The Father of Political History
THE SOURCE: “The Student of Political Behavior” by Donald Kagan, in The New Criterion, Sept. 2009.
Who deserves to be called the “Father of History”? Herodotus, who chronicled the defense of Greece by Athens and Sparta against the invading Persians in 480 and 479 bc, is traditionally accorded the title, but Thucydides, the fifth-century bc author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, likely deserves it more. Although Herodotus may have been the first to use on-site investigations to uncover new facts about the past, Donald Kagan writes, he employs “a meandering style full of discursive side trips” and readily accepts “the causal role of the gods in human affairs.” Thucydides, says Kagan, a historian at Yale and author of a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and the forthcoming Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, “substituted rational, even scientific, thought for myth as a means of understanding and explaining the world and the universe.”
Thucydides was uniquely positioned to explicate the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc), which pitted democratic Athens, the unmatched naval power and ruler of a far-flung Aegean island empire, against oligarchic Sparta, whose legendary prowess in land battles had been amply confirmed during the Persian invasion earlier in the century. Thucydides, born into one of the noblest Athenian families between 460 and 455 bc, was in his twenties when the struggle began, and, although members of his family were bitter rivals of the Athenian leader Pericles, he greatly admired him.
When a plague struck Athens, it claimed Pericles as one of its victims, in 429 bc. Thucydides himself barely survived a bout with the disease, recording its effects with the same meticulous care he later employed to describe the disastrous invasion of Sicily by the Athenians. Without Pericles, and weakened by the loss of a third of its population, Athens abandoned the strategy of attrition that Pericles had employed to drain Sparta’s resolve and force it into peace negotiations. Thucydides was placed in charge of a fleet dispatched to guard Thrace, but he was blamed for the loss of a Thracian city and sent into exile. He later wrote that his disgrace allowed him “to know what was being done on both sides . . . and this leisure permitted me to get a better understanding of the course of events.”
Just as Sophists during that time tried to understand the role of man in society and followers of Hippocrates studied man’s physical being, so Thucydides tried to uncover “the society of man living in the polis,” Kagan says. Modern social historians, particularly Fernand Braudel, have dismissed “the elements of politics, diplomacy, and war as mere événements, transient and trivial in comparison with . . . geography, demography, and social and economic developments,” but Thucydides championed “the role of the individual in history and his ability to change its course.” Thucydides believed Pericles’ loss doomed Athens, and though the Athenians were able to fight on for another quarter-century, they were finally undone by the intervention of the Persians, who incited some of Athens’s island colonies to rebel; the treachery of the Athenian general Alcibiades; and their own internal conflicts.
Even though Thucydides never finished his History—it leaves off in 411 bc, and does not recount Athens’s ultimate surrender in 404 bc—its lessons, equally applicable to the Cold War and the conflicts of the present day, “continue to be inescapably crucial and central in the understanding and conduct of human affairs.”