These days, academics are accustomed to explaining phenomenon in evolutionary terms: not just biological evolution, but social and political institutions as well are thought of in context of a gradual advance from the simple to the more advanced.  Again and again, you’ll see social scientists and historians titling or subtitling their books the evolution of this or that or the other thing.  Very often, this is because adding the words “the evolution of…” makes it sound like what you’re doing is scientific, as scientific and rigorous as the kinds of things the biologists are doing.  But we often end up talking about “the evolution” of things that can’t possibly evolve, and biologists find some of our titles amusing and absurd.

          Here at the NSU library, we’ve got the evolution of Educational Doctrine, the Negro College, Shakespeare’s comedy, the English Novel, mathematical concepts, wage structure, a Chinese Novel, early Christianity, prohibition, psychotherapy, the ordinance of 1787, the Constitution of the United States, Terrorist Delinquency in Argentina, and (my favorites) the machine, Hungary, and Walt Whitman.

          Machines can’t evolve.  And Walt Whitman by himself can’t evolve.

          So why do we so constantly talk about evolution of things that can’t evolve?  Well, there is a process of gradual change over time that, in many fields, is well worth looking at.

We can sometimes explain art, literature, religion, agricultural, economics, politics—everything—in terms of these gradual changes and improvements.  And sometimes, this is a good way to explain things (my lectures for example have “evolved”: but just imagine how bad they were to start with!).  But sometimes the gradual evolution explanation just won’t work: even in biology, the idea of gradual improvement is challenged by those who believe in catastrophism.

          In the case of Thucydides, too, the idea that the discipline of history came about as a result of gradual evolution just doesn’t work very well.  Thucydides history is enormously impressive, and one would think such a great work would have had to be proceeded by hundreds of simpler but inferior works.  One would expect there to be centuries of gradual improvements in history until at last one gets Thucydides.  But that’s not the way it was.  We know of a few attempts at something sort of like history before the time of Thucydides (those of Hellanicus and Hecataeus, for instance), but these men were near contemporaries of Thucydides, and the fragments of their works that survive show that they weren’t especially impressive as historians.  And prior to this?  Not much.  Hecataeus himself, commenting on the writers before his time, noted that there wasn’t much in the way of solid history. “The Greeks tell many stories, and foolish ones at that.”

          Well, in the late 5th century BC, all of a sudden we get Herodotus—an impressive writer, although he often leaves much to be desired as an historian.  And then we get Thucydides, a man who writes a history that has seldom been equaled and never, ever surpassed.  One can explain later historians easily enough: they built on the model of Thucydides (as did Xenophon and Polybius) or on the model of Herodotus.  But Thucydides comes out of nowhere, building on nothing: and creates for us the first scientific history.  In addition, Thucydides in some ways deserves credit also for being the father of political science as well.

          Now I’ve said that Thucydides builds on nothing.  Perhaps this isn’t quite true.  He does have the epics of Homer as a source of inspiration.  He has the tragic playwrights also—and, as I’ve said, it may be that the world-view of tragedy gets it right: tragedy is real historical pattern.  But Thucydides also has helping him the community he leaves in.  The Athenian way of life, with its emphasis on conversation in the agora, and speeches in the ecclesia, provided a first class education in politics and political thinking.  No need to go to grad school!  Simply to be part of the Athenian assembly meant that one would get a better education in political thinking and practice than one can get anywhere today.  Every issue, and I mean every issue, was debated in the assembly.  In addition to all that, Thucydides has the advantage of having served in the war he describes himself—the kind of advantage Churchill has in writing his history of WWII—and that carries over into Churchill’s other histories.

          What we have, then, in Thucydides, is perhaps a logical enough extension of the kind of political debates that took place in Athens at its height.

          Now when we were discussing Herodotus, we started by trying to establish some criteria for a good history.  In looking at Thucydides, it’s worth looking first of all at how well Thucydides matches up to the same criteria by which we evaluated Herodotus. 

Class discussion focused on the strengths and weaknesses of Thucydides, noting how well he matches up to our earlier discussion of what the characteristics that make for good history, e.g., a clear purpose, interesting content, clear sources, logical structure, and understanding of cause/effect, etc.).

Questions in class/that you should ask yourself as you prepare this material included the following:

1. Is there a clear purpose here?  What is Thucydides purpose?

2. What about Thucydides use of sources?  Does he use good sources?  Does he make his sources clear?

3. What do you think of the technique of invented speeches?  Is this a legitimate technique for a historian to use?  (Cf., “The Reagans” and the AIDS made-up comment).

 4.  How does Thucydides compare to Herodotus?  Better?  Worse?

 5. What do you think of Thucydides’ treatment of early Greek history?  What are his sources?  Could he have done a better job?

 6.  How does Thucydides explain the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War?  Do you think his explanation a good one?

 7.  Are there any obvious (or not so obvious) biases in Thucydides?  Where are his sympathies?  Is he pro-Spartan, pro-Athenian, or what?


 1.  What do you think of Thucydides account of the effects of the plague on Athens?  Is this scientific history?  How is his treatment of the plague different from the way Herodotus or Home would have handled it?


 Thucydides great concern is with political history (political philosophy teaching by examples.  Among his concerns:

1.  Form of government.  What does he think is the ideal form of government?  (Cf., II:34-36, Pericles’ funeral oration.) 

2. Leadership.  What makes a good leader?  Examples?  What makes a man admirable in his eyes?  What characteristics does he dislike?  (Cf., II:60, Pericles justification of his policies.  Note examples/contrasts in leadership styles, e.g., Diodotus and Cleon in Mytilene debate:   


1.  Did the people of Mytilene have a right to revolt?

2.  Did the Athenians have a right to put down the revolt?

3.  How should the Athenians have treated Mytilene?

4.  Is there any strength to Cleon's argument (37-40)?

5.  How does Cleon account for the Athenian change of heart?

6.  Is this a problem in democracy?

7.  What is Cleon's idea of justice?

8.  How does Diodotus defend the orators?

9.  How does he defend the people of Mytilene?

10.  How does the Spartan treatment of Plataea compare to the Athenian treatment of Mytilene?




1.  Why is the debate not open to the general public?

2.  What is the Athenians justification for requiring Melos to join their alliance?

3.  Are the Melesian officials right in refusing to submit to Athenian demands?

4.  How do they hope to withstand the Athenians?

5.  Are the Athenians right in saying their hopes are misplaced?

6.  Should justice and fair play be considerations in international relations?



Why do you suppose Thucydides didn't finish his history?  Is there any catharsis here?