Thucydides ( 455 BC – 400 BC), the great historian.

Thucydides is one of the most respected historians of antiquity. Because many people are wont to seek for written testimonies rather than that they believe geographical evidence, we listen to this historian, whose discourse is about the Peloponnesian War in Greece (431-404 BC). He was one of the commanders in this war.

(Translation into English by Richard Crawley (1874), released 2009, Gutenberg E-books)


In his Book One, in paragraphs 18 and 19, Thucydides makes a few pungent remarks about how common people take information about history. “ The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever.” And: “So little pain do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.” His message seems to me to be: no scholastic belief in authority, please; check the story with scientists who wrote about it, but also with what you know and have yourselves proof of, backed up with experiments and observations.

Book One in first paragraphs (“the Archaeology”) gives some sketch of the situation in what I would call “Pre-Hellas”. The populations (tribes) were shifting around, without much real settling, as invasions and piracy drove many away, making investments in agriculture and in fortifications not worthwhile. Some people see these paragraphs as describing the Mycenean civilization era, and those ages as the Homeric times in which Iliad and Odyssey played, but more closely observed this cannot be so, as already stated by Moses Finley (2009). Only a few things, always mentioned, and in fact very few concrete finds, are congruent with Homeric descriptions, such as helmets made from many boar tusks and bronze swords with silver studs, as well as (naming of) chariots and bronze body armour. This has shown by later finds to be quite common stuff found in more cultures, e.g. bronze swords with silver nails, and it provides not enough congruency (also in the opinion of several other people) to link the said periods and cultures that strongly. Cremation instead of burial of the dead is an important aspect to help differentiate between Homeric and Mycenean culture. The “Agamemnon” of Schliemann was buried, and his impressive golden mask became famous. No pyre, no barrow. That is not Homeric.

As about the time of the fall of Troy, the public opinion has been influenced largely by the indeed surprising finds of Schliemann. Nowadays, a hundred years later, there should be more attention to what other archeological finds since Schliemann do say, without prejudice, and what can be said against the story of Schliemann. Was this famous war really so early in history? And Thucydides should be read and interpreted with new background thoughts. Interpreting without any mindset however, is never done in research, as great Darwin already noticed.

Thucydides mentions the Trojan War in later paragraphs (11, 12), linking it to invasions by and displacement of various tribes known by still existing names, and accepting the war as historical. He also falls in with the setting of the Homeric landscape in Greece and Ionia /Mysia, as he of course had no other option. He held Mycene in Greece to be the Homeric city, and he may have held the place we now call Hissarlik ruins to be the Troy of Homeros, like many did later in Antiquity. He may have had information that people (refugees) from Troy had settled there in Hissarlik. He mentions that Homeros was born “long after” the Trojan War, which indication I take as several generations after the event, not several hundreds of years. He even has critique on Homeros, finding some exaggeration in the numbers of warriors and ships. In his remark that king Agamemnon did not have enough funding (Thucydides uses the word money) to finish the Trojan War in a reasonable time of a few months, he shows his great experience as a general, though in another context of warfare. But for us the problem here is that we think Homeros did not mention money anywhere, and that we thus are inclined to think money did not play any role in the culture Homeros describes. The “payment” to the Achaian nobles and common soldiers was the plunder they were allowed to keep, after some re-distribution in public , as Homeros explains several times.

After the statements on funding and warfare in paragraph 10, Thucydides says in par.11 that Hellas, described by him as a tumultuous concoction of little and unstable chiefdoms before the Trojan War, after this war still was in a state of ferment, with many resettlements and invasions. This, as I already said, points to the “Dark Ages”, which period came after the downfall of Myceanean culture and dominance, and these Dark Ages were not before 1150 BC, the actually assumed date of Troy’s downfall when Hissarlik ruins are taken for Troy.

In this paragraph 11 also the famous Dorian invasion is mentioned as having taken place some 80 years after the capture of Ilium. Various specialists now think the Dorian invasion is an invention of the later Greeks, as no further archaeological evidence can be found. Thucydides writes: “Twenty (plus sixty) years later, the Dorians and the Heraclids became masters of Peloponnese; so that much had to be done and many years had to elapse before Hellas could attain to a durable tranquillity undisturbed by removals, and could begin to send out colonies, as Athens did to Ionia and most of the islands, and the Peloponnesians to most of Italy and Sicily and some places in the rest of Hellas.” Here Thucydides names the first colonization of Sicilia, and we suddenly have a date we can check. This was found in our time to have been in 734 BC, the year of the founding of Syracuse. Next he says “All these places were founded subsequently to the war with Troy.” (end of par. 11) What is this? Is a long period, of four centuries, from 1150 -730 BC a meaningful information to date an event? Methinks not. Troy’s fall must for Thucydides have been an event of several generations before the founding of Syracuse, and this fits with the idea presented in the website page Invasions, Ilion and Homeros, that Troy’s fall has been around 800 or 780 BC. It should be realized that a generation in those turbulent times was rather a twenty years period than a thirty years one. A few generations after this period falls the mythic foundation date of Rome.

The whole discourse sofar, as I said already, fits the ending of the Dark Ages, and not the end of the Mycenaean period. The date of the return of the sons of Heracles has to be seen in this context of the last of the Dark Ages, and not in any Mycenaean era. “Dark” here is used as an indication not of “bad times” but as being opaqe, hindering research by not providing information.

That Thucydides mentions Minos as a good organizer of his fleet and a great fighter of piracy, could be seen as a reference to Minoan culture. He mentions no decline however of this Minoan culture through the Mycenaean invasions, no Theran eruption (about 1630 BC), and I think he will not have known about it. The Egyptian priests must have known about these important facts indeed but only answered questions, not providing to strangers facts they did not ask about. In Greece these events happened too early for oral tradition to conserve it and the history had not been written down. Minos is here just the legendary organisator of a famous past, in the same rank as the Minotaurus, the Argonauts and other myths.

Thucydides then mentions the building of fleets by the various city states in paragraphs 12 and 13, and places it in 730 BC in Corinthe. This text has been understood by some (e.g. Gideon 1973) as resuming the building of ships, and that no ships had been built for a long time. But Thucydides probably says that the (maybe few) ships before this time were mostly penteconters, open fifty-oared boats, which were (maybe) of the old Homeric type. Living in Greece without ships is unthinkable, but the quality wood needed was already scarce, and had probably to be obtained in far away regions. The new type was an early trireme, preceding the famous triremes that later won the war with Persia, the building of which ships was funded by the happy find of much silver in the mines of Laurion. Money had become important for warfare indeed at the time, Thucydides was right.

I have but little knowledge of early history of Greece, and possibly more can be found in this context, but I have to leave the subject to others to elaborate it further, in a more informed way.