Home > Philosophy, Political Theory > Democracy Series: Thucydides the Oligarch?

Democracy Series: Thucydides the Oligarch?

What follows is one piece of a longer series of posts which I have named the Democracy Series. Throughout these posts I would like to explore how Democracy as a political form is viewed currently and how often the modern paradigm alters the way we view classical or ancient democracy. In this piece I investigate Karl Popper’s claims that the great historian Thucydides’ personal oligarchic and anti-democratic leanings obscured his depiction of the Peloponnesian War and Athenian democracy. In the backdrop of this, readers should keep in mind that, at the time of Thucydides’ writing, Athens had already fallen to Sparta and the empire of rents with which She had dominated the Greek islands had long since crumbled.

When reading Thucydides we must never forget that his heart was not with Athens, his native city. Although he apparently did not belong to the extreme wing of the Athenian oligarchic club who conspired throughout the war with the enemy, he was certainly a member of the oligarchic party, and a friend neither of the Athenian people, the demos, who had exiled him, nor of its imperialist policy.[1]
-Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

The above quotation serves to illustrate Karl Popper’s main arguments, which claim Thucydides was an unabashed supporter of the oligarchic party, an enemy of Athens, as well as critical of Athens’ status as an imperial power. However, I shall advance the thesis that Thucydides’ conception of Athens’ imperialistic democracy is much more complex, specifically when viewed through Pericles Funeral Oration. To show this, I shall first juxtapose Thucydides’ eulogy of Antiphon with that of Pericles. From there I shall highlight key passages of Pericles’ Funeral Oration to demonstrate how Thucydides himself weighs in on Athenian imperialism. By the end of this essay I hope to have shown that Popper’s criticisms of Thucydides are simplistic and do not fully take his complex view of Athens and her ideals into account.

Before beginning it is important to highlight the method by which Thucydides approaches The Peloponnesian War, as it will help illuminate later on why textual evidence from his writings can be used to call Popper’s claims into question. Attempting to distinguish himself from earlier historians who relied more on fantastic anecdotes (like Herodotus) and poems than strict adherence to concrete facts, Thucydides says of the speeches that “it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”[2] This approach is slightly problematic, since in the same sentence Thucydides admits he constructed some speeches based on what the orator was likely to have said but also that they adhere to what was actually said.[3] Nowhere does he elaborate on which speeches he heard himself and which speeches he reconstructed. Given this method, it can be difficult to distinguish what elements of The Peloponnesian War might indicate Thucydides’ own leanings versus those which are impartial recordings of events. However, through analyzing Thucydides’ eulogies and his account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration a distinct voice emerges that appears to celebrate Athens’ greatness rather than criticize her tactics. The first of these elements is Thucydides’ eulogies for Antiphon and Pericles.

Eulogies for Antiphon and Pericles – Athens’ Best Men

In some rare instances Thucydides breaks with his narrative and introduces an interlude that almost certainly reflects his personal opinion. Two such instances of this occur in his eulogies for two Athenians at the opposite ends of the political spectrum of the time: Antiphon, leader of (and orator for) the oligarchs, and the pro-democrat Athenian general Pericles. In an attempt to illustrate Thucydides’ negative attitude toward Athenian democracy, Popper points to his eulogy for Antiphon, saying, “Another case in point, bearing on Thucydides attitude, is his eulogy (in VIII, 68) of the oligarchic party leader, the orator Antiphon.”[4] As Thucydides relates it, Antiphon was the mastermind behind the revolution and installation of the Four Hundred oligarchs. In his eulogy of Antiphon, Thucydides says: “But he who concerted the whole affair [of the Four Hundred coup], and prepared the way for the catastrophe, and who had given the greatest thought to the matter, was Antiphon, one of the best men of his day in Athens.”[5] Popper thus invokes Thucydides’ description of Antiphon as one of the best Athenian men as evidence of his anti-democratic bias. However, Popper overlooks a similar eulogy Thucydides gives for Pericles which calls this alleged bias into question.

Following the first invasion of the Peloponnesian War and the plague that befell Athens, Pericles lost esteem in the eyes of the public. But this was only temporary and the Athenians re-elected him as general:

understanding that he was the best man of all for the needs of the state…Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude – in short, to lead them instead of being led by them for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them.[6]

In this vignette, Thucydides not only names Pericles the best man for the needs of Athens, but praises him much more than he does Antiphon. The fact that Thucydides praises an oligarch and a democrat, a revolutionary and a general, in the same manner calls Popper’s firsts point into question if it does not obliterate it entirely;  the similarity of these eulogies further serves to underscore the complexity of vision with which Thucydides saw the development of the Peloponnesian War. While the similarity of these eulogies is not in itself conclusive, it certainly does not unequivocally relegate Thucydides to the side of the oligarchs. Rather, it introduces the possibility that Thucydides might sympathize with Pericles and his ideals, an idea to which I shall now turn.

Athenian Imperialism and Pericles’ Funeral Oration

Popper’s second and most substantial criticism of Thucydides is that, as a member of the oligarchic party, he sought to fight against Athens’ imperialism:

Thucydides was one of the representative leaders of this movement for the ‘paternal state’ and…he could not disguise his sympathies with their fundamental aim…to fight the universalistic imperialism of the Athenian democracy and the instruments and symbols of its power, the navy, the walls, and commerce.[7]

Popper charges Thucydides with being critical of Athens’ imperialist tendencies when first describing the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. To support this, Popper says, “Athens’ rule over its empire, [Thucydides] tells us, was felt to be no better than a tyranny, and all the Greek tribes were afraid of her. In describing public opinion at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, he is mildly critical of Sparta and very critical of Athenian imperialism.”[8] Popper goes on to quote a passage from Thucydides wherein he says the majority of the Greek world supported Sparta as the liberators of Hellas and that many were fearful of being dominated by Athens.[9] Yet even if we accept that Thucydides is heavy handed in laying the initial blame for the war on Athens, this is surely tempered by his depiction of Athenian politics as found in Pericles’ famed Funeral Oration.

The claim I would like to advance is that, given the manner in which Pericles approaches the eulogy for his fallen comrades, and hints of Thucydides’ own opinions, the Funeral Oration can be viewed as Thucydides’ defense of Athenian democracy and imperialism. More than a simple condemnation or absolution, the Funeral Oration lays bare Athens’ democracy at home and its imperialism abroad unapologetically; the Oration serves as a celebration rather than a justification of Athenian ideals and greatness. The democratic ideals represented in the Funeral Oration have been discussed almost ad nauseam in discussions of contemporary democracy and so I shall omit them, focusing instead on the themes of power and imperialism.[10]

Pericles begins his speech by thanking the Athenian ancestors for having passed along an unbroken chain of power that allowed for the formation of the Athenian empire: “And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise [for keeping Athens free], much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions to us of the present generation.”[11] Imperialism runs in Athenian blood as much as it runs in Athenian history. Even more so, Athens has struggled and given up much to maintain its empire, and such sacrifices should not be casually discarded or ignored. Maintaining the empire is not without its benefits either. As Pericles says, the greatness of Athens does not lie in a romanticized view of history but in her concrete achievements, and this greatness surpasses moral judgments:

Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our eulogist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us [emphasis added]. [12]

This passage is particularly telling with regard to the argument of the Oration as a defense of imperialism for two reasons.  The first, already mentioned above, is that Pericles does not pass moral judgment on Athenian imperialism and instead focuses on Athens’ strength and posterity. It is much less important to Pericles that Athens be in the right than that Athens leave its mark for future generations.

The second reason this passage is particularly informative is that it provides proof of Thucydides’ own opinions nestled within the Funeral Oration. This is readily apparent when we compare the italicized portion of the above quotation, which rejects the need for epic poetry and instead favors the indisputable monuments and facts of Athenian dominance, with an earlier statement made by Thucydides. When discussing how his method differs from those of past historians, Thucydides declares that, “Assuredly [my conclusions] will not be disturbed either by the verses of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense,” and shall instead following from facts and direct evidence.[13] Comparing this disdain for any poetic and artistic representation of history with Pericles’ utterance, “far from needing a Homer for our eulogist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact”[14] an undeniable similarity appears. Not only do both passages reflect skepticism toward poetic renditions of history, they also each focus on the importance of adhering to the facts of history. I do not see this as a coincidence, and instead believe it is a hint to the careful observer that Thucydides identifies at least partly with Pericles’ sentiments regarding Athenian imperialism.

Concluding Remarks

Popper claims Thucydides’ heart was not with his native city of Athens, and that The Peloponnesian War demonstrates his commitment to the oligarchic party. However, one of Popper’s main criticisms, an apparent praise of the oligarchic leader Antiphon, is inconclusive; Thucydides’ eulogy for Antiphon is not unique, and he gives a similar and more robust eulogy for Pericles. Following this, a close reading of Pericles’ Funeral Oration reveals a praise of Athenian greatness rather than a justification for Athenian imperialism, and Thucydides’ own voice can be seen behind the veil of Pericles’ speech. Given this textual evidence, Popper’s claim that Thucydides is an obvious enemy of Athens and of democracy falls apart and a more complex view appears. I believe Thucydides recognized the greatness that Athenian imperialism had brought to his city, and this may have rivaled or bested any loyalty he possessed to the oligarchic movement of the time. A quotation from Pericles’ speech defending his strategy following the second Peloponnesian invasion demonstrates this possibility: “I am of the opinion that national greatness is more to the advantage of private citizens than an individual well-being coupled with public humiliation. A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country be ruined he must be ruined with it.”[15] Coupling this with Thucydides’ description of the Four Hundred coup as a “catastrophe”[16] it is quite possible that, despite his political position, Thucydides recognized that the greatness of Athens depended very much upon her imperialist past and surpassed personal political motivations and moral judgments.

Works Cited

Popper, Karl. Enemies of the Open Society Vol. I. Princeton: Princeton University Press,    1971.

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

[1] Karl Popper, Enemies of the Open Society Vol. I, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. 190-191.

Popper’s claim rests not only on the textual evidence presented in this paper but also on the work of several historians. It is not my intention to address these outside sources, nor am I claiming there is no evidence external to the text that Thucydides was a member of the oligarchic party.  In this paper I only address the textual evidence claimed by Popper.

[2] Thucydides, 15 (1.22).

[3] Robert B. Strassler highlights (but does not resolve) this issue in his introduction to The Peloponnesian War, specifically in section II.V (Thucydides, xv-xvi).

[4] Popper, Open Society, 332.

[5] Thucydides, 519 (8.68).

[6] Thucydides, 127 (2.65).

[7] Popper, 197.

[8] Popper, 180.

[9] Thucydides, 93-94 (2.8-2.9).

[10] Popper, as many others have, utilizes Pericles’ discussion of Athenian democracy at home in his discussion of the Open Society numerous times (specifically pgs 7, 42, 95, and 186).

[11] Thucydides, 111-112 (2.36).

[12] Thucydides, 114 (2.41).

[13] Thucydides, 15 (1.21).

[14] Thucydides, 114 (2.41).

[15] Thucydides, 124 (2.61).

[16] Thucydides, 519 (8.68) in his eulogy for Antiphon.

  1. narutolost
    September 6, 2013 at 5:40 AM

    No offense, but as a layman I feel this passage doesn’t say anything remarkable. You’re just saying Mr. T was pretty fair/balanced and didn’t throw himself completely to following any of the political factions. Couldn’t this passage then be a bit shorter?

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