Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thucydides


I got Donald Kagan's book Thucydides for Christmas. This is a study of the author of the classic Peloponnesian War, a man who actually participated in the conflict. Kagan, who wrote his own massive history of the war, (which I recommend) focuses this time on how Thucydides came to write his history and what his motivations might have been.
Someone once said that history is written by the winners, which is true in many, if not most, cases. Whoever survives the war writes the history. Thucydides is an interesting case, because he basically found the time to write his history after being exiled. Thucydides was the commander of Athenian naval forces in the Thracian area, whose chief city was Amphipolis. When the Spartan general Brasidas took the city by surprise, the Athenians held Thucydides responsible and sent him into exile.
Thucydides apparently saw this as an opportunity to use his insiders knowledge of the war to write his history.
Kagan raises the idea that it's Thucydides who should be considered the father of history rather than Herodotus because of Thucydides methods, which are based in facts and rational thought, as opposed to good old Herodotus, who apparently believed everything he was told. Herodotus also apparently read from his 'histories' in public as a form of entertainment.
For the most part Thucydides ignores myth and religion, leaving out references to the will of the gods and such and sticking to facts. However, Kagan goes on at length about how Thucydides, like most historians, had his own agenda and thus the 'facts' themselves have to be examined in view of Thucydides own interests and ambitions. All in all a fascinating book. It's only a couple of hundred pages, and the concise history of the Peloponnesian War in the book's introduction is worth the price of admission by itself. Kagan, a Yale professor, knows his stuff.

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