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Herodotus Compared With Thucydides
November 21, 2001
Herodotus and Thucydides are the first two ancient Greek historians whose works are available to us. They are known not only known for writing first account of ancient Greek history, but also, each in his own way, for shaping the future of history writing.
Herodotus was born ca 484 BC. The latest references he makes in his Histories are to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War1, but we do not know his exact date of death.
The fact that he starts out his history with mythological accounts from the beginning of Greece and goes up to the Persian Wars means that Herodotus could not have been a reliable source of most of the events described in his book.
Even having dismissed the mythological part of the Histories, he was only a little boy at the time when the other (real) events took place and could not have remembered them well.
This means that he probably acquired his data from a third souce, e.g., the veterans of the Second Persian War. Even though we can expect this data to be quite accurate, it had most likely been altered in the minds of people who liked to preserve their glorious past.
On the contrary, Thucydides' work is based on events he had experienced himself. The main theme of his history is the Peloponnesian War, the war between Athens, Sparta and their allies that went on from 431 to 404 BC. He was born between 460-455 BC and died ca 400 BC. This makes it clear that Thucydides wrote about the events of his own time, taking notes along the way and polishing his work later.
Herodotus is not being linear in his writings. Book VII of The Histories, for example, is mainly about the Second Persian War, with references to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War2, with a few comments on events of which the historian "spoke a while ago"3.
Thucydides' history, on the contrary, is remarkably linear, even though not perfect either4. He avoids skipping ahead to tell us the ending of the incident he is talking about. He would rather keep the chronology straight and make the final episode known when its proper time comes. The accounts of Pausanias5 and the narrative of Alcidas' fleet6 are good examples of such a maintenance of chronology.
Thucydides' introduction is substantially longer than the one of Herodotus. While the latter simply introduces himself and states the goal of his writing, the former goes into more detail describing his reasons for writing the history and the methods he used. He even comments on the problems he was not able to work out, e.g., the alteration of speeches, which his memory could not have preserved exactly7.
Both historians start out their histories with introducing themselves by their name and the birthplace as: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus" and "Thucydides, an Athenian". Even though "the mention of the author's name and country in the first sentence of his history seems to have been usual in the age" in which they wrote8. It is interesting that the men introduce themselves by the name of their birthplace. They identified with their home cities even though both wrote at least part of their works in exile.
In the aspect of personal life, we know more about Thucydides. Herodotus does not tell us too many things about himself.
By collecting information about Halicarnassus of Herodotus' times, we can potentially learn more about the historian this city produced, collecting some information that he did not tell us about himself.
The first line of Herodotus' Histories is: "These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus..." This shows us that he did do a certain research. He probably asked people about stories of their land, while travelling in different places. His work contains information heard from all over the Mediterranean, not just the stories from only one city-state.
Herodotus' main purpose is to preserve "from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due need of glory"9.
Herodotus lived after the events described, Thucydides - during. This helped Thucydides to give us a more precise description of the events. Thucydides made a conscious effort to give us a non-biased account of the events. By this he contrasts himself to Herodotus. Even though Herodotus did research trying to get the exact information, he has definitely mixed the historical events with gossip, mythology and simply events he could not have known about.
On the contrary, Thucydides did his best to give us the exact information, or at least to let us know if the precise information in this case was not available, for example, his speeches. He is consciously trying not to be like Herodotus who puts no doubt (or makes it seem so) into any information he gives us and starts out his work with a semi-mythological background of the Greek history. It needs to be mentioned, though, that he reduces amount of divine participation in most of the legends he tells10.
Continued here: Comparison of Herodotus & Thucydides: Part 2