Thucydides – Finding Purpose in War
© 2012 Brian Forbes

I’m going to start with a summary, because people have a very short attention span on the web. 

Thucydides was an ancient war historian.  A plain reading of his history gives evidence for a young humanity.  He said that he wrote only what he could verify from eye witnesses because truth can have value in itself, even if the embellished accounts are more interesting.  He found in his day that people didn’t really vet their sources, repeating things that are easily refuted.  He said that it was common to embellish the deeds of those that came before them, to make the story more interesting.  He said that times before him were less epic because of less money and fewer people.  He said that there were people who married within their own family and others who traced their lineage to gods.  He mentions that hereditary kingdoms commonly became tyrannies.  He also recounted the foundations and migrations of several nations near to his home.  The nations weren’t around forever, but they had beginnings that were told in historical accounts.  This information does not jive with the evolutionary embellishment of history.  Come to think of it, it’s an embellishment to call it an embellishment.  The popular story of human evolution is a modern day fairy tale.

If you look back to the most ancient times, to the very start of civilization, to the very definition of ancient, what you find is Thucydides book on the Peloponnesian War.  The book is full of alliances, treaties, battles and diplomacy.  To me, it was utterly boring!  He even admits it’s going to be boring: “And very likely the strictly historical character of my narrative may be disappointing to the ear.”

Why, then, am I writing about it?  Well, the answer is twofold.  One reason is that the text is very old (approx. 400 BC), and it touches on times that I am interested in.  The other is that it confirms a lot of what I say in my book, From Noah to Hercules.  Taking the name of a great ancient historian of war and showing that even he believed that the gods were normal men with flowery stories gives credibility to my assertion.  It was a very common perspective of the time.  See my book and fliers for more examples.

I have repeated here only what I found relevant to this point, taking an unfinished eight volume work down to a couple pages of quotes and comments.  Hopefully, this can save you some time, time better spent looking into the genealogies from Noah to the kings of Europe (see After the Flood by Bill Cooper) or the deification of ancient kings and ancestors as the foundation of paganism (see From Noah to Hercules by me).


He starts his book by laying down how he thinks that history should be written.  It’s not good to embellish it to make it more enjoyable.  It’s better to make it accurate and boring.  “He must not be misled by the exaggerated fancies of the poets, or by the tales of chroniclers who seek to please the ear rather than to speak the truth. Their accounts cannot be tested by him; and most of the facts in the lapse of ages have passed into the region of romance. At such a distance of time he must make up his mind to be satisfied with conclusions resting upon the clearest evidence which can be had.” He’s right.  We can’t go back and test things.  We have to accept or reject these things based on what we can determine today, which is very little.  He gave a good reason to strive for accuracy, too, “There are many other matters, not obscured by time, but contemporary, about which the other Hellenes are equally mistaken. For example, they imagine that the kings of Lacedaemon in their council have not one but two votes each, and that in the army of the Lacedaemonians there is a division called the Pitanate division; whereas they never had anything of the sort. So little trouble do men take in the search after truth; so readily do they accept whatever comes first to hand.” 

He preferred to use eye witnesses, including himself, to determine the truth of what happened.  With issues of history, what do we have that is as reliable as eye witness testimony?  “Of the events of the war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry.”  And he said that he worked hard to get it.  “The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other.”  Though it’s not very interesting to some readers as entertainment, he did hope that the accuracy would be of interest in itself.  “But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied.”

Because he spent so much time and energy trying to make it accurate, he did add credibility to his account, but, at the same time, most of what he wrote about was completely useless to me, thus reading most of it was a waste of my time. However, he did touch on the things I found valuable at times.  It was the little things that make it worth the researching.  “…under the leadership of a Corinthian, Phalius, son of Eratocleides, who was of the lineage of Heracles…”  Of who?  If it was a specific Heracles, one that wasn’t the obvious, famous one in history, shouldn’t he have given some description with the name?  Someone during his time was descended from Heracles.  He also made mention of another founder of a nation marrying his sister.  “Nymphodorus the son of Pythes […] who had married his sister, was made by the Athenians their proxenus at that place and invited by them to Athens.”  Then he tried to win over the founder of an empire. “…Sitalces, who was the son of Teres and king of Thrace […] the father of Sitalces, was the first founder of the great Odrysian empire, which he extended over a large part of Thrace, although many of the Thracian tribes are still independent.”  He was a first ruler of an empire, yet he wasn’t ruler over all the tribes.  This really does resemble what you would expect from a humanity that was just starting to grow, not one that had been established for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. 

But that wasn’t the only useful bit.  He said that the Trojan War was a historical event.  That was vindicated in modern times with the uncovering of the ruins of Troy, but it wasn’t always clear to historians.  He said, “And we may fairly suppose the Trojan expedition to have been greater than any which preceded it, although according to Homer, if we may once more appeal to his testimony, not equal to those of our own day.”  Not only was it history, but it was exaggerated by Homer.  An exaggeration implies some element of initial truth, does it not? “He was a poet, and may therefore be expected to exaggerate; yet, even upon his showing, the expedition was comparatively small.”  Of course it was small!  If we assume the young earth model of history, the populations of towns and nations grew exponentially during those times.  How much smaller?  “For it numbered, as he tells us, twelve hundred ships, those of the Boeotians carrying one hundred and twenty men each, those of Philoctetes fifty; and by these numbers he may be presumed to indicate the largest and the smallest ships; else why in the catalogue is nothing said about the size of any others?”  Would we claim that this was a worthy military in our own day?  Of course not.  But he doesn’t blame the youth of humanity.  He blames poverty. “Poverty was the real reason why the achievements of former ages were insignificant, and why the Trojan War, the most celebrated of them all, when brought to the test of facts, falls short of its fame and of the prevailing traditions to which the poets have given authority.”  They were poor, so he says.  And I have very little reason to doubt that.  That could also be a reason why they didn’t have the leisure time to put together tomes about their own history. 

Consider this thought.  What kind of ruling class would have developed with near ape men?  Tribal chiefs perhaps?  He reveals a stunning fact about the nature of government in those times.  The nations were ruled by “hereditary kings”.  I’m not sure if that meant that they were made kings and kept their power through inheritance, or if it meant that they were the king of the family, being the oldest or most revered of the tribe.  Either way, it fits with my model, but not with the evolutionary one.  “As Hellas grew more powerful and the acquisition of wealth became more and more rapid, the revenues of her cities increased, and in most of them tyrannies were established; they had hitherto been ruled by hereditary kings, having fixed prerogatives.”


There are two more passages that I wish to bring to you.  They are both very long, and there is a lot to say about both of them, both in context and in my extracts, but I’ll try to leave some speculation and study for you to do, too.  I’ll keep it short and sweet.

One passage was a funeral speech given by someone who doesn’t matter about someone I don’t care about.  What counts is how he saw funeral speeches, and how they were used to embellish the life story of those who died.  “Most of those who have spoken here before me have commended the lawgiver who added this oration to our other funeral customs; […] But I should have preferred that, when men's deeds have been brave, they should be honoured in deed only […]” He’s disagreeing with the custom of a funeral speech.  Because, “The friend of the dead who knows the facts is likely to think that the words of the speaker fall short of his knowledge and of his wishes; another who is not so well informed, when he hears of anything which surpasses his own powers, will be envious and will suspect exaggeration.”  People are motivated at a funeral to say too much or too little.  Since people end up saying too much, funeral speeches are generally not believed.  “However, since our ancestors have set the seal of their approval upon the practice, I must obey, and to the utmost of my power shall endeavour to satisfy the wishes and beliefs of all who hear me.”

He then starts in on his speech by honoring their common ancestors.  They left them land, government, riches and peace.  “But before I praise the dead, I should like to point out by what principles of action we rose to power, and under what institutions and through what manner of life our empire became great.” Then he reveals a lot more about the nature of statues, monuments, and poets like Homer.  “…there are mighty monuments of our power which will make us the wonder of this and of succeeding ages; we shall not need the praises of Homer or of any other panegyrist whose poetry may please for the moment, although his representation of the facts will not bear the light of day.” He then spews mush about friendship being a longer lasting tribute.  “Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.”  What we have came through the toil of our ancestors, their bonds and loyalties, regardless of what is said about them.  The city and people who outlasted them is honor enough.  “Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious. And of how few Hellenes can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame!”  This is a powerful statement, provided you flip it around.  He says that those who were praised in ancient times were not as worthy as they were made to be by those who survived them.  “For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”  He says again that we ought to remember our predecessors, not only because of the honors they get from the poets and memorials, but because we’re here and we have what they gave us.  “For all men praise the dead…” …at least in their culture in their time.  It was a major practice of paganism to honor the dead.


The next message that I want to convey from Thucydides was at the beginning of Book V.  “I will now describe the original settlement of Sicily, and enumerate the nations which it contained.”  This is relevant to me for a completely different reason than it was for him.  “Oldest of all were (1) the Cyclopes and Laestrygones, who are said to have dwelt in a district of the island; but who they were, whence they came, or whither they went, I cannot tell. We must be content with the legends of the poets, and every one must be left to form his own opinion.” The nation was started by mythical figures, but he doesn’t have any more information on that than poets give us.  I think it’s wonderful that he gives poets historical credibility when he’s trying to be eye-witness reliable.  He doesn’t discount everything they say.  “(2) The Sicanians appear to have succeeded these early races, although according to their own account they were still older; for they profess to have been children of the soil.” The relevance of that statement is obvious.  Who isn’t from the soil?

From here, it goes into the migrations and names of people groups.  “After the capture of Troy, some Trojans who had escaped from the Achaeans came in ships to Sicily; they settled near the Sicanians, and took the common name of Elymi […] The Sicels were originally inhabitants of Italy, whence they were driven by the Opici, and passed over into Sicily; according to a probable tradition they crossed upon rafts, taking advantage of the wind blowing from the land, but they may have found other ways of effecting a passage; there are Sicels still in Italy, and the country itself was so called from Italus a Sicel king. […] Such were the Barbarian nations who inhabited Sicily, and these were their settlements.”  Take note that these men are making towns and sticking together.  Like ants in an anthill.  People were never hunter-gatherers, at least I see no evidence of it in historical accounts.  Another sample from this passage, “The city was named from the river Gela, but the spot which is now the Acropolis and was first fortified is called Lindii.”  This is very common in ancient authors.  They start the nation with a certain group with a certain name, often after the name of their leader or first patriarch, then they tell how they moved around and defeated or got defeated.  The land and landmarks were given names associated with their tribe or nation.  I won’t give too much of this here, because we’re not looking to figure out the origins of nations, just prove that they had them.  The details are secondary to the point.  If this is an area of interest for you, though, you can find the story of more nations than this in this section of Book V. 

Something obvious, yet profound as you read ancient accounts is how little common testimony we have among the nations in our day.  Take a sample of the history of each nation across the globe today and you won’t get common stories like those in ancient accounts.  In their day, they were completely separate, yet they talk of the same people.  They speak of nations whose inhabitants were so few that they took a couple small ships to wage war.  The customs, such as how they honor their dead and embellish their stories, are similar, and yet they spoke different languages.  Compare the differences to those of the US and Mexico.  The languages are different, so there’s only the slightest mixing of culture, and the stories of each culture trace back to their mother countries (England and Spain) far more than from each other.  Common stories point to common ancestry.  Yet there’s a limit to the amount of change in the stories.  Their common stories show that they couldn’t have been millennia removed from one another, yet they would have had to be to develop completely new languages.  How anyone could believe in a hundreds of thousands of year old humanity is beyond me.  It simply doesn’t match the facts of history.

To tell you the truth, I’m not really all that interested in chronicles of war from any era.  They are meaningless to me.  If that’s your thing, go for it.  You’ll probably enjoy reading Thucydides.  Yet his books should be valuable to all of us, because they make obvious the common origin of mankind.  That’s not boring.  That’s purposeful.


For your convenience, the translation I used is here.