The Unmasking of Thucydides

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book II, Part I


A reader finishing Thucydides’ History for the first time is probably most impressed by the 2 following points: (1) that such a lengthy and detailed record has survived intact for almost 25 centuries; and (2) the extent to which Thucydides removed himself from the narrative and composed a neutral and objective history of the war. As a result, very little is known of Thucydides himself, but it requires only a mildly discerning reader to make informed judgments about his political persuasions. The relevant sections occur early in the history – the first half of Book II – and the key evidence is Thucydides’ treatment of Pericles, a phenomenal leader and politician, but arguably a lackluster strategist. The disconnect between the sub-optimal outcomes produced by Pericles and the glowing praise showered upon him by Thucydides provides strong hints of the latter’s political ideology.

The position of Athens deteriorated rapidly after the beginning of the war, and much of the population wearied of Pericles’ leadership.  At the outset of the war, Pericles had insisted on a passive, defensive strategy that was fundamentally at odds with Athenian strategic culture, which had evolved to be much more enterprising and aggressive in the years after the Persian invasion. In short, Athens was not comfortable playing defense. Pursuant to this strategy, Pericles ordered that the large rural population of Attica abandon their homes and farms and move within the city walls with what property they could carry, to protect them from the ravages of invading Peloponnesian armies. Thus, a very large, comparatively wealthy and content population was reduced to the status of homeless urban refugees, practically overnight.

Aside from the obvious resentment caused by a social dislocation of this magnitude, the strategic wisdom of this policy was dubious. It severely damaged Athenian society, created the squalor that would allow the plague to decimate the population, and removed the agrarian population from any sort of productive enterprise or positive contribution to the war effort. Leaving the rural population outside the city walls would have left individual communities vulnerable to Spartan ravages, but it would have also increased the defensive density of Attica and restricted the Peloponnesian army’s ability to maneuver. As it was, the Peloponnesians could simply march through Attica unimpeded. Nor is it clear that Pericles saved anything by relocating the rural population: the Peloponnesians still burned the countryside, and a farmer removed from his crops becomes a meaningless refugee: another mouth to feed with imported food.

The entire Athenian population, densely concentrated within the city walls, had to watch helplessly from the battlements as the Peloponnesians burned the countryside, and Pericles would have them believe that Athens was winning the war by doing so. The only offensive measures that Pericles offered his enraged populace was ineffectual coastal raiding around the Peloponnesus (2.25, 2.30) and the ravaging of Megara (2.31) after the Peloponnesian army had safely departed.

Then there was the plague, perhaps the most horrifying event in the entire war, which severely depopulated Athens and nearly destroyed the very fabric of Athenian society as the certainty of impending doom overwhelmed the restraints of existing institutions (2.53). The effects of the plague were compounded by the dense refugee population of displaced Atticans: ironically, the very people that Pericles wanted to save by bringing them into the city would die in very large numbers.

Worst of all, amid all this passivity, destruction and pestilence was Pericles himself. As the Athenians stood pat and watched their lands burn, their people rot in the streets, and their very identity collapse under the weight of fatalism, they had to endure yet another indignity: a semi-authoritarian leader that constantly hectored them on their weakness and his own superiority. Pericles certainly showed audacity when, at the height of the plague, he spoke to the Assembly:

And yet if you are angry with me, it is with one who, as I believe, is second to no man either in knowledge of the proper policy, or in the ability to expound it, and who is moreover not only a patriot but an honest one (2.60.5).

Had the Athenians less confidence in Pericles’ abilities, they probably would have killed him then and there. There were undoubtedly murmurs about his oligarchic inclinations, given his prior refusal to call an assembly (2.22.1).

By the summer of 430 BC, Athens had plenty of reasons to dislike Pericles, a leader that had seemingly brought them only defeat, disease and civic disorder. However, it’s clear that Pericles had one major fan: our Historian, Thucydides himself.

At the end of Book I, Thucydides meticulously recounts Pericles’ strategic logic in his speech to the Assembly in favor of war, which, “persuaded of the wisdom of his advice, voted as he desired (1.145).” In presenting Pericles’ lengthy Funeral Oration, Thucydides displays him in majestic fashion, at the very height of his power and charisma:

…you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valor, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer (2.43).

And in his rebuke to the Athenians, who were “acting exactly as he had anticipated (2.59.3),” Thucydides shows Pericles’ expert defense of his leadership against every conceivable argument and objection. But Thucydides does not record a single speech by one of Pericles’ detractors, nor does he offer any elaboration on the arguments against him, aside from noting the formation of discontented “knots,” which he describes as a superstitious and ungrateful mob (2.21.3).

One explanation for this bias is very simple: Thucydides was  enraptured by Pericles’ charismatic leadership. This would not be suprising, given that most of Athens was similarly enthralled, despite the hellish rut they were in. But Thucydides’ devotion extends beyond that of the fanatic, and reaches a philosophical level. He admired Pericles not only for his phenomenal charisma and political skill, but also for his greatest accomplishment:

Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude – in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victim to a panic, he could restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy was becoming in his hands government by the first citizen (2.65.8-9).

Thucydides was suspicious of the fickle Athenian mob, having himself been the target of its wrath, and did not trust democracy to produce effective policy or strategy. He blamed Athens’ eventual defeat on the chaos and disunity that followed the death of Pericles, when the conduct of state affairs fell to “the whims of the multitude”:

This, as might have been expected in a great and sovereign state, produced a host of blunders, and amongst them the Sicilian expedition; though this failed not so much through a miscalculation of the power of those against whom it was sent, as through a fault in the senders in not taking the best measures afterward to assist those who had gone out, but choosing rather to occupy themselves with private squabbles for the leadership of The People, by which they not only paralyzed operations in the field, but also first introduced civil discord at home (2.65.11).

In short, Thucydides belonged to the anti-democratic faction, or at least strongly sympathized with its cause. There must have been many times, such as when the Assembly exiled him after his command at Amphipolis, or when he learned of the catastrophe in Sicily, that Thucydides wondered if he had fought for the right side.

Thucydides may have provided us with a brief flash of his sense of self when Pericles rebukes the Athenians in 2.60. Defending his leadership before the Assembly, Pericles argues that only he combines the 3 qualities of knowledge, patriotism and exposition. A man who lacked one or more of these qualities was defective in some way:

A man possessing that knowledge without that faculty of exposition might as well have no idea at all on the matter; if he had both these gifts, but no love for his country, he would be but a cold advocate for her interests; while were his patriotism not proof against bribery, everything would go for a price.

Thucydides was the second man: a loyal Athenian so bewildered by the passions and impertinence of the mob, that he could not love his country, and only served as a “cold advocate for her interests.” It is notable that, within the History, any soaring rhetoric about the glory of Athens is found only in the speeches of Pericles, as if Thucydides could only love Athens when he viewed it through Pericles’ eyes. Without this profound sense of detachment, the History would not have the objective narrative that makes it such a valuable record. But for Thucydides himself, no matter where he was, he must have felt like a stranger in a strange land.


“Athenians, aside from the whole ‘plague’ thing, everything is just fine, so stop being such little bitches…”

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