Thucydides was a general and one of the greatest historians of ancient times. He was born at 460 BCE in Greece. He has documented almost thirty years of tension and war between Sparta and Athens through his book History of the Peloponnesian War,which set the standard of accuracy and scope by making it the text that defines the historical genre. Unlike other ancient authors of his time such as Herodotus, Thucydides wrote this subject in his own by relying on eyewitness accounts and his personal experience during the war as a general. Although Thucydides was particularly detailed, he faced questions that were timeless. For example, what is the size of a great democracy or a great leader? How can politics poison or elevate society? What makes a nation go to war?
The life and death of Thucydides
Apart from the few biographical references in Tucidide’s masterpiece, very little is known about his life. The family of Thucydides came from Thrace which is located in the north-eastern region of Greece and Oloro was the name of his father. Thucydides possessed gold mines in Thrace that probably would have financed his historical works. Thucydides was born in Alimos, a suburb of Athens, and lived at the site during the pestilence of 430 ECB. Thucydides was given command of a fleet in 424 BCE only to be exiled because he could not reach the city of Amphipolis in time to prevent him from being captured by the Spartans. Historians estimate that Thucydides was born around 460 BCE based on his estimated age when he entered military service. Thucydides spent about 20 years in exile working on his story, gathering information, writing and reviewing his work. Historians also speculate that Thucydides died some time before Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BCE, a theory supported by the fact that his chronicle does not mention any post-411 ECB event.
Tucidide’s contribution to ancient history
In the opening lines of Thucydides’ writings, he says he wrote about the Peloponnesian war from the moment he broke out and also admits that he believed the war would be fought on a larger scale than any other war fought previously. Over time, Athens had a democratic system of government with innovative leadership that made it a force to be reckoned with, and also had a great marine power. On the other hand, Sparta, which was located on the southern peninsula of mainland Greece, was a rather robust land force with a system of government that supported rigid militarism and closely followed tradition.
Thucydides claims that the Spartans made their first pre-emptive strike in 430 ECB because of their fear of Athens. The war led to Athens unnecessary attempts to recapture Amphipolis, the generals of both sides died and the war-tired parties negotiating a treaty. However, after six years of restless peace, Athens launched an attack against the ally of Sparta, Syracuse, an island found in faraway Sicily. The move was disastrous as both the Sicilians and the Spartans joined forces destroying Athens, and during the last years of the war, Athens surrendered to Sparta.
The legacy of Thucydides
Before Thucydides reached its inexhaustible position as one of the greatest historians, it took several generations. He was declared a great historian by authors such as Cicero from the 1st century BC. To ensure that the works of Thucydides survived beyond the dark ages, there were numerous copies of his works.