Classical bust of Thucydides.


(c. 460 BC - c. 404 BC)

While serving as a general, Thucydides failed to prevent the Spartan capture of Amphipolis in 424 bc, a mistake for which he was exiled from Athens. He spent the next twenty years on his family estate in Thrace, where he assembled his History of the Peloponnesian War, the first political analysis of war known to have been written. “It may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element,” he wrote at the opening of the work. In 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “There is no more radical cure than Thucydides for the lamentably rose-colored idealization of the Greeks.”

All Writing

I have often been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire.

—Thucydides, c. 404 BC


According to Thucydides, before the plague of Athens, the Athenians were divided over whether the disaster predicted by an oracle would be a limos (famine) or a loimos (plague). “In the case of unwritten prophecies,” wrote one classicist, “it would be impossible to determine which word the speaker meant to use. The ambiguity of the sound would have been its chief recommendation to the soothsayer.”


Describing phalanx warfare, Thucydides wrote that “fear makes every man want to do his best to find protection for his unarmed side in the shield of the man next to him on the right.” The soldier farthest right must try to “keep his own unarmed side away from the enemy, and his fear spreads to the others who follow his example.” The effect of this fear, wrote the historian: “the right wing tends to get unduly extended.”

It is men who make a city, not walls or ships.

—Thucydides, 410 BC


On the future of history, Thucydides speculated that since there are no “temples or monuments of magnificence” in Sparta, “future generations would find it very difficult to believe” that it once commanded two-fifths of the Peloponnesus; while those same generations would conclude from the impressive ruins of Athens that it was “twice as powerful as it in fact was.”

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