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Past Historians And Past History In Thucydides Notes

Classics Notes > Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War Notes

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Thucydides on past history and past historians One of the principle aims of Thucydides is accuracy and so, on the whole, he avoids past history because he admits when drawing conclusions from it "one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition." However it is clear that at times it is necessary to explore such past history and it is interesting to consider instances in the Sicilian books where he does this: namely the archaeology of Sicily and the Tyrannicides digression. Also the way in which this relates to earlier texts, especially Herodotus, and how Thucydides tries to distinguish himself from or emulate such authors is of further importance. In the introduction to his work he is keen to point out the inaccuracies of previous attempts to chronicle past history and he puts great emphasis on the fact that authors of such works were unwilling or unable to carefully check and cross check stories. He says he will do better in that he will check his sources with as much thoroughness as possible and obtain different accounts of the same event since individual sources are liable to forget or be partial to one side; in doing so he hopes to achieve conclusions which are reasonably accurate considering he is dealing with ancient history. He is also keen to avoid being led by his own impressions; another comment which infers criticism of previous historians. However the most striking way in which he tries to distinguish his history is the absence of a romantic element. He says the poets exaggerate their stories for literary effect and that prose chroniclers are, "less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be check, and whose subject-matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable stream of mythology." In contrast he says his work shall not cater for the taste of the immediate public but will help those of future generations understand as accurately as possible the events of his own time; and since human nature never changes he hopes it will be a work that will be relevant for all time. When writing parts of these aims it is clear he had Herodotus in mind and that he wanted to tighten up his historiographical technique by ridding it of its more frivolous, fantastical elements and deal strictly with more serious history. This is not necessarily criticism of Herodotus as a whole because he obvious had a great respect for him by continuing where he left off and emulating his later books, but he merely disparages his use of myths and stories. For example at the beginning of the Sicilian books he, "dismisses briefly and contemptuously the traditions about the Cyclopes and the Laestrygonians." (Westlake). He has more forthright contempt for other lesser authors who are perhaps more accurately described as logographers. This includes men such as Hellanicus, whose poor quality work makes it necessary for him to digress in the Pentecontaetia and fill in the areas which they insufficiently described. "The only one of them who has touched upon this period is Hellanicus, in his Attic History, but he has not given much space to the subject and he is inaccurate in his dates." However he is not totally dismissive of all previous sources, for example he clearly relies heavily on the history of Sicily by Antiochus of Syracuse because all his foundation dates are with reference to Syracuse itself.

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