone of his performance is the quiet talkativeness of a highly cultivated, tolerant, intelligent, old man" (Dahlmann). But the indications derived from the later touches added to his work, which form the sole evidence on the subject, would rather lead to the conclusion that his life was not very prolonged. There is nothing in the nine books which may not have been written as early as 430 B.C.; there is no touch which, even probably, points to a later date than 424 B.C. As the author was evidently engaged in polishing his work to the last, and even promises touches which he does not give, we may assume that he did not much outlive the date last mentioned, or in other words, that he died at about the age of sixty. The predominant voice of antiquity tells us that he died at Thurii, where his tomb was shown in later ages.

Accounts from Herodotus’s History

The Persian Wars take up about a third of “History” — from the middle of Book 5 to the end of Book 9. The first four and half books proceed at a leisurely pace, with a lot of digressions, explaining the rise of the Persian Empire and tells readers everything they would ever want to know about Persia. See Persians Wars, History

Herodotus devoted nearly all of Book 2 of “History to describing the achievements and the curiosities of the Egyptians. In Book 3 he describes the Persians encounter with the Ethiopians, which he describes as the tallest and most beautiful people in the world;. In Book 4 he describes the Scythians, ancient Mongol-like Horsemen that lived at the same time as the Greeks, and their maddening tactic and packing up their camps and leaving before they are attacked.

Herodotus wrote extensively about the Scythians. He described them as savage warriors who committed many atrocities. Some think that Herodotus gave the Scythians an unjustified, prejudiced bad rap and in all probability they committed no more atrocities than the Romans, Persians, Egyptians or even the Greeks themselves. It is not clear how much was based on first hand observation or second hand accounts but the latter seems most likely. It is also not clear how extensively Herodotus traveled in the Black Sea-Dnieper River heartland of the Scythians On one journey around 450 B.C. he probably reached Olbia, 40 miles west of the Dnieper River.

Herodotus's world

Herodotus begins “Histories” with his account if Croesus and calls him “the first barbarian known who subjugated and demanded tribute from Hellenes.” The tale offers an introduction to a theme that would pervade the nine volumes of “Histories” — don’t overstep your bounds. Blinded by his success Croesus arrogantly misinterpreted a pronouncement by the Oracle of Delphi: “If you attack Persia you will destroy a great empire.” Croesus thought the oracle was referring to the Persians but she was in fact referring to his own. Sardis was sacked by the Persians. According to Herodotus, Croesus asked Cyrus, “What is it that all these men of yours are so intent upon doing.” Cyrus replied: “They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures.” Croesus then corrected him: “Not my city or my treasures. Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing.”

Why Did Herodotus Write Histories?

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The History.-In estimating the great work of Herodotus, and his genius as its author, it is above all things necessary to conceive aright what that work was intended to be. It has been called "a universal history," "a history of the wars between the Greeks and the barbarians," and "a history of the struggle between Greece and Persia." But these titles are all of them too comprehensive. Herodotus, who omits wholly the histories of Phoenicia, Carthage and Etruria, three of the most important among the states existing in his day, cannot have intended to compose a "universal history," the very idea of which belongs to a later age. He speaks in places as if his object was to record the wars between the Greeks and the barbarians; but as he omits the Trojan war, in which he fully believes, the expedition of the Teucrians and Mysians against Thrace and Thessaly, the wars connected with the Ionian colonization of Asia Minor and others, it is evident that he does not really aim at embracing in his narrative all the wars between Greeks and barbarians with which he was acquainted. Nor does it even seem to have been his object to give an account of the entire struggle between Greece and Persia. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“That struggle was not terminated by the battle of Mycale and the capture of Sestos in 479 B.C. It continued for thirty years longer, to the peace of Callias (but see CALLIAS and CIMON). The fact that Herodotus ends his history where he does shows distinctly that his intention was, not to give an account of the entire long contest between the two countries, but to write the history of a particular war- the great Persian war of invasion. His aim was as definite as that of Thucydides, or Schiller, or Napier or any other writer who has made his subject a particular war; only he determined to treat it in a certain way. Every partial history requires an "introduction", Herodotus, untrammelled by examples, resolved to give his history a magnificent introduction. Thucydides is content with a single introductory book, forming little more than oneeighth of his work; Herodotus has six such books forming twothirds of the entire composition.

“By this arrangement he is enabled to treat his subject in the grand way, which is so characteristic of him. Making it his main object in his "introduction" to set before his readers the previous history of the two nations who were the actors in the great war, he is able in tracing their history to bring into his narrative some account of almost all the nations of the known world, and has room to expatiate freely upon their geography antiquities, manners and customs and the like, thus giving his work a "universal" character, and securing for it, without trenching upon unity, that variety, richness and fulness which are a principal charm of the best historics, and of none more than his. In tracing the growth of Persia from a petty subject kingdom to a vast dominant empire, he has occasion to set out the histories of Lydia, Media, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Scythia, Thrace, and to describe the countries and the peoples inhabiting them, their natural productions, climate, geographical position, monuments, &c.; while, in noting the contemporaneous changes in Greece, he is led to tell of the various migrations of the Greek race, their colonies, commerce, progress in the arts, revolutions, internal struggles, wars with one another, legislation, religious tenets and the like. The greatest variety of episodical matter is thus introduced; but the propriety of the occasion and the mode of introduction are such that no complaint can be made; the episodes never entangle, encumber or even unpleasantly interrupt the main narrative.

Herodotus as a Writer and Historian

Herodotus at the Louvre

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “It has been questioned, both in ancient and in modern times, whether the history of Herodotus possesses the essential requisite of trustworthiness. Several ancient writers accuse him of intentional untruthfulness. Moderns generally acquit him of this charge; but his severer critics still urge that, from the inherent defects of his character, his credulity, his love of effect and his loose and inaccurate habits of thought, he was unfitted for the historian's office, and has produced a work of but small historical value. Perhaps it may be sufficient to remark that the defects in question certainly 'exist, and detract to some extent from the authority of the work, more especially of those parts of it which deal with remoter periods, and were taken by Herodotus on trust from his informants, but that they only slightly affect the portions which treat of later times and form the speciaL subject of his history. In confirmation of this view, it may be noted that the authority of Herodotus for the circumstances of the great Persian war, and for all local and other details which come under his immediate notice, is accepted by even the most sceptical of modern historians, and forms the basis of their narratives. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Among the merits of Herodotus as an historian, the most prominent are the diligence with which he collected his materials, the candour and impartiality with which he has placed his facts before the reader, the absence of party bias and unduc national vanity, and the breadth of his conception of the historian's office. On the other hand, he has no claim to rank as a critical historian; he has no conception of the philosophy of history, no insight into the real causes that underlie political changes, no power of penetrating below the surface or even of grasping the real intcrconnexion of the events which he describes. He belongs distinctly to the romantic school; his forte is vivid and picturesque description, the lively presentation of scenes and actions, characters and states of society, not thc subtle analysis of motives, the power of detecting the undercurrents or the gcneralizing faculty.

“But it is as a writer. that the rnerits of Herodotus are most conspicuous. "O that I were in a condition," says Lucian, "to resemble Herodotus, if only in some measure! I by no means say in all his gifts, but only in some single point; as, for instance, the beauty of his language, or its harmony, or the natural and peculiar grace of the Ionic dialect, or his fulness of thought, or by whatever name those thousand beauties are called which to the despair of his imitator are united in him." Cicero calls his style "copious and polished," Quintilian, "sweet, pure and flowing"; Longinus says he was "the most Homeric of historians"; Dionysius, his countryman, prefers him to Thucydides, and regards him as combining in an extraordinary degree the excellences of sublimity, beauty and the true historical method of composition. Modern writers are almost equally complimentary. "The style of Herodotus," says one, "is universally allowed to be remarkable for its harmony and sweetness." "The charm of his style," argues another, "has so dazzled men as to make them blind to his defects." Various attempts have been made to analyse the charm which is so universally felt; but it may be doubted whether any of them are very successful. All, however, seem to agree that among the qualities for which the style of Ilerodotus is to be admired are simplicity, freshness, naturalness and harmony of rhythm. Master of a form of language peculiarly sweet and euphonical, and possessed of a delicate ear which instinctively suggested the most musical arrangement possible, he gives his sentences, without art or effort, the most agreeable flow, is never abrupt, never too diffuse, much less prolix or wearisome, and being himself simple, fresh, naif (if we may use the word), honest and somewhat quaint, he delights us by combining with this melody of sound simple, clear and fresh thoughts, perspicuotlsly expressed, often accompanied by happy turns of phrase, and always manifestly the spontaneous growth of his own fresh and unsophisticated mind. Reminding us in some respects of the quaint rnedieval writers, Froissart and Philippe de Comines, he greatly excels them, at once in the beauty of his language and the art with which he has combined his heterogeneous materials into a single perfect harmonious whole. See also GREECE, section History, Authorities.


Thucydides (471?-400? B.C.) wrote extensively about events in Greece and told the story of the draining, disastrous 30-year Peloponnesian War that destroyed Athens when it was in its prime in “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Little known about his life other than that he was an soldier and an officer. One of the few times he talks about himself is when he mentions he survived the plague. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, January 12, 2004]

Tracy Lee Simmons wrote in the Washington Post: “One of the most eminently, and now, predictably, quotable figures of the classical world, Thucydides assuredly deserves his press. Few so well understood the machinations of he human heart and mind when facing the extremities of the human predicament — plague, betrayal, defeat, and the abject humiliation of war — and fewer still could distill the hard-won wisdom of experience into tight, shimmering phrases and radiant lapidary passages.”

Thucydides was a participant in the events he described. He caught the plague he detailed with such precision. He was also far from a distant observer of the Peloponnesian War: he was a general high in the Athenian command early in the war who was forced into exile after he failed to prevent the Spartans from capturing the northern city of Amphipolis in 422. He wrote his account years later in part to defend his actions and in the end puts the blame on the demise of Athens on democracy and its demagogue politicians while arguing it was enlightened military that almost saved the day.

Book: “Thucydides, The Reinvention of History” by Donald Kagan (Viking, 2009). Kagan is a professor of classics and history at Yale.

Thucydides’s Life

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Materials for his biography are scanty, and the facts are of interest chiefly as aids to the appreciation of his life's labour, the History of the Peloponnesian War. The older view that he was probably born in or about 471 B.C., is based on a passage of Aulus Gellius, who says that in 431 Hellanicus "seems to have been" sixtyfive years of age, Herodotus fiftythree and Thucydides forty (Noct. att. xv. 23). The authority for this statement was Pamphila, a woman of Greek extraction, who compiled biographical and historical notices in the reign of Nero. The value of her testimony is, however, negligible, and modern criticism inclines to a later date, about 460 (see Busolt, Gr. Gesch. iii., pt. 2, P. 621). Thucydides' father Olorus, a citizen of Athens, belonged to a family which derived wealth and influence from the possession of goldmines at Scapte Hyle, on the Thracian coast opposite Thasos, and was a relative of his elder namesake, the Thracian prince, whose daughter Hegesipyle married the great Miltiades, so that Cimon, son of Miltiades, was possibly a connexion of Thucydides (see Busolt, ibid., p. 618). It was in the vault of the Cimonian family at Athens, and near the remains of Cimon's sister Elpinice, that Plutarch saw the grave of Thucydides. Thus the fortune of birth secured three signal adYantages to the future historian: he was rich; he had two homes-one at Athens, the other in Thrace-no small aid to a comprehensive study of the conditions under which the Peloponnesian War was waged; and his family connexions were likely to bring him from his early years into personal intercourse with the men who were shaping the history of his time. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Thucydides at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

“The development of Athens during the middle of the 5th century was, in itself, the best education which such a mind as that of Thucydides could have received. The expansion and consolidation of Athenian power was completed, and the inner esources of the city were being applied to the CIMON; PERICLES). Yet the History tells us nothing of the literature, the art or the social life under whose influences its author had grown up. The "Funeral Oration" contains, indeed, his general testimony on the value and the charm of those influences. But he leaves s to supply all examples and details for ourselves. Beyond passing reference to public "festivals," and to "beautiful surroundings in private life," he makes no attempt to define hose "recreations for the spirit" which the Athenian genius ad provided in such abundance. He alludes to the newlyuilt Parthenon only as containing the treasury; to the statue Athena Parthenos which it enshrined, only on account of the gold which, at extreme need, could be detached from the image; to the Propylaea and other buildings with which Athens ad been adorned under Pericles, only as works which had reuced the surplus of funds available for the war. He makes no reference to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the architect Ictinus; the sculptor Pheidias; the physician Hippocrates; the philosophers Anaxagoras and Socrates. Herodotus he had dealt with this period, would have found countless casions for invaluable digressions on men and manners, on letters and art; and we might almost be tempted to ask hether his more genial, if laxer, method does not indeed rrespond better with a liberal conception of the historian's office. No one can do full justice to Thucydides, or appreciate the true completeness of his work, who has not faced is question, and found the answer to it.

“It would be a hasty judgment which inferred from the omissions of the History that its author's interests were exclusively political. Thucydides was not writing the history of a period. His subject was an event-the Peloponnesian War-a war, as he believed, of unequalled importance, alike in its direct results and in its political significance for all time. To his task, thus defined, he brought an intense concentration of all his faculties. He worked with a constant desire to make each successive incident of the war as clear literature more graphic than his description of the plague at Athens, or than the whole narrative of the Sicilian expedition. But the same temper made himresolute in excluding irrelevant topics. The social life of the time, the literature and the art did not belong to his subject.

“The biography which bears the name of Marcellinus states that Thucydides was the disciple of Anaxagoras in philosophy and of Antiphon in rhetoric. There is no evidence to confirm this tradition. But Thucydides and Antiphon at least belong to the same rhetorical school and represent the same early stage of Attic prose. Both writers used words of an antique or decidedly poetical cast; both point verbal contrasts by insisting on the precise difference between terms of similar import; and both use metaphors somewhat bolder than were congenial to Greek prose in its riper age. The differences, on the other hand, between the style of Thucydides and that of Antiphon arise chiefly from two general causes. First, Antiphon wrote for hearers, Thucydides for readers; the latter, consequently, can use a degree of condensation and a freedom in the arrangement of words which would have been hardly possible for the former. Again, the thought of Thucydides is often more complex than any which Antiphon undertook to interpret; and the greater intricacy of the historian's style exhibits the endeavour to express eachthought. Few things in the history of literary prose are more interesting than to watch that vigorous mind in its struggle to mould a language of magnificent but immature capabilities. The obscurity with which Thucydides has sometimes been reproached often arises from the very clearness with which a complex idea is present to his mind, and his strenuous effort to present it in its entirety. He never sacrifices thought to language, but he will sometimes sacrifice language to thought. A student may always be consoled by the reflection that he is not engaged in unravelling a mere rhetorical tangle. Every light on the sense will be a light on the words; and when, as is not seldom the case, Thucydides comes victoriously out of this struggle of thought and language, having achieved perfect expression of his meaning in a sufficiently lucid form then his style rises into an intellectual brilliancy-thoroughiy manly, and also penetrated with intense feeling-which nothing in Greek prose literature surpasses.

“The uncertainty as to the date of Thucydides' birth renders futile any discussion of the fact that before 431 he took no prominent part in Athenian politics. If he was born in 455, the fact needs no explanation; if in 471, it is possible that his opportunities were modified by the necessity of frequent visits to Thrace, where the management of such an important property as the goldnlines must have claimed his presence. The manner in which he refers to his personal influence in that region is such as to su~gest that he had sometimes resided there (iv. 1O5, I). He was at Athens in the spring of 430, when the plague broke out. If his account of the symptoms has nct enabled physicians to agree on a diagnosis of the malady, it is at least singularly full and vivid. He had himself been attacked by the plague; and, as he briefly adds, "he had seen others suffer." The tenor of his narrative would warrant the inference that he had been one of a few who were active in ministering to the sufferers.

Thucydides’ Military and Political Career

Thucydides at the Austrian Parliament Building

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The turning point in the life of Thucydides came in the winter of 424. He was then forty seven (or, according to Busolt, about thirty six), and for the first time he is found holding an official position. He was one of two generals entrusted with the command of the regions towards Thrace ... a phramore special reference to the Chalcidic peninsula. His colleague in the command was Eucles. About the end of November 424 Eucles was in Amphipolis, the stronghold of Athenian power in the northwest. To guard it with all possible vigilance was a matter of peculiar urgency at that moment. The ablest of Spartan leaders, Brasidas (q.v.), was in the Chalcidic peninsula, where he had already gained rapid success; and part of the popu!ation between that peninsula and Amphipolis was known to be disaffected to Athens. Under such circumstances we might have expected that Thucydides, who had seven ships of war with him, would have been ready to cooperate with Eucles. It appears, however, that, with his ships, he was at the island of Thasos when Brasidas suddenly appeared before Amphipolis. Eucles sent in all haste for Thucydides, who arrived with his ships from Thasos just in time to beat off the enemy from Eion at the mouth of the Strymon, but not in time to save Amphipolis. The profound vexation and dismay felt at Athens found expression in the punishment of Thucydides, who was exiled. Cleon is said to have been the prime mover in his condemnation; and this is likely enough. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“From 423 to 404 Thucydides lived on his property in Thrace, but much of his time appears to have been spent in travel. He visited the countries of the Peloponnesian allies-recommended to them by his quality as an exile from Athens; and he thus enjoyed the rare advantage of contemplating the war from various points of view. He speaks of the increased leisure which his banishment secured to his study of events. He refers partly, doubtless, to detachment from Athenian politics, partly also, we may suppose, to the opportunity of visiting places signalized by recent events and of examining their topography. The local knowledge which is often apparent in his Sicilian books may have been acquired at this period. The mind of Thucydides was naturally judicial, and his impartiality-which seems almost superhuman by contrast with Xenophon's Hellenica- was in some degree a result of temperament. But it cannot be doubted that the evenness with which he holds the scales was greatly assisted by his experience during these years of exile.

“His own words make it clear that he returned to Athens, at least for a time, in 404, though the precise date is uncertain. The older view (cf. Classen) was that he returned some six months after Athens surrendered to Lysander. More probably he was recalled by the special resolution carried by Oenobius prior to the acceptance of Lysander's terms (Busolt, ibid., p. 628). He remained at Athens only a short time, and retired to his property in Thrace, where he lived till his death, working at his History. The preponderance of testimony certainly goes to show that he died in Thrace, and by violence. It would seem that, when he wrote chapter II6 of his third book, be was ignorant of an eruption of Etna which took place in 396. There is, indeed, strong reason for thinking that he did not live later than 399. His remains were brought to Athens and laid in the vault of Cimon's family, where Plutarch (Cimon, 4) saw their restingplace. The abruptness with which the History breaks off agrees with the story of a sudden death. The historian's daughter is said to have saved the unfinished work and to have placed it in the hands of an editor. This editor, according to one account, was Xenophon, to whom Diogenes Laertius (ii. 6, 13) assigns the credit of having "brought the work into reputation, when he might have suppressed it." The tradition is, however, very doubtful; it may have been suggested by a feeling that no one then living could more appropriately have discharged the office of literary executor than the writer who, in bis Hellenica, continued the narrative.

Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”

Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War” is the only extant eyewitness account of the first twenty years of the war. He said he began taking notes “at the very outbreak” of the conflict because he had hunch it would be — a great war and more worthy writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past.” His accounts end in mid sentence during the description of a naval battle in 411 but we can tell from other references in his work that he was around to see the war end in 404 B.C.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “At the outset of the “History” Thucydides indicates his general conception of his work, and states the principles which governed its composition. His purpose had been formed at the very beginning of the war, in the conviction that it would prove more important than any event of which Greeks had record. The leading belligerents, Athens and Sparta, were both in the highest condition of effective equipment. The whole Hellenic world- including Greek settlements outside of Greece proper-was divided into two parties, either actively helping one of the two combatanu or meditating such action. Nor was the movement confined within even the widest limits of Hellas, the "barbarian" world also was affected by it-the nonHellenic populations of Thrace Macedonia Epirus, Sicily and, finally, the Persian kingdom itseif. The aim of Thucydides was to preserve an accurate record of this war, not only in view of the intrinsic interest and importance of the facts, but also in order that these facts might be permanent sources of political teaching to posterity. His hope was, as he says, that his History would be found profitable by "those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past. The work is meant to be a possession for ever, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour." As this context shows, the oftquoted phrase, "a possession for ever," had, in its author's meaning, a more definite import than any mere anticipation of abiding fame for his History. It referred to the permanent value of the lessons which his History contained. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Thucydides stands alone among the men of his own days, and has no superior of any age, in the width of mental grasp which could seize the general significance of particular events. The political education of mankind began in Greece, and in the time of Thucydides their political life was still young. Thucydides knew oniy the smaU citycommonwealth on the one hand, and on the other the vast barbaric kingdom; and yet, as has been well said of him "there is hardly a problem in the science of government which the statesman will not find, if not solved, at any rate handled, in the pages of this universal master."

“Such being the spirit in which he approached his task, it is interesting to inquire what were the points which he himself considered to be distinctive in his method of executing it. His Greek predecessors in the recording of events had been, he conceived, of two classes. First, there were the epic poets, with Homer at their head, whose characteristic tendency, in the eyes of Thucydides, is to exaggerate the greatness or splendour of things past. Secondly, there were the Ionian prose writers whom he calls "chroniclers" (see LOGOGRAPH), whose general object was to diffuse a knowledge of legends preserved by oral tradition and of written documents-usually lists of officials or genealogies-preserved in public archives, and they published their materials as they found them, without criticism. Thucydides describes their work by the word xuntiqinai, but his own by xuggraqein-the difference between the terms answering to that, between compilation of a somewhat mechanical kind and historic-composition in a higher sense. The vice of the "chroniclers," in his view, is that they cared only for popularity, and took no pains to make their narratives trustworthy. Herodotus was presumably regarded by him as in the same general category.”

Thucydides as a Historian

Thucydides manuscript
Thucydides is regarded as a much better historian than Herodotus, who tended to romanticize and exaggerate. Thucydides named his sources and included documents to back up his claims. His style was terse and skeptical. And his emphasis on getting his facts straight makes him such a rich source of moral guidance and historical wisdom. It was Thucydides after all who first summed up the pattern of history when he said disasters “have occurred and always will occur as long as he nature of mankind remains the same.”

Thucydides wrote: “With reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first sources that came to hand, I did not even trust my impressions.” He made sure he tested the accuracy of his reports “by the most severe and detailed tests possible” and found this required “some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of different eye-witnesses.”

Thucydides added that “the absence of romance from my history will...detract somewhat from its interest.” However — if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human events must resemble if not reflect it.”

But to achieve his goal of eschewing “literary charm” and myth, he made up dialogues and speeches — that no one really heard — to get at what the participants must have been thinking at the time. He wrote “My method has been to make the speakers say what in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”:

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “In contrast with these predecessors Thucydides has subjected his materials to the most searching scrutiny. The ruling principle of his work has been strict adherence to carefully verified facts. "As to the deeds done in the war, I have not thought myself at liberty to record them on hearsay from the first informant or on arbitraly conjecture. My account rests either on personal knowledge or on the closest possible scrutiny of each statement made by others. The process of research was laborious, because conflicting accounts were given by those who had witnessed the several events, as partiality swayed or memory served them." It is “therefore, well to consider their nature and purpose rather closely. The speeches constitute between a fourth and a fifth part of the History. If they were eliminated, an admirable narrative would indeed remain, with a few comments, usually brief, on the more striking characters and events. But we shourd lose all the most vivid light on the inner workings of the Greek political mind, on the motives of the actors and the arguments which they used-in a word, on the whole plan of contemporary feeling and opinion. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“ To the speeches is due no no small measure the imperishable intellectual interest of the History, since it is chiefly by the speeches that the facts of the Peloponnesian War are so lit up with keen thought as to become illustrations of general laws, and to acquire a permanent suggestiveness for the student of politics. When Herodotus made his persons hold conversations or deliver speeches, he was following the precedent of epic poetry; his tone is usually colloquial rather than rhetorical; he is merely making thought and motive vivid in the way natural to a simple age. Thucydides is the real founder of the tradition by which historians were so long held to be warranted in introducing set speeches of their own composition. His own account of his practice is given in the following words: "As to the speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports. But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." So far as the language of the speeches is concerned, then, Thucydides plainly avows that it is mainly or wholly his own. As a general rule, there is little attempt to mark different styles. The case of Peric!es, whom Thucydides must have repeatedly heard, is probably an exception; the Thucydidean speeches of Pericles offer several examples of that bold imagery which Aristotl3 and Plutarch agree in ascribing to him, while the "Funeral Oration," especially, has a certain majesty of rhythm a certain union of impetuous movement with lofty grandeur, which the historian has given to no other speaker. Such strongly marked characteristics as the curt bluntness of the Spartan ephor Sthenelaidas, or the insolent vehemence of Alcibiades, are also indicated But the dramatic truth of the speeches generally resides in the matter, not in the form. In regard to those speeches which were delivered at Athens before his banishment in 424-and seven such speeches are contained in the History-Thucydides could rely either on his own recollection or on the sources accessible to a resident citizen. In these cases there is good reason to believe that he has reproduced the substance of what was actually said In other cases he had to trust to more or less imperfect reports of the "general sense"; and in some instances, no doubt, the speech represents simply his own conception of what it would have been "most opportune" to say. The most evident of such instances occur in the addresses of leaders to their troops. The historian's aim in these mihtary harangues-which are usually short-is to bring out the points of a strategical situation; a modern writer would have attained the object by comments prefixed or subjoined to his account of the battle. The comparative indifference of Thucydides to dramatic verisimilitude in these military orations is curiously shown by the fact that the speech of the general on the one side is sometimes as distinctly a reply to the speech of the general on the other as if they had been dehvered in debate. We may be sure, however, that, wherever Thucydides had any authentic clue to the actual tenor of a speech, he preferred to follow that clue rather than to draw on his own invention.

“Why, however, did he not content himself with simply stating in his own person, the arguments and opinions which he conceived to have been prevalent? The question must be viewed from the standpoint of a Greek in the 5th century B.C. Epic poetry had then for many generations exercised a powerful intfuence over the Greek mind. Homer had accustomed Greeks to look for two elements in any complete expression of human energy-first, an account of a man's deeds then an image of his mind in the report of his words. The Homeric heroes are exhibited both in action and in speech. Further, the contemporary readers of Thucydides were men habituated to a civic life in which public speech played an allimportant part. Every adult citizen of a Greek democracy was a member ot the assembly which debated and decided great issues. The law courts the festlvals, the drama, the marketplace itself, ministered to the Greek love of animated description. To a Greek of that age a written history of political events would have seemed strangely insipid if speech "in the first person" had been absent from it especially it it did not offer some mirror of those debates which were inseparably associated with the central interests and the decisive moments of political life. In making historical persons say what they might have said, Thucydides confined that oratorical licence to the purpose which is its bes,t justification: with him it is strictly dramatic, an aid to the complete presentment of action, by the vivid expression ot ideas and arguments which were really current at the time. Among later historians who continued the practice Polybius, Sallust and Tacitus most resemble Thucydides in this particular; while in the Byzantine historians, as in some moderns who followed classical precedent, the speeches were usually mere occasions for rhetorical display. Botta's History of Italy from 1780 to 1814 affords one of the latest examples of the practice which was peculiarly suited to the Italian genius.”



Xenophon, an Athenian born 431 B.C., was a pupil of Socrates who marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. He was a great admirer of the Spartans. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move on and settling in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C.

Xenophon's book Anabasis is his record of the entire expedition of Cyrus against the Persians and the Greek mercenaries’ journey home. Xenophon Under the pretext of fighting Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap of Ionia, Cyrus assembled a massive army composed of native Persian soldiers, but also a large number of Greeks, to fight against his brother Artaxerxes, the king of Persian. Cyrus told the Greeks their enemy was the Pisidians, and so the Greeks were unaware that they were pawns in Cyrus plan to battle against King Artaxerxes II the larger army. At Tarsus the Greeks became aware of Cyrus's plans to depose the king, and as a result, refused to continue. However, Clearchus, a Spartan general, convinced the Greeks to continue with the expedition. The army of Cyrus met the army of Artaxerxes II in the Battle of Cunaxa. Despite effective fighting by the Greeks, Cyrus was killed in the battle. Clearchus was invited to a peace conference and was betrayed and executed along with other generals and many captains. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand, found themselves without leadership far from the sea, deep in hostile territory near the heart of Mesopotamia. They elected new leaders, including Xenophon himself, and fought their way north along the Tigris through hostile Persians and Medes to Trapezus on the coast of the Black Sea. They then made their way westward back to Greece via Chrysopolis. +

1) Historical and biographical works: A ) Anabasis (also: The Persian Expedition or The March Up Country); B) Cyropaedia (also: The Education of Cyrus); C) Hellenica; D) Agesilaus 2) Socratic works and dialogues: A) Memorabilia; B) Oeconomicus; C) Symposium; D) Apology; E) Hiero. 3) Short treatises: A) On Horsemanship; B) The Cavalry General; C) Hunting with Dogs; D) Ways and Means; and E) Constitution of Sparta.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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