Did Thucydides Really Tell the Truth?

The hidden agenda of the pioneering historian.

Modern readers are often shocked to learn that the Athenians—citizens of a free city who defeated the Persians when they invaded Greece, built the Parthenon, and staged the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles—also massacred the citizens not of an enemy state but of a neutral power. Ancient readers were also shocked when they learned this story from the same source: Thucydides, the exiled general who recorded the atrocity, and the dialogue that preceded it, in an account that is in many ways the model for all subsequent western histories of high politics and war.

The drama is riveting. In 431 BC a conflict now called the Peloponnesian War had erupted between two sets of cities, one led by Athens and one by Sparta. It had raged for 15 years when the Athenians demanded the allegiance of the heretofore neutral Melians, whose city traced its origin to Sparta. The Melians balked, and at their request, the leaders of the two sides held a private conference.

The Athenians spoke first. With breathtaking frankness they dismissed considerations of justice as irrelevant. Justice could obtain only between equals. “For ourselves,” the Athenians said, “we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The Melians claimed the right to hope that they could resist the Athenians’ overwhelming power and that the gods might support them. The Athenians responded with contemptuous clarity: “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.” When the Melians refused to submit, the Athenians, helped by local traitors, besieged and captured the city. They executed all adult males, sold the women and children into slavery, and sent out colonists of their own to repopulate the island.

Powerfully written scenes like this one have fascinated, excited, and worried readers for two millennia and more. One critic, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, insisted that the Athenians’ words “were appropriate to oriental monarchs addressing Greeks, but unfit to be spoken by Athenians to the Greeks whom they liberated from the Medes.” Modern readers continue to feel the illuminating and frightening power of this great history, and they still try to use it to understand the present. When American soldiers destroyed villages in Vietnam, protesters at universities in the States bitterly recalled what the citizens of democratic Athens said and did at Melos.

What lesson or lessons did Thucydides hope to teach? And did his desire to draw lessons conflict with his professed belief that historians should tell the truth? Over the centuries, scholarship has grown like kudzu over the text. Older generations collated Thucydides’ work with other sources and debated the order in which parts of it were composed or revised. More recently, scholars have updated an approach put forward by F.M. Cornford in 1907. They have taken the existing text as a coherent whole and used literary techniques to analyze it. From this standpoint, it looks as if when Thucydides composed the Melian dialogue, he modeled history partly on tragedy. Did he mean this distinctive episode as a comment on the war as a whole?

The literary approach is one of many that Donald Kagan does not take in his eloquent new study of Thucydides —just as the Melian dialogue is one of many passages that he does not analyze (even though he notes its suggestive power). That Kagan admires the Greek historian is clear. He argues, at length, that Thucydides invented real history. Unlike his predecessors, Thucydides believed that history must be true to be instructive,and did systematic research. Unlike them, too, he believed that men made their own history, without divine intervention, in a world ruled by force and fear. Kagan emphasizes, and shows sympathy for, Thucydides’ claim that his book would offer indispensable guidance for those engaged in future wars, for centuries to come. But he argues that we should not trust Thucydides too far—not, in fact, very far at all—when it comes to understanding the Peloponnesian War.

A long-serving professor at Yale and a pre-eminent modern historian of fifth-century BC Greece, Kagan has mastered every source, from the contemporary comedies of Aristophanes and inscriptions that recorded treaties and tribute payments to the later biographies of Plutarch, that can confirm or qualify Thucydides’ account. He mobilizes all of these resources to support what he presents as a revisionist approach to Thucydides. The Greek historian, Kagan notes, was not a disinterested observer but a participant in the events he described. A member of the Athenian elite, he served as a military commander, and the city sent him into exile when he failed to protect Amphipolis, a strategically valuable colony. When he began to write, he had an agenda of his own.

Thucydides’ narrative, Kagan argues, was an effort to clear the Athenian elite of blame for multiple errors and to put the blame on Athenian democracy: Thucydides wanted his readers to believe that Pericles, the statesman and general who dominated Athenian politics at the start of the war, had had a viable plan to defeat the Spartans. But after he died of the plague, demagogues gained control of the city. One of them, Alcibiades, persuaded the Athenians to send an armada to Sicily. It failed catastrophically. But Thucydides insisted that the disaster wasn’t the fault of the aristocratic general Nicias, who led the campaign. The decay of Athenian politics, itself largely caused by the death of Pericles and the pressures of warfare, led to the Sicilian disaster. In fact, the campaign could have worked if Nicias hadn’t made crucial mistakes. For all Thucydides’ careful research and for all the dry precision of much of his prose, he didn’t just give the facts; he mounted a highly successful campaign to shape posterity’s view of the great events of his time.

Powerfully argued and beautifully written, Kagan’s book has a paradox at its core. Thucydides, according to Kagan, invented the project of objective political history. He analyzed what Machiavelli would call “the effective truth of things”—the granular, ugly facts of political life. And yet his work distorted the events in vital ways. The great revisionist who removed the gods from history played tricks of his own on the past. But no one could see through them until another great revisionist, Donald Kagan, pulled the magician’s curtain to the side and revealed him at work.

All historians write in part about themselves. Kagan wants to be the heir of Thucydides, the tough-minded historian who thought the past could illuminate the future. A liberal turned conservative activist, he has used historical analogies to argue that America needs more muscular policies and stronger armed forces. But Kagan also wants to be the heir of the Athenian democratic politicians who fearlessly invaded far-off Sicily: After 9/11, he ardently supported plans for the invasion of Iraq, talking as tough as Alcibiades and disparaging unpatriotic “defeatists” who criticized the invasion or doubted its positive effects. These two ambitions are in tension, and they leave fault lines throughout Kagan’s book.

Kagan has some right on his side: Thucydides did select his evidence, as all historians do, and he had firm views about the nature of the Athenian polity and much else. But his approach is only partly novel. Historians have made similar arguments for generations. Theodore Wade-Gery argued 60 years ago, in an article in a standard reference work, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, that Thucydides misrepresented major Periclean policies and actions. And the literary approach that Kagan largely rejects shows, in its own way, how Thucydides artfully shaped his material.

Thucydides also aimed at intellectual and literary targets that Kagan doesn’t touch on. Kagan systematically avoids detailed discussion of passages like the Melian dialogue and Pericles’ funeral oration for the Athenian dead—the set pieces that glow like literary constellations in the dark night sky of Thucydides’ history, and that make it hard to use his work—even by reading it, as Kagan does, against the grain—as a warrant for imperialism.

In his account of the revolution in Corcyra, Thucydides tells his readers what happens to society, and even to language itself, in an age of civil war: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any.” Almost two and a half millennia before Orwell, Thucydides diagnosed the diseases of language caused by war and faction. He admitted that men could live by lofty sentiments in peacetime. But “war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” Hence the corruption of character and language, which “have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same.”

Through the whole fever dream that is human history, no one has ever written more cogently of the disasters of war than this retired general, who saw war as the natural condition of states. No one has ever dissected more meticulously the character of a great democratic state, or revealed more vividly the moral corruption that war brings with it. Of that Thucydides—who was every bit as real as Kagan’s consummately political historian, and who speaks to us every bit as powerfully—the reader will find few traces in this book.