Thucydides' history of Early Greece

The so-called Archaeology by Thucydides offers the famed ancient Greek historian’s view of his people’s early history.

Josho Brouwers

Thucydides is often heralded as one of the great historians of Antiquity, often to the detriment of the more interesting Herodotus and the eminently more likeable Xenophon (whose constant badgering at the hands of modern commentators has made him very sad indeed). One of the most interesting parts of Thucydides’ unfinished history of the Peloponnesian War, to my mind, is the so-called Archaeology (1.1–23), which serves as a potted history of Early Greece up to and including the Thirty Years’ Truce (signed in 446/445 BC).

The Archaeology (literally, “knowledge of the past”) is a mix of plausible-sounding myth, hearsay, and second-hand history that many modern commentators have gratefully accepted as a valuable framework for the earliest history of ancient Greece. Thucydides used the Archaeology as a starting point for his history of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), which he claims was “more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past” (1.1; translation Rex Warner). He adds that it was difficult for him to reconstruct the distant past, but concluded that ‘these periods were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else’ (ibid.).

Earliest history

In the earliest times, according to Thucydides, there were no settled peoples in Greece. People were constantly on the move because of pressure from invaders. Because of these dangers, there was trade, no normal agriculture, and no cities. In fertile regions, such as Thessaly, Boeotia, and parts of the Peloponnese, the people managed to acquire great power, but the richness of the land also made them prime targets for their enemies.

However, Attica was relatively poor and so, Thucydides claims, “was remarkably free from political disunity” and therefore “has always been inhabited by the same race of people” (1.2). Indeed, in Classical times, the Athenians claimed to be autochthonous and compared themselves explicitly with the Dorians (such as the Spartans), who were believed to have been late arrivals in Greece. Because of its stability, Thucydides writes, many people fled to Attica, so that quickly it became overpopulated, at which point colonies were sent out to Ionia in Anatolia. In this way, Thucydides explained the existence of Greek cities in Asia Minor where the people spoke Ionian, a dialect closely related to Attic.

The earliest war that Thucydides knows of where the Greeks acted as a single people was the Trojan War (which Thucydides doesn’t date). But even here, Thucydides points out that Homer never refers to the Greeks as Hellenes, but instead uses a variety of names, so that it seems that the Greeks were not yet considered distinct from other peoples (1.3). Indeed, in the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans have a similar culture and also seem to speak the same language.

One aspect of early society, according to Thucydides, was the proliferation of piracy. Cities back then were scattered settlements with no walls (how this fits with descriptions in the Iliad where most cities are indeed walled is not clear), and engaging in piracy was commonly accepted and even honourable (1.5). Raiding on land was also common, and Thucydides explains that in societies where such robbery is widely accepted the people go about their lives armed (1.6); there’s a lesson in there for all of us, I imagine.

Naturally, the Athenians were the first people to give up the practice of bearing arms, adopting instead “a way of living that was more relaxed and more luxurious”. Only later did people dress more simply, with the Spartans leading the way in that respect. As seafaring became safer, walled cities were founded closer to the coasts than was the case in earlier times, when cities were located at some distance from the coast (1.7). (This description is still widely accepted by modern commentators.)

Thucydides claims that the Aegean islands were largely colonized by Phoenicians and Carians. Indeed, when the Athenians removed all of the graves on Delos – which had been declared sacred ground – more than half of all the graves unearthed were Carian, “as could be seen from the type of weapons buried with the bodies and from the method of burial”. Only when the legendary Minos – king of Knossos on Crete – organized a decent fleet did the seas become safer (1.8).

The Trojan War

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Trojan War was a historical event. Agamemnon, Thucydides writes, must have been the most powerful ruler of his day. The historian rationalizes the Trojan War and sets aside the Oath of Tyndareus, claiming instead that Agamemnon used the threat of force to muster the Greek fleet against Troy (1.9).

Thucydides spends some time to discuss the size of the Greek army assembled for the Trojan War and comes to the conclusion that “it was not on the scale of what is done in modern warfare”. Indeed, Homer – as a poet – probably exaggerated the size of the Greek army, yet compared to the armies of Thucydides’ own time it was relatively small, especially “considering that this was a force representing the united effort of the whole of Hellas” (1.10).

Interestingly, Thucydides claims that the army wasn’t small due to a lack of manpower, but rather due to a lack of money. It was because the Greeks had to farm for food on the Chersonese (something never mentioned by Homer, by the way) and had to engage in raids to keep the army supplied, the war dragged on for ten years. In other words, if Agamemnon’s logistical apparatus had been better, he would have been able to assault the Trojans with his entire force and “won easily” (1.11). Thucydides thus accepts the basic outline of the Trojan War (e.g. a war of Greece against Troy that lasted ten years), but then proceeds to rationalize it.

Before and after the Trojan War, Greece remained unstable. The Boeotians moved south to settle Cadmeis, the original name for the region that is now called Boeotia. Later still, the Dorians and the descendants of Heracles moved south and “made themselves masters of the Peloponnese”. Once the people had been settled, the age of colonization began, with e.g. Ionian cities being founded in Anatolia by the Athenians (1.12). It’s a common for historians in Antiquity to explain change as the result of the movement of peoples.

The Archaic period

Thucydides’ influence on modern histories of ancient Greece can be felt most acutely when we turn to that part of the Archaeology that seems to deal with the Archaic period (eighth to sixth centuries BC). “The old form of government,” Thucydides writes, “was hereditary monarchy with established rights and limitations; but as Hellas became more powerful and the importance of acquiring money became more evidence, tyrannies were established in nearly all the cities, revenues increased, shipbuilding flourished, and ambition turned towards sea-power” (1.13).

A tyrant – from Greek tyrannos – was a dictator, someone who had seized sole power in a city. Tyrants usually emerged after a period of stasis or factional strife, characterized by power struggles among elite families. They certainly seem to have been common in the Archaic period, but we should not take Thucydides’ statement that they “were established in nearly all the cities” at face value.

Thucydides’ emphasis on naval power is of course due to Athens’ fleet and the fact that he himself served as an admiral during the Peloponnesian War. The most powerful Greek navies only came into being around the time of Xerxes’ expedition to Greece, and the fleets of Athens and Aegina seem to have been the most important.

Thucydides specifically contrasts the powerful triremes with the smaller fifty-oared vessels known from the Homeric epics. The earliest triremes, Thucydides claims, were built at Corinth 300 years before the Peloponnesian War; such relative dating is used frequently (1.13–14). The Athenian historian makes a special point that Greek empires were all acquired by means of fleets rather than armies, stating emphatically that “there was no warfare on land that resulted in the acquisition of an empire”, adding that “wars were simply local affairs between neighbours” (1.15).

The Ionians – who you may remember were descended from the Athenians! – were becoming very powerful, but were eventually conquered by the Persian Empire (1.16). Since most other cities were ruled by tyrants, who primarily worried about their own safety, none of them managed to rise to any real power. But at some point, “the Spartans put down tyranny in the rest of Greece”. Shortly afterwards, the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon (1.18).

Thucydides discusses the Persian Wars only briefly (for a fuller, but not complete account, refer to our friend Herodotus). He describes how the Greeks united against a common enemy, but soon afterwards “split into two divisions, one group following Athens and the other following Sparta”. Of course, we know that many of those “following” the Athenians didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter! But in any event, Athens reigned supreme at sea and Sparta was superior on land. The two sides quickly came to blows.

Caveat lector

Thucydides finishes his Archaeology with a warning not to accept the earliest history of the Greeks uncritically; a statement that has earned him the admiration of modern historians (1.20).

The Athenian writer concludes that of all the early wars, the ones fought between the Greeks and the Persians were the greatest, yet points out that the outcome of the war was decided relatively quickly in a handful of important battles. “The Peloponnesian War, on the other hand, not only lasted for a long time, but throughout its course brought with it unprecedented suffering for Hellas” (1.23).