Ken's Reviews > Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

Thucydides by Donald Kagan
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's review
Aug 09, 11

I wondered what the author meant when he said that Thucydides was writing a revisionist history since he was the first one writing a history of the Peloponnesian War. He had two goals in mind to revise what he thought were errors in contemporary thought on the subject and to leave an objective record for future readers. The author disagrees with many of Thucydides' interpretations of event, yet finds that he has left a clear record for later readers to come up with their own interpretations and understanding of events. For instance, Thucydides lays more blame upon the sort of democracy that would lead to rash decisions about the invasion of Sicily rather that the architect of the disaster, Nicias. Contemporaries and the author believe that Nicias should have abandoned Sicily while there was still time to save his army. He didn't due to fear of being put to death when he returned to Athens having failed in his expedition. Consequently his whole army was destroyed.

There is a discussion of the workings of the Athenian democracy. During Pericles' lifetime about 50,000 people were considered citizens and in any given time about 5.000-6,000 would show up at the assemblies held on a hill called the Pnyx. The citizens sat on the hill and listened to speakers on a low platform. The meetings were called when needed and would approve and disapprove measures, pick generals, etc. Thousands citizens were too many to conduct business without help so they had a Council of Five Hundred, chosen by lot among the citizens. This councils main job was to prepare legislation for consideration by the people. In the end the vote would be a simple majority among the whole of the citizens at a meeting.

There were a great number of public servants chosen by lot by the assembly;such things as market inspectors were even chosen by lot.

Juries consisted of from 51 to 1501 jurors. There was a very complicated selection of jurors to prevent any kind of bribery. Trials were held in just one day. The litigants would make their testimony and then there would be a vote. The trials despite their many flaws were simple, speedy and open. If a plaintiff did not win a certain percentage of the votes they would have to pay a hefty fine which was a way of preventing frivolous law suits.

I quite enjoyed this work and am happy to learn about the first political historian and the Greek historian who had the greatest influence upon later ancient historians and his influence on those of modern times.


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