Ancient Greek historian, c. 460-400 BC. Wrote History of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The first analytical historian, he developed a ruthlessly disillusioned theory of individual and state action as the amoral pursuit of power, in which morality was nothing but a pretence. Classic locus of this theory is the Melian Dialogue or Melian Debate, in which the Athenians threaten the Melians with destruction. Here's a snippet of a translation, although it can't do justice to his complex, serpentine prose style:


Melians: Then surely, if such hazards are taken by you to keep your empire and by your subjects to escape from it, we who are still free would show ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than submit to slavery.


Athenians: ...Do not be led astray by a false sense of honour - a thing which often brings men to ruin when they are faced with an obvious danger that somehow affects their pride. For in many cases men have still been able to see their dangers ahead of them, but this thing called dishonour, this word, by its force of seduction, has drawn them into a state where they have surrendered to an idea, while in fact they have fallen voluntarily into irrevocable disaster, in dishonour that is all the more dishonourable because it has come to them form their own folly rather than their misfortune....

[The Melians then decide to reject Athenian terms - peace in exchange for becoming part of the Athenian empire - and hope for Spartan aid to preserve their independence.]


Siege operations were now carried on vigorously and, as there was also some treachery from inside, the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves. Melos itself they took over for themselves, sending out later a colony of 400 men.

Thucydides' conception of the function of power in the relations of states was not a theory, and it was not inaccurate. It was a clear and unprejudiced understanding of the relations of states at the time.

It was not "amoral"; rather, "moral" in the sphere of state relations was the pursuit of interest (not the "pursuit of power"). These ideas would later echo, most famously, in Machiavelli.

This conception of state relations is no more obsolete today than Adam Smith's invisible hand. Only the pursuit of interest can sustain a state. In The Melian Debate, the Athenians take Melos not because they seek to become more powerful so much as they seek to not become less powerful. This is an extreme example. But Thucydides' observations still hold water today; the Gulf War is perhaps the most perfect recent example of a nation going to war for its interest. Because America would become a weaker country if Kuwait were to fall, because America's gas prices are of central importance to its economy, intervention became the defense of interest.

That Americans were shipped thousands of miles to kill and to die in the desert for gas prices is immoral in the sphere of the individual; but in the sphere of international relations, it's perfectly moral, and even necessary--this is what Thucydides voiced.

Dash2 scoffs at Thucydides' consideration of "morality (as) nothing but a pretence"; but the rhetoric of the Gulf War centered on "protecting" Kuwait, "saving" Kuwaitis, thwarting "evil", and preserving the stability of the region, rather than the importance of oil.

“Thucydides aimed always at this; to make his auditor a spectator, and to cast his reader into the same passions that were in beholders. The manner how Demosthenes arranged the Athenians on the rugged shore before Pylus; how Brasidas urged the steersman to run his galley aground; how he went to the ladder or place in the galley for descent; how he was hurt, and swooned, and fell down on the ledges of the galley ... these things, I say, are so described and so evidently set before our eyes, that the mind of the reader is no less affected therewith than if he had been present in the actions." ~ Plutarch, De Gloria Atheniensium

“…Thucydides, who hath written not many nor very great matters, hath perhaps yet won the garland from all that have written of matters both many and great. Everywhere for elocution grave; short, and thick with sense; sound in his judgments; everywhere secretly instructing and directing a man's life and actions. In his orations and excursions, almost divine. Whom the oftener you read, the more you shall carry away; yet never be dismissed without appetite. …” ~ Justus Lipsius, De Doctrina Civili

A General Exiled

      Hobbes wrote of Thucydides, in a late essay, that the Athenian “had no desire at all to meddle in the government: because in those days it was impossible for any man to give good and profitable counsel for the commonwealth, and not incur the displeasure of the people.” 1 In fact, as a former general exiled from the Capital, the writer knew only too well the pain of the polis’ disapproval.2 Even with his stellar education and a well-connected family wealthy from gold mines along the northern coastline of the Aegean, Thucydides was subjected to twenty years’ banishment, under the stern advice of Cleon. Such harsh punishment for an unavoidable error left the exile embittered with the political process, though still a great lover of his culture and country. As the Peloponnesian War unfolded before him in his exile, he was clearly moved to document his nation’s turmoil for posterity, and he asserts he writes solely for "those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future…a work meant to be a possession for ever, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour." Sadly, however, the book ends abruptly (mid-sentence, in fact) in 411 BC, seven years before the war’s conclusion, while he still had eleven years to live, though what staggers most historians in reading the work was that he managed to get as far along as he did, while remaining resolutely impartial. Compared to others chroniclers before and after: Herodotus, Xenophon, Livy or Polybius, Thucydides seems almost preternaturally cool given the calamity which has befallen both himself and his countrymen. 3 Thucydides was eventually recalled from his family’s estate in Thrace, to appear before a tribunal in Athens, and is rumored to have been assassinated not long after.

An English Thucydides

“In this theatre of Life it is reserved only for God and Angels to be lookers on.” ~ Francis Bacon, Works, ed. Spedding and Ellis, III, 421.

“For the greatest past, men came to the reading of history with an affection much like that of the people of Rome who came to the spectacle of the gladiators, with more delight to behold blood than skill…for they be far more in number that love to read of great armies, bloody battles and many thousands slain at once, than that mind the art by which the affairs both of Armies and Cities be conducted to their ends.” ~ Thomas Hobbes, English Works, VIII, 7.

      A 17h century English monarchist will obviously need to be excused a few anachronisms in rendering a Latinate version of a Greek text, written two thousand years previous, into the King’s English of 1628. But more to the point, by the anarchic era of the English Civil War (1638-1660), one wonders how much of Hobbes’ early work with Thucydides helped cement his worldview. The struggles between the peoples of Greece and their neighbors must have read for the Englishman like a clinical case study in political and military hubris. He clearly choose the ancient for a reason: for the Athenian is an ideal reference for the realist perspective in politics. In Thucydides work, Hobbes found an animated, lyrical style given to sharp contrast, alongside a sea of straight-minded detail, written by a first-hand expert in the risks and failures of war. There is even a certain admiration for the dour tone, and though Hobbes denied any personal predisposition, historical pairings like this in literary history are rarely accidental. All predecessors tend to be selected for their antecedent quality, the gratification of having one’s opinion validated by Antiquity. Alike voices of the past reaffirm our own grasp of the world, however isolated we might find our opinions in the present.

Hobbes’ Translation

      A complete rendering of the Peloponnesian War here is neither germane nor necessary, as the facts are set down far better elsewhere. Instead, below please find only a sampling of the maxims, phrases and speeches which Hobbes put into the speech of his own day, and which seem to have lingered long into his later political writings. All book, chapter and page references match standard critical editions of Thucydides, but these are taken specifically from Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. T. Hobbes, 1628 (Toronto: Ambassador, 1999):
  • Recording the appeals of Corinth in the assembly of Athens as the city begins its push to expand (I, 34) ~ For he lives most secure that hath fewest benefits bestowed upon him by his enemies to repent of. ~
  • The Corinthian argument for seeking to topple Athens, in what is cast as a war of liberation (I, 120) ~ For he whom pleasure makes a coward, if he sit still, shall quickly lose the sweetness of the ease that made him so. ~
  • Pericles cautioning the Athenians on the eve of hostilities, though in the end he counsels for pre-emptive attack (I, 140-143) ~ Men have not the same passions in war which they have when they are incited to it, but change their opinions with the events…we must therefore, drawing as near as can be to imagination, lay aside the care of fields and villages, and not for the loss of them, out of passion, give battle… ~
  • Pericles primes his troops in his Funeral Oration (II, 37) ~ For having everyone given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulcher not where in they are buried so much as wherein their glory is laid upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered forever. To famous men, all the earth is a sepulcher; and their virtues shall be testified not only by the inscription in stone at home but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than any monument will remain with everyone forever. ~
  • Pericles defending the progress of the war thus far, and defending the notion of personal sacrifice for the city (II, 60) ~ A private man, though in good estate, if his country come to ruin, must of necessity be ruined with it, whereas he that miscarry in a flourishing commonwealth shall much more easily be preserved. ~
  • Percicles’ Defense (II, 64) ~ To be hated and to displease are things that befall for the time whosoever hath the command of others, and does well, that undergoes hatred for matters of great consequence. For the hatred lasts not and is recompensed both with a present splendor and an immortal glory hereafter. ~
  • Thucydides dark view of allegiances (III, 11) ~ The equality of mutual fear is the only band of faith in leagues. ~
  • Diodotus’ plea for clemency on behalf of the rebellious Mytilenaeans, who have defied Athens (III, 45) ~ A good statesman should not go about to terrify those that contradict him but rather to make good his counsel upon liberty of speech … either some greater terror than death must be devised, or death will not be enough for coercion. For poverty will always add boldness to necessity, and wealth and covetousness to pride and contempt … but hope and desire work this effect on all estates. ~
  • Thucydides, on the strain of war and how the character of the Greeks changed (III, 82-84) ~ In peace and prosperity as well cities as private men are better minded because they do not plunge into Necessity of doing anything against their will. But war, taking away the affluence of daily necessities, is a most violent master and conforms most men’s passions to the present … inconsiderate boldness was counted true hearted manliness; provident deliberation, a handsome fear; modesty, the cloak of cowardice; to be wise in everything, to be lazy in everything. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valor … and dishonest men for the most part are sooner called able than simple men honest … the common course of life being at that time confounded in the city, the nature of man, which is wont even against law to do evil, gotten now above the law, showed itself with delight to be too weak for passion, too strong for justice ~
  • Brasidas, addressing his troops before the storming of Amphipolis (V, 9) ~ Be valiant, as is likely you should that are Spartan – and you, confederates, follow manfully, and believe that the parts of a good soldier are willingness, sense of shame, and obedience to his leaders – and that this day you shall either gain yourselves liberty by valor, and to be called Confederates of the Lacedaemonian, or else not only to serve the Athenians yourselves, and at the best, be you not cowards. ~
  • The Athenians counsel in The Melian Debate (V, 103-111) ~ Hope, the comfort of danger, when such use it as have to spare, though it hurt them, yet it destroys them not. But to such that set their rest upon it … it at once by failing make itself known, and known, leaves no place for future caution. Which let not be your case, you that are but weak and have but this one stake … the strongest arguments you use are but future hopes, and your present power is too short to defend you. ~
  • Nicias, arguing against Athens’ plan to invade Sicily (VI, 11) ~ It were madness to invade such, whom in conquering you cannot keep. ~
  • Euphemus, Athenian ambassador, trying to reassure one of the Sicilian assemblies who are wary of the fleet in their waters (VI, 83) ~ Follow any other, we will not, seeing we alone have pulled down the barbarians and therefore have right to command, or at least have put ourselves into danger more for the liberty of the Peloponnesians than of all the rest of Greece … upon the same cause we come hither now, by the help of our friends to assure the cities here, and not to bring you into subjection but rather to keep you from it. ~
  • Alcibiades, renegade general of Athens, having gone over to Sparta (VI, 89-92) ~ The way to hurt an enemy most if to know exactly what he fears most and to bring the same upon him … having once been thought a lover of my country, I go now amongst the greatest enemies of the same against it … nor do I think that I do herein go against any country of mine, but that I far rather seek to recover the country I have not … if I did hurt you much as an enemy, I can help you much when I am your friend … Pull down the Power of the Athenians, both present and to come. ~
  • Thucydides, describing the first pitched battle of the Athenians in Sicily, caught in the confusion of night (VII, 44) ~ Foe at the last, falling one upon the other in diverse parts of the army, friends against friends, countrymen against countrymen, they not only terrified each other, but came to hand-strokes and could hardly again be parted. ~
  • Nicias, preparing the battered Athenians for their last stand in Sicily (VII, 64) ~ To such as you as are Athenians, you must remember this: that you have no more fleets in your harbors, nor such able men of arms, and that if aught happen to you but Victory, your enemies here will presently be at your homes; and those at home will be unable to defend themselves. Be therefore valiant now, if ever. ~
  • Thucydides’ terse conclusion of the Sicilian Expedition ~ Few of Many returned Home. And thus passed the business of Sicily. ~

1Thomas Hobbes, “On the Life and History of Thucydides” in The History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, trans. Grene (Chicago, 1989), p. 571. See Perseus Project (
2 For a grave military loss to the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) at Amphipolis in Thrace in 424 BC. Thucydides was one of two generals elected by the Athenians to hold their colonial ports and territorial acquisitions against any threat by sea. In November of 424 BC, a brash Spartan general Brasidas led a surprise attack with only a small flotilla of galleys, catching the Athenian fleet guarding Amphioplis unprepared and out of position. The attackers were repelled, but not before the crucial town was sacked. Fr. “Thucydides”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. ( and “Thucydides,” Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (NY: Columbia, 2003):
3 On the war itself, see Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War (NY: Viking, 2003) for an outstanding narrative history, with dozens of maps and illustrations.
Thucydides and Homer - Two Views of War
What interests me most in comparing this work to The Iliad is the justitification for behaviour and what seems to me to be a difference in status.

In The Iliad, Honor is predominantly the catalyst for action, or rather, it is the measure by which one decides their action. Everything is about gaining or losing honor, or have a neutral honor status. This, in many ways seems foreign to us now.

Take for example anyone supplicating a warrior to spare his life, In The Iliad, there is a choice to be made, either choice having a neutral honor effect. The capturing warrior can either spare the life and ask for ransom or kill the suppliant on the spot. The Iliad has many examples of this, the most illustrative being the scene where Agamemnon kills the suppliant of Menelaus.

However, in Thucydides, there seems to be a different set of values judging people. The gods are rarely mentioned (and this is a big point of contention), and honor seems to be implied rather than stated. What makes Thucydides writing seem so much more in tune with our modern thinking are the many references to law. This one sentence struck me:

"...if you remember that you received us by our voluntary submission with our arms held out as suppliants (for the law in Greece forbids killing people who do that)."

This statement by the Plataeans, in defense of their own lives (that fact is not lost on me) is far from the realm of honor in battle, which is most vividly described in the Iliad. The fact is, however, that this is interpreted as law and not as a choice.

I can reconcile this discrepancy between the two values systems this way perhaps. As today, there seems to be a political or social value system that morphs to fits the need of the battlefield, war brings with it it's own justice and it's own set of mores.

node your homework

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