Thucydides as Artist and Individual

(For don Pedro Schwartz, a great economist and a true gentleman)

For sociological, political, and economic reasons—family breakdown, information overload, technological innovation, chemical and behavioral addiction, etc.—skills-based learning, along with instruction in practical areas like science, math, engineering, music, nutrition, finance, logic, and personal psychology, makes more sense today than cultural, gender, or literary studies. Less should mean more for most students in high school and college. We need fewer humanists and books, albeit more serious ones. In what’s left of the humanities, we should not just “mind” the campus but also “be” the campus. Here I attempt to cut fat off that most bloated part of academia by analyzing a text that all of us should read and discuss throughout our lives.

Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (fifth century BC) is more than history as we imagine that genre. He’s overtly selective about which details to report: “I shall record only the most significant of these events” (3.90.1); and his criteria for “significance” suggest a symbolic and theoretical view of history.1 There are also moments when readers should realize that Thucydides wrote a singular work of artistic genius. He gestures at himself as a philosopher and a creator more than a chronicler in three ways. His attention to detail and structure highlights symmetries and cycles that play out at a global level. Near the middle of his text, he offers a spectacularly precise analysis of the social chaos at Athens in conjunction with her most devastating military defeat at Syracuse. Lastly, Thucydides himself intrudes at key points, laying claim to his work and underscoring the nature of the conflict between populists and oligarchs that characterizes ancient Greece. Let’s look at these three categories of authorial signaling: (1) global symbolism, (2) the fall of Athens, and (3) the dialectic between masses and elites.

(1) Symbolism: Myths, Symmetries, and Eternal Returns

Thucydides sees Minos of Crete as the founder of Greece. Minos establishes a navy and suppresses piracy in the Aegean Sea, that is, he creates the first Greek “thalassocracy,” or maritime civilization. Thus, Thucydides asserts that sea power, law and order, and commerce will be critical factors in the Peloponnesian War (1.4–8). Thus, too, when Athenians abandon these core principles, they fail.

Crete lies halfway between Africa and Europe. So, there’s an “in-betweenness” to the way Thucydides regards human events. Theseus is another founder who consolidates power and universalizes the law (2.15). Theseus achieved at Athens what Minos did at Crete. Curiously, Thucydides punctuates these mythical references with an early claim that Agamemnon united the Greek tribes in the campaign against Troy by tapping phobos, or “fear” (1.9). Since stasis, or civil unrest, plagues the Greek universe as it collapses in on itself, and since Thucydides sees phobos as its cause, Minos and Theseus represent different, less extreme phases of the assertion of civilization than does Agamemnon.

Broader symmetries and symbolisms also suggest self-conscious authorial strategy. One obvious symmetry is the fact that the Athenian and Spartan leagues struggle like two hydras for control of the Isthmus of Corinth, the intersection of sea and land routes where transaction costs are naturally the lowest in all of Greece. More subtle are two examples of what French sociologist René Girard called “sacrificial crisis,” which take the form of broken rituals at Sparta and Athens in Book One. These failed rites are contrary to each other and, as such, they reinforce each other, making war reciprocal, inevitable, and tragic in the classical sense. Unable to convey democratic principles beyond their walls, Athenians oppress their allies. This drives rival city-states into alliances with Sparta. Symbolizing this, when Athenians substitute a sacrifice inside their walls for a more pluralistic one outside, they incur a curse. For their part, Spartans mistreat their helots, causing freedmen to flock to Athens. They incur their own curse when they lure a group of these slaves out of a sanctuary and kill them. Like their respective modes of life and the rites that express them, the curses on Athens and Sparta sustain their conflict. Each side demands the other make amends. So, each culture has a blind spot caused by the paranoia that accompanies the excesses of its respective constitution. This is a plausible history; it’s also a sophisticated sociology of war (compare 1.126.6 and 1.128.1; cf. Tocqueville, DA, 2.3.18–26).

An example of a cycle echoes Thucydides’s reference to Agamemnon in Book One. In Book Four, the author’s nod to Odysseus and the whirlpool near Messina, known as the Charybdis, is not casual; it marks the limits of Athenian power and the beginning of her demise (4.24.5). Homer’s two epics mark the opening and the critical pivot of the Peloponnesian War. Likewise, if Greek “history” began with mythical tales of Minos, Theseus, and Helen, it ends before the goddess Artemis at Ephesus, near Troy. Civilization begins as an adolescent love affair on Crete and ends kneeling before the Hellenic earth mother in Asia Minor. A foundation between Africa and Greece follows an arc from Crete to Athens to Troy to Sicily, and back to Troy. This second Troy signals the eternal return, another “in-betweenness,” a bicultural foundation, as a Persian satrap sacrifices to a Greek goddess on his way to the Hellespont.

(2) The Fall of Athens: Fateful Marketplaces

Within these cycles, Thucydides’s diagnosis of the collapse of Athens comes into view in Book Six, during Alcibiades’s campaign against the Greek colony of Syracuse on Sicily. This is the strategic gambit that leads to the failure of the thalassocracy of Attica. As things fall apart on Sicily, back in Athens the populace abandons its principles. Envy, fear, sexual impurity, deceit, and violence replace voluntary exchange in all its guises—sociological, political, and commercial. After the ominous desecration of Athens’s statues of Hermes—the god of commerce—a homosexual, hypergamic melodrama devolves into a vengeful conspiracy. The thalassocracy is dying. How do we know? The religious and psychosexual madness at Athens coincides with an overstep on Sicily, and these decisive moments at the heart and frontier of the empire are related by way of two violent invasions of marketplaces (agoras or agorae in Greek).

A clue that the degradation of the marketplace is a problem looms in the figure of Athenagoras, a Syracusan leader who makes the case for unity against the Athenian invaders (6.35.2–40.2). It’s an astounding speech: it encapsulates the tension between the people and the oligarchs, it centers on the problem of social mobility, and it signals three types of fear that reach a climax as rumors of the Athenian armada engulf the city. Signaling authorial intention, Athenagoras is one of a handful of fictional characters who add symbolic depth to Thucydides’s narrative. At issue is the contradiction of Athens betraying her own values as she attacks her own colony. Athenagoras’s name combines two elements: Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and agoras, meaning “assemblies” or “marketplaces.”

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “American Goddesses”]

The same concern for the wisdom of commerce appears in the fall of Catana to the north of Syracuse. Here the Athenians lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Sicilians, forsaking themselves and their potential allies. As their armada proceeds down the coast from the southern tip of Italy toward their objective on Sicily, interacting with cities critical for supply lines back to the empire, each encounter entails a commercial tipping point. Their contrasts echo the troubling symbolic significance of Athenagoras:

Some cities were unwilling to give them access to their markets or towns but did offer them water and anchorage, though Tarentum and Locri did not even offer them that, and eventually they reached Rhegium at the tip of Italy. They gathered outside the city there, since they were not allowed in, and set up camp in the temple grounds of Artemis where the Rhegians did provide a market for them, and drawing up the ships there they took a rest. (6.44.2–3)

Opposite the marketplace at Rhegium, and on the other side of Sicily, Egesta represents a deception. It’s poetic justice for what is coming. The Egestans had promised the Athenians money for the invasion of Sicily, but this proves to be a trick, a false trade (see 6.46). Next, Alcibiades tries to win over Messina. He achieves the same partial success as at Rhegium, which leads to greater success at Naxos. But then comes failure at Catana:

He was told that they would not give the Athenians access to their city but would provide a market for them outside it, so he sailed back to Rhegium. The generals immediately manned sixty ships drawn from the whole fleet and taking the necessary supplies sailed across to Naxos, leaving the rest of the army with one of them back at Rhegium. The Naxians did admit them into their city and they then sailed on to Catana, but were rejected there. (6.50.1–4)

The stage is now set for a moral turning point. The invasion of the marketplace at Catana by Athenian soldiers marks the end of the hearts-and-minds phase of the campaign:

The Catanaeans held an assembly and although they would not admit the army into the city they did invite the generals to come in and address them if there was something they wanted to say. But while Alcibiades was speaking and the people in the city had their attention fixed on the assembly, the soldiers broke into the city unnoticed through a badly constructed gate and went into the market-place. When they saw the soldiers inside the city those of the Catanaeans who were Syracusan sympathizers were instantly alarmed and slipped away, though there were relatively few of them. The others voted for an alliance with the Athenians and told them to bring the rest of the army over from Rhegium. (6.51.1–2)

From here the struggle against Syracuse is all that matters, and it’s destined to be a catastrophe. Thucydides underlines the tactical error with strategic implications by noting that there were only a few pro-Syracusan Catanaeans. Observant readers must ask: Is the ensuing vote in the presence of Alcibiades and his soldiers voluntary or coerced? Is the Athenian thalassocracy civilizing Sicily, or are there barbarians at the gate?

Framing these images of fragile markets—Athenagoras’s speech, the voyage from Iapygia to Syracuse, and the fateful incursion at Catana—are two episodes of madness back at Athens. As Thucydides moves between the domestic agora and agoras along the limits of Athenian naval and economic power, the disaster at Syracuse echoes the disintegration of religious rites at home, where fear and revenge replace civil exchange and social stability. Someone destroys the statues of Hermes, the god of commerce (6.27–29); then, a psychosexual melodrama unleashes civil strife, culminating in murder and insurrection (6.53–61). Chaos spreads as other statues are defiled, official rites are mocked in private ceremonies, and paranoid tyrants reign. Connecting the city to the frontier, the Salaminia, Athens’s fastest ship, shuttles between Attica and Sicily. Similarly, Alcibiades is accused of instigating the sabotage at home, and he’s recalled in the middle of the Sicilian campaign to face trial. As a result, Athens’s best general defects to Sparta.

Thucydides shows that trade and respect for traditional rites have been sacrificed in the struggle for victory over a potential partner who has been transformed into an enemy. Athens’s devotion to Hermes and Athena once underwrote a commercial empire supported by insurmountable naval force. That faith dissolves into fear, envy, and mob-induced tyranny. When Athens abandons her essence for all-out war, a cosmic whirlpool of personal, societal, and international conflict spells her demise. Failure at Syracuse and failure at Athens are one and the same thing.

(3) The Greek Dialectic: People, Elites, and the Self

At multiple moments, Thucydides intrudes on his narrative. We must attend to this intimate first-person voice. Two of the earliest examples anticipate the fear and psychosexual chaos we just saw at play in the fall of Athens. They also highlight the author’s assertions about what makes his history unique. First, personal motives matter less to Thucydides than social dynamics. Thus, he takes two swipes at Homer: “In my view Agamemnon was able to assemble his expeditionary force more because he was the most powerful figure of his day than because the suitors of Helen whom he was leading were bound by oaths of loyalty to Tyndareus” (1.9.1); “In my view then Agamemnon, with the combination of this inheritance and his superior naval strength, was enabled to put together and launch this expedition less by good will than by the fear he inspired” (1.9.4). The power of fear is the most critical factor in Thucydides’s vision of the fall of Athens.

Having broken with Homer, Thucydides notes that he has also corrected a common misunderstanding about the murderous melodrama at Athens that followed the defiling of the statues of Hermes. He’s already looking ahead to the events that will coincide with the catastrophe at Syracuse and cause the exile of Alcibiades (see 6.53–61). Here Thucydides not only transitions from ancient myth to the current war; he also credits himself with greater knowledge than most. He even senses his foundational role in the history of Western civilization:

These, then, are my findings about early history, though it is difficult to be sure of every detail in the evidence since people accept quite uncritically any reports of the past they get from others, even those relating to their own country. … So little trouble do people take to search out the truth, and so readily do they accept what first comes to hand. … And so back to this war. Men always think that the war they are at that moment engaged on is the greatest one ever, and then when it is over they are more impressed by earlier ones. Nevertheless, for those who look at the actual facts, this war will prove to be greater than the earlier ones. (1.20–21)

Two more personal intrusions are remarkable because they combine a perspective on the dialectic between elites and masses with a deliberate mode of individualism. Thucydides marks the social conflict of his age with his physical presence and his meditative, even brooding gaze. The image that comes to mind while reading these passages is Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, with his fist under his chin, lost in contemplation. The citizen general becomes a political philosopher.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “Federalism—Virtue or Structure?”]

The first personal intrusion is a double entry on the self that brackets the Amphipolis campaign (4.102–5.26). The war again hangs in the balance, but the battle’s location, antagonists, and outcome also symbolize the political dilemma of the work at large—i.e., the tension between mobs and oligarchs. An Athenian colony, Amphipolis means “around the city,” referring to the Strymon River flowing around it on both sides. This suggests an inner, urban ethos in conflict with an outer, agrarian one. And Amphipolis is itself divided between supporters of democratic Athens and of oligarchic Sparta. The battle delivers the same dialectic, resulting in the defeat and death of the Athenian demagogue Cleon by the forces of the Spartan ephor Brasidas, who is wounded and also dies shortly thereafter.

Notably, many of the citizens of Amphipolis had welcomed Brasidas over their outer bridge and eventually allowed him inside. Upon his death, they give him “a public burial in the city, in front of where the market-place now is.” And they do more than that:

The Amphipolitans created an enclosure around his tomb and ever since then they make blood-sacrifices [‘they cut throats’] for him as a cult hero, and have instituted games and annual offerings in his honor. They also nominated him as the founding father of their colony, pulling down the buildings associated with Hagnon and obliterating any possible reminders of Hagnon’s role as founder. In their own minds Brasidas was the man who had become their savior. (5.11.1)

Hagnon was an Athenian general and statesman who founded Amphipolis. Note the inverted anticipation of the defilement of the statues of Hermes at Athens in Book Six, as well as the vivid echo of the human sacrifice that shook Sparta in Book One. Amphipolis, then, represents a mixed populace that values the Athenian agora but embraces major aspects of the Spartan constitution. It’s an emblem of Thucydides’s overarching project. It embodies the pons asinorum of Greek political philosophy, the delicate synthesis of elites and masses.

Further underscoring the dialectical symbolism of Amphipolis, Thucydides notes his own presence. He heard of the approach by Brasidas while on the island of Thasos and rushed to defend against him (4.104.4–107.2). However, Thucydides clearly respects Brasidas. They are wealthy aristocratic generals, which the author emphasizes by noting his own right to mine gold near Amphipolis. Thucydides also clearly despises Cleon, depicting him as an incompetent hothead. And yet, all three men—Brasidas, Cleon, and Thucydides—are somehow sacrificed and recombined as a result of Amphipolis. Cleon’s death saves the city from demagogic tyranny, but the cost is the death of Brasidas. Most astonishingly, Thucydides reports that he was himself exiled for twenty years after the battle (5.26.5). Thus, the author’s ambivalent personality emerges as a fractured reflection of his split allegiances to his caste and his city.

There’s more. After Amphipolis secedes and welcomes Brasidas, and after Cleon loses the ensuing battle, the outcome is ironically and symbolically reversed when Athens and Sparta sign a treaty. Thucydides records the entire agreement. Each side’s obligations to assist the other are exactly reciprocal in every respect, except for the last detail: “If there is an uprising of slaves the Athenians shall support the Spartans with all their strength to the best of their ability” (5.23.3). This single asymmetrical aspect of the treaty emphasizes the essence of the conflict. It’s an attempt to establish a stable gradient between antithetical constitutions based on freedom and servitude. It also suggests the contradiction of a marketplace that erects statues to a slaveholder rather than the gods of commerce and wisdom. Notably, the peace soon fails outside of Attica and the Peloponnese; and the Corinthians, at the isthmus that started it all, work to destabilize the situation. A decade later, Athens and Sparta are in all-out war again. Nothing’s changed.

The imbalanced harmony of the illusive alliance between Athens and Sparta after the loss and recovery of Amphipolis is why we can’t overstate the significance of Thucydides’s banishment. He signals this right after he transcribes the treaty; his famous “second preface” (5.26.1) hits the reset button on the greatest war of Western history. It’s no accident that his individual self emerges most forcefully at this moment. Amphipolis is thus the central political allegory of the Peloponnesian War, stressing the need to coordinate the high and low elements of the Hellenic world. Thucydides emerges in the middle. Embodying the same dialectic, he thinks through the dynamics and cycles of politics and war during his exile from Attica, an exile in which he spent much of his time among Peloponnesians. Thucydides’s “in-between” self comes to embody the combination of Cleon and Brasidas. At the same time, the individual author is now the hinge of human events, not as an agent with motives and passions, like those in Homer or Herodotus, but as a political concept—i.e., a citizen capable of reason, dialogue, analysis, and decision:

I lived through the whole of it when I was of an age to appreciate what was going on and could apply my mind to an exact understanding of things. It so turned out that I was banished from my own country for twenty years after the Amphipolis campaign and thus had the time to study matters more closely, and as a consequence of my exile I had access to activities on both sides, not least to those of the Peloponnesians. I will therefore now relate the differences that arose after the ten-year war and the collapse of the treaty, and then the subsequent course of the war. (5.25.5–6)

Thucydides’s final reference to himself in the context of the struggle between elites and populists occurs when he witnesses the resurgence of an ideal government at Athens. It’s a rare case of domestic harmony: “And for the first time, in my life at any rate, the Athenians appear to have enjoyed good government, with a moderating balance between the few and the many, and this was the thing that first began to lift the city out of its sorry state” (8.97.2). Seven pages later, in Jeremy Mynott’s Cambridge edition, the text ends with a flurry of symbolic gestures as Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap, confronts Spartans with whom his relations are strained: “He therefore resolved to go to the Hellespont to meet the Peloponnesians, both in order to complain about what had happened and to defend himself as plausibly as he could against the various charges made against him … Stopping first at Ephesus he made sacrifice to Artemis …” (8.109). Mynott suspects this sudden ending is deliberate: “So the work ends with a Persian sacrificing in Asia to a Panhellenic Greek goddess, whose core identity has been defined as ‘a concern with transitions and transitional marginal places … and marginal situations’ (OCD, p. 183)” (580n1). Oxford classicist David Lewis objects to overinterpreting the bivalence of Artemis and Persia. 

I’m with Mynott. A sacrifice to Artemis on the way to meet Spartans near Troy has the ring of an eternal return, akin to the unspoken myth of Theseus killing the Minotaur at Crete with the help of Ariadne (see 1.4–8, 2.15). The transitional sacrifice after Thucydides witnesses political harmony at Athens is the ideal moment to exit the labyrinth of human events. Thucydides stops writing because both the lesson and the cycle are complete. Social stability and personal security require an unequal equilibrium between the high and the low. The alternatives are anarchy and war.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “Reforming the Humanities in Florida”]

The passages I’ve analyzed from the Peloponnesian War are astonishing, but the last two involving Thucydides himself are extraordinary. Before and after the struggle between Brasidas (aristocratic oligarch) and Cleon (democratic populist) at Amphipolis, Thucydides paints himself as an ambivalent general and a thoughtful author. When military honor is at stake, he seems to have dallied or favored his own caste, offending the supporters of Cleon. But the glory he achieves by writing the Peloponnesian War results from his exile, which occurs “when I was of an age to appreciate what was going on and could apply my mind to an exact understanding of things” (5.26.5). The arrival of maturity and reason in the wake of Thucydides’s respect for Brasidas and rejection of Cleon reads like a confession, especially considering that single clause about slavery among Spartan and Athenian obligations during their short alliance.

Tocqueville’s personal and political dilemma twenty-two centuries later was already Thucydides’s (see DA 2.3.18). How can aristocratic honor be democratic? The agonizing truth is a paradox. A stable and honorable democracy is only possible when mixed with, and checked by, some form of aristocracy, and vice versa. When Athens briefly achieves good governance at the end of Book Eight, to the point of renewed respect for Alcibiades, Thucydides describes an asymmetrical democracy that coordinates, and is coordinated by, both masses and elites. This is more than history; it’s a depiction of a monstrously miraculous balance between an oligarchy and its populace. Thucydides has become a political philosopher.

René Girard noted that the tragedian contemporaries of Thucydides were on the brink of an awareness that the sacrificial ritual is an illusion. The cathartic deaths of so many heroes hinted at mobs turning against individuals rather than some sacred debt being levied by angry gods. Thucydides approaches the same discovery in Book One when contemplating the rites at Athens and Sparta. But Thucydides is also on the brink of a discovery about the peaceful effects of marketplaces. Montesquieu’s doux commerce as the basis for Smith’s The Wealth of Nations remains to this day an elusive idea (see Pedro Schwartz, En busca de Montesquieu). On the way to their demise at Syracuse, the Athenians just almost realize that their city’s sacred rite is really the material practice of trade, which produces peaceful relations in lieu of piracy. Failing to see this, they fall prey to envy, fear, and violence, opting instead to make war on others while persecuting their best general and dissolving into civil strife among themselves.

The patterns I’ve indicated might result from my brain imposing meaning where none exists. They could result from Thucydides’s unconscious urge to do likewise. They might hint at a cosmic simulation—some natural, metaphysical, or even divine arrangement of the human experience. They could be a combination. The reader must decide for himself. But he should place Thucydides at the top of any list of writers who merit attention. Don’t take my word for it. James Madison’s essays in The Federalist Papers (1787–88) and John Stuart Mill’s meditations in On Liberty (1859) exhibit his influence. As long as humans exist, Thucydides will be a vital tool for understanding the history of our struggle to value individuals. And the Peloponnesian War will always be greater than others, because an individual named Thucydides wrote about it.

1 At no point in his text does Thucydides call it a “history,” although the term is found repeatedly in Herodotus, after whom many classicists allege Thucydides modeled his work. So, neither does Thucydides write “history” as it was imagined in his own day. See Michael Palmer, Love of Glory and the Common Good: Aspects of the Political Thought of Thucydides (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), 7.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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