Bust of Thucydides
Plaster cast bust of Thucydides (in the Pushkin Museum) from a Roman copy (located at Holkham Hall) of an early fourth-century BC Greek original
Native name Θουκυδίδης
Born c. 460 BC
Halimous (modern Alimos)
Died c. 400 BC (aged approximately 60)
Occupation Historian, General
Notable work History of the Peloponnesian War
Relatives Olorus (father)

Thucydides ( z/; Ancient Greek: Θουκυδίδης, Thoukydídēs, [tʰuːkydídɛːs]; c. 460 – c. 400 BC) was an Athenian historian and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of " scientific history" by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the gods, as outlined in his introduction to his work. [1] [2]

He also has been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcomes of relations between states as ultimately mediated by and constructed upon the emotions of fear and self-interest. [3] His text is still studied at universities and military colleges worldwide. [4] The Melian dialogue is regarded as a seminal work of international relations theory, while his version of Pericles' Funeral Oration is widely studied by political theorists, historians, and students of the classics.

More generally, Thucydides developed an understanding of human nature to explain behaviour in such crises as plagues, massacres, and civil war.


In spite of his stature as a historian, modern historians know relatively little about Thucydides's life. The most reliable information comes from his own History of the Peloponnesian War, which expounds his nationality, paternity and native locality. Thucydides informs us that he fought in the war, contracted the plague and was exiled by the democracy. He may have also been involved in quelling the Samian Revolt. [5]

Evidence from the Classical period

Thucydides identifies himself as an Athenian, telling us that his father's name was Olorus and that he was from the Athenian deme of Halimous. [6] He survived the Plague of Athens [7] that killed Pericles and many other Athenians. He also records that he owned gold mines at Scapte Hyle (literally "Dug Woodland"), a coastal area in Thrace, opposite the island of Thasos. [8]

The ruins of Amphipolis as envisaged by E. Cousinéry in 1831: the bridge over the Strymon, the city fortifications, and the acropolis

Because of his influence in the Thracian region, Thucydides wrote, he was sent as a strategos (general) to Thasos in 424 BC. During the winter of 424–423 BC, the Spartan general Brasidas attacked Amphipolis, a half-day's sail west from Thasos on the Thracian coast, instigating the Battle of Amphipolis. Eucles, the Athenian commander at Amphipolis, sent to Thucydides for help. [9] Brasidas, aware of Thucydides's presence on Thasos and his influence with the people of Amphipolis, and afraid of help arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Thus, when Thucydides arrived, Amphipolis was already under Spartan control. [10]

Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance, and news of its fall caused great consternation in Athens. [11] It was blamed on Thucydides, although he claimed that it was not his fault and that he had simply been unable to reach it in time. Because of his failure to save Amphipolis, he was exiled: [12]

I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Using his status as an exile from Athens to travel freely among the Peloponnesian allies, he was able to view the war from the perspective of both sides. Thucydides claimed that he began writing his history as soon as the war broke out, because he thought it would be one of the greatest wars waged among the Greeks in terms of scale:

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it." [13]

This is all that Thucydides wrote about his own life, but a few other facts are available from reliable contemporary sources. Herodotus wrote that the name Olorus, Thucydides's father's name, was connected with Thrace and Thracian royalty. [14] Thucydides was probably connected through family to the Athenian statesman and general Miltiades and his son Cimon, leaders of the old aristocracy supplanted by the Radical Democrats. Cimon's maternal grandfather's name was also Olorus, making the connection exceedingly likely. Another Thucydides lived before the historian and was also linked with Thrace, making a family connection between them very likely as well. Finally, Herodotus confirms the connection of Thucydides's family with the mines at Scapté Hýlē. [15]

Combining all the fragmentary evidence available, it seems that his family had owned a large estate in Thrace, one that even contained gold mines, and which allowed the family considerable and lasting affluence. The security and continued prosperity of the wealthy estate must have necessitated formal ties with local kings or chieftains, which explains the adoption of the distinctly Thracian royal name Óloros into the family. Once exiled, Thucydides took permanent residence in the estate and, given his ample income from the gold mines, he was able to dedicate himself to full-time history writing and research, including many fact-finding trips. In essence, he was a well-connected gentleman of considerable resources who, after involuntarily retiring from the political and military spheres, decided to fund his own historical investigations.

Later sources

The remaining evidence for Thucydides's life comes from rather less reliable later ancient sources. According to Pausanias, someone named Oenobius was able to get a law passed allowing Thucydides to return to Athens, presumably sometime shortly after the city's surrender and the end of the war in 404 BC. [16] Pausanias goes on to say that Thucydides was murdered on his way back to Athens. Many doubt this account, seeing evidence to suggest he lived as late as 397 BC. Plutarch claims that his remains were returned to Athens and placed in Cimon's family vault. [17]

The abrupt end to Thucydides's narrative, which breaks off in the middle of the year 411 BC, has traditionally been interpreted that he died while writing the book, although other explanations have been put forward.

Bust of Pericles

Inferences about Thucydides's character can only be drawn (with due caution) from his book. His sardonic sense of humour is evident throughout, as when, during his description of the Athenian plague, he remarks that old Athenians seemed to remember a rhyme which said that with the Dorian War would come a "great death". Some claimed that the rhyme was actually about a [death by] "famine" or "starvation" (λιμός, limos [18]), and was only remembered as [death by] "pestilence" (λοιμός, loimos [19]) due to the current plague. Thucydides then remarks that should another Dorian War come, this time attended with a great dearth, the rhyme will be remembered as "dearth," and any mention of "death" forgotten. [20]

Thucydides admired Pericles, approving of his power over the people and showing a marked distaste for the demagogues who followed him. He did not approve of the democratic commoners nor the radical democracy that Pericles ushered in but considered democracy acceptable when guided by a good leader. [21] Thucydides's presentation of events is generally even-handed; for example, he does not minimize the negative effect of his own failure at Amphipolis. Occasionally, however, strong passions break through, as in his scathing appraisals of the democratic leaders Cleon [22] [23] and Hyperbolus. [24] Cleon has sometimes been connected with Thucydides's exile. [25]

It has been argued that Thucydides was moved by the suffering inherent in war and concerned about the excesses to which human nature is prone in such circumstances, as in his analysis of the atrocities committed during the civil conflict on Corcyra, [26] which includes the phrase "war is a violent teacher" (πόλεμος βίαιος διδάσκαλος).

The History of the Peloponnesian War

The Acropolis in Athens
Ruins at Sparta

Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War represented an event of unmatched importance. [27] As such, he began to write the History at the onset of the war in 431. [28] [29] His intention was to write an account which would serve as "a possession for all time". [30] The history breaks off near the end of the 21st year of the war and does not elaborate on the final conflicts of the war. This facet of the work suggests that Thucydides died whilst writing his history and more so, that his death was unexpected.

After his death, Thucydides's History was subdivided into eight books: its modern title is the History of the Peloponnesian War. His great contribution to history and historiography is contained in this one dense history of the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta, each alongside their respective allies. This subdividing was most likely done by librarians and archivists, themselves being historians and scholars, most likely working in the Library of Alexandria.

The History of the Peloponnesian War continued to be modified well beyond the end of the war in 404, as exemplified by a reference at Book I.1.13 [31] to the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War (404 BC), seven years after the last events in the main text of Thucydides' history. [32]

Thucydides is generally regarded as one of the first true historians. Like his predecessor Herodotus, known as "the father of history", Thucydides places a high value on eyewitness testimony and writes about events in which he himself probably took part. He also assiduously consulted written documents and interviewed participants about the events that he recorded. Unlike Herodotus, whose stories often teach that a hubris invites the wrath of the gods, Thucydides does not acknowledge divine intervention in human affairs. [33]

Thucydides exerted wide historiographical influence on subsequent Hellenistic and Roman historians, though the exact description of his style in relation to many successive historians remains unclear. [34] Readers in antiquity often placed the continuation of the stylistic legacy of the History in the writings of Thucydides' putative intellectual successor Xenophon. Such readings often described Xenophon's treatises as attempts to "finish" Thucydides' History. Many of these interpretations, however, have garnered significant scepticism among modern scholars, such as Dillery, who spurn the view of interpreting Xenophon qua Thucydides, arguing that the latter's "modern" history (defined as constructed based on literary and historical themes) is antithetical to the former's account in the Hellenica, which diverges from the Hellenic historiographical tradition in its absence of a preface or introduction to the text and the associated lack of an "overarching concept" unifying the history. [35]

A noteworthy difference between Thucydides's method of writing history and that of modern historians is Thucydides's inclusion of lengthy formal speeches that, as he himself states, were literary reconstructions rather than actual quotations of what was said—or, perhaps, what he believed ought to have been said. Arguably, had he not done this, the gist of what was said would not otherwise be known at all—whereas today there is a plethora of documentation—written records, archives and recording technology for historians to consult. Therefore, Thucydides's method served to rescue his mostly oral sources from oblivion. We do not know how these historical figures actually spoke. Thucydides's recreation uses a heroic stylistic register. A celebrated example is Pericles' funeral oration, which heaps honour on the dead and includes a defence of democracy:

The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; they are honoured not only by columns and inscriptions in their own land, but in foreign nations on memorials graven not on stone but in the hearts and minds of men. ( 2:43)

Stylistically, the placement of this passage also serves to heighten the contrast with the description of the plague in Athens immediately following it, which graphically emphasizes the horror of human mortality, thereby conveying a powerful sense of verisimilitude:

Though many lay unburied, birds and beasts would not touch them, or died after tasting them [...]. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons who had died there, just as they were; for, as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became equally contemptuous of the gods' property and the gods' dues. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off. ( 2:52)

Thucydides omits discussion of the arts, literature or the social milieu in which the events in his book take place and in which he himself grew up. He saw himself as recording an event, not a period, and went to considerable lengths to exclude what he deemed frivolous or extraneous.

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