Thucydides’ Concept of Past and Present

The Greatest war?

“I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distant past or even of the history preceding our own period, yet, after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods in warfare or anything else”. – Thucydides; 1.1

So Thucydides (460-395 B.C.E) opens his narrative of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E). In terms of historical method his technique for studying the distant past, in a time where archaeology did not exist and history was but an infant branch of literature, appears sound. However this declaration is not all it seems. Thucydides’ criticisms of past culture and warfare are not exclusively based on a lack of available source material, but a more complex double edged sword. His declaration that “it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past” (1.1) seems directly aimed at his predecessor Herodotus (484-425 B.C.E).

Thucydides is aware that it is against the chronicler of the Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.E) that he and his work will be compared and thus sets out the greatness of the task which he has undertaken. Furthermore in claiming his own period to be vastly superior he is propounding the idea that Athens was at its cultural and social peak (what we now call “The Golden Age of Athens” [448-429 B.C.E]) particularly under the guidance of the statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.E).

The Archaeologia

The vast majority of what we now view as the introduction to Thucydides’ work consists of the Archaeologia, an account of the development of Greece from its earliest inhabitants to the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was motivated to justify claims of superiority of subject and to place the war in its historical and Hellenic (Greek) context. The available evidence for this period would likely have consisted of the Homeric Epics (The Iliad andOdyssey), lyric poetry, tradition, and anecdotal evidence. Thucydides rejects the heroic tradition that fuelled the majority of Greek thought on pre-historic events and instead concentrates on the distribution and development of power that is to provide the fulcrum for events in his own day.

His analysis of the Kingdoms and political entities of this past focuses on their power, stability, wealth, and naval capability. Through these factors he traces the birth of the great conflict of his own time. Observation of contemporary politics and behaviour is used to rationalise the heroic and legendary accounts of the past. From a modern perspective Thucydides’ Archaeologia is a good example of a theoretical framework on which the traditions and stories of the distant past can be hung, shorn of their unbelievable, supernatural, and self-contradictory detritus.

What uses does the Archaeologia have?

As a tool with which to study the events of prehistoric Greece, theArchaeologia offers very little. Thucydides’ analysis of this period is based on contemporary observation, not intensive research which, in any case, would be almost impossible given his resources. However, that it functions as a microcosm for the growth and interactions of contemporary states, the Archaeologia gives us an insight into Thucydides as a Historian; we are offered a shortened version of his theories behind the rise and fall of great powers. Furthermore he holds to the traditions and myths of his time and in doing so attempts to rationalise them (as he does contemporary events) primarily through the removal of divine explanation. The body of his great work is reflected and his methods summarised in this fascinating introduction.

John B Knight