A Radical Spirituality with Universal Appeal
Malaspina Great Books, Established 1995; Created by Russell McNeil, PhD, Visitors:

With the growing importance of global warming, Climate News Live provides up-to-date news and information. This is a non-partisan source of timely news articles, current events, and the relevant topics that are shaping the public policy debate in the United States and elsewhere. ... (click on picture or headline above for more)
Go to Home Record in Frames 

Malaspina Global PortalOn the web since 1995Search by Period or CategoryBook StoreTell us what you think
Liberal Studies Great Books Program 

Malaspina University CollegeSelect a LetterOriginal Classics Translations, Lectures and General Study Materials

Great Books Home PageCritical non-mainstream News Analysis

title author

Malaspina Great Books Blog

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selections Annotated and Explained by Malaspina Great Books Web Editor Russell McNeil PhD
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
Editor, Malaspina Great Books

In 1862 the English literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as "the most beautiful figure in history." The Stoicism of Aurelius is grounded in rationality and rests solidly on an ethical approach rooted in nature. Stoicism promises real happiness and joy in this life and a serenity that can never be soured by personal misfortune. This philosophy has universal appeal with practical implications on problems ranging from climate change and terrorism to the personal management of sickness, aging, depression and addiction. I truly believe that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has much to offer us now...(Click on book cover for more)

Biographical Material on this EntryGreat 

BooksGreat Books and Library CitationsRepresentative ImageDictionary and Thesaurus
Ancient Literature
Ancient History

Thucydides as Geometry
Birth Year:c. 460 BCE
Death Year:c. 400 BCE
Representative Image:
Biography, Lectures, and Research Links: Malaspina Great Books - Thucydides (c. 460 BCE) Brief Biography - Political Science Series, World Philosophy Series

Blog Thucydides

by title by author

Thucydides was the famous Greek author of The Peloponnesian War. He was born somewhere between 460 and 455 BC. Thucydides was a wealthy Athenian noble and the son of Olorus the King of Thrace. His wealth came from his family's goldmines at Scapte Hyle on the Tracian coast. Thucydides was connected through family to Miltiades and Cimon. Thucydides lived between his two homes, one in Athens and one in Thrace. His family connections brought him in to contact with the very men who were shaping the history his wrote about.

Timeline of his life

Before 431 he took no prominent part in Athenian politics. He was in his twenties when the Peloponnesian War occurred, and was in active service at the time. In 427 he caught the plague and recovered. In 424 (his mid thirties) he was appointed strategos. He failed to save Amphipolis from Brasidas during the War in 424. He was exiled for seven years. From 423 to 404 he lived in Thrace. During this time he travelled the Peloponnese, using his status as an exile from Athens to assimilate in to the Peloponnesian allies. He may have travelled to Sicily for the Sicilian Campaign, as there are excellent examples of local knowledge. During this period of time he conducted important research. He returned to Athens in 404, but was only there for a short time before he returned to Thrace to work on his book. His book contains the description of the war up until the year 411. The sudden end of his work suggests that he may have died a sudden death, and there is strong evidence to suggest he did not live longer than 399. His remains were returned to Athens and were laid in Cimon's family vault.

Who was Thucydides

His Character was said to be dry, humourless and pessimistic. Thucydides admired Pericles and approved of his power over the people, despite his usual disgust for demagogues. Thucydides was not completely in favour of democracy, but thought that it was ok when in the hands of a good leader. Thucydides would have been schooled by Sophists They were the teachers in Athens but today would be considered more like Philosophers and Astronomers Thucydides would have been taught by them not to accept things at face value, to question things. They would have taught Thucydides the mechanics of his writing, and they endowed him with his skills to assess the truth. Unfortunately, Thucydides is completely unaware of the workings of Economics he was not taught them, and did not understand them so they are omitted from his work.

The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides does not take the time to discuss the arts, literature or society in which the book is set and in which Thucydides himself grew up. Thucydides was writing about a event and not a period and as such took to lengths to discuss anything which he considered unrealated. Thucydides goes to great pains to make each event as graphic as the one which preceeded it.

Detailed Biography

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" sixty-five years of age, Herodotus fifty-three 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 4601 (see Busolt, Gr. Gesch. iii., Pt. 2, p. 62,).

Thucydides' father Olorus, a citizen of Athens, belonged to a family which derived wealth and influence from the possession of gold-mines at Scapte, 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. 6,8). 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 advantages 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.

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 resources of the city were being applied to the embellishment and ennoblement of Athenian life. 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 to the value and the charm of those influences. But he leaves us to supply all examples and details for ourselves. Beyond a passing reference to public "festivals," and to "beautiful surroundings in private life," he makes no attempt to define those "recreations for the spirit" which the Athenian genius had provided in such abundance. He alludes to the newlybuilt Parthenon only as containing the treasury; to the statue of 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 had been adorned under Pericles, only as works which had reduced 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, if he had dealt with this period, would have found countless occasions for invaluable digressions on men and manners, on letters and art; and we might almost be tempted to ask whether his more genial, if laxer, method does not indeed correspond 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 this 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 as possible. To take only two instances: there is nothing in 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 him resolute 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 each thought. 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 - thoroughly 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 gold-mines must have claimed his presence. The manner in which he refers to his personal influence in that region is such as to suggest that he had sometimes resided there (iv. 105, 1). He was at Athens in the spring of 430, when the plague broke out. If his account of the symptoms has not 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.

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 phrase which denotes the whole Thracian seaboard from Macedonia eastward to the vicinity of the Thracian Chersonese, though often used with more 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 north-west. To guard it with all possible vigilance was a matter of peculiar urgency at that moment. The ablest of Spartan leaders, Brasidas, was in. the Chalciclic peninsula, where he had already gained rapid success; and part of the population 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 co-operate 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.

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 seemed almost superhuman by contrast with Xenophon's Hellenica - was in some degree a result of temperament. But it cannol 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 Oenobiu: prior to the acceptance of Lysander's terms (Busolt, ibid., p. 628). He remained at Athens only a short time, and retired to hi property in Thrace, where he lived till his death, working at History. The preponderance of testimony certainly goes to show that he died in Thrace, and by violence. It would seen that, when he wrote chapter 116 of his third book, he wa 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 the resting-place. 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 Laƫrtius (ii. f 13) assigns the credit of having "brought the work into reputa tion, 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 discharge the office of literary executor than the writer who, in his Hellenic continued the narrative.

The History - 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 highe1 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 combatanta 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 non-Hellenic populations of Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Sicily and, finally, the Persian kingdom itself. 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 oft-quoted 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.

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 only the small city-commonwealth 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 cessors, the epic poets, with Homer at their head, whose characteristic tendency, in the eyes of Thucydides, is to exaggerate the greatnesl or splendour of things past. Secondly, there were the lonian prose writers whom he calls "chroniclers", whose general object was to diffuse a knowledge of legends preserved by oral tradition and of written documents - usually lists of official genealogies - preserved in public archives; and they published their materials as they found them, without criticism. Thucydides describes their works differenly from his - the difference between the terms as a somewhat mechanical kind and historica, composition in a higher sense. The vice of the chroniclers, in his view, is that they cared only for popularity, and took no pain to make their narratives trustworthy. Herodotus was presumably regarded by him as in the same general category.

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 arbitrary 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, a partiality swayed or memory served them."

It might be supposed that the speeches which Thucydides ha introduced into his History conflict with this standard of scientific accuracy; 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 character and events. But we should lose all the most vivid light on the inner workings of the Greek political mind, on the motives of the actor and the arguments which they used - in a word, on the whole plan of contemporary feeling and opinion. To the speeches is due no small measure the imperishable intellectual interest of the History, since it is chiefly by the speeches that the facts of th Peloponnesian War are so lit up with keen thought as to become illustrations of general laws, and to acquire a permanent suggestive ness for the student of politics. When Herodotus made his person 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 fouader 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 report 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 Pericles, whom Thucydides must have repeatedly heard, is probably an exception; the Thucydidean speeches of Pericles offer several examples of that bold imagery which Aristotle 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 military 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 delivered 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. when Epic poetry had then for many generations exercised a powerful influence 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 all-important part. Every adult citizen of a Greek democracy was a member of the assembly which debated and decided great issues. The law courts, the festivals, the drama, the market-place 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 if 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 best justification: with him it is strictly dramatic, an aid to the complete presentment of action, by the vivid expression of 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.

The present division of the History into erght books is one which might well have proceeded from the author himself, as being a natural and convenient disposition of the contents. The first book, after a general introduction, sets forth the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The first nine years of the war are contained in the second, third and fourth books - three years in each. The fifth book contains the tenth year, followed by the interval of the "insecure peace." The Sicilian expedition fills the sixth and seventh books. The eighth books opens that last chapter of the struggle which is known as the Decelean or Ionian War, and breaks off abruptly - in the middle of a sentence, indeed - in the year 411.

The principal reason against believing that the division into eight books - was made by Thucydides himself is the fact that a different division, into thirteen books, was also current in Antiquity, as appears from Marcellinus. It is a division very improbable - indeed hardly conceivable - that this should have been the case if the eight-book division had come down from the hand of the author. We may infer, then, that the division of the work into eight books was introduced at Alexandria - perhaps in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. That division was already familiar to the grammarians of the Augustan age. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who recognizes it, has also another mode of indicating portions of the work, viz, by stichometria, or the number of lines which they contained. Thus, in the MS. which he used, the first 87 chapters of book contained about 2000 lines.

The division of the war by summers and winters - the end of the winter being considered as the end of the year - is perhaps the only one which Thucydides himself used, for there is no indication that he made any model of division of the History into books. His "summer" reckoning includes spring and autumn and extends, generally time speaking, from March or the beginning of April to the end of October. His "winter " - November to February inclusive - means practically the period during which military operations, by land and sea, are wholly or partly suspended. When he speaks of "summer" and "winter" as answering respectively to "half " the year (v. 20, 3), the phrase is not to be pressed: it means merely that he divides his year into these two parts. The mode of reckoning is essentially a rough one, and is not to be viewed as if the commencement of summer or of winter could be precisely fixed to constant dates. For chronology, besides the festivals, he uses the Athenian list of archons, the Spartan list of ephors and the Argive list of priestesses of Hera.

There is no reference to the History of Thucydides in the extant Greek writers of the 4th century B.C.; but Lucian has preserved a tradition of the enthusiasm with which it was studied by Demosthenes. The great orator is said to have copied it out eight times, or even to have learnt it by heart. The Alexandrian critics acknowledged Thucydides as a great master of Attic. Sallust, Cornelius Nepos, Cicero and Quintilian are among the Roman writers whose admiration for him can be traced in their work, or has been expressly recorded. The most elaborate ancient criticism on the diction and composition of Thucydides is contained in three essays by Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

Among the best MSS. of Thucydides, the Codex vaticanus 126 (11th century) represents a recension made in the Alexandrian or Roman age. In the first six books the number of MSS passages in which the Vaticanus alone has preserved a true reading is comparatively small; in book vii. it is somewhat larger; in book viii. it is so large that here the Vaticanus, as compared with the other MSS., acquires the character of a revised text. Other important MSS. are the Palatinus 252 (11th century); the Casselanus (A.D. 1252); the Augustanus monacensis 430 (A.D. 1301). A collation, in books i., ii., of two Cambridge MSS. of the 15th century (NN. 3, 18; KR. 5, 19) has been published by Shilleto. Several Parisian MSS., and a Venetian MSS. collated by Arnold, also deserve mention. The Aldine edition was published in 1502. It was formerly supposed that there had been two Juntine editions. Shilleto, in the "Notice" prefixed to book i., first pointed out that the only Juntine edition was that of 1526, and that the belief in an earlier Juntine, of 1506, arose merely from the accidental omission of the word vicesimo in the Latin version of the imprint. Some papyrus fragments were published in Grenfell and Hunt's Oxyrhycnchus papyri (1908), vi., which also contains an anonymous commentary (pub. 1st century) on Thuc. ii.

The most generally useful edition is Classen's, in the Weidmann Series (1862 - 1878; new ed. by Steup, 1882 - 1892); each book can be obtained separately. Arnold's edition (1848 - 1851) contains much that is still valuable. For books i. and ii. Shilleto's edition (1872 - 1876) furnishes a commentary which, though not full, deals admirably with many difficult points. Among other important complete editions, it is enough to name those of Duker, Bekker, Goeller, Poppo and Kruger. For editions of separate books and selections (up to 1895) see J. B. Mayor's Guide to the Choice of Classical Books. Special mention may be made of those by E. C. Marchant. Later editions of the text are by H. Stuart Jones (1900 - 1901), in the Oxford Scriptorum classicorum bibliotheca, and C. Hude (Teubner Series, 1901; ed. minor, 1903). Betant's lexicon to Thucydides (1843) is well executed. Jowett's translation (1883) is supplemented by a volume of notes. Dale's version (Bohn) also deserves mention for its fidelity, as Crawley's (1876) for its vigour. Hellenica (1880) Contains an essay on "The Speeches of Thucydides," which has been translated into German (see Eduard Meyer, Forschungen zur alten Geschichte, Bd. ii. pp. 269 - 436). The best clue to Thucydidean bibliography is in Engelmann's Scriptores graeci (1880), supplemented by the articles by G. Meyer, in Bursian's Jahresbericht, (1895) lxxix., (1897) lxxxviii. Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, iii. 616 - 693, is invaluable. For the life of Thucydides, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, "Die Thukydides-Legende," Hermes, (1878) xii., is all important. All works on ancient Greek History contain discussions of Thucydides, and an interesting criticism is that of J. B. Bury, Ancient Greek Historians (1901). [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Thucydides and Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).]

Malaspina Literature DatabaseMalaspina History Database

The Great Books: Thucydides

For this entry, please browse our Amazon list of titles about Thucydides. For rare and hard to find works we recommend our Alibris list of titles about Thucydides. Offer Comments, Questions or Suggestions! This database is maintained by Malaspina Great Books .

Great Books Online: Amazon Search
In Association with Amazon.com
Biographical & Documentary Video Research
Enter title or keyword above
Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

Thucydides as Geometry

Powerpoint Presentation: Thucydides as Geometry
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides clearly wants his readers to have us believe that the objects under discussion are subject to a universal law. It means one can generalize these observables here into a system of rules about human nature operating in community--politics. The system comes across as a political science. The text is extraordinarily seductive in this regard. Thucydides' appeal to the Greek respect for geometric precision is purposeful but misplaced.

This instinct however to apply the grammar of geometry to history -- and indeed to other media as well -- such as music, art, poetry, architecture -- is important. It might bear fruit. The danger in any application of a universal grammar is that the objects one trys to manipulate with geometry may not be subject to the grammar.

Geometric rules might apply to history. But it is not right to assume that fear, power, and self interest are the objects one can manipulate geometrically -- as if equivalent to points, lines and surfaces. I'll say more on this toward the end.

Had Thucydides been born a century later (he was born about 460) it is entirely possible he would have contributed more to Greek mathematics and science than to history. The strength and influence Thucydides exerts on the Greek mind draws in part from it's detached vantage. Euclid, and all the mathematical thinking that laid the groundwork for Euclid flourished in large part because it constituted a logically consistent system with explicit rules and assumptions in which all rational observers had to draw identical conclusions. This impulse exerted a strong influence on the Greek mind and is clearly evident in the work of Thucydides. Thucydides' explanation for the Peloponnesian War focuses on empire and power. War arises when power begins to shift. In fact, Thucydides provided the basis for the so-called balance of power politics which the Western tradition has used and still uses to underpin its thinking for over two millennia. Because this amoral explanation of political reality emerges from what appears to be a geometric framework, we tend to buy into the idea more readily than if we understood it more for what it is, the carefully contrived opinion of a clever thinker who applies the grammar of geometry to objects undefined by geometry.

Thucydides detached vantage as an objective allows him to probe beneath the surface reasons for war to reveal those hidden forces (power, fear, and self interest) that are really responsible for events.

I think many of are impressed and persuaded that Thucydides really has uncovered some truths about human nature and war because of his detached vantage and because this account unfolds for us as systematic and formulated knowledge, which in very general terms is how we define science.

First, he convinces us that he has gotten the facts straight.

Second, he persuades us that there really are objective facts about the war that can be gotten straight. In other words, if science is systematic and formulated knowledge, there must be a body of things out there that we can systematize and formulate!

And third, he filters these properly gotten objective facts through a model of political reality he is persuaded is right.

Thucydides takes great pain to assure us that he has gotten his facts straight:

Thuc. 1.22.2-3 And as for the real action of the war, I did not think it right to set down either what I heard from people I happened to meet or what I merely believed to be true. Even for events at which I was present myself, I tracked down detailed information from other sources as far as I could. It was hard work to find out what happened, because those who were present at each event gave different reports, depending on what side they favored and how well they remembered.

This passage is often used to document the pains Thucydides used to ensure observational accuracy. It implies that Thucydides' facts are independent of his subjectivity: that there are objective facts separate from, and in theory identical for all observers. This incidentally is the attitude all good journalists assume when reporting on the world in their, detached, objective, thorough, and unbiased reportage. If equally endowed observers of the same phenomena ever produced different results, we would have a problem.

I mentioned the three elements in Thucydidean process: getting facts straight, believing that there are objective facts, and the filtering of these objective facts through a model of political reality. This political vision is the engine that works on the facts; orders them; prioritizes them; classifies them; does geometric operations on them; and generally synthesizes higher order relationships. It is a complex intellectual device.

The model of political reality is used to determine not only which facts are relevant but to determine how Thucydides reports the various speeches. It is here I think that Thucydides is most creative:

Thuc. 1.22.1 What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker say what I thought his situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.

This gives the historian license to re-configure ideas to conform to a particular argumentative opinion, ideological position, or vision of human nature. There were speeches-- in most cases. What was said in those speeches may have included what was reported here. But, much was left out, and much was de-emphasized. The ordering, presentation and wording conform to Thucydides' vision of political reality and human nature.

An important example of this is the speech of the Athenians during the Spartan debate, in response to the charges of Athenian injustice namely: Athens' siege of Potidaea, Athens' decision to help defend the island of Corcyra against Corinth, and Athens' decree restricting trade with Megara. It is here, in this response, that Thucydides understanding of political reality emerges. The Athenians in this speech do not deny injustice, they simply notice that the concept has no real meaning in the world of empire. In the world of empire, nature and necessity take precedence. Here is the curious response of the Athenian delegation.

Thuc. 2.76.1 We have not done anything in this that should cause surprise, and we have not deviated from normal human behavior: we simply accepted an empire that was offered us and then refused to surrender it. If we have been overcome by three of the strongest motives--ambition (power), fear, and our own advantage (self interest)--we have not been the first to do this. It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger......[ Besides we took this upon ourselves because we thought we were worthy of it, and you thought so too, until now that you are reckoning up your own advantage and appealing to justice--which no one has ever preferred to force, if he had a chance to achieve something by that to gain an advantage. If people follow their natural human inclination to rule over others they deserve to be praised if they use more justice than they have to, in view of their power.]

This then is the core of Thucydides' model of political reality, his political science. Power, fear, and self-interest are primary forces on the international stage--these are the geometric objects. Subject these to geometric grammar and you will evolve a sequence of higher order propositions about political nature. This understanding presents us with a framework for politics, in effect, a political science.

It is however, just that, a model, some would call it a paradigm. It accounts for many of the observed facts--in particular those Thucydides chooses to include in his narrative. And to some extent the model can be applied to new situations. That is to say it has some predictive power.

The label scientific realist has been used to characterize Thucydides' approach here. It is called scientific because it purports to report on an objective world independent of the observer. Perhaps the best example of a Thucydidean success in observation and application of his scientific model and particularly its predictive power is his analysis of the aftermath of the civil war in Corcyra:

Thuc. 5.82.1 Civil war brought many hardships to the cities, such as happen and will always happen as long as human nature is the same, although they may be more or less violent or take different forms, depending on the circumstances in each case. In peace and prosperity, cities and private individuals alike are better minded because they are not plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their will; but war is a violent teacher...

This events in Corcyra serve as a case study for civil conflict. Thucydides describes the event as a general phenomenon. Human beings will in similar circumstances respond in similar ways. And they did, and they do, from the US. civil war right on down to the present day in Bosnia, or Rwanda, and hypothetically even in Quebec, if civil conflicts ever emerge there. But, Thucydides goes on:

Thuc. 5.82.2 Civil war ran through the cities; those it struck later heard what the first cities had done and far exceeded them in inventing artful means for attack and bizarre forms of revenge. And they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor...

If there is a problem with Thucydidean history as geometry, it is right here. Thucydides greatest predictive triumph reveals what might be his model's greatest flaw. If words are reversed, they can have no stable meaning, and communication breaks down. Thucydides was painfully aware that the same events can have very different meanings for different observers.

Where words reverse their meanings, a phenomenon known as incommensurability takes shape. Incommensurate means, no common measure. In the extreme speech loses its force. The ideas that common words refer to are no longer held in common. In situations such as these communication is virtually impossible. The interlocutors in an argument no longer engage, they talk through each other. As a detached observer, Thucydides might be in a position to decide or choose where, when, or who is using speech with twisted, distorted or reversed meanings, but the task seems Herculean. The phenomenon is more than a matter of mere disassembly, in which speakers deliberately deceive--incommensurate word reversal is something much more--the speakers have adopted and believe in the truth of these new meanings and use them with as much sincerity and honesty as they did before the reversals occur.

So before we become seduced by Thucydidean thought, and generations of power politicians have, from Bismarck to Nixon, we need to appreciate that among the various problems facing the historian, incommensurability will color whatever claim might be made to having obtained objective data.

It works like this. There is an imaginary universe, a Thucydidean universe, in which power, fear, and self interest are the forces that govern relationships between factions and cultures. Players in that imaginary idealized universe relate to one another in the ways documented in this book. The real universe can often give the appearance of conforming to the imaginary universe especially if I am selective in my choice of observations and facts. If I actually believe in the reality of this imaginary universe, my objectivity is unquestioned. I will select, report, and order events to conform with what I know to be true.

I could say the same thing about geometry. There is an imaginary universe populated by points, lines and figures. If I believe in the reality of points, lines and figures, my propositions flow precisely from my beliefs. Insofar as the real universe is not Euclidean, as we now know, any attempt to match the real universe to Euclid's, is at best only an approximation.

At worst, and this is the scary part, the fit between the imaginary Euclidean universe and the real universe is a complete mismatch because in the real universe points, lines and figures have completely different meanings. We use the same words to refer to points, lines and figures, but they contain totally different ideas. For example, for Euclid a point is that which has no part. In non-Euclidean geometries a point might look the same, but, like the point that situates the position of a black hole, a point contains many parts, in fact, a valid non-Euclidean definition of a point might be, that which has all parts. A black hole is a point in the real universe but a point that that contains all parts--another universe!!

So, is Thucydidean history a science subject to geometric logic or is it art? If it is a geometry does it describe an imaginary universe or a real one?

As a science the history falls short on many counts. Thucydides admits this himself. The objective facts of the war are difficult if not impossible to document for the very reason that words and ideas change their meanings most during the course of war. In other words the data is suspect because the observations are contaminated. In other words there is no way we can ever know if Thucydides has gotten the facts straight because by his own admission objective facts are nearly impossible to collect.

As a geometry the history falters too with respect to its main engine--the underlying assertion that power, fear and self- interest govern the affairs of men at the international level when cultures or ideological factions clash in a certain way as for example when one party, Athens, overreaches (out of necessity) and the other, Sparta, responds (in necessity) out of fear.

Thucydides reveals this vision of conflicting necessities in the speeches he uses--the selection and construction of which are governed by the model of political reality he adheres to. I won't deny that power, fear and self-interest govern the affairs of men at the international level at least some of the time. But that this is the way events are governed by necessity, because human nature works this way in the realm of real politics, is hard to accept. Sparta did not have to go to war. It could have gone to arbitration. Athens could have responded to the Spartan appeal to justice. It did not. If it had events might have been otherwise. Power, fear, self interest and necessity would have been secondary to other influences--and Thucydides might have pursued geometry.

The danger of accepting the rather pessimistic consequences of Thucydidean analysis is the temptation to accept that what is true for human nature on the grand scale is true also for human nature on the smaller scale. People who read Thucydides take it to heart--literally. There is a tendency in the West to buy into this amoral paradigm as a formula for human success. This I think is the cruelest legacy of Thucydides. Outside of their very personal space (and in many cases even there) people actually believe that power, fear and self-interest govern their political lives at every political level, from their behavior on the job (office and campus politics) to their attitudes and behavior to the city, state and even the environment. As a consequence people can and often do behave in wretched ways in their political lives. Justice and morality have no place in the political life of many people.

We will see next week in the Republic that Plato saw that people often behaved badly, but argued that there were real moral ideals which we could emulate and adhere to given the right education. But Thucydides was not Plato, and Plato did not take the Republic into the sphere of international events and he could never have written anything quite like this because he rejected empirical evidence as a basis for obtaining knowledge. Empirical evidence for Plato was nothing like the real thing. This great shining scientifically determined reality Thucydides shapes, shines and sculpts for us here would seem to Plato as nothing more than mere opinion.

[Here is an intriguing thought. It was penned for a lecture series in defense of Liberal Education given in 1858 by John Henry Newman.]

All that exists, as contemplated by the human mind, forms one large system or complex fact, and this of course resolves itself into an indefinite number of particular facts, which, as being portions of a whole, have countless relations of every kind, one towards another.

What that statement implies to me is that at some level Thucydides was right. Geometry and politics are connected - - yes -- but in a much more fundamental way.

[Knowledge is the apprehension of these facts, whether in themselves, or in their mutual positions and bearings. And as all taken together form one integral subject for contemplation, so there are no natural or real limits between part and part; one is ever running into the other; all, as viewed by the mind, are combined together and possess a correlative character one with another from the eternal mysteries of the Divine Essence down to our own sensations and consciousness...]

Liberal study -- what we do -- implicitly recognizes this. But if music, art, science and geometry, are connected -- how do we communicate those connections? If the subject matter of art, music, and literature really is common, what does that grammar look like? Thucydides instinct -- his attempt to tether disparate fields together was right -- but I thing he grabbed the wrong objects.

That which is common to music, politics and geometry is something more reductive than lines, points, power, fear, or musical harmony.

Beethoven offered another thought that communicates the same sense. Music, he said, is a higher revelation than philosophy.

What Beethoven meant -- I think -- is that Music, when it operates on us, brings us to the place where truths are apprehended -- and that music can do this at least as well -- certainly in another way than conventional logic.

But those other mediums must be able to do that too. Music can bring us to truth. Art can bring us to truth. Geometry can bring us to truth. Completely unrelated medium bring us to see different aspects of a single complex truth.

More on these things at another time.

Best Choice
Books, Music, Art:
History of the Peloponnesian War

Browse Books, Music, Art & Book Reviews:Books from Alibris: Thucydides
Books from Amazon: Thucydides
Audiobooks at iTunes: Thousands of Classics
Library Catalogs:COPAC UK: Thucydides
Library of Canada: Thucydides
Library of Congress: Thucydides
Other Library Catalogs: Thucydides
External Links:Research Links: Thucydides
Representative Image
Online Research:
Records from Related Period and Category:Ancient History
Ancient Literature

this Database:
This web page is part of a biographical database on Great Ideas. These are living ideas that have shaped, defined and directed world culture for over 2,500 years. By definition the Great Ideas are radical. As such they are sometimes misread, or distorted by popular simplifications. Understanding a Great Idea demands personal engagement. Our selection of Great Ideas is drawn from literature and philosophy, science, art, music, theatre, and cinema. We also include biographies of pivotal historical and religious figures, as well as contributions from women and other historically under-represented minorities. The result is an integrated multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary database built upon the framework of the always controversial Great Books Core List published in 1940 by the late Great Books Pioneer Mortimer Adler (1902-2001). Most of the works on that list are available in the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.

Malaspina Great Ideas BlogMalaspina Great Ideas RSS Feed
Malaspina Global Portal On the web since 1995 Search by Period or Category The 267 Top Books of all time! Tell us what you think
Privacy Statement, Acknowledgements and ContactDictionary and Thesaurus

Return to Top of this Page