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Chalkidian Helmet, 450 BCE. Thanks to for permission to use this image.



I thought I had sufficiently indicated the characteristics of Thucydides when describing the most important and remarkable of those peculiarities which seemed to me to distinguish him from all previous orators and historians. I have, in fact, previously treated the subject in the essays, inscribed with your name, on the Ancient Orators, and a little time before in the treatise on Thucydides himself which I addressed to Aelius Tubero, in which I have, to the best of my ability, gone into all the points needing discussion, and have added suitable illustrations. But your view is that these writings lack precision, in that I do not give the proofs till I have specified the characteristics. You think that the exposition of characteristic peculiarities would gain in precision if, side by side with each single statement, I were to set down the expressions of the historian, as is the practice of the authors of rhetorical handbooks and introductions to the art of composition. Desiring, therefore, to meet every criticism, I have taken this course, and have followed the didactic method in place of the epideictic.


In order that the argument may be easy for you to follow, I will first quote word for word what I have previously said with regard to the historian, and will then cursorily review each several proposition, and will supply the illustrations as you desire. The passage about to be cited follows the remarks on Herodotus. 'Coming after Herodotus and the authors previously mentioned, and taking a comprehensive view of their several excellences, Thucydides aspired to form and to introduce into historical composition an individual manner of his own, one which was neither absolute prose nor downright metre, but something compounded of the two. In the choice of words he often adopts a figurative, obscure, archaic and strange diction, in place of that which was in common use and familiar to the men of his day. He takes the greatest trouble to vary his constructions, since it was in this respect chiefly that he wished to excel his predecessors. At one time he makes a phrase out of a word, at another time he condenses a phrase into a word. Now he gives a nominal in place of a verbal form, and again he converts a noun into a verb. He inverts the ordinary use of nouns and verbs themselves, interchanging common with proper nouns and active with passive verbs. He varies the normal use of the plural and the singular number, and predicates the one in place of the other. He combines feminines with masculines, masculines with feminines, and neuters with the other genders; and the natural agreement of gender is violated thereby. He wrests the cases of nouns or participles at times from the expression to the sense, at other times from the sense to the expression. In the employment of conjunctions and prepositions, and especially of the particles which serve to bring out the meanings of individual words, he allows himself full poetic liberty. There will be found in him a large number of constructions which by changes of person and variations of tense, and by the strained use of expressions denoting place, differ from ordinary speech and have all the appearance of solecisms. Further, he frequently substitutes things for persons and persons for things. In his enthymemes and his sentences the numerous parentheses often delay the conclusion for a long time, while there is much in him that is tortuous, involved, perplexed, and similarly defective. Moreover, not a few of the showy figures will be found to be employed by him,--I mean those parisoses, paromoeoses, paronomasiae and antitheses, which are so lavishly used by Gorgias of Leontini, by the school of Polus and Licymnius, and by many others who flourished in his time. The most obvious of his characteristics is the attempt to indicate as many things as possible in as few words as possible, to combine many ideas in one, and to leave the listener expecting to hear something more. The consequence is that brevity becomes obscurity. In fine, there are four "instruments," so to say, of the style of Thucydides,--the artificial character of the vocabulary, the variety of the constructions, the roughness of the harmony, the speed of the narrative. Its "colours"' are solidity, pungency, condensation, austerity, gravity, terrible vehemence, and above all his power of stirring the emotions. Such is Thucydides in respect of those characteristics of his style which distinguish him from all other writers. [Dionys. Hal. de Thucyd. cc. 24, 25.]'


Examples of expressions which are obscure, and archaic, and puzzling to ordinary people are: to akraiphnes, ho epilogismos, hê periôpê, hê anakôchê, and so forth. Of artificial words instances are: hê kôlumê, hê presbeusis, hê kataboê, hê achthêdôn, hê dikaiôsis, and so on.

His novelty and variety in his constructions, and his departure from established usage, which we consider to be the chief point of difference between him and all other writers, may be illustrated by the following instances.


When he amplifies a single idea and uses a number of nouns or verbs in place of one nominal or verbal expression, he expresses himself thus: 'Themistocles exhibited his natural force in the most convincing way, and in this respect he was especially worthy of admiration beyond any rival [Thucyd. I. 138.]. Again, in the Funeral Speech he writes: 'nor yet on the score of poverty is a man who has it in his power to confer a service on the state debarred through the obscurity of his rank [Thucyd. II. 37.]. For in these cases the sense** He expresses himself as in his description of the Spartan Brasidas when in the engagement at Pylus he was wounded and fell overboard. 'He fell,' he says, 'on to the parexeiresia, and his shield slipped off ' [Thucyd. IV. 12.]. What he means is: 'he fell overboard on to the projecting parts of the oars.'


When he gives the form of nouns to the verbal parts of speech, he expresses himself as follows. In his First Book the Corinthian envoy addresses the Athenians thus: 'such are the pleas for justice we can bring before you, together with the following exhortation and claim to gratitude' [Thucyd. I. 41.]. Here the verbs 'we can exhort' and 'we can claim' have been changed into the nouns 'exhortation' and 'claim.' Parallel expressions are 'the non-circumvallation of the Plemmyrium' in the Seventh Book, and 'the lamentation' which in the First Book he has mentioned in the course of a speech [Thucyd. I. 143]. For to the verbs 'to circumvallate' and 'to lament' he has given the form of the nouns 'circumvallation' and 'lamentation.'


But when conversely he turns his nouns into verbs, he produces such an expression as we find in the First Book when the cause of the war is under discussion. 'The most real cause, though that which was least acknowledged, I consider to have been the fact that the growth of the Athenian power compelled them to wage war [Thucyd. I. 23.].' His meaning is that the growth of the Athenian power caused a compulsion to the war. But for the nouns 'compulsion' and 'war' he has substituted the verbs 'to compel' and 'to wage war.'


When he interchanges the passive and active forms of verbs, he writes in this fashion: 'for neither the one hinders by the truce nor the other [Thucyd. I. 144.].' The active verb 'hinders' is employed in place of the passive 'is hindered.' The real meaning of the expression is: 'for neither the one is hindered by the truce nor the other.' And so also with the words found in hiss introduction: 'for in the absence of commerce, they did not mingle freely with one another [Thucyd. I. 2.].' Here the active verb 'did not mingle' occupies the place of the passive 'were not mingled.'


When instead of the active he uses the passive, he constructs a sentence of this kind: 'all of us who had by this time been brought into contact with the Athenians [Thucyd. I. 120.]'. His meaning is: 'all of us who dealt with the Athenians.' But he has used the passive form 'been brought into contact with' in place of the active 'dealt with.' And so with next follows: 'those who had been settled more in the interior [Thucyd. I. 120].' For instead of the active verb 'who had settled' he has used the passive 'who had been settled.'


As regards the distinction of singular and plural, he changes the two numbers about and uses singular for plural thus: 'and if perchance it occurs to some one that not he, but the Syracusan' is the enemy of the Athenians [Thucyd. VI. 78.].' He means 'Syracusans' and 'Athenians,' but he has put each of the proper names in the singular. Another instance is the passage: 'and we shall find the enemy more formidable, if his retreat is made difficult [Thucyd. IV. 10.].' Here he has put 'enemies' in the singular, not in the plural. Deviating in the same way from customary language, he uses the plural in place of the singular. This mode of expression will be found in the first part of the Funeral Speech: 'for eulogies bestowed on others are endurable only so far as each person thinks that he is himself capable of any of the deeds of which he hears [Thucyd. II. 35].' Here the words 'each person' and 'hears' are singular, but the following words are put in the plural: 'but when this point is passed, they begin to feel envy and incredulity2.' ** Such expressions would naturally be used not of one person but of many.


Examples of the interchange of the three genders, in contravention of the ordinary rules of language are such as these. He uses tarachos in the masculine for tarachê in the feminine, and similarly ochlos for ochlêsis. In place of tên boulêsin and tên dynamin he uses to boulomenon and to dynamenon. For instance, he says of the Athenians when they were considering the dispatch of their forces to Sicily: 'the Athenians were not robbed of their wishing (to boulomenon) by the burden of the preparations [Thucyd. VI. 24.].' There is a similar instance in the passage in which he refers to the Thessalians: 'hôste ei mê dynasteia mallon hê isonomia echrônto tô epichôriô hoi Thessaloi. [Thucyd. IV. 78] Here he has made the feminine neuter. The real signification of the expression is: 'hôste ei mê dynasteia mallon hê isonomia echrônto tê epichôriô hoi Thessaloi.'


Sometimes he gives an unusual turn to the cases of proper nouns and appellatives and participles and the articles attached to them. He will then frame such a sentence as this: 'for the states, having obtained a tempered liberty and security in their undertakings, advanced towards downright freedom, scorning, the "specious pretence of law and order" offered by the Athenians [Thucyd. VIII. 64.].' Now writers whose syntax conforms to ordinary usage would have coupled the feminine gender of the noun, and would have used the accusative instead of the genitive case as follows: 'sôphrosunên gar labousai hai poleis kai adeian tôn prassomenôn echôrêsan epi tên antikrus eleutherian, tên apo tôn Athênaiôn hupoulon eunomian ou protimêsasai.' Whereas authors who construct masculines with feminines, as Thucydides has done, and use genitives instead of accusatives, would be said by us to be guilty of solecism. This is true also of the following words: 'kai mê tô plêthei autôn kataplagentes [Thucyd. IV. 10.].' The sentence ought to have been constructed not in the dative case but in the accusative: 'kai mê to plêthos tôn polemiôn kataplagentes.' Just as no one would be said 'tê para tôn theôn orgê phobeisthai,' but rather 'tên tôn theôn orgên.'


The style which neglects consistency in the tenses of verbs is of the following kind: 'And yet, if we should choose to face danger unconcernedly rather than after careful training, and with a courage born of habit rather than in obedience to law, we have the advantage of not being afflicted by troubles which are in the future, while we show ourselves, in the midst of troubles, to be no less daring than those who are always toiling [Thucyd. II. 39].' Here etheloimen is a verbal

form which indicates the future, while periginetai indicates the present. The construction would have been regular if he had joined periestai with etheloimen. ** 'I consider the inaccessibility of the spot to be in our favour; but this helps us only if we stand our ground; if we retire, the position, though difficult in itself, will easily be mastered by the enemy [Thucyd. IV. 10.].' Now ginetai refers to the present, but estai to the future. The cases also are irregularly constructed. For he has put the participle menontôn and the pronoun hêmôn in the genitive case, but hypochôrêsasin in the dative. Whereas the latter should, more properly, have corresponded in case to the two former.


When he makes the transition from the sense to the expression or from the expression to the sense, he uses a construction of the following kind: 'the populace of the Syracusans were at great odds with one another [Thucyd. VI. 35.].' Although he begins with the singular noun 'populace,' he assimilates the expression to the sense, which is plural, 'the Syracusans.' And again: 'for when the Athenians quitted Sicily after the convention, the men of Leontini enrolled many new citizens, and the populace entertained the idea of redistributing the land [Thucyd. V. 4.].' From the plural 'men of Leontini' he passes to the singular noun 'the populace.' ******


In his History things are treated as persons, as in the address of the Corinthians to the Lacedaemonians. The Corinthian speaker urges the leading men of the Peloponnese to maintain its prestige, in the eyes of external states, such as their fathers transmitted it to them. These are his words: 'You must, therefore, be well advised, and strive that the Peloponnese which you lead forth may be no less powerful than when your fathers left it to your care [Thucyd. I. 71.].' He has used the expression 'to lead forth' in the sense 'to guide the Peloponnese outside as its leaders.' Now this could not apply to the territory, But it can apply to its glory and its power, and this is what he means to say.

Persons are transformed into things by him in the following way. When the same Corinthian envoy, addressing the Lacedaemonians, compares the characters of the Athenians and Lacedaemonians, he says: 'they are innovators and quick to conceive plans and to execute their resolves. But your alertness is directed to preserving what you have and to forming no fresh resolve, and to refraining even from the execution of what is absolutely essential [Thucyd. I. 70.].' Now up to this point the construction is normal, the two persons forming its basis. But afterwards in the second clause the expression is changed, and instead of persons a thing is used in reference to the Lacedaemonians, when he says: 'and once more they are daring even beyond their power, and venturesome beyond their better judgment and full of hope in the hour of danger; but your way (to de hymeteron) is to act below the measure of your power and to trust not even the safe conclusions of your judgment [Thucyd. I. 70.].' Here 'your way' is used instead of 'you,' a thing taking the place of a person.


In his enthymemes and sentences the parentheses are numerous and reach their conclusion with difficulty. This makes the meaning hard to follow. There are many of them in every part of the History; but two only, taken from the Introduction, will suffice. One is the passage which shows the weakness of Primitive Greece and assigns the causes. 'For in the absence of commerce, they did not mingle freely with one another whether by land or over sea: each tribe possessing property enough of its own to support existence and having no superfluous goods; none cultivating the land, for it was uncertain when some invader would come and rob them as there were no fortifications to protect them: and feeling that they could command the bare means of subsistence everywhere alike, they readily migrated [Thucyd. I. 2.].' If he had added the word 'readily migrated' to the first period and shaped it thus, 'In the absence of commerce they did not mingle freely with one another by land or by sea, but each tribe possessing enough property of its own to support existence, they migrated readily,' he would have made his meaning clearer, but by the insertion of many parenthetical clauses he has made it obscure and hard to follow. The second passage is that which refers to the invasion of Attica by Eurystheus. 'Eurystheus was slain in Attica by the Heracleidae. His maternal uncle was Atreus, to whom as being his kinsman Eurystheus entrusted the kingdom of Mycenae when he went to the wars. Atreus had been banished by his father because of the murder of Chrysippus. When Eurystheus failed to return, Atreus succeeded to the sovereignty over the Mycenaeans and over all others who had been under the rule of Eurystheus. He did so at the desire of the Mycenaeans, who feared the Heracleidae. He had also courted the multitude, and was thought to be a man of power [Thucyd. I. 9.].'


The plan of his enthymemes is sometimes tortuous and involved and hard to unravel, as in the following passage of the Funeral Speech: 'They found a dearer delight in the punishment of their foes; danger thus incurred they considered the noblest of all, and wished to subordinate all other aims to that of vengeance. They committed the uncertainty of success to hope, but in action deemed it right to trust themselves as concerning what was now before their eyes. Thinking it right to suffer in self-defence rather than save their lives by submission, they escaped a shameful reputation by exposing themselves to the brunt of the fray; and in a moment of time they were removed, at the height of their fortune, from the scene of their glory rather than their fear [Thucyd. II. 42.].' Of this kind also is the characterisation of Themistocles given by the historian in his First Book: 'For Themistocles exhibited his natural force in the most convincing way, and in this respect he was especially worthy of admiration beyond any rival. Through his native shrewdness, and unaided by knowledge acquired previously or at the time, he surpassed all others whether in judging present needs on the spur of the moment or in conjecturing the events of the most distant future. He had the power of explaining whatever he had in mind, and was well able to form a competent opinion of things of which he had no experience. He could foresee the better or worse course, while it was still in the dim future. In a word, through sheer natural capacity he could, however short the time for preparation might be, excel all men in improvising the right thing to be done [Thucyd. I. 138.].'


The affected figures of antithesis and paromoeosis and parisosis, in which Gorgias and his followers were particularly fertile, little become this style, which has an austere cast and is very far removed from preciosity. But instances of the following kind are found in the History of Thucydides: 'For it is clear that what is denominated Hellas now-a-days was not securely populated in ancient days [Thucyd. I. 2.].' And again: 'They are daring beyond their power, and venturesome beyond their better judgment; but your way is to act below the measure of your power, and to trust not even the safe conclusions of your judgment, and to think you will never escape from the dangers that threaten you [Thucyd. I. 70.].' Another instance will be found in the passage in which he describes, in the following terms, the calamities which had overtaken Greece in consequence of party-spirit: 'For reckless audacity was considered loyal courage; cautious hesitation was specious cowardice; moderation was the cloak of unmanliness; universal wisdom was general ineffectiveness [Thucyd. III. 82.].' Many passages of this kind will be found throughout his History; but those already given will serve as a sample of the rest.

Thus you have, my dear Ammaeus, the observations examined, as you desired, one by one, according, to the ordinary method.

1. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts.