Thucydides Versus Herodotus: Who Was the Real Father of History?
By Ben Potter/Classical Wisdom
There has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Herodotus and Thucydides. Both men have been granted the 'father of history' accolade, but chronologically Herodotus must be the marginal winner of the distinction as Thucydides picks up where he leaves off. But the reality is they both provided us with invaluable historic sources of differing sorts. How do these great scribes and their fascinating historical accounts compare?
Who Was Herodotus?
For those in need of a quick recap, Herodotus was born circa 484 BC into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education, and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveler and chronicler he did.
‘Herodotus’ by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Relief on the right of the left window, right part of the west façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris. (Jastrow/CC BY 3.0)
Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon, and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer. It was from these journeys that he chronicled his magnum opus, The Histories.
The Histories was never fully taken at face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.
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Fragment from Herodotus' Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. ( Public Domain )
Meanwhile, Thucydides, was born in 460 BC in the center of the Ancient Greek world, Athens, but had considerable influence in Thrace due to owning gold mines. He is most famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War, which detailed the happenings of the war between Athens and Sparta.
This is the plaster cast bust currently in exposition of Zurab Tsereteli's gallery in Moscow (part of Russian Academy of Arts), formerly from the collection of castings of Pushkin museum made in early 1900-1910s. Original bust is a Roman copy (c. 100 CE) of an early 4th Century BCE Greek original, and is located in Holkham Hall in Norfolk, UK. (shako/CC BY SA 3.0)
In the beginning he experienced the epic conflict first hand as an Athenian General...until he lost a crucial battle and was disgraced. This action led to his exile - a surprising benefit and important step to becoming the outsider recording events.
Differences Between Herodotus and Thucydides
With essential historical data conveyed, we can return back to our comparison and contrast of the two historians. The differences between Herodotus and Thucydides are in style, interpretation, and purpose.
Herodotus passes no judgement, but reports what he has heard, even when plainly ridiculous. Also, he is more holistic; concerned with nature, culture, speech, art, with the cornucopia of the human condition. Thucydides is reporting on war and war alone.
Another key difference is that Herodotus' chronicles show what moral lessons can be learnt. Thucydides isn't concerned with morality, but pragmatism. He thinks men's mistakes come in the deed, not the thought.
It is for this devotion to the pragmatic that Thucydides, together with Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, is considered the father of political realism – in other words, the need for a nation to be militarily and economically powerful rather than good, just, or ethical.
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli. (Public Domain)
This legacy flourishes right up to the modern day; Thucydides' text is still standard issue at the U.S. Naval College in Newport.
- The Illustrious Life of Pliny the Elder, Ancient Historian and Roman Commander
- Herodotus, Cato the Censor and Josephus: Understanding the Life and Times of Historians of the Ancient World
- Thucydides: General, Historian, and the Father of Scientific History
An Unfair Comparison?
In truth it is not really fair to compare Herodotus to Thucydides. Herodotus is a strange amalgam of Homer, Polybius and Pliny the Elder. He isn't a historian, but a holistic compiler, almost an encyclopedia writer. Actually we've made a historiographical soap-opera out of a rivalry that doesn't really exist.
Pliny the Elder. ( Public Domain)
But, supposed rivalry aside, it would be unfair and churlish to dwell on the limitations or bias of such a great and innovative source as Thucydides. This is a period of history which included such great writers as Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes – none are more enlightening on the politics of the times than our exiled historian.
Top Image: Herodotus and Thucydides. Source: Public Domain
By Ben Potter
Ben Potter is a writer and university lecturer. He has lived and taught in several countries; notably Japan, China, Thailand, the UK, and Italy. He has an MA in Classics from The University of Edinburgh.
Classical Wisdom Limited is an online publishing company that strives to promote and preserve the classics from Ancient Greece and Rome. We aim to bring ancient wisdom to modern minds. You can visit our website here: http://classicalwisdom.com