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GILBERT MURRAY ON THUCYDIDES*

From A History of Ancient Greek Literature

Chalkidian Helmet, 450 BCE. Thanks to www.hellenic-art.com for permission to use this image.

AT the time when the old Herodotus was putting the finish to his history in Athens, a new epoch of struggle was opening for Greece and demanding a writer. The world of Herodotus was complete, satisfying. Persia was tamed; the seas under one law; freedom and order won -- "Equal laws, equal speech, democracy." The culture which, next to freedom, was what Herodotus cared for most, was realised on a very wide scale: he lived in a great city where every citizen could read and write, where everybody was deinos and philokalos. There had never been, not even in the forced atmosphere of tyrants' courts, such a gathering of poets and learned men as there was in this simply-living and hard-working city. There was a new kind of poetry, natural only to this soil, so strangely true and deep and arresting, that it made other poetry seem like words. And the city which had done all this--the fighting, the organising, the imaginative creating alike--was the metropolis of his own Ionia, she whom he could show to be the saviour of Hellas, whom even the Theban had hailed, "O shining, violet-crowned City of Song, great Athens, bulwark of Hellas, walls divine."1 That greeting of Pindar's struck the keynote of the Athenians' own feeling. Again and again the echoes of it come back; as late as 424 B.C. the word 'violet-crowned' could make an audience sit erect and eager, and even a judicious use of the adjective 'shining' by a foreign ambassador could do diplomatic wonders.2

It was a passionate romantic patriotism. In the best men the love for their personified city was inextricably united with a devotion to all the aims that they felt to be highest--Freedom, Law, Reason, and what the Greeks called 'the beautiful.' Theirs was a peerless city, and they made for her those overweening claims that a man only makes for his ideal or for one he loves. Pericles used that word: called himself her 'lover' (erastês)-the word is keener and fresher in Greek than in English--and gathered about him a band of similar spirits, united lovers of an immortal mistress. This was why they adorned her so fondly. Other Greek states had made great buildings for the gods. The Athenians of this age were the first to lavish such immense effort on buildings like the Propylaea, the Docks, the Odeon, sacred only to Athens. Can Herodotus have quite sympathised with this? He cannot at least--who can understand another man's passion?--have liked the ultimate claim, definitely repeated to an indignant world, that the matchless city should be absolute queen of her 'allies,' a wise and beneficent tyrant, owing no duties except to protect and lead Hellas, and to beat off the barbarian.3

There was a great gulf between Herodotus and the younger generation in the circle of Pericles, the gulf of the sophistic culture. The men who had heard Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Hippocrates, differed largely in beliefs, in aims, in interests; but they had the all-important common principle, that thought must be clear, and that Reason holds the real keys of the world. Among the generation influenced by these teachers was a young man of anti-Periclean family, who nevertheless profoundly admired Pericles and had assimilated much of his spirit; who was perhaps conscious of a commanding intellect, who had few illusions, who hated haziness, who was also one of the band of Lovers. He compared his Athens with Homer's Mycenae or Troy; he compared her with the old rude Athens which had beaten the Persians. He threw the whole spirit of the 'Enlightenment' into his study of ancient history. He stripped the shimmer from the old greatnesses, and found that in hard daylight his own mistress was the grandest and fairest. He saw--doubtless all the Periclean circle saw--that war was coming, a bigger war perhaps than any upon record, a war all but certain to establish on the rock the permanent supremacy of Athens. THUCYDIDES determined to watch that war from the start, mark every step, trace every cause, hide nothing and exaggerate nothing--do all that Herodotus had not done or tried to do. But he meant to do more than study it: he would help to win it. He was a man of position and a distinguished soldier. He had Thracian blood, a northern fighting strain, in his veins, as well as some kinship with the great Kimôn and Miltiades. The plague of 430 came near to crushing his ambitions once for all, but he was one of the few who were sick and recovered. The war had lasted eight years before he got his real opportunity. He was elected general in 423 B.C., second in command, and sent to Chalcidicê. It was close to his own country, where he had some hereditary chieftainship among the Thracians, and it was at that moment the very centre of the war. The Spartan Brasidas, in the flush of his enormous prestige, was in the heart of the Athenian dependencies. A defeat would annihilate him, as he had no base to retire upon; and the conqueror of Brasidas would be the first military name in Greece.

No one can tell exactly what happened. The two towns in especial danger were Amphipolis and Eiôn on the Strymôn. The mere presence of the Athenian ships might suffice to save these two towns, but could do little to hurt Brasidas. Whereas, if only Thucydides could raise the Thracian tribes, Brasidas might be all but annihilated. That is what the Amphipolitans seem to have expected; and that is perhaps why, when Brasidas, starting unexpectedly and marching all day and all night through driving snow, stormed the bridge of the Strymôn in the winter dawn and appeared under the walls of Amphipolis, Thucydides was half a day's sail away near Thasos, opposite his centre of influence in Thrace. His colleague Eucles was in Amphipolis, and the town could easily have held out. But Brasidas had his agents inside; his terms were more than moderate, and there had always been an anti-Athenian party. When the first seven ships from Thasos raced into the river at dusk, Amphipolis was lost, and so was Thucydides's great opportunity. He threw himself into Eiôn, had the barren satisfaction of beating Brasidas twice back from the walls; then--all we know is given in his own words (5.26)- "It befell to me to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis."

Who can possibly tell the rights of the case?4

We know only that Athens was a rude taskmaster to her generals. We cannot even say what the sentence was. He may have been banished; he may have been condemned to death, and fled; he may have fled for fear of the trial. We do not know where he lived. The ancient Life says, at his estate at Scaptê Hlê in Thrace; but that was in Athenian territory, and no place for an exile. It is certain that he returned to Athens after the end of the war. He says himself that he was often with the Lacedaemonian authorities. He seems to have been at the battle of Mantinea, and possibly in Syracuse. We know nothing even of his death, which probably occurred before the eruption of Etna in 396. His grave was in Athens among those of Kimôn's family; but 'Zopyrus,' confirmed by 'Cratippus'--whoever they are--say that it had an 'ikrion' --whatever that is--upon it, which was a sign that the grave did not contain the body.

If we knew more of Cratippus we should be able to add much to our life of Thucydides. The traditional lives, one by Marcellinus (5th cent. A.D.), one anonymous, are a mass of conflicting legends, conjectures, and deductions. He wept at hearing Herodotus read, and received the old man's blessing; he married a Thracian heiress; he was exiled by Cleon; he sat under a plane-tree writing his histories; he drove all the Aeginetans out of their island by his usury; he was murdered in three places, and died by disease in another. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says in so many words (pp. 143, 144) that Cratippus was Thucydides's contemporary. If that were true it would rehabilitate the credit of the tradition, but the evidence is crushing against it. Recent criticism of the Life is all based on an article in Hermes xii., where Wilamowitz reduces the conventional structure to its base in the facts given incidentally by Thucydides himself plus the existence of a tomb of "Thucydides, son of Olorus, of the deme Halimûs," among the Kimonian graves in Athens; and then rebuilds from the fragments one small wigwam which he considers safe--the conclusion, namely, that Praxiphanes, a disciple of Theophrastus and a first-rate authority, had said that Thucydides, together with certain poets, lived at the court of Archelaus of Macedon. The argument is supported by Thucydides's own remarks (2.100) about that king improving the country in the way of organisation and road-making "more than all the eight kings before him together." But it has led irresistibly to a further conclusion.5 Not only did Praxiphanes say this, but we can find where he said it: it was in his dialogue About History. That spoils all. The scenes in dialogues are, even in Plato's hands, admittedly unhistoric; after Plato's death they are the merest imaginary conversations; so that our one wigwam collapses almost as soon as it is built. One corner of it only remains.

The dialogue, in discussing the merits of history and poetry--Aristotle had pronounced poetry to be the 'more philosophic'--pits Thucydides, the truthful historian, alone against five poets of different kinds; and we can probably guess what the decision was, from the fragmentary sentence which states that "in his lifetime Thucydides was mostly unknown, but valued beyond price by posterity."

That, then, is one new fact about Thucydides, and it is like the others. His personal hopes were blighted in 423; his political and public ideals slowly broken from 414 to 404. And the man's greatness comes out in the way in which he remains faithful to his ideal of history. He records with the same slow unsparing detail, the same convincing truthfulness, all the triumphs and disasters--his own failure and exile, the awful story of Syracuse, the horrors of the 'Staseis,' the moral poison of the war-spirit throughout Greece, even the inward humiliations and exacerbated tyranny of her who was to have been the Philosopher-Princess among nations.

Our conception, 'the Peloponnesian War,' we owe to Thucydides. There are in it three distinct wars and eight years of unreal peace. The peace after the first war was followed by an alliance, and it looked as if the next disturbance in the air of Hellas would find Athens and Sparta arrayed as allies against some Theban or Argive coalition. Thucydides was still working at his record of the Ten Years' War when fresh hostilities broke out in Sicily, and he turned his eyes to them. The first war is practically complete in our book. The Sicilian Expedition (vi., vii.) is practically finished, too, in itself, though not fully brought into its place in the rest of the history. It has a separate introduction; it explains who Alcibiades is, as though he had not been mentioned before; it repeats episodes from the account of the Ten Years' War, or refers to it as to a separate book. As the Sicilian War drew on, Thucydides realised what perhaps few men could see at the time, the real oneness of the whole series of events. He collected the materials for the time of peace and partly shaped them into history (v. 26 to end); he collected most of the material for the final Dekelêan or Ionian War (viii.). He has a second prologue (v. 26): "The same Thucydides of Athens has written these, too, in order, as each thing fell, by summers and winters, until the Lacedaemonians and allies broke the empire of the Athenians and took the Long Walls and the Piraus." Those words must have been hard to write.

He never reached the end. It is characteristic both of the man and of a certain side of Athenian culture, that he turned away from his main task of narrative to develop the style of his work as pure literature. Instead of finishing the chronicle of the war, he worked over his reports of the arguments people had used, or the policies various parties had followed, into elaborate and direct speeches. Prose style at the time had its highest development in the form of rhetoric; and that turn of mind, always characteristic of Greece, which delighted in understanding both sides of a question, and would not rest till it knew every seeming wrongdoer's apology, was especially strong. The speeches are Thucydides's highest literary efforts. In some cases they seem to be historical in substance, and even to a certain extent in phrasing; the letter of Nikias has the look of reality (vii. 11 ff.), and perhaps also the speech of Diodotus (iii. 42). Sometimes the speech is historical, but the occasion is changed. The great Funeral Oration of Pericles was made after his campaign at Samos;6 he may have made one also in the first year of the war, when there were perhaps hardly fifty Athenians to bury. More probably Thucydides has transferred the great speech to a time when he could use it in his history.7 Sometimes the speakers are vaguely given in the plural-'the Corinthians said'--that is, the political situation is put in the form of a speech or speeches showing vividly the way in which different parties conceived it. A notable instance is the imaginary dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians, showing dramatically and with a deep, though perhaps over-coloured, characterisation the attitude of mind in which the war-party at Athens then faced their problems.

This is at first sight an odd innovation to be introduced by the great realist in history. He warns us frankly, however. It was hard for him or his informants to remember exactly what the various speakers had said. He has therefore given the speeches which he thought the situation demanded, keeping as close as might be to the actual words used (1.22). It is a hazy description. He himself would not have liked it in Herodotus; and the practice was a fatal legacy to two thousand years of history-writing after him. But in his own case we have seen why he did it, and there is little doubt that he has done it with extraordinary effect. There is perhaps nothing in literature like his power of half personifying a nation and lighting up the big lines of its character. The most obvious cases are actual descriptions, such as the contrast between Athens and Sparta drawn by the Corinthians in I., or the picture of Athens by Pericles in II.; but there is dramatic personation as well, and one feels the nationality of various anonymous speakers as one feels the personal character of Nikias or Sthenelaïdas or Alcibiades. It would be hard to find a clearer or more convincing account of conflicting policies than that given in the speeches at the beginning of the war.

Of course we should have preferred a verbatim report; and of course Thucydides's practice wants a Thucydides to justify it. But if we compare these speeches with the passages in VIII. where he has given us the same kind of matter in indirect form, one inclines to think that the artificial and fictitious speech is the clearer and more ultimately adequate. The fact is that in his ideal of history Thucydides was almost as far from Polybius as from Herodotus. Carefulness and truth, of course, come absolutely first, as with Polybius. "Of the things done in the war" (as distinguished from the speeches) "I have not thought fit to write from casual information nor according to any notion of my own. Parts I saw myself; for the rest, which I learned from others, I inquired to the fulness of my power about every detail. The truth was hard to find, because eye-witnesses of the same events spoke differently as their memories or their sympathies varied. The book will perhaps seem dull to listen to, because there is no myth in it. But if those who wish to look at the truth about what happened in the war, and the passages like it which are sure according to man's nature to recur in the future, judge my work to be useful, I shall be content. What I have written is a thing to possess and keep always, not a performance for passing entertainment."

He seeks truth as diligently and relentlessly as a modern antiquary who has no object for concealment or exaggeration. But his aim is a different one. He is not going to provide material for his readers to work upon. He is going to do the whole work himself--to be the one judge of truth, and as such to give his results in artistic and final form, no evidence produced and no source quoted. A significant point, perhaps, is his use of documents on the one hand and speeches on the other. Speaking roughly, one may say that in the finished parts of his work there are no documents; in the unfinished there are no speeches. With regard to the speeches the case is clear. Nearly all bear the marks of being written after the end of the war. The unfinished Eighth Book has not a single speech; the unfinished part of Book V. only the Melian Dialogue.

With the documents there is more room for doubt; but the point is of great inner significance. Of the nine documents embodied verbatim in the text, three are in the notoriously unfinished Eighth Book; three are in that part of Book V. which deals with the interval of peace; three--a Truce, a Peace, and an Alliance, between Athens and Sparta--belong to the finish of the Ten Years' War. Now, it can be made out that these last three come from Attic, not Spartan, originals; that they were not accessible to the exile till his return in 403, and that such information as he had of them through third persons was not correct. Where they stand in the text they are inorganic. The narrative has been written without knowledge of them; in one case it contradicts them. The Truce shows that a separate truce had been made between Athens and Troezen, not mentioned in the text. The Peace differs from the narrative about Pteleon and Sermylia, and implies that Athens had recovered the towns in Chalcidicê. The Alliance does not contain any clause binding Athens and Sparta to make no separate alliance except by mutual consent, though the surrounding narrative both implies and states that it did (v. 39, 46). Thucydides's documents have all been added to the text after 403, and imply a new and more ambitious aim for his history. When he wrote the Ten Years' War he gave no documents--not the peace of 445, nor the treaties with Rhegion and Leontini in 433, nor even that with Corcyra. The same with his Sicilian War; there is not even the treaty with Egesta.

He began his history as a true 'chronicle of the war by summers and winters.' He enlarged it to an attempt at a full and philosophic history of Athens in her diplomatic and imperial relations. When he was cut off from documents he saw their value, and when the opportunity came back, embodied them in his history as they stood recorded on the stones. The great political speeches were not recorded; he knew that they expressed the inner meaning of the time, and he did his best to remember or recreate them.

Here again his work is unfinished. He has only nine documents in all, and the collection seems to a certain extent fortuitous. Three of them, more interesting than important, are mere abortive and apparently secret treaties between Sparta and Persia. He must have got these through some private channel, perhaps from the same source--Kirchoff thinks, Alcibiades--as the Argive and Spartan documents in Book V. Many more documents would have been needed to make up his ideal history; and many more of the dissertations and digressions, the explanations of internal policy and social change, which are now almost confined to the first two books and the introduction to Book VI. Even the documents which he has got, have not, as we have seen, been fully utilised. There were still some small errors in the narrative, which documentary evidence could help him to correct. There were some considerable omissions. His account of the tribute is obscure for want of detail. He says Thêra was not in the Empire in 432, and does not explain how she came to be paying tribute in 426.8 He says little about treaties and proposals of peace, little of finance, little of Athenian political development or military organisation. There is not so much 'background,' to use Mr. Forbes's word, to his history as to that of Herodotus. But the comparative fulness of Book I. in such matters is perhaps an indication of what the rest would eventually have become.

Thucydides's style as it stands in our texts is an extraordinary phenomenon. Undeniably a great style, terse, restrained, vivid, and leaving the impression of a powerful intellect. Undeniably also an artificial style, obscure amid its vividness, archaistic and poetic in vocabulary, and apt to run into verbal flourishes which seem to have little thought behind them. Part of this is explicable enough. He writes an artificial semi-Ionic dialect, xun for meta, hên for ean, prassô for prattô. The literary tradition explains that. Literature in Greek has always a tendency to shape itself a language of its own. He is overladen with antitheses, he instinctively sees things in pairs; so do Gorgias and Antiphon. He is fond of distinguishing between synonyms; that is the effect of Prodicus. He is always inverting the order of his words, throwing separate details into violent relief, which makes it hard to see the whole chain of thought. This is evidently part of the man's peculiar nature. He does it far more than Antiphon and Gorgias, more even than Sophocles. His own nature, too, is responsible for the crowding of matter and thought that one feels in reading him--the new idea, the new logical distinction, pressing in before the old one is comfortably disposed of. He is by nature 'Semper instans sibi' (Quintilian). A certain freedom in grammar is common to all Greek, probably to all really thoughtful and vivid, writers: abstract singular nouns with plural verbs, slight anacolutha, intelligible compressions of speech. But what is not explicable in Thucydides is that he should have fallen into the absolute hodge-podge of ungrammatical and unnatural language, the disconcerting trails of comment and explanation, which occur on every third page.

Not explicable if true; but is it true? The answers arise in a storm. "No; our text is utterly corrupt." "It is convicted of gross mistakes by contemporary inscriptions. It is full of glosses. It has been filled with cross-references and explanatory interpolations during its long use as a school-book." "Intentional forgers in late times have been at it" (Cobet, Rutherford). "One of them was 'blood-thirsty,' and one talked 'like a cretin'!" (Müller-Strübing). "Nay, the work itself being notoriously unfinished, it was edited after the author's death by another" (Wilamowitz); or by various others, who interpolated so freely, and found the MSS. in such a state of confusion, that the "unity of authorship is as hopelessly lost in the Thucydidean question as in the Homeric" (Schwartz).

Against this onslaught, it is not surprising that the average scholar has taken refuge in deafness, or looked on with sympathetic hope while Herbst does his magnificent gladiator-work in defence of everything that he believed in the happy sixties--the time, as he says plaintively, when he felt, in opening his Thucydides, that he was "resting in Abraham's bosom." It is not surprising that conservative editors have even adopted the extraordinary theory--merely in defence against the development theories of Ullrich, Kirchoff, and Cwiklinski--that Thucydides did not write a word betweeen 432 and 404, and then apparently did the whole book at a sitting.

This is not the place to discuss the text, except in the broadest manner, and for the sake of its significance in the history of literature and in our conception of Thucydides. In the first place, the general line of Cobet followed by Rutherford, that the text is largely defaced by adscripts and glosses, and that Thucydides, a trained stylist at a time when style was much studied, did not, in a work which took twenty-nine years' writing, mix long passages of masterly expression with short ones of what looks like gibberish--thus much seems morally certain. The mere comparison of the existing MSS. and the study of Thucydides's manner show it. But that takes us very little way. Dr. Rutherford's valuable edition of Book IV., attempting to carry these results to a logical conclusion, has produced a text which hardly a dozen scholars in Europe would accept. We can see that the original wording has been tampered with; we can see to a certain extent the lines of the tampering. We cannot from that restore the original.

But we have some concrete facts by which to estimate our tradition. We have part of the original text of one of Thucydides's documents extant on an Attic stone.9 We have some significant quotations in the late geographer Stephen of Byzantium.

The inscription, according to Kirchoff, taking the twenty-five lines alone, but allowing for restorations, shows our Thucydides text to be wrong in thirty-two small points of detail; or not counting repetitions, in twenty; not counting conjectural restorations of the stone, in thirteen. The details are in spelling, in the order of the words, in the use of different prepositions or verb-forms, or in the omission of formal phrases. There is no difference in meaning. There is evidence to make it practically certain that Thucydides copied from an Athenian original verbally identical with our original--almost certain that he took his copy from our very stone.

Now, dismissing the desperate theory that Thucydides was consciously improving the style of his document (Herbst), the errors in our text will naturally be attributed to divers and various of the many scribes who have mediated between Thucydides and us. In that case our text is a seriously-damaged article. To save the vulgate some have sacrificed Thucydides. 'He did not care for verbal accuracy. He lived before the age of precision in literary matters: Very probable; but a suicidal defence. For if Thucydides, the pupil of the Sophists, did not care for verbal accuracy in his documents, is it likely that the contemporary journeyman scribe cared for verbal accuracy in copying him?

The evidence of Stephen is different, but points in the same direction. Our text of Thucydides gives foreign proper names in a more or less consistently Atticised form, and it has been thought the height of pedantry to suspect them. Stephen in five places where he quotes Thucydides in his Geography spells the names in the correct and ancient way,10 which of course he cannot have known by his own wits. In another passage (3.105), where our text says that Olpae, a place on the extreme border of Acarnania towards Amphilochia, was "the common tribunal of the Acarnanians," Stephen quotes it as "of the Acarnanians and Amphilochians," which is just what its position demands.

The upshot of this is that all criticism of Thucydides must recognise the demonstrable imperfection of our text. For instance, in the well-known Mitylenaean story, when the Assembly has condemned the whole military population to death in a moment of passion, repented the same day, and, by the tremendous exertion of the galley-rowers who bore the reprieve, saved them, it proceeds to condemn and execute the ringleaders of the rebellion, "those most guilty." "They numbered rather more than 1000" (3.50)! Is that number remotely credible? There is nothing in which MSS. are so utterly untrustworthy as figures, the Greek numeral system lending itself so easily to enormous mistakes. The ringleaders were in Athens at the time. It was a deliberate execution of prisoners, not a hot-blooded massacre; and nobody, either in Thucydides or for centuries after him, takes the least notice of it! Diodôrus, with his Thucydides before him, makes Hermocrates of Syracuse deliver a speech upon all the crimes of Athens; he tells of many smaller things; he tells of the cruel decision of the first Assembly and of the enormity which the Athenians thought of committing--and omits to mention that they executed 1000 of their subjects in cold blood. It is clear that Diodôrus did not read our story. It all rests on the absolute correctness of the figure a; and our editors cry aloud and cut themselves with knives rather than admit that the a can possibly be wrong!11

In the same way, in 1.51 our text can be checked by a contemporary inscription.12 The stone agrees exactly with Thucydides in the names of the first set of generals mentioned; in the second it gives "Glaukon (Metage)nês and Drakonti(dês)." Our text gives "Glaukon, son of Leagros; Andokidês, son of Leogoras"--that is, Andokidês the orator. Is this a mere mistake of the historian's? Not necessarily. Suppose the owner of some copy in which there was a blot or a tear was not sure of the form 'Leagros'; "Leogoras," he would reflect, "is a real name; Andokidês was son of a Leogoras." Hence enters the uninvited orator and ousts the two real but illegible names. Something of that sort is far more likely than such a mistake on the part of Thucydides.

In a passage at the end of Book I. where the narrative is easy and the style plain, the scholiast observes that "here the lion laughs." The lion would laugh more often and more pleasantly if we could only see his real expression undistorted by the accidents of tradition.

To return from this inevitable digression, we see easily how Thucydides was naturally in some antagonism to Herodotus's whole method of viewing things. Thucydides had no supernatural actors in his narrative. He sees no suggestion--how could he in the wrecked world that lay before him?--of the working of a Divine Providence. His spirit is positif; he does not speak of things he knows nothing about. He is a little sardonic about oracles, which of course filled the air at the time. He instances their safe ambiguity (2. 17, 54), and mentions as a curiosity the only one he had ever known to come definitely true (5.26). He speaks little of persons. He realises the influence of a great man such as Pericles, a mere demagogue such as Cleon, an unscrupulous genius such as Alcibiades. Living in a psychological age, he studies these men's characters and modes of thought, studies them sometimes with vivid dramatic personation, in the speeches and elsewhere; but it is only the mind, never the manner or the matter, that he cares for, and he never condescends to gossip. He cares for big movements and organised forces. He believes above all things in reason, brain-power, intelligence.

There is another point in which he is irritated by Herodotus. He himself was a practical and highly-trained soldier. Herodotus was a man of letters who knew nothing of war except for some small Ionian skirmishing in his youth. Herodotus speaks of the 'regiment of Pitanê,' showing that he thought Spartan regiments were raised by localities; it makes Thucydides angry that a professed historian should not know better than that.13 Except in topography, which is always difficult before the era of maps, Thucydides is very clear and pointed in his military matters; and it is interesting to observe that he lays his hand on almost all the weaknesses of Greek military organisation which were gradually made clear by experience in the times after him. In the Peloponnesian War the whole strength of the land army was in the heavy infantry. Thucydides shows the helplessness of such an army against adequate light infantry.14 Iphicrates and Xenophon learned the lesson. He shows the effect of the Syracusan superiority in cavalry, both for scouting and foraging and in actual engagements. It was cavalry that won Chaeronea for Philip, and the empire of Darius for Alexander. He points out, too, the weakest spot of all in Greek strategy, the hampering of the general's action in the field by excessive control at home. The Sicilian Expedition was lost, not by Nikias, but by the Athenian Assembly; or if Nikias also made grave errors, they were largely due to the state of paralysing subjection in which he was kept by that absent body. The Roman Senate, composed so largely of military men, was as sympathetic to its generals' failures as it was to their extortions. The Athenian Assembly was largely affected by the private soldier and the man, who, though liable to serve, was in reality no soldier at all. Sparta was almost as bad for a different reason. Only an exceptional position like that of Brasidas in Chalcidicê, or Agis at Dekeleia, enabled a general to act with real freedom,15 though even Agis was materially hindered by jealousy. Here again we see one of the secrets of the power of Philip and Alexander.

Like most thoughtful soldiers--Bauer16 quotes parallels from Moltke and others--Thucydides is consistently impressed with the uncertainty of war, the impossibility of foreseeing everything, or of knowing in a battle what exactly is being done. He does not judge men, as the stupid do, by their success. He had personal reasons, of course, for not doing so in military matters; but this principle, one of the greatest marks of the real thinker, is with him all through his work. Pericles was convinced from the facts before him that Athens would win the war; and she lost it. Pericles was profound and correct in his reckoning, but he could not foresee the plague, nor be responsible for the abandonment of his policy after his death. It is very remarkable, indeed, how Thucydides never expresses a personal judgment which could be deduced from the facts he has given. He only speaks when he thinks the facts likely to be misinterpreted. Cleon's undertaking (iv. 28) to capture Sphacteria in less than twenty days was fulfilled. It was nevertheless an insane boast, says Thucydides. At the end of the Sicilian Expedition, we are full of admiration for Demosthenes; our pity for Nikias is mingled with irritation, and even contempt. Thucydides sobers us: "Of all the Greeks of my time, he least deserved so miserable an end, for he lived in the performance of all that was counted virtue" (vii. 86). Generous praise; but the man's limitations are given--"all that was counted virtue." We should never have discovered this about Nikias from the mere history. But Thucydides knew the man; is perfectly, almost cruelly, frank about him; and that is Thucydides's final judgment. It is the same with Antiphon. He is a sinister figure: he was responsible for a reign of terror. But Thucydides, who knew him, admired him, while he deliberately recorded the full measure of his offences. Macchiavelli's praise of Caesar Borgia suggests itself. Antiphon's aretê was perhaps rather like Borgia's Virtu, and Macchiavelli had a great ideal for Italy, something like that of Thucydides for Athens. Or one might think of Philippe de Commines' praise of Louis XI. But Thucydides, though in intellect not unlike these two, is a much bigger man than De Commines, a much saner and fuller man than Macchiavelli, and a much nobler man than either. He is very chary of moral judgments, but surely it needs some blindness in a reader not to feel the implication of a very earnest moral standard all through. It has been said that he attributes only selfish motives even to his best actors, a wish for glory to Brasidas, a desire to escape punishment to Demosthenes. But he seldom mentions personal motives at all, and when such motives do force their way into history they are not generally unselfish. He certainly takes a high standard of patriotism for granted. One would not be surprised, however, to find that Thucydides's speculative ethics found a difficulty in the conception of a strictly 'unselfish' action.

Of course Thucydides is human; he need not always be right. For instance, the 'Archaeologia,' or introduction to ancient history in Book I., is one of the most striking parts of his whole work. For historical imagination, for breadth of insight, it is probably without a parallel in literature before the time of the Encyclopédistes; and in method it is superior even to them. Nevertheless it is clear that Thucydides does not really understand Myth. He treats it merely as distorted history, when it often has no relation to history. Given Pelops and Ion and Hellên, his account is luminous but he is still in the stage of treating these conceptions as real men.

Of course in the 'Archaeologia' there is no room for party spirit; but even where there is, the essential fairness and coolness of the writer's mind remain unbroken. He is often attacked at the present day. But the main facts--that most antiquity took him as a type of fair-mindedness, while some thought him philo-Spartan and some philo-Athenian; that Plato and Aristotle censured him for being too democratic, while his modern opponents complain that he is not democratic enough--speak volumes. His own politics are clearly moderate. The time when Athenian political affairs pleased him best, he tells us--not counting, presumably, the exceptional 'Greatest-Man-Rule' of Pericles--was during the first months of the Restored Constitution in 411. It was "a fair combination of the rights of the Few and the Many."17 He seems to be a man with strong personal opinions, and a genius for putting them aside while writing narrative. His reference to 'a certain' Hyperbolus (8.73)--when Hyperbolus had been for some time the most prominent politician in Athens--is explicable when one realises that his history was addressed to the whole Greek world, which neither knew nor cared about Athenian internal politics. The contemptuous condemnation of the man which follows, is written under the influence of the spirit current in Athens at the end of the century. His tone about Cleon is certainly suggestive of personal feeling. But the second introduction of him18 is obviously due to some oversight either of author or scribe; and the astounding sentence in 4. 28, 5, becomes reasonable when we realise that "the Athenians" who "would sooner be rid of Cleon than capture Sphactêria," are obviously the then majority of the Assembly, the party of Nikias. After all, his account of Cleon is the least unfavourable that we possess; and if it is harsh, we should remember that Thucydides was under a special obligation to show that Cleon is not Pericles.

It must be borne in mind that Thucydides returned to Athens in 403 like a ghost from the tomb, a remnant of the old circle of Pericles. He moved among men who were strangers to him. His spirit was one which had practically died out of Athens nearly a generation before, and the memory of it vanished under the strain and bloodshed and misery of the last fifteen years. The policy of Pericles, the idea of the Empire, the Democracy itself, was utterly, hopelessly discredited in the circles where Thucydides naturally moved. The thinkers of the day took the line of the oligarchical writers, the line of Aristotle afterwards. Athenian history was the 'succession of demagogues,' Aristeides, Ephialtes, Pericles, Cleon, Cleophôn, Callicrates--"and from that time on in succession all who were ready for the greatest extremes in general recklessness, and in pandering to the people for their immediate advantage."19

The Democracy, in a moderate and modified form, had to be accepted; but it was, as Alcibiades had pronounced it, 'folly confessed,'20 and its leaders were all so many self-seeking adventurers. 'Pericles--why, look at Stesimbrotus and the comedies of that day--he was just as bad as the worst of them; and Aristeides the just, we could tell some queer stories about him!' The men of the early fourth century are living among ruins, among shattered hopes, discredited ideals, blunted and bewildered aims. The best of them21 "has seen the madness of the multitude. He knows that no politician is righteous, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side he may fight and be saved." In public life he would be "a man fallen among wild beasts." It is better that he "retires under the shelter of a wall while the hurrying wind and the storm of dust and sleet go by." Testifying solitarily among these is the old returned exile of the time of Pericles. His life is over now, without distinction, his Athens ruined beyond recognition, the old mistress of his love dead and buried. But he keeps firm the memory of his real city and his leader--the man whom they called a demagogue because he was too great for them to understand; who never took a gift from any man; who dwelt in austere supremacy; who, if he had only lived, or his counsels been followed, would have saved and realised the great Athens that was now gone from the earth. Other men of the day wrote pamphlets and arguments. Thucydides has not the heart to argue. He has studied the earlier and the mythical times, and prepared that marvellous introduction. He has massed all the history of his own days as no man ever had massed history before. He knows ten times more than any of these writers, and he means to know more still before he gives out his book. Above all, he is going to let the truth speak for itself. No man shall be able to contradict him, no man show that he is ever unfair. And he will clothe all his story in words like the old words of Gorgias, Prodicus, Antiphon, and Pericles himself. He will wake the great voices of the past to speak to this degenerate world.

His death came first. The book was unfinished. Even as it stood it was obsolete before it was published. As a chronicle it was continued by Xenophon, and as a manifesto on human vanity by Theopompus; but the style and the spirit of it passed over the heads of the fourth century. Some two hundred years later, indeed, he began to be recognised among the learned as the great truthful historian. But within fifty years of his death Ephorus had rewritten, expanded, popularised, and superseded him, and left him to wait for the time of the archaistic revival of the old Greek literature in the days of Augustus Caesar.

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1. Pind. frag. 76.

2. Ar. Eq. 1329, Ach. 637.

3. Thuc. 2.63, Pericles; much more strongly afterwards, 3.37, Cleon; 5.89, at Melos; 6.85, Euphemus; cf. 1.124, Corinthians

4. The case against Thucydides is well given by Grote (vi. 191 ff.), who accepts Marcellinus's story that Cleon was his accuser.

5. Hirzel in Hermes xiii.

6. Ar. Rhet. 1365 a 31, 1411a 1; Plut. Per. 28.

7. W.M. in Hermes xii. 365 note.

8. C. I. A. 38 ; cf. 37.

9. The treaty, Thuc. v. 47=C. I. A. iv. 46 b.

10. Graïkên, 2.23; Koturtan, Aphroditian, Kunouria, iv. 56; Metapious, 3.101.

11. Müller-Strübing of course thinks the passage an interpolation. Thucydides used the decadic system of numerals, not that of the Attic inscriptions.

12. C.I.A. 179.

13. 1. 20; cf. Hdt. 9.53.

14. 3.102; 4.39.

15. 8.5, Agis.

16. Philologus, 1.401.

17. 8. 97; cf. 2. 65, 5, and 3. 82, 8.

18. 4. 21=3.36.

19. Ar. Ath. Pol. xxviii.

20. Thuc. vi. 89.

21. Plato, Rep. 496 D.




Chapter Eight, "Thucydides," from A History of Ancient Greek Literature, by Gilbert Murray: New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1897. Part of the "Short histories of the literatures of the world" series, edited by Edmund Gosse.