Thucydides and the Writing of History
by Mark K. Rutkus
This site analyses changes in writing and thought that occurred in Greek
culture from the approximate onset of a stable
in 700 BC, to around
400 BC. This period of 300 years saw the transition from a strictly oral
tradition to the onset of an effective literate culture, as evidenced by
Thucydides' history of The Peloponnesian War. The project is concerned
with both style and content: that is, how the medium of writing relates to the
writing itself (in this case, how the hypertext medium effects my discourse on
how Thucydides' mode of historical inquiry effected what he wrote). Notice
the power of experience, i.e., history, to interpret
the future has been known for more than two millennia...
"The absence of romance from my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its
interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact
knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in
the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be
content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the
applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time" -
The Peloponnesian War
[Book I, 22].
Orality and Literacy
Thucydides and History
Other Resources on the Internet
This web site is
an analysis and an experiment of the reciprocal relationship
between the form of writing and the function of writing. Thus, this Web site
will assume what has been assumed elsewhere, that writing is a technology
humans use (see
Walter J. Ong
However, this site will hopefully provide a specific example of writing as a
dynamic tool that itself changes as it effects change.
So far I have been discussing writing as if it were some independent actor;
but, of course, writing needs some prime mover (or a network of prime movers)
such as human volition, cultural mores, and historical situation. We finally
acknowledge the importance of considering these contexts in writing, especially
(since the 1960's) in the writing of history
but wait a second - doesn't
relatively new stance of modern pedagogy? Indeed, that particular passage of
Thucydides establishes the foundation for the conceptual paradigm which modern
historical research reacts against; that is, the concept which assumes that the
objective facts compromising history can provide lessons for the future
Subsequent historians may have used Thucydides' work as a template for the
study of history and as an intellectual keystone for the notion that history
provides evidence for the universality of human behavior; however, for
Thucydides history is not the narrative content of events which
conforms to evidence but rather it is his methodology, or form of his
writing, which provides evidence enabling these events to be preserved
with some credibility for posterity. Thus, history is not a storytelling of
events but is an investigation and interpretation (thus an analytical
rewriting) of the events. So instead of just laying out "the facts" with
ostentatious grandiloquence, Thucydides thoughtfully begins his history by
engaging in a dialectic on the tenuous reliance on observable facts (in
he emphasizes - with perhaps a touch of
hubris - the rigor of his efforts to write the most honest account of
the events of the Peloponnesian War as possible). This dialectic introduces
the reader to what Thucydides and Herodotus considered
historie: research or investigation
it also introduces the reader to
Thucydides' esoteric writing style of antithesis and opposition. So clearly,
history is a methodology of analysis and interpretation which Thucydides
stringently applies to his History , first on the stories of the Trojan
War and then on the events of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides' deliberate contrast of these two Hellenic wars
- one of ancient lore and the other contemporary - show him
consciously aware of the effects of his writing in both style, to persuade the
reader of the authenticity of his History and content, to make the
reader appreciate the magnitude and importance of The Peloponnesian War).
Upon reflecting on his years of scrutinized investigation, Thucydides began to
acknowledge that the course of events of the Peloponnesian War (what we
generically consider history) had as its manipulator, the "personalities
and personal rivalries" of human beings
Thus, in a sense Thucydides
found in the actions of people like Pericles, Alcabiades, and Nicias (to name a
few) the prime mover for his historie; and we find our prime
mover for The History of the Peloponnesian War in Thucydides
working with a new methodology in
a culture just becoming accustomed to literacy
he is the prime mover of the history of
the Peloponnesian War because he is the writer-creator of The History of the
Peloponnesian War. (Please don't be confused and think I am absurdly
intimating that Thucydides' imagination concocted the whole war - what I mean
is, we probably would not have anywhere near the relatively comprehensive
knowledge about the Peloponnessian War if the artifact of Thucydides' history
didn't exist). Thucydides' history is a form of writing which obviously could
not exist without a system of writing; but history (or, in the Greek sense, the
storage and transmission of cultrual memory) was not always linked to
An analysis of Thucydides' writing of history would be incomplete without also
considering the shift from orality to literacy. Thererfore, this site will
also focus on some of the ramifications of the transition in the conveyance of
Greek cultural memory from the didactic narratives of poets such as
to the consciously historical prose of
Thucydides. This transition was not a seamless passing of the baton from
orality to literacy nor was it a fluid progression starting with the poets and
running through to the dramatists, philosophers, and historians
(many of whom blurred the distinctions amongst these
As I hope to make evident, clearly a change in the storage
of cultural memory occurred from the time Illiad and
Odyssey were being transcribed
start of the Peloponnesian War but tension between orality and literacy still
existed, even in the prose of Thucydides' historical narrative.
Once again referring to the
detect from Thucydides' assertion that he was well aware of his position as an
investigator and preserver of what he considered "the greatest movement
yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes but of a large part of the
barbarian world - I had almost said of mankind" [I, 1]. He also knows
that the potent legacy of Homer still lingers in the Athens of his day
Thucydides himself intimates his
distinction from Homer [I.21] as his history, in both
form and content
is not only a product of the
transition from orality to literacy but is also a propagator of it. His history
not only stores cultural memory (serving a function roughly similar to oral
transmission of events), but interprets and criticizes it (a distinctive
function of writing); thus, Thucydides' writing reveals a conscious awareness
of his ties to Homer and orality as well as a methodology closely suited to
what Havelock terms the "literate revolution" (24).
Thus, this Web site places Thucydides' writing of history in the context of the
history of writing; as well, it helps Thucydides' claim that his work is
"a possession for all time" reverberate with accuracy.
Orality and Literacy
Theories on the transition in Greek culture from oral storage to written
storage of memory
Observe the text of an oral expression from an early Greek
For thus, methinks, will the issue be, seeing that in sooth this bird has
come upon the Trojans, as they were eager to cross over, an eagle of lofty
flight, skirting the host on the left,  bearing in his talons a blood-red,
monstrous snake, still living, yet straightway let it fall before he reached
his own nest, neither finished he his course, to bring and give it to his
little ones -- even so shall we, though we break the gates and the wall of the
Achaeans by our great might, and the Achaeans give way"  come back
over the selfsame road from the ships in disarray; for many of the Trojans
shall we leave behind, whom the Achaeans shall slay with the bronze in defense
of the ships. On this wise would a soothsayer interpret, one that in his mind
had clear knowledge of omens, and to whom the folk gave ear." - Homer,
Juxtaposing the above quote from the Iliad
Thucydides' statement from
the other page
reveals some of the contrasts between a
more oral mode of thinking and a more literate one. Given
the translations, I would have to say that Thucydides' prose
and the substance thereof is closer to our mode of thinking some
2500 years later than it is to Homer, merely a few
centuries apart. This is a particularly bold assessment and,
once again, I am doing so by only reading the English translations;
obviously, the translators of Homer attempted to make the style
in "high-falutin'" poesy in order to match
style of the Greek.
However, one can notice the difference in content as well: in Homer,
the word "interpret" occurs only four times, twice in
- click here to see the quote in full context or see above] and twice
in the Odyssey
]; in every single occurence "interpret" is used in
connection with deciphering either an omen or a dream. On the other
hand, Thucydides' use of the word "interpret," like in the
oft-referred to quote from I.22, connotes a meaning like ours -
"interpretation" is a componenent of his methodology of
painstaking examination, analysis, and explanation of the evidence
on hand. Such differences must result from the transition in Greek
culture from orality to literacy.
"Just a minute here!" you might say, "Homer was obviously transcribed, so the
Homeric texts must come from a literate culture." Eric A. Havelock notes this
paradox: "the alphabet's intrusion at this point into the history of homo
sapiens introduced not literacy, but a permanently engraved and complete record
of the ways of non-literacy" (102-103).
What we consider to be Homer's
masterpieces of genius, the Iliad and Odyssey, were created in a
process "not as an overlaying of several texts, but as a language generated
over the years by epic poets using old set expressions which they preserved
and/or reworked largely for metrical purposes" (Ong, 23).
The form and content
of Homer directly reflects an oral mode of thinking. In Orality and
Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (37-50), Walter J. Ong lists
the characteristics of oral thought and expression:
- Additive rather than subordinate
- Aggregative rather than analytic
- Redundant or 'copious'
- Conservative or traditionalist
- Close to the human lifeworld (not abstract)
- Agonistically toned
- Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
- Situational rather than abstract
These characteristics, all related one way or another, can reveal some
generalities about oral thinking which we have evidence of in Homer. The
Homeric texts are didactic poems meant to instruct and entertain concurrently;
they convey cultural information entrenched in precedent, custom, and propriety
- but they must relate such a cultural ethos in an entertaining way in order to
maintain the attention of the audience. In short, the Homeric epics created an
idealistic way of how things should be (Havelock, 132.); they are
normative not factual doctrines.
Preliterate Greeks did not have computer databases, or libraries, or even
papyrus notebooks; this statement is so completely obvious that it is almost
absurd to state it. However, we have to appreciate the strenuous effort
required in maintaining any thought valuable enough to be retained in memory
and memorable enough to be retrieved with some degree of accuracy. Don't
forget that Pre-literates could store and retrieve knowledge with only the
ephemeral sound of the human voice. With this much potential for variance,
thought paradoxically had to become uniform. In oral Greek culture, the
experience of Greeks was stored but in less space (only the working memory of
human beings); thus a density of memory was created as information and human
experience were compressed and amplified. New information had to be edited for
brevity and fit to conform with old knowledge in order to be remembered. Thus,
epic oral poetry became the storage center for traditional knowldege and the
referent for all "new" knowledge.
In order to facilitate the memory process,
epic oral discourse necessitates strident action and hypermortal actors in
order to be memorable; thus, Greek cultural information was stored in and
related through these paragons (be it Zeus, or Aphrodite or Achilles) who
"excite awe because of [their] special status, or importance, or power, or
vigour [s]o that the contemplation of the status adds to the pleasure of
memorization" (Havelock, 138). Havelock terms this circumvention of the
constraints of memory the "the god-apparatus" which the Greeks then used to
explain historical or factual events to ease the pressure of memorization
Interpretation and criticism of this so-called god-apparatus required
reflection and dissection which orality could not afford; in an oral narrative
there can be no embarrassing pauses in which to reflect nor is there time to
ponder the skewed logic or redundancy or surreality of a particular phrase.
Oral discourse builds up and repeats; it reinforces the same themes; simply,
both the form and function of oral discourse maintains tradition. All this was
ingrained both psychologically and culturally in the pre-literate Greeks.
However, the introduction of the Greek alphabet (replete with vowels) created a
new state of mind which Havelock terms the "alphabetic mind" (7).
The alphabet allowed the mind to think more abstractly since it "converted
the Greek spoken tongue into an artifact, thereby separating it from the
speaker and making it into a 'language,' that is, an object available for
inspection, reflection, [and] analysis" (Havelock, 8). Gradually, as
literacy increased a new state of mind was dawning with innovative new means
for storing information; no longer was information expressed only in the
form of a demurgy telling one how life should be lived. Some intrepid
individuals began questioning tradition instead. Havelock provides many
examples of literate Greeks attacking Homer and Hesiod, the ostensible
progenitors of Hellenic cultural mores; for example:
"as for divine Homer / Surely his honour and glory accrued simply
from this, that he / gave needful instruction / In matters of battle
order, valorous deeds, arms and men" - Aristophanes Frogs
"Looking at the greater tales, we shall see the models for minor
ones.... The greater ones are those told by Hesiod and Homer.... They
were the composers of fictions related by them to mankind, and which
continue to be related" - Plato Republic (quoted from
Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides and many other "pre-socratic"
philosophers also abused Homer; and yet they all could not escape him
Thucydides could not escape Homer either. From the viewpoint of average
Greeks, Homer was their original historian (Havelock, 23). Thucydides
seems particularly aware of Homer's pervasiveness in the Hellenic system
of identification in his so-called Archeology of I.1-21,
where he attempts to
analyze and realistically
reinterpret the stories of the Trojan War.
In this sense, Havelock
characterizes him as "modernised and literate... a self-styled
writer" (148). However, Thucydides still has the legacy of
Homer with which to contend as noted by his vehement defense of his
investigation as opposed to "the lays of the poet displaying the
exaggeration of his craft, or... the compositions of the chroniclers
that are attractive at truth's expense" [I.21]. Furthermore,
considering the quote from Thucydides in I.22, note that Thucydides
says "interpretation of the future" (which isn't that remote
from prophesizing - the cause for many a historians' lament) Even
putting the tradition of Homer aside, Thucydides still constructs
his with a heavy reliance on oral discourse: the speeches
compromising a large portion of the History; but let's not get
too carried away. He could not have remembered verbatim the speeches
he did hear nor could he trust the memory of those who related some
speeches to him. Thucydides conscientiously alerts the readers that
he didn't trust his or anyone else's memory; but rather he meticuously
weighed the evidence and attempted to convey the "general sense"
of the speeches
I bring up the so-called "oral residue" in Thucydides just to remind
everyone that the shift from orality to literacy was not an abrupt and complete
schism, for oral discourse didn't become extinct nor has its influence on
literacy ever been diluted away. The shift from orality to literacy was a
cultural transition which we see well on its way as Thucydides works under an
intellectual paradigm different from Homer conceptually, technologically,
culturally and historically. Thucydides is contending with a tradition as well
as creating one.
Thucydides and History
By Writing History Thucydides Created History
I hope the section on Orality and Literacy introduced how Thucydides'
historie, or analytic methodology, was a result and a part of
the process of the transition in Greece from an oral based cutlure to a more
literate one. Havelock asserts that "[t]he true parent of history was not
any one writer like Herodotus, but the alphabet itself" (23); perhaps so,
but the first researchers (or what we call historians) like Herodotus and
Thucydides were engaged in expanding the capabilities of literacy created by
the alphabet. Their prose replaced poetry as the medium of "preserving
the record" (Havelock, 21).
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. is clearly the work of
someone immersed in a new literacy. He used written research in relating
and analysing the distant past (Westlake, 9). He set up the History
in chronological order of events, split between the summer and winter
months. Furthermore many scholars (Gomme, Westlake, and Proctor to name
but a few) have convincingly posited that Thucydides initially took notes
at the outset of the war and may have written the first book or two only
after the Peace of Nicias in 421 B.C. (the War began in 431 B.C.). With
further retrospection, Thucydides revised and reinterpreted the events he
noted. His historical narrative ends in 411 B.C. yet he alludes to the end
of the war in 404 B.C.
The fighting between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians (and their
respective allies) was considered separate wars. Only upon looking
back at the entire course of events did Thucydides consider the so-called
Ten Year War (431-421), the seven years of skirmishing during the Peace of
Nicias (421-414?) and then the resumption of full-fledged war until the
defeat of Athens in 404 as one continuous war of twenty-seven years which
he named The Peloponnesian War
Thucydides also concluded that the ill-fated Athenian expedition against
Syracuse in 415 B.C. was an integral component of the Peloponnesian War.
The retrospection and reinterpretation Thucydides shows in his work some
of the ramifications of the shift towards literacy. Thucydides also
provides numerous interjections of his personal analysis of events.
He gives his reasoning as to why the Peloponnesians and the Athenians
he provides contrasts between the Athenian culture and the
Peloponnesian culture which he considered to the primary cause for the
start of the war - the conservative, oligarchic Peloponnesians feared
the adventerous, daring of the democratic Athenians
In regard to the numerous speeches exigent to Thucydides' dialectic, Proctor
claims that Thucydides "was addressing the speeches which he put in the
mouths of his characters much more... to his readers than to their supposed
audience at the time... he must have been well aware of the effect of his words
on a reader" (12). Thus we see parallels or echoes in the speeches of
Pericles, Cleon and Alcibiades - although they had quite disparate
characteristics (Proctor, 12). However, I'm sure many of those listening to
these speeches potentially could have read his text, so keeping this in mind,
Thucydides was probably careful not to embellish too much - and at Thucydides'
own behest, he intended to provide an authentic and honest account.
Through his investigation, Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian
War, he wrote history for us in all intents and purposes. He transcribed
events which became a classical referent for Western civilization; his
methodology and writing of history became an exemplar for later historians
(Starr). Finally hypertext continues Thucydides' promise that his work would
last through time. Certainly we can see in this writing changing and affecting
I hope that this Web site, in both its content and form, provides some
illumination on the dynamics of writing. Many scholars, especially Ong and
Havelock, give writing as the main cause for the changes in Greek thought and
expression. We can detect the paths from orality to literacy in ancient Greece
by attempting to appreciate the different mindset required for a primarily oral
culture and then contrasting it with a literary work such as The History of
the Peloponnesian War. We can see through Thucydides' analysis of history
that writing changed thoughts and modes of expression and that writing itself
was changing; and through our analysis we see that writing continues to change.
But once again I am back to considering writing like some independent entity.
Rather, the technologies of writing change: Thucydides was writing on papyrus
and taking notes on wax tablets; his work was also an artifact which perhaps
could have been owned (Havelock, 148). Accordingly, Thucydides could reflect
on the twenty-seven years of war between the Athenians and Peloponnesians, and
draw deeper insights into causes of events and connections between events which
at the time seemed unassociated.
Cultural mores change writing: Athens was an intellectual and cultural
beacon which attracted all kinds of sophists and philosophers; some
pre-socratics like Anaxagoras and Protagoras were questioning the old
tradition preserved through orality. Protagoras was announcing that
truth was subjective and that every argument had at least two sides
(Proctor, 36). Certainly this new
tradition of intellectual query resulting from years of gradual transition
to literacy influenced Thucydides' approach to historie.
Writing itself changes writing: literacy allowed thoughts to become ostensibly
objectified and created the notion that ideas "exist" (Havelock,
290); writing unburdened the human mind and permitted more time and energy to
be spent on questioning and examining instead of memorizing. Thucydides' prose
and his examination and interpretation of historical and cultural causes of the
Peloponnesian War and and the personal motivations behind these causes could
not have occurred without the changes literacy evoked.
The changes detected in Thucydides aren't the same changes we face today.
However, as I think we all are struggling to some degree with the
technological inovation of hypertext, we should appreciate that the form of
writing does affect the content; just as Thucydides' historical investigation
reflects a literate mind journeying out towards the possiblilies writing
affords, hypertext reveals poetential changes in literacy. We trust
Thucydides' accuracy, whereas we now admit some of the realities about Homer.
We may consider Thucydides more "realistic" and plausible than Homer;
yet Homer is no less a "true" document of Greek culture at the time
as is Thucydides. Writing is then a dynamic tool which affects change as
Contact me by e-mail:
email@example.com (Mark K. Rutkus)
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Check out my personal "Officially Sanctioned Homepage" at www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/2768. Unfortunately, I haven't had time to work on it much but take a look at it every now and again.
Thucydides' work is variously referred to as The History,
The History of the Peloponnesian War,
or The Peloponnesian War Wick,
Throughout this Web site I will refer to any one of
these titles depending on the appropriateness of the context.
In order to avoid confusion, please note that I will always
capitalize and italicize the title; otherwise I will be
referring to the generic term "history" or the actual conflict
Thucydides considered the Peloponnesian War.
Any citations or quotations from Thucydides' text are from the Crawley
Translation The Peloponnesian War
which can be viewed at any time at the Perseus Project at:
- Gomme, Arnold Wycombe. More Essays in Greek History and Literature Ed. David A. Campbell. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969.
- Havelock, Eric A. The Literate Revolution in Greece and It's Cultural Consequences. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.
- Hunter, Virginia. Past and Process in Herodotus and Thucydides. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.
- Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routlege, 1982.
- Proctor, Dennis. The Experience of Thucydides. Warminster, England: Aris and Philips, Ltd., 1980.
- Starr, Chester G. The Flawed Mirror. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1983.
- Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War Ed. T.E. Wick. New York: Random House, Inc., 1982.
- Wade-Gery, H.T. Essays in Greek History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.
- Westlake, H. P. Studies in Thucydides and Greek History. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 1989.
Return to Homepage
Go to Introduction
Go to Orality and Literacy
Go to Thucydides and History
Go to Conclusion
Go to Notes
Go to Other Resources
for links where there is a plethora of information on Ancient Greece.
If you go, please remember to come back to this Web site. Please.
(I highly recommend you visit this site to see images of Greek perceptions of literacy and brief descriptions of them).