Can we ever talk about Thucydides (460-c400 BCE) without mentioning Herodotus in the same breath(484-425 BCE)? I think it would be very difficult indeed, for however much we consider his account of the Peloponnesian War to be a unique departure from the work of the Halicarnassian ‘Father of History’, there are oblique references in it to the earlier work and it could even be said that there are certain subtle influences. Could Thucydides be the stylistic wayward son of Herodotus? It’s a curious thought.
Scholars until recently have focused predominantly upon questions such as the accuracy of the history or the veracity of the speeches and how truthful Thucydides might have been as a historian – but ultimately undecidable issues have been on the whole abandoned in favour of closer investigation into the history as a work of literature in its own right, its artistic merits, its architecture and its affinity to other forms of literature, in particular tragedy and epic.
Be that as it may, nowadays the consensus on the whole of readers of the two historians is that Thucydides is more akin to modern historiography and as such is considered to be more recognisable to us, rendering him in some way a better historian than the’ mere teller of fantastic fables’ as some have disparagingly described Herodotus (Thucydides amongst them - see I.20). But it was quite a different story as reflected in earlier criticism.
Reading the introduction to Rex Warner’s translation of the Peloponnesian War, I came across the classical era essayist and critic, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BCE-7?BCE), who amongst other writings on rhetoric and literature wrote a deeply critical essay of Thucydides. Perhaps Dionysus’ comments resonated with some scholars at the time, or were in tune with what the ancients thought good history should look like – it is telling that for a long time after Thucydides no other historian wrote history using his approaches to structure and the deft arrangement of factual information. Nearer to our times, the political thinker Thomas Hobbes made the first direct translation from the ancient Greek of The Peloponnesian War and takes umbrage at Dionysus in his introduction of 1628:
Hobbes looks specifically at six points of contention that Dionysius makes against Thucydides. It is well worth reading all of them but in the interests of time and space our perpetual Rhadamanthus and Minos, I am going to give just the first two as a taste of Hobbes sense of umbrage and outrage at Dionysius’ pontifications:
1. Dionysius: ‘The principal and most necessary office of any man that intendeth to write a history, is to choose a noble argument, and graceful to such as shall read it. And this Herodotus, in my opinion , hath done better than Thucydides. For Herodotus hath written the joint history both of the Greeks and barbarians, to save from oblivion, &c. But Thucydides writeth one only war, and that neither honourable nor fortunate; which principally were to be wished never to have been; and next, never to have been remembered nor known to posterity. And that he took an evil argument in hand, he maketh it manifest in his proeme, saying : that many cities were in that war made desolate and utterly destroyed, partly by barbarians, partly by the Greeks themselves: so many banishments, and so much slaughter of men, as never was the like before , &c.: so that the hearers will abhor it at the first propounding. Now by how much it is better to write of the wonderful acts both of the barbarians and Grecians, than of the pitiful and horrible calamities of the Grecians; so much wiser is Herodotus in the choice of his argument than Thucydides.’ Hobbes: Now let any man consider whether it be not more reasonable to say: That the principal and most necessary office of him that will write a history, is to take such an argument as is both within his power well to handle, and profitable to posterity that shall read it, which Thucydides, in the opinion of all men, hath done better than Herodotus: for Herodotus undertook to write of those things, of which it was impossible for him to know the truth: and which delight more the ear with fabulous narrations, than satisfy the mind with truth: but Thucydides writeth one war; which, how it was carried from the beginning to the end, he was able certainly to inform himself: and by propounding in his proeme the miseries that happened in the same , he sheweth that it was a great war, and worthy to be known; and not to be concealed from posterity, for the calamities that then fell upon the Grecians; but the rather to be truly delivered unto them, for that men profit more by looking on adverse events, than on prosperity: therefore by how much men’s miseries do better instruct, than their good success; by so much was Thucydides more happy in taking his argument, than Herodotus was wise in choosing his.
I think it better to leave to the reader to savour the arguments and rebuttals as they are without me putting too much of a gloss on it by way of superfluous comment. Hobbes robust eloquentia does the job admirably enough upon close reading.
2. Dionysius: ‘The next office of him that will write a history, is to know where to begin and where to end. And in this point Herodotus seemeth to be far more more discreet than Thucydides. For in the first place he layeth down the cause for which the barbarians began to injure the Grecians; and going on, maketh an end at the punishment and the revenge taken on the barbarians . But Thucydides begins at the good estate of the Grecians; which, being a Grecian and an Athenian, he ought not to have done: nor ought he, being of that dignity amongst the Athenians, so evidently to have laid the fault of the war upon his own city, when there were other occasions enough to which he might have imputed it. Then in the ending of his history, there be many errors committed. For though he profess he was present in the whole war, and that he would write it all: yet he ends with the naval battle at Cynos-sema, which was fought in the twenty-first year of the war.’ Hobbes: To this I say, that it was the duty of him that had undertaken to write the history of the Peloponnesian war, to begin his narration no further off than at the causes of the same, whether the Grecians were then in good or in evil estate. And if the injury, upon which the war arose, proceeded from the Athenians; then the writer, though an Athenian and honoured in his country, ought to declare the same; and not to seek nor take, though at hand, any other occasion to transfer the fault.
Hobbes goes on to list Dionysius arguments against Thucydides, including his unique approach to writing the history by time rather than by episode in linear order, his negative attitude to the section known as The Archaeology at the beginning of the history where Thucydides outlines periods before the war he has chosen to describe, his problems with Pericles’ funeral oration (contrived in his opinion) and the one sidedness of the recording of the speeches in the (in)famous Melian dialogue, summing up his writings on these issues with the words, ‘I think there was never written so much absurdity in so few lines’.
After his elegant destruction of Dionysius, Hobbes muses openly on why the rhetorician would have tried to denigrate such a great work in this way.
‘Some man may peradventure desire to know, what motive Dionysius might have to extenuate the worth of him, whom he himself acknowledgeth to have been esteemed by all men for the best by far of all historians that ever wrote, and to have been taken by all the ancient orators and philosophers for the measure and rule of writing history. What motive he had to it, I know not: but what glory he might expect by it, is easily known. For having first preferred Herodotus, his countryman, a Halicarnassian, before Thucydides, who was accounted the best; and then conceiving that his own history might perhaps be thought not inferior to that of Herodotus: by this computation he saw the honour of the best historiographer falling on himself. Wherein, in the opinion of all men, he hath misreckoned. And thus much for the objections of Denis of Halicarnasse.’
I look forward to hearing of your own reckonings of the man and the history when we next meet!