Thucydides was a general and one of the greatest historians of ancient times. He was born in 460 BCE in Greece. He documented almost thirty years of tension and war between Sparta and Athens through his book History of the Peloponnesian War, which set the standard for accuracy and scope making it the historical genre’s defining text. Unlike other ancient authors of his time such as Herodotus, Thucydides wrote this topic in his own relying on testimonies from eyewitnesses as well as his personal experience during the war as a general. Although Thucydides was particular in detail, he addressed questions that were timeless. For instance, what is the measure of a great democracy or a great leader? How can politics poison or elevate the society? What makes a nation go to war?
The Life and Death of Thucydides
Other than the few biographical references in Thucydides’ masterwork, very little is known of his life. Thucydides’ family originated from Thrace which is found in the northeastern region of Greece and Olorus was the name of his father. Thucydides owned gold mines in Thrace which are likely believed to have financed his historical works. Thucydides was born in Alimos a suburb in Athens, and he lived in the place during the plague of 430 BCE. Thucydides was given command of a fleet in 424 BCE only to be exiled since he failed to reach Amphipolis City in time to stop it from being captured by the Spartans. Historians estimate that Thucydides was born around 460 BCE based on his estimated age when he joined the military service. Thucydides spent about 20 years in exile working on his history, collecting information, writing and revising his work. Historians also speculate that Thucydides died sometime before Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BCE, a theory supported by the fact that his chronicle does not mention any events post 411 BCE.
Thucydides’ Contribution to Ancient History
In the opening lines of Thucydides' writings, he says that he wrote about the Peloponnesian war from the moment it broke out and further admits that he believed the war would be fought on a greater scale than any other war fought previously. During the time, Athens had a democratic system of governance with innovative leadership making it a force to reckon with, and it also had great sea power. On the other hand, Sparta, which was situated on mainland Greece’s southern peninsula, was a quite robust land force with a governing system which championed strict militarism and closely followed tradition. Thucydides argues that the Spartans made their first preemptive attack in 430 BCE as a result of their fear of Athens. The war resulted in Athens futile attempts to reclaim Amphipolis, the generals from both sides dying, and the war-weary sides negotiating a treaty. However, after six years of uneasy peace, Athens launched an attack against Sparta’s ally Syracuse, an Island found in distant Sicily. The move was disastrous as both the Sicilians and Spartans joined forces destroying Athens, and during the closing years of the war, Athens surrendered to Sparta.
The Legacy of Thucydides
Before Thucydides attained his current unassailed position as one of the greatest historians, it took some generations. He was declared a great historian by authors such as Cicero by the 1st century BCE. To ensure the works of Thucydides survived past the dark ages, numerous copies his works were made.
Who Was Thucydides?
Thucydides, born in 460 BCE in Greece, was a general and one of the greatest historians of ancient times. He documented almost thirty years of tension and war between Sparta and Athens through his book History of the Peloponnesian War, which set the standard for accuracy and scope making it the historical genre defining text.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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