Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2019

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Unit IV: Greek Philosophy and History, ca. 450-350 B.C.

Week 13: The Historians
Herodotus (ca. 484 - ca. 425 B.C.)
and Thucydides (ca. 460 - ca. 400 B.C.)

Please have read by class this week:

This week we will turn to a completely different kind of writing — namely, the writing of two of the giants of Greek historiography.

Bust of Herodotus
Herodotus, Marble Bust.

Herodotus, widely called the “Father of History”, came from Halicarnassus (not Athens), and wrote a long, rather shaggy history of the Persian Wars in the middle of the fifth century B. C. His anecdotal narrative is pieced together from his travels and interviews with random people, and while it is almost always engaging and entertaining, it is not always very reliable. He wanders from one topic to another, abandoning the matter of the Persian War for whole books at a time to give accounts, for example, of the peoples and customs of Egypt or Scythia. The result is a kind of grab-bag of tales — some taller than others — loosely tied around a critical point in the history of Greece. The passages I have excerpted for you here should be sufficient to give you a taste for his writing, but to get a real impression of it, one needs to read the book thoroughly over time. Fortunately, his history is the kind of thing one can dip into almost any time, and at almost any point, without a great deal of preparation.

If Herodotus was the father of history, the Athenian Thucydides was its less indulgent uncle, in many ways the first practitioner of a critical historical method. In his monumental Peloponnesian War, he takes a skeptical view of all his sources, weighs and balances conflicting reports, and considers both their intrinsic probability and the reliability of their sources. It stands alone in ancient historical writing for its discipline and the penetration of its insights.

Bust of Thucydides
Thucydides, Marble Bust.

It is worth noting that for all his critical method, Thucydides saw nothing wrong with making up speeches that he thinks his characters should or would have given in any given circumstances — as he freely admits in his introduction. Accordingly, some of the most moving speeches in the work, such as Pericles’ funeral oration given here, are probably his own fabrication. Nevertheless, he was serious about probing the higher questions of moral accountability behind the war, and about understanding why this calamity had come upon Greece. So while it would be an exaggeration to call him a scientific historian in the modern sense, it is definitely true that his unflinching — sometimes shocking and repellent — account of the Peloponnesian War is one of the great monuments of historical writing to this day. Thucydides wrote it, as he says, in the hope that it would become a treasure for the ages, and indeed it has.

Both these works are available in a number of places complete — those interested in further information should contact me.

Consider as you read both works:

  1. How do the styles of the two authors differ? How would you describe these differences?
  2. Both Herodotus and Thucydides are concerned with understanding history as a moral phenomenon. How does this square with your own ideas of what history is about?
  3. In treating the morality of history, both authors have to look at similar problems to those faced by the dramatists. Herodotus is writing about the events of Aeschylus’ life, as Thucydides is writing about matters contemporary with Euripides. Can you detect any correspondence between the tone of these two times? How has society and culture changed?
  4. Compare Herodotus’ treatment of the Helen episode with Euripides’ treatment of the same matter. How is the sense you get from each different or similar?
  5. How is historical writing a literary process, and how is it not? What is the place of creativity in historical writing? Is the historian’s responsibility to present “just the facts” or is there something else at work?