The title of this essay refers to the Greek historian Thucydides, and it raises several questions. The first is who was Thucydides, and why should we be interested in his work almost two and a half millennia after it was written? Next, what is a revisionist historian, and how can we think of Thucydides as a revisionist when he seems to have been the first man to write a history of the war that was his subject? What, therefore, did he revise? Finally, by what right can he be called the greatest of revisionists, in competition with all the others who have borne that title?
Thucydides was an Athenian aristocrat who came of age at the height of the greatness of Periclean Athens. Born about 460 B.C.E., he was not yet thirty when the great war broke out between Athens and its imperial subjects, on the one hand, and the Spartans and their mainly Peloponnesian allies, on the other, a war that we have come to call the Peloponnesian War. Interrupted by one brief and one longer truce of about six years, it lasted for twenty-seven years, and left Greece shattered, impoverished, and permanently weakened. Never again were the Greeks the masters of their own fate, and only three-quarters of a century after the war they fell prey to Macedonian power and lost their independence and autonomy. This war was Thucydides’ subject.
But why should a war among ancient Greek city-states interest us today? The answer lies in Thucydides’ definition of his task and in the skill with which he carried it out. “Perhaps,” he said,
my account will seem less interesting to read because it lacks the romantic element. But I shall be satisfied if those will judge my work useful who want to understand clearly the things that have happened in the past which, given the nature of human beings, will happen again some time in the future in the same or a similar way. My work is not an essay in a contest meant to win the applause of the moment but a possession forever.1
His intention and expectation were not vain, for his work has lasted and been judged useful to this very day. In fact, it is probably more influential at this moment than ever before. No university course in international relations or in the history of warfare is likely to be without it. His history is a staple at the military academies and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. When promising officers are told that they have been given the coveted assignment to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, a key step on the career ladder of flag officers, they are at the same time sent a copy of Thucydides, the first book in the curriculum. The assumption underlying all this is that there are, in fact, continuing aspects of human behavior in society, especially under the extreme pressure caused by wars, and that Thucydides’ work sheds valuable light on them.
What, then, is a revisionist? In a sense all historians are revisionists, for unless they merely tell the same old story in different words, each tries to make some contribution that changes our understanding of the past. But when we use the term revisionist we generally mean something more fundamental; we refer to a writer who tries to change the reader’s mind about events in the past in a major way, not merely to correct a few errors or add something to the picture but to provide a new interpretation, to change our way of looking at the matter generally.
The first time, so far as I am aware, the term was used was after World War I. The people who lived in the Allied nations during the war were confident that the Central Powers had been responsible for bringing it on and deserved, in some degree, to be punished for it. Soon after the war, however, some people began to argue that it was not so, that Germany and Austria were no more responsible for the war than Russia, France, and England, perhaps less so. Soon historians called “revisionists” joined them and made scholarly arguments in support of that position. Before long they had captured the minds of educated people in England and the United States. Even some Frenchmen were convinced; as for the Bolshevik government of Russia, it did not need to be persuaded of the wickedness of the czarist regime.
Since then the phenomenon has become common. A few writers, A.J.P. Taylor most notable among them, tried to revise the general opinion that held Hitler responsible for World War II, and they enjoyed a certain vogue before the tide of the evidence and the lack of an eager constituency overwhelmed it. More recently the cold war and the war in Vietnam have undergone similar treatment. These reversals are more than mere remote controversies among scholars and pseudo-scholars; they have great practical importance. What happened in the past, and even more importantly, what we think happened, has a powerful influence on the way we act in response to our own problems today. What historians and others say happened and what they say it means, therefore, make a great difference.
The controversy about World War I illustrates the point. The Americans and the English in particular came to feel that Germany had been wrongly blamed and therefore unjustly treated by the Versailles treaty. The Americans used this as the main justification for rejecting that treaty and for retreating into isolation from world affairs. The English could not go so far, but their belief that Germany had been falsely accused made it easy to permit and justify Hitler’s violations of the treaty. Feelings of guilt helped support a policy of disarmament, unpreparedness, and appeasement. The English poet W.H. Auden, responding to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in “September 1, 1939,” revealed how deeply the idea had sunk in and how late, in spite of everything, it had lasted:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
More recent scholarship has shown to most people’s satisfaction that the opinion of contemporaries was right, that the greatest blame for World War I can be laid at Germany’s door and that guilty feelings were uncalled for. But it is too late. The revisionist historians did their work so well and fit so nicely into the climate of opinion of the 20’s and 30’s that they captured the minds of a generation and helped move them in a direction they wanted to go.2
Thucydides, as much as anyone who has ever lived, believed in the practical importance of history, so we would expect him to be eager to set straight any errors of fact or interpretation that he found. His critical spirit is visible throughout his work. “In examining the past,” he tells us, “it is not easy to believe each and every piece of evidence that is reported. For people accept the stories they hear of the past from one another equally without question, even when they are about their own country.” The Athenians, for instance, are misinformed, says Thucydides, about how the tyrants were driven from the land. Other Greeks are equally wrong about historical facts, such as the details of the Spartan constitution.
With these comments, Thucydides seems to be criticizing his great predecessor Herodotus, the historian of the Persian War, for carelessness and credulity. In contrast he describes his own method:
As to the facts of what took place in the war I have thought that I should not write what I have learned from any informant I happened upon nor set down how the matter seemed to me. Instead I wrote on the basis of what I observed with my own eyes or of what I learned from others, after examining the accuracy of their reports in every detail with the greatest possible care. Even so, it was not easy to discover the truth, for those who were present at the various events did not give the same accounts of them, either because of prejudice toward one side or the other or through faulty memory.
So it is clear that Thucydides was a sophisticated, critical historian, ready to correct factual errors wherever he found them. But his revisionist tendencies are clear on a larger scale than that of mere factual detail. Thus he uses the evidence of Homer to show that the great poet exaggerated the size of the Trojan War, and argues that it was less the valor of the Trojans than the poverty of the Greeks that made the siege so long.
So Thucydides had the instincts of a revisionist. But if his was the first history of the Peloponnesian War, what was there to revise? The answer is the same as in the other instances I have mentioned: the not yet fully formulated or written opinions of contemporaries. In modern times such opinions are easy to recover. Some of us still remember them and, in any case, modern revisionists always confront them and argue against them. Thucydides’ method is far different. He writes in the third person, in a remote, lofty, almost Olympian style. He argues with no one and presents no alternative view, even to refute it. He gives the reader only the necessary facts and the conclusions he has distilled from them after careful investigation and thought. He has been so successful that for more than 2,400 years, few readers have been aware that other opinions existed. But a careful reading of Thucydides himself and the few other ancient sources available to us shows that there were other opinions in Thucydides’ time and that his History is a powerful and effective polemic against them. My own work for the past two decades has largely been to recover those forgotten and obscured contemporary opinions and to compare them with Thucydides’ own interpretations. The results, I believe, cast an interesting light on the mind of Thucydides and the significance of his work.
The very idea that there was a single war lasting from 431 to 404 B.C.E. that deserved, from the Athenian point of view, to be called “the Peloponnesian War” seems to have been a Thucydidean invention. The war, after all, was interrupted by a truce for one year in 423 and the Peace of Nicias in 421, and some contemporaries clearly thought of the ten years’ war from 431 to 421 and the period beginning with the Sicilian expedition in 415 and the resumption of fighting on the mainland in 414 as two separate wars. Thucydides, however, believed otherwise:
For six years and ten months, to be sure, they refrained from invading each other’s territory, but outside the homelands an insecure truce did not prevent each side from doing serious damage to the other. At last, they were forced to break the treaties sworn to after the ten years’ war and to make an open declaration of war again.
The same Thucydides, an Athenian, has written an account of this period, too, composing a chronological narrative of events by summers and winters up to the point when the Spartans and their allies put an end to the empire of the Athenians and captured the Long Walls and Piraeus. By then the war had lasted twenty-seven years in all. And anyone maintaining that the period of truce in the middle should be excluded would be quite wrong.
The last sentence plainly indicates the polemical purpose of the discussion.
A far more interesting dispute involved the causes of and responsibility for the war. To the ordinary Athenian it must have seemed that the war came as a result of a series of incidents beginning about 436 B.C.E. at Epidamnus, a remote town in what is now Albania. There a civil war soon brought about a conflict between Corcyra, a neutral and isolated island state that owned a powerful navy, and Corinth, an important ally of Sparta. Their quarrel threatened the general peace when Athens made an alliance with Corcyra and so was arrayed against Sparta’s ally Corinth.
In the winter of 433-32 the Corinthians helped provoke a rebellion in Potidaea, one of Athens’s imperial subject cities, and sent a force to resist Athens’s besieging army. During the same winter the Athenians issued a decree barring the citizens of Megara, another city allied to Sparta, from using the marketplace of Athens and any harbor in the Athenian empire, a measure certain to cause great distress. It was chiefly the Megarians and Corinthians who persuaded the Spartans that the Athenians were a great menace and had broken the peace, and who convinced them to launch the war. There is clear evidence that Athenian opinion focused on the Megarian decree as the main cause of the war, and held Pericles responsible for both it and the war that ensued.
In 425 the comic poet Aristophanes presented a play called the Acharnians. The war had by then dragged on for six long and painful years, and his comic hero Dicaeopolis has decided to make a separate peace for himself. This so angers the patriotic and bellicose chorus that the hero is forced to explain that it was not the Spartans who began the war:
Some vice-ridden wretches, men of no honor, false men, not even real citizens, kept denouncing Megara’s little coats; and if anyone ever saw a cucumber, a hare, a suckling pig, a clove of garlic, or a lump of salt, all were denounced as Megarian and confiscated.
Then, he goes on, some drunken Athenians stole a Megarian woman and, in return, some Megarians stole three prostitutes from the house of Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress. Next, the infuriated Pericles
enacted laws which sounded like drinking songs, “That the Megarians must leave our land, our market, our sea and our continent.” Then, when the Megarians were slowly starving, they begged the Spartans to get the law of the three whores withdrawn. We refused, though they asked us often. And from that came the clash of shields.
Now, using the evidence of Athenian comedy to understand contemporary political events is a tricky business. Just imagine the trouble somebody 2,000 years from now would have making sense of a monologue by Johnny Carson or a skit on Saturday Night Live. Aristophanes is clearly having fun by connecting the Megarian decree, which we know was supported by Pericles, with the rape of women which, according to Homer, started the Trojan War, and according to Herodotus, was said to have caused the war between Greeks and Persians as well. Still, he makes the Megarian decree and the Athenian refusal to withdraw it central in the coming of the war both in the Acharnians and in another comedy, The Peace, performed in 421. There he makes Hermes explain to the war-weary Athenian farmers how peace was lost in the first place:
The beginning of our trouble was the disgrace of Phidias; then Pericles, fearing he might share in the misfortune, dreading your ill nature and stubborn ways, before he could suffer harm, set the city aflame by throwing out that little spark, the Megarian decree.
The full context reveals that the connection between the attacks on Phidias, Pericles’ friend and associate, and the Megarian decree was the poet’s own comic invention. But it was taken seriously by such ancient writers as Diodorus of Sicily and Plutarch, and very probably reflected charges made by contemporary enemies of Pericles. The hard kernel of opinion central to all this is the common belief that the cause of the war was the Megarian decree and that Pericles was responsible for it.
Whatever the importance the decree might have had, this view was surely an oversimplification, and any good historian would have rejected it as a sufficient explanation. Thucydides, in fact, gives it very little attention, not mentioning it in its natural place in the narrative, not indicating precisely when it was instituted, what its purpose was, or how it worked out in practice. He does not conceal the fact that Sparta made peace conditional on the withdrawal of the decree, or that it became the center of the final debate in Athens. His way of refuting the common opinion, which he judged erroneous, was not to confront it directly but to indicate the unimportance of the decree by the small place it occupies in his narrative.
But Thucydides goes even further in rejecting the ordinary point of view, denying the significance not only of the Megarian decree but of all the specific quarrels that led up to the war. His own interpretation represents a sweeping revision of the usual explanations:
I have set out first the reasons why they broke the truce, the differences and complaints between them so that no one ever need ask why so great a war broke out among the Greeks. My own opinion is that the truest explanation, though the one least discussed publicly, is that the power of Athens had grown, bringing fear to the Spartans, and compelling them to go to war.
Thucydides restates the same explanation in other words twice more in his account of the war’s origins, and, in fact, the whole first book is carefully organized to support that interpretation. So skillfully and powerfully did he work that his interpretation has convinced all but a few readers over the centuries. The revisionist view quickly and lastingly became orthodoxy.
Another controversy surrounds Pericles’ strategy for waging the war. That strategy was, in fact, a most unusual one. Pericles told the Athenians that if they “would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, not try to extend their empire in wartime, and do nothing to endanger their city, they would win out.” The practical application of this plan was to have all the Athenians, the majority of whom were farmers living in the Attic countryside, withdraw within the compass of the walls of Athens, the port of Piraeus, and the long walls connecting them, refuse to give battle on land, and allow the Spartans to do whatever damage they liked to the Athenian land and homes. The Athenians would take the offensive only in the form of commando raids on the Peloponnesus, but would risk no major battle there either. The Athenians could do this because their walls made their city secure against attack, because their fleet ruled the seas and could guarantee the food supply from abroad, and because there was plenty of money in the treasury to support the war. The assumption was that the Spartans and their allies would soon see that they could neither make the Athenians fight nor make them yield, would tire of the fruitless campaigning, and would make peace on acceptable terms.
Things did not work out as expected. The Spartans did not quickly see reason. In the second year of the war a terrible plague broke out in the crowded Athenian city, ultimately killing one-third of the population. Pericles died in the third year of the war, but his original strategy prevailed for three more years without success. The treasury ran dry and rebellion broke out in the empire. Athenian fortunes turned for the better only when Cleon, Pericles’ critic and opponent, caused the Athenians to abandon the original strategy for a more daring and aggressive one.
Naturally, there was plenty of criticism, even in the first year of the war. Plutarch tells us that Pericles’ friends urged him to take the offensive and that his enemies attacked him for not doing so, Cleon foremost among them. The comic poets went at him with vigor: “In their choruses they taunted him with mocking songs and abused his leadership for its cowardice and for abandoning everything to the enemy.” We have a pointed fragment from one of them:
Come now, king of the satyrs, stop waging
With your speeches, and try a real weapon!
Though I do not believe, under all your fine talk
You have even the guts of a Teles.
For if someone gets out a whetstone and tries
Just to sharpen so much as a pen-knife,
You start grinding your teeth and fly into a rage
As if Cleon had come up and stung you.
Thucydides himself confirms the general, accuracy of this account. The sight of their fields being ravaged was too much for many Athenians, especially the young, who wanted to march right out and fight. “The city,” he says,
was carried away in every respect; the people were angry with Pericles and no longer remembered the advice he had given them before. Instead they blamed him for being a general who did not lead them out to fight and held him responsible for all their sufferings.
So great was the Athenians’ passion that Pericles did not trust the usual processes of the democracy but used his great influence to prevent the meeting of any assembly.
But in the next year the great plague descended upon Athens, and Pericles was no longer able to restrain the people. Thucydides tells us:
They changed their minds and blamed Pericles for persuading them to go to war and said that it was his fault that misfortune had fallen upon them. They rushed headlong into seeking an agreement with the Spartans and sent ambassadors to them, but they accomplished nothing. Then, when they had exhausted every device and were completely downcast, they brought charges against Pericles.
Pericles responded with a characteristically brilliant speech, which gained only partial success. The Athenians stopped seeking peace but maintained their resentment against Pericles. They removed him from office and imposed a heavy fine. After the strongest passions had faded, the Athenians reelected Pericles as general, but he lived only a few months into his term. At his death his strategy would have had to be judged a failure; his city was besieged and wracked by disease, its fields ravaged, its treasury depleted, its prospects grim. As I have said, only a reversal of that strategy under the urging of his enemy Cleon brought a significant victory at Pylos four years later and allowed Athens to continue fighting the war.
Such is an account of the situation that can be derived by reading Thucydides carefully and selectively, and such, surely, was the view of many, perhaps even most, Athenians. But that is certainly not the picture that emerges for most readers of the History. What appears instead is this: a foolish and fickle democratic mob, swayed now by hope and now by fear, is a victim of its passions, lacking wisdom, restraint, and character; overcome by disaster, the masses reject the steadfastness and courage of their leader, only to seek him out again when the worst moment has passed.
In his narrative Thucydides leaves no doubt that Pericles was right in every respect. Assailed by those who wanted to go out and fight, he prevented an assembly, “fearing that if they met in assembly they would go wrong by yielding to anger rather than reason.” In the next year when the Athenians were fearful and depressed enough to seek peace,
Pericles saw that they were exasperated by their situation and were behaving in just the way he had expected. So he called for an assembly . . . for he wanted to encourage them and, by removing their anger, to restore them to a calmer and more confident state of mind.
As to the great victory won by Cleon at Pylos in 425, a victory that immediately led the Spartans to sue for peace, Thucydides attributes it to a series of lucky accidents, concluding with the capture of Spartan prisoners that produced the request for peace. “Cleon had kept his promise,” says Thucydides, “mad as it was.” But against the charge that Pericles’ strategy was faulty Thucydides does not confine himself to indirect rebuttal. Instead, in what is the longest direct statement of his own opinion in the entire work, he makes a full defense:
So long as he was the leading figure in the state during peacetime he managed its affairs with moderation and protected its safety, and under his leadership Athens reached its greatest heights; when war came he seems to have foreseen accurately its power in this situation as well.
He lived for two years and six months beyond the outbreak of the war, and after his death his foresight in respect to the war was recognized even more. For he had said that if they would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, not try to extend their empire during the war, and do nothing to endanger the city they would win out. What they did was entirely the opposite, for they allowed personal ambitions and interests, in matters that seemed to have nothing to do with the war, to make them pursue policies that were bad both for themselves and their allies. When such policies were successful they brought honor and profit only to individuals, but when they failed they harmed the state in its conduct of the war.
The reason for this was that Pericles, who exercised power because of his reputation and intelligence and because of his well-known incorruptibility, held the people in check even as he respected their liberty, and he led them instead of being led by them. Because he held his power without resort to improper means he did not need to tell them what it pleased them to hear, but since he held it because of his high reputation he was able to contradict them and even to make them angry. When he saw, therefore, that they were unduly confident and arrogant, he would speak in such a way as to strike fear into them; on the other hand, when they were unreasonably fearful he restored their courage once again. What was called a democracy was becoming, in fact, the rule of the foremost man. But those who came after him were more on a par with one another and, each one being eager to become the foremost man, shaped their policies to please the people and turned oyer the conduct of affairs to them. As a result, since it happened in a great imperial state, many mistakes were made, especially the expedition to Sicily, which was not so much an error in judgment as to the strength of the enemy they would oppose as it was a failure of those who sent it out to take additional actions to support those who had sailed. Instead they busied themselves with private intrigues over the leadership of the people and thereby both dulled the edge of the expedition and introduced civil war into the city for the first time.
Yet even when they had been defeated in Sicily, losing their army and the greater part of their fleet, and when their city was already in a state of civil war, nevertheless, they held out for ten more years not only against the enemies they already had but also against the Sicilians who joined them, the majority of their own allies who now were in revolt, and later also again Cyrus, son of the King of Persia, who joined their enemies and provided money to the Peloponnesians for their fleet. They did not give in until they had destroyed themselves by their private quarrels and been defeated. So abundantly great were the grounds for Pericles’ prediction at that time that Athens would very easily win out in a war over the Peloponnesians alone.
Small wonder that so eloquent and powerful an analysis has convinced posterity that Pericles’ critics were pygmies and has all but obliterated their arguments.
Let me offer one final example, though there are others, of Thucydides’ attempt to revise contemporary opinion. I focus on a passage in the long quotation I have just read: “What was called a democracy was becoming, in fact, the rule of the foremost man. But those who came after him were more on a par with one another and, each one being eager to become the foremost man, shaped their policies to please the people and turned over the conduct of affairs to them.” Now this judgment may have been even more at odds with contemporary opinion than the others. Pericles had begun his political career as a lieutenant of Ephialtes, the man who had overthrown the conservative rule of Cimon and the noble council of the Areopagus and opened the door to full democracy. Pericles himself was the first to introduce payment for jurors in the law courts, a crucial step in the development of democracy and the one most vigorously denounced by its enemies. Aristotle tells us that “Some people blamed him on this account and say that the law courts deteriorated, since after that it was always the common men rather than the better men who were eager to participate in drawing the lot for duty in the law courts. Also, after this, corruption ensued.” In his two-party image of Athenian politics Aristotle lists Pericles among the demagogues alongside such men as Cleon and Cleophon.
Plato’s picture of Pericles is much the same. In the dialogue called Gorgias he has Socrates say: “I hear that he was the first who gave the people pay, and made them idle and cowardly, and encouraged them in the love of talk and of money.” These, of course, are the views of aristocratic enemies of democracy and come from the century after Pericles’ death, yet they surely reflect the criticisms leveled by contemporaries. But the Pericles who appears in Thucydides’ History is a different man entirely. In his first appearance he is introduced as “at that time the foremost man among the Athenians and the most powerful in speech and in action.” He addresses the Athenian people as few democratic politicians have ever addressed an electorate, boldly, proudly, masterfully. Responding to the clamor that the Megarian decree be withdrawn and war avoided, he tells the Athenians:
I make the same judgment as always, men of Athens, that we should not give in to the Spartans, although I know that men do not act with the same feelings when they are actually engaged in war as when they were persuaded to enter it; as the course of events changes so does their judgment. . . . I think that it is right for those of you who are persuaded by my arguments to support the decisions we are making together, even if we suffer some reverses, or claim no credit for wisdom when we succeed.
There is a hint here of the call to sacrifice found in Winston Churchill’s famous reference to “Blood, sweat, toil, and tears,” but there is also a tone of rebuke and challenge that not even Churchill would have dared to use.
Even more striking is Pericles’ response to the attacks made on him in the second year of the war:
These outbursts of your anger against me come as no surprise, for I know their cause and have called an assembly for this purpose: to remind you of certain things and to find fault with you if, without reason, in some way you are irritated with me or are giving way to your misfortunes. . . . Is it not wrong to do what you are doing now? You are so overcome by the disasters that have struck at your own homes that you are abandoning the common safety and are blaming me for urging you to go to war and yourselves for voting to do so.
We have no reason to doubt that Thucydides is accurately reporting at least the general sense of what Pericles said, and we must agree with him and against Plato, Aristotle, and the contemporaries whose views they echoed. These are not the words of a demagogue but of an exceptional leader with qualities far above those of the ordinary democratic politician.
Still, Thucydides’ revision of the hostile opinion goes too far. By no stretch of the facts can Periclean Athens be called a democracy “that was becoming, in fact, the rule of the foremost man.” That would make the Athens of Pericles very much like Augustan Rome, but to mention this analogy is immediately to see its falseness. The rule of Augustus rested on his absolute control of the only military force in the Mediterranean world. He could not be removed from power by any means other than assassination. Pericles, by contrast, was entirely dependent on the continued and freely expressed support of the Athenian people. The proof is that during the war the people were able to reject his advice, depose, and even punish him, and he could do nothing to prevent it. Here we have the most difficult of Thucydides’ reinterpretations to accept, and indeed not many modern scholars have accepted it.
I hope I have shown that these three attempts by Thucydides to revise the common opinion are really controversial. My own view is that in all three cases, especially the last, the contemporary view was closer to the truth than his. To decide why this might be so leads us to ask why Thucydides found the need to be a revisionist.
We must remember that there was not yet a historical profession, no doctoral candidates pressing to find an original idea, no prestigious professorships luring historians to say something bold and different. Recent scholarship has emphasized what careful readers have always known—that behind that cool, distant, analytical style there is a passionate individual writing about the most important events of his own time, about the power of his own city and its destruction. We must not forget, moreover, that he was an active participant in the events he describes. A generation younger than Pericles, he clearly admired him beyond all other statesmen. A blue-blooded aristocrat, he nonetheless lived comfortably in the Athenian democracy and, indeed, flourished in its most extreme moments, for he was elected general in 424, five years after Pericles’ death, when Cleon’s power was at its height. Yet his History makes it clear that he had little but contempt for the democratic system.
His attitude becomes easier to understand when we remember that during his year in office the important Athenian colony of Amphipolis, whose safety it was his duty as naval commander to protect, fell into Spartan hands. The Athenians held him responsible for the failure and condemned him to exile for the rest of the war. For twenty years he lived among foreigners and fellow exiles, all of them hostile to democracy. They must have wondered, perhaps aloud, at the paradox of a man like Thucydides, a nobleman contemptuous of democracy, who had lived and prospered in the greatest of democracies and who admired the greatest of democractic leaders. His History, I suggest, was his answer, not merely a history of his own times but an apologia pro vita sua. He would show that the common opinion was wrong in all major respects. Pericles was not responsible for the war but rather deserved praise for recognizing it was inevitable and making intelligent plans accordingly. Far from being the cause of Athenian suffering and defeat, Pericles’ strategy was correct and would have triumphed, had he not died too soon and had his strategy not been reversed by incompetent successors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Pericles was neither a demagogue nor even a democrat but a remarkable statesman who ruled the people rather than being ruled by them.
Such, I believe, was Thucydides’ reason for needing to reinterpret the major events of his life, though, I hasten to add, it was probably not the only reason. The one thing of which I am certain after thirty years of trying to comprehend this most complicated of minds is that any simple statement about Thucydides is sure to be wrong. But now the time has come to justify my claim that Thucydides was not only the first revisionist historian but also the greatest.
My first reason is that he wrote with such persuasiveness that his views have dominated opinion ever since his work appeared and have almost obliterated all others. The second is that in the process he created a work of art so compelling that he has inscribed on the minds of his readers an unforgettable picture of the Athens of his time, one that has ruled our thinking ever since. Finally, in writing about his own times to suit immediate needs which he felt passionately, he wrote, at the same time, a keen analytic study of human beings living in society and under the extreme pressures of war and disaster, a study we still find illuminating and meaningful today.
In his funeral oration, Pericles boasted that the greatness of his city spoke for itself. “We have provided great evidences of our power, and it is not without witnesses; we are the objects of wonder today and will be in the future. We have no need of a Homer to praise us or of anyone else whose words delight us for the moment but whose account of the facts will be discredited by the truth.” But in this I believe he was wrong. Even the tangible proof of the greatness of Periclean Athens that is provided by the temples of the Acropolis is mute and inadequate. The greatness of Periclean Athens remains immortal chiefly thanks to another writer, a conscious rival of Homer whose portrait and defense of Pericles have dominated the centuries and made his Athens “a possession forever.”
1 The translations throughout are my own—D.K.
2 See my article, “World War I, World War II, World War III,” COMMENTARY, March 1987.