Fathers of History


One of the hardest things about History is to try to imagine it in three dimensions. For us living in the present, there is a sense in which all historical figures occupy the same plane, or belong to the same past. Yet when they were alive, those men and women had their own sense of past, present and future, of their relative situations in time. Herodotus and Thucydides, for instance, the two men who between them invented History as a subject, were near-contemporaries.

Herodotus was born around 484BC and died around 59 years later. The war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire which forms the core of his “Histories” was won by Greece, and above all by Athens, (490-480), following which Athens went on to create her own empire. Herodotus was involved in drafting his great work from around 450, probably performing sections of it in public in the style of poets like Homer before him.

Thucydides was born in Athens around 460, which makes him 30 and Herodotus in his early fifties-and still writing- when a second war broke out between the victors of the first. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta lasted 27 years and ended in the total defeat of Athens and the destruction of its empire. Thucydides spent most of those years in exile, returning to Athens no later than 404 where he died around 400. Everything we know about the Peloponnesian War we know only because Thucydides wrote its history- a contemporary history in his case. Although his manuscript breaks off abruptly in 411, we can tell from certain internal references that he continued to work on it well past that date.

Now add Plato. Plato was born, say, 430-425 and died about 343. That means Plato’s birth and Herodotus’ death take place at roughly the same time; Plato spent the first 20 years of his life living through the war Thucydides wrote about; and Plato was already 30 when Thucydides died.

We don’t know whether or not these men ever met or what they thought of each other (we know Thucydides read Herodotus and had a low opinion of him, but that’s all.). Their time scale, which covers much of the Golden Age of Greece, is the time scale of a family rather than the time scales we think of when dealing with History with a capital H. The whole thing extends no more than three overlapping generations- 150 years tops- the stretch of a grandfather, father and son. Yet in that short period, the span of a single individual’s memory, the intellectual and moral development of the West took off at warp speed. There’s no other period like it if you’re a European, and a Western European in particular. Maybe the Renaissance for art. Maybe the 20th century for science. But even those achievements, stunning though they are, can’t compare with ancient Greece for the simple reason that the Greeks had their Golden Age before anybody else. The Greeks came first. They lived in the springtime of the Western world and an historical spring, unlike the climatic sort, never happens twice.

So what did the Greeks do that was so special? One thing they did was to invent a new way of answering questions of that sort, using the power of reason, of rational thought, which was a key Greek discovery. The Victorians thought it was the key Greek discovery and that the Greeks were rational beings par excellence. It’s been said each century sees the Greeks in their own image, as having the qualities that century values or is interested in, so it’s not surprising that in the last hundred years our emphasis has been on Greek irrationality, on the importance of their mystery religions and so on. Still, few people would deny the Greeks found a new tool in reason or that, like all brand-new tools, it had a special power and sharpness when they wielded it.

Thucydides makes one of his characters tell his audience: “anyone who maintains that words cannot be a guide to action must be either a fool or one with some personal interest at stake: he is a fool if he imagines that it is possible to deal with the uncertainties of the future by any other medium.”

Words meaning words not prayers. Words meaning words not prophecies. Words meaning reason. And, incidentally, “words”, as in “the spoken word”, rather than “ideas” or “information”, because Greece was still largely an oral society that had only been writing things down for a couple of centuries. If you were a Greek and you wanted to engage with a reasoned argument, you most likely went out and heard it spoken in public speeches and debates.

And what you then could use those words qua reason for was “to deal with the uncertainties of the future.” In other words, to deal with life- since life largely consists of the uncertainties of the future, along with the instability of the present and the problems left over from the past: the whole, incessant chop and change of fortune, its twists and turns, its slings and arrows. This fundamental uncertainty was an obsessive theme for both Herodotus and Thucydides. They came back to it over and over again. And they did so not only because life really was more uncertain and unstable two thousand years ago than it is today, though that was clearly true for many people (but by no means for all. Today, 4 billion of the world’s 6 billion people live in the Third World where conditions remain radically uncertain); but also because, despite the many improvements in physical security over almost three millennia, one of the things people learn as they grow older is how much in life remains at the mercy of chance or fortune or events beyond their control. The other thing they learn is that events, situations, patterns tend to repeat themselves.


Both these ideas- the uncertainty of life and the repetition of events: the one suggesting life may be random, the other suggesting, if no more than suggesting, a pattern from which we might learn- haunt Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ new subject of History like the witches at the birth of Sleeping Beauty.

It’s as if, for the Greeks, the dark realm governed by chance or fortune covered most of the earth and over against it they had this tremendously powerful new instrument they could shine on it, the light of reason. So they went about exploring the potential of their new tool, shining it into different corners and finding out what it could do. Herodotus and Thucydides found a new corner, which they called History. But what exactly did they mean by that? According to M.I. Finley, Herodotus’ “great discovery” was “that it was possible to analyse the political and moral issues of the time by a close study of events, of the concrete day to day experiences of society, thereby avoiding the abstractions of the philosophers on the one hand and the myths and legends of the poets on the other”- the poets and philosophers being the only previous ways to go if you wanted to get a handle on the uncertainties of the future, along with the parallel uncertainties of the present or even the past. So History turns out to be where those “words that are the guide to action” can be found, for both Herodotus and Thucydides.

But History is also where words as a misleading guide to action can be found. This is History as propaganda. History as a story we tell ourselves. History as an invented past rather than the real one. History is now and was right from the beginning dangerous stuff because it goes to the consciousness of a people, their collective lies, their fears and hopes and resentments and dreams. Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides are wholly free of these prejudices- are wholly rational, therefore. The two centuries that include the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, the golden age of Athens and its fall, and the creation of History by Herodotus and Thucydides end with the defeat both of Persia and of the “free” Greek city states by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander The Great. They were centuries when Greece was overshadowed by, and defining itself against, the might of the Persian Empire, the sole superpower of the day. Persia invades Greece. Athens’ rise to its own Empire starts with its part in defeating that invasion. Sparta and Athens fight the Peloponnesian War. Sparta wins and Athens is ruined because Sparta allies with Persia.

This is the central subject matter both Herodotus and Thucydides have to deal with as historians: the whole story of the Greeks. Their own people’s story. How well do they tell it? By modern standards, pretty poorly. Thucydides, much the more professional of the two, nevertheless omits all the detail of Persia’s involvement in the Peloponnesian War although that war was Thucydides’ life’s work and Persian involvement was crucial to its resolution. Thucycides refers to it, but that’s about all. As for Herodotus, if (almost) everything we know about the Peloponnesian war we know from Thucydides, much of what we still believe about Persia’s wars with Greece we believe because of Herodotus. Herodotus is one of the main sources for the founding myth of the Western world, of how a doughty, hopelessly outnumbered, freedom-loving little band of Greeks took on and defeated the might of a cruel, luxurious, tyrannical Asiatic Empire. Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Platea. Greek martial victory was Greek moral victory, of free men over slaves, and thus the West was won, or rather born.

The only trouble with this story is that it’s false. Persian defeats owed more to imperial overstretch than Greek valour. According to a leading contemporary ancient historian, “one cannot have great confidence in what (Herodotus) says…one just cannot believe a great deal of what he says and one is suspicious about a great deal more.”[1] The same authority traces Herodotus’ unreliability to his “addiction to the doctrines of Panhellenism”[2] which involved a glorifying of everything Greek and denigrating everything Persian. The first proponents of the Glory that was Greece, it turns out, were the Greeks themselves.

This is no small matter. The Western founding myth remains a potent force in the 21st century: you don’t have to look very far into America’s “War On Terror”, for example, to find it lurking below the surface, and its influence has been damaging ever since the Greeks themselves believed in it only to wake up to find their freedoms extinguished and their states under the domination not of the Asiatic devil but the Macedonians. Which prompts us to ask, if Herodotus is so biased and Thucydides so selective, why do we consider them great historians? Or to put the same question another way, what did they do that earned their Histories a place in history?


Herodotus didn’t plan to be the first historian. He planned to be a travel writer. He set out to write a travel book, and a bestseller, since travel writing was as popular a genre among the Greeks as it is with us today. We know almost nothing about Herodotus’ life except that he was born in Halicarnassus, a coastal town in southwest Asia Minor, now part of western Turkey but in Herodotus’ time an easternmost extension of the Greek Diaspora. From this provincial colony, Herodotus set out on his heroic travels that took him throughout the ancient known world. Some critics argue Herodotus never travelled anywhere, that he invented all he wrote. Herodotus has always had an ambiguous reputation as the “Father of Lies” as well as of History, because he included many tall travellers’ tales in his book. But that doesn’t mean he made the whole thing up. Recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed some of his accounts. Assuming he went where he claimed, Herodotus’ journeys were indeed heroic. He got as far south as Egypt and as far north as the Black Sea. He may have reached Babylon in the west and Libya in the east. He crossed and recrossed mainland Greece, the Aegean and the Mediterranean in an age when travel was far more gruelling as well as more frightening than it is for us, at the mercy of weather, wilderness and ocean and exposed to anarchic, widespread violence.[3]

His journeys, then, were an achievement in themselves, but to Herodotus they were just research for his great work. With an eye to what would appeal to the stay-at-home reader, he paid special attention to architectural wonders like the pyramids, to the flora and fauna, and to the main geographical features and the strange customs of the peoples he visited, and he spiced his facts with local legends, tall tales and colourful anecdotes.

Then he returned to Athens and settled down to write his book. That simple sentence conceals a mystery because we have literally no idea how he did it. Some people think Herodotus worked orally, reciting sections of the ‘Histories’ in public, like the poets before him; but that only begs the many questions the ‘Histories’ raise, since Herodotus, unlike the poets, had to organize and relate a vast amount of factual (or quasi-factual) material. How did he do it? How did he do it without the help of libraries, archives, bibliographies, files, indexes and databases, let alone typewriters, copiers, printing presses or the fabulous extensions of human memory made possible by computers? We don’t know what methods he could have used to remember and manage his research, which he had amassed from talking to people. Interviewing them, in other words, the way a modern journalist interviews his sources. Nor can we even imagine how he was then able to shape it into a coherent manuscript that fills over 500 printed pages in the Penguin edition. Equally mysterious, since it belongs to the realm of creative inspiration, is how Herodotus lit on the idea of using the war between Greece and Persia as the main thread in his narrative. It was this idea that transformed his work from a ragbag of chronicles and travel writing into the first genuine “inquiry”- for which the Greek word is “historia”- and won him the title “the Father of History”.

Judging from his book, Herodotus was a benevolent father. He has charm, always suspect in a writer (and, as we’ve seen, Herodotus was indeed suspected and criticised from the word go as a liar, a fabulist). His writing has a Shakespearean inclusiveness and generosity of spirit. He delights in asides and digressions: he delights in everything. It’s easy to imagine him reading to the Athens crowd and lapping up the applause. Though a lot of what he has to relate is a catalogue of horrors, terribly violent, his tone remains dispassionate, objective, and cheerful throughout, sometimes rising to a jaunty insouciance. Only rarely does he brand an exceptional piece of savagery a crime, and its perpetrators mad or wicked, and then usually because it involved some form of sacrilege- the destruction of a temple or some other outrage to piety- rather than because of its innate viciousness. That’s typically Greek. The Greeks didn’t suffer from depression in the face of human cruelty and brutality as we do. They were stoic. They spent a lot of time avoiding the vices of melancholy, which are despair and self-pity, leading to indifference to the sufferings of others. On the other hand, they were prone to the vices of stoicism, which are complacency and self-interest-also leading to indifference to the suffering of others.

Thucydides’ literary persona is almost the opposite of Herodotus’s. If Herodotus is close to being a poet, Thucydides is closer to being a philosopher. Thucydides lets us know from the start that “it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element” –i.e. not like that charlatan Herodotus. You can almost hear the academic sneer in Thucydides’claim that his work “is not a piece of writing designed to meet the needs of the immediate public but was done to last forever.” Thucydides, the historian as civil servant and academic with a proper intellectual rigor, replaces Herodotus, the historian as traveller and explorer with a gift for telling entertaining stories. Thucydides doesn’t limit himself to criticising Herodotus for the latter’s slapdash approach to the facts, as others had already done by then. He condemns Herodotus’ entire project (without naming him, but the references are unmistakable) on the grounds that it’s “impossible” to discover the truth about the past. Only contemporary events, such as the Peloponnesian War was for Thucydides himself, can be the subject of historical research, and therefore of an accurate History.

Thucydides’ comment has some basis in fact, in so far as it’s a comment about the vagaries of memory in a culture where the historian’s main research tool was the interview. Today, the interview is a technique of journalism, which has been called “history’s first draft”. Modern-day historians are dubious about writing contemporary history. They feel safer writing the history of the past, from documentary sources. The professional assessment has reversed itself. But Thucydides is not as objective as he sounds. Thucydides had come second in the race to invent History and no doubt felt he was the better man, forever robbed of primacy by an accident of, well, history.

Reading both these authors today, what’s interesting is how strongly the characters of both men emerge from their work. The reason is because, in a sense, both their histories are works in progress- much more so than the average contemporary academic work, secure in the structures of its discipline. You can actually see History as Subject being created in the pages of Herodotus and Thucydides. They were doing something that had never been done before. No one knew how to do it (or even what this thing called History was) until Herodotus had the notion of organizing all his disparate research material around a narrative of the war between Greece and Persia. You can see him, or rather read him, struggling with the consequences of that decision on the page. And the same is true of Thucydides one stage farther down the line. Unlike his famous predecessor, Thucydides knows from the word go that he’s writing History. He has a self-conscious approach to his discipline and to himself, to what he’s doing (which is one reason contemporary historians have a lot more time for Thucydides than they have for Herodotus, to the point of regarding the former as the real “Father” of the subject). He’s dumped all the marvels and the folk tales and the travel stuff before he starts. But Thucydides too has a Big Idea that he has to struggle to realise. His idea was that History is not just a list of individuals and events but involves more general historical causes. You can see, you can read him in his turn, wrestling with that idea and trying various ways to make it work.

Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides wrote finished manuscripts. They had to make up their works as they went along, not so much make up the facts, to which both men were faithful in varying degrees, Thucydides more than Herodotus, but how to present those facts, what the facts meant and what the aim was of the whole exercise in the first place. Intellectually, things really were moving at warp speed for the Greeks. The sense of reading works whose very nature is to be “in progress” gives their non-fiction the sort of excitement we nowadays look for in fiction or other forms of creative writing.


Back to Herodotus. Herodotus was a great original in many ways, but he still needed a model or a mentor. Herodotus’ model was Homer. Homer wrote about a war-the Trojan War. Herodotus also writes about a war, in his case the Persian war. Homer set out in The Iliad to record and immortalise the great deeds performed by heroes on both sides of the Trojan War. Herodotus tells us in his very first sentence that his aim in writing his Histories is “so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time and great and marvellous deeds-some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians- may not be without their glory.”

So it’s the same thing. Or is it? To modern readers, the most striking thing about Homer is the violence. Homer is incredibly violent, The Odyssey less so than The Iliad although the slaughter of the suitors is a real Hollywood blood and guts set piece. Actually, there’s far more -and more detailed- violence in Homer than Hollywood would ever dare to show. You could argue that’s inevitable since Homer’s subject is a major war and its aftermath, but the truth is the other way around: the Trojan War was not the cause but the consequence of the prevailing, pervasive violence in Greek life. War chose itself as a subject for writers in those days, and that remained true all the way down to Thucydides, who tells us he didn’t think there was anything worth writing about except the Trojan and the Persian Wars, both of which had already been “done”. Luckily for him, the Peloponnesian War breaks out and he sets to work with obvious relish “in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past.”

Clearly, the Greek attitude to war and slaughter was very different from the attitude we have today. On the other hand, it was not so different from the attitude many people took as recently as the early 20th century, when the outbreak of the Great War 1914-18 was greeted with patriotic fervour in many European countries. As for “the past” Thucydides refers to, every Greek knew that past belonged to Homer and to the semi-mythical Trojan War fought by the Homeric heroes who are themselves semi-mythical figures, half way between men and gods. The Homeric world is a world at war and the Homeric heroes like Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus form a warrior caste, as aristocrats continued to do through our own Middle Ages (and beyond).

What makes Homer’s chieftain-warriors different from later versions- what makes them poetic creations rather than historical characters- is their total, single-minded devotion to war and battles. It’s more than devotion. It’s all they are. War is the only arena that counts for them, the arena where they pursue their sole aim in life, the only thing that gives their existence meaning, which is to do the “great and marvellous deeds” Herodotus also talks about. In Homer, the only deeds that qualify as “great and marvellous” involve killing and being killed in battle. Nothing else counts. Of course, there are other things going on at the same time, a lot of other things- people are farming the land, they’re worshipping their religions, they’re building their monuments, poets and bards like Homer himself are wandering around declaiming their verses- but none of it really matters. None of it belongs in the register of “great and marvellous deeds”. By contrast, some of this non-warlike activity does matter for Herodotus, whose definition of a great deed is wider than Homer’s, thus measuring the spiritual and cultural progress of the Greeks in the time between Homer and himself.

But for the heroes of The Iliad, if they can’t kill and be killed in battle, their lives are worse than worthless. As the heroes themselves constantly worry. In one of Homer’s most vivid repetitive images, his heroes fear that without great deeds they’ll be dead weights, occupying space and being a burden on “the good green earth”. Not so long ago, environmentalists produced posters and pamphlets in which mankind-humanity in general- appeared as the greatest hazard to the environment-the ultimate polluter was the race of men. Those same environmentalists argued that mankind in his present form was redundant, an anachronism doomed to destroy himself by destroying the environment that sustained him. There’s something of that feeling about the Homeric heroes too, although their doom is more straightforward. Ecology, in their case, applies only to human beings (or to partly superhuman beings like the heroes, half way between men and gods). Their monomania for violence and war is unsustainable, to use the contemporary term. If there’s ever to be any kind of peaceful, stable society, the heroes can’t be part of it. But, unlike our modern environmental crisis (so far at least), their monomania provides its own solution. They’re bound to kill each other off, to wipe themselves out to the last man or the last hero, while reaping the glory of their great and marvellous deeds along the way.

Homer’s poems are the monument to that glory. For all the good things our culture owes to Homer, he’s also responsible for one disastrous Western trait- the notion that the purpose of history is glory, which gradually over the centuries attaches less to individuals and more to states and then nations, but which is always associated with power and force. That idea starts with Homer and it has two parts. The first part is that the aim of a country, or a people, isn’t the well-being of its inhabitants or peace and prosperity. The real aim should be to enter history, to make your mark on history. Society has History, which turns out to be the same as glory, as its higher calling and, as we know, higher callings justify any amount of sacrifice-usually by other people.

The second part of this idea is that you enter history and make your mark on it by becoming a great power, which means a great military power that fights and wins wars.

Put those two parts together and you have a recipe for empire. What happens from Homer to Thucydides is that the Greeks become comfortable with the concept of empire. Empire starts out for the Greeks as something that’s characteristic of barbarians like the Persians. It’s associated with oriental luxury and despotism as opposed to Greek sturdy simplicity and individualism and, in Athens at least, to democracy. Then the Greeks start to like it. Athens creates its own empire, which in turn is destroyed, and one cycle is complete. But by then it’s too late, the idea of the cycle and the rise and fall of power and empire has become the basis of history, become what history is about.

We shouldn’t blame Homer for any of this. Homer was a great artist but he had to get his material from somewhere, from the reality of the world he lived in, and the reality of the Greek world was a world of city-states that were constantly at war. They were at war with each other; they were at war with the surrounding “barbarians”; and they suffered civil wars in which the leading citizens jockeyed for power, murdered their rivals and rival factions, got themselves banished, fled to a different city for safety and settled down as exiles to intrigue against their old homes and try to provoke a war that would re-instate them. We also need to keep the violence in Homer- and in Herodotus and Thucydides- in perspective. Battles in the ancient Greece were small-scale encounters. Men fought each other on foot or on horseback, at close quarters, hand-to-hand, with swords and thrusting spears. The numbers on each side were in the hundreds or at most the low thousands. The body count for an important engagement in Herodotus or Thucydides can be forty or fifty dead. One result is that History, when Herodotus comes along to invent it, is a personal affair, where he’s able to trace the causes of great historical events back to the actions of individuals.

The individual action that most often turns out to be the motivating force in both Homer and Herodotus, providing the power to get history’s inertia off the ground, is murder. The typical biography of an Homeric hero includes an early murder committed in his home city, causing him to flee to a rival city where, so Homer tells us, his hosts view him with “a sense of marvel” because of his crime. In other words, the hero-in-training first takes on an heroic glamour by taking on the glamour of a murderer; and his later, marvellous deeds during the Trojan War are a fulfilment or apotheosis of his homicidal tendencies. In the almost three millennia between Homer’s world and ours we’ve come to distrust (for the most part) the first, murderous type of glamour while we remain deeply ambivalent about the second, military sort.

Herodotus naturalizes Homer. The players in Herodotus are real historical figures, not legendary heroes, and the war is the real Persian war, not the legendary, or half-legendary Trojan War. According to Herodotus, then, History begins with murder (the Bible takes much the same view) and proceeds on up through a chain of violence and death to war and the clash of empires. The links in the chain are separate acts of revenge or, in Herodotus’ preferred term, of justice.

One murder begets another murder to revenge it which in turn gives rise to a third murder and so on, following the cumulative logic of the blood feud. We’re in a world where “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a progressive slogan because it limited the amount of revenge you could take-limited the violence. You can only take an eye, not the whole head. You can only take a tooth for a tooth, not cut off your enemy’s arms and legs and feed them to the dogs. Of course, even these crude limits were frequently broken since, as Herodotus says, men’s passions override their judgement. In fact, according to Herodotus, the most characteristic act human beings commit is to exceed their natural limits and thereby bring disaster on themselves, or if not on themselves on their children or their children’s children, since the first murder is like lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite. The final explosion can come at any time.

This remorseless cycle of revenge is only half the story. History doesn’t take place in a vacuum in Herodotus. It takes place within the framework of the universe as a whole. But there is a gap between the human world of murder, revenge, war and empire on the one hand and the realm of the gods on the other hand. In Homer, the gods themselves bridged the gap, dictating human events, even occasionally intervening directly in the action to help one side or other in the Trojan War, when they manipulated the heroes like chessmen. Later on in Western history, we have the notion of a Great Chain of Being with celestial figures stretched in a shimmering hierarchy between heaven and earth, moving silently up and down between them on Jacob’s ladder. They don’t really do much, but they too bridge the gap, confirm the essential unity of man and the universe.

Herodotus stands somewhere between these two conceptions. In Herodotus’ world, the sky darkens with blood and smoke from sacrificial fires along with an invisible signals traffic made up of dreams and oracles. Men and animals die violently and in tandem, the smoke rises together with the blood on the bronze swords, the smell of roasted meat and the screams of the slain, and these are the physical links between the human and the divine- links forged out of death and the manner of one’s death rather than out of life or any hope of an afterlife. This is Herodotus’ heritage from Homer. Herodotus is post-Homeric and pre-Christian, but he’s not bereft. A gap has opened up between the gods and the human world but there are still ways to bridge it, there are still things you can do- indeed must do- to avoid disaster.

There is human justice, which is tit for tat. But there’s also divine justice, which corrects human justice. Human justice is based on retribution while divine justice is based on proportion. The wheel of murder and revenge that, as it spins faster and faster, creates History, revolves around a central axis made up of hubris and its counterpart, nemesis. The hubris/nemesis axis ties the human and divine worlds together in a single system. Men are always going too far, says Herodotus. They’re ruled by hubris- by pride, by passion, by an overweening arrogance, by the desire to exceed all limits- in short, by the wish to play god. The most obvious way to play god or “the gods” (like all the ancients, Herodotus was relaxed about the question of divine identity which underwent a kind of continuous, supernatural metamorphosis in their minds) is to take over god’s power of life and death by killing another human being. Then comes revenge, which never stays within its proper limits either. “I shall kill ten of yours for every one of mine”. And so it goes until the gods are forced to intervene to restore the balance.

More naturalising going on . The gods who, in Homer, were capricious in their attitude to human affairs now make their interventions according to a programme or moral philosophy of their own, to restore the universal status quo. But, curiously, even as Herodotus’ view of the universe is more naturalistic and rational than Homer’s, so the more contingent and radically uncertain the universe seems to become. Herodotus tells us that “prosperity”, by which he means not just monetary wealth but everything a man has to anchor and protect him against the vicissitudes of life, never stays long in the same place. God (or the gods), he says, can’t abide human prosperity or human pride which God “reserves to himself alone”. Sooner or later He will strike down the proud and the prosperous. Even worse, God often gives man a glimpse of happiness only to turn around and ruin him utterly. Human beings are creatures of chance, adrift in this world in which no single day is the same as the day before or the day after. If we want to weigh one man’s happiness against another’s, we must wait until they both die. Then, and only then, we can look back and see how much “prosperity”, including health, healthy children, freedom from pain and troubles and so on, each man enjoyed during his life and, still more important, how much each man was able to hang on to up until his death. Only death entitles us to apply the word “happiness” to a human being. Until he dies, a man is merely lucky.

As a result, says Herodotus, a wise man must conclude that death is always preferable to life. This was an astonishing statement for a Greek in the Homeric tradition. Virtual heresy. One of the most famous speeches in The Iliad is delivered by the shade of Achilles, in the underworld, where Achilles says he’d rather comes back to life as a servant, a slave, the lowest of the low-the most miserable life is better than being dead. Totally reversed by Herodotus, following the logic of his argument! And that’s one of the reasons Thucydides, when he comes along, wants nothing to do with Herodotus’ metaphysics but reacts against them by sweeping aside the entire apparatus of oracles and prophecies and divine intervention. Thucydides just junks the whole thing.

For Homer, the gods were intimately involved in human affairs, so intimately that, as one commentator puts it, the divine and human worlds are “the same thing viewed from two different sides” in The Iliad and Odyssey. By the time we get to Herodotus, the gods have retreated, they’ve backed off a way and are watching the action from their observation post labelled Fate or Fortune. They’re still involved, they still have the final, referee’s sanction, but they don’t dictate every detail of the play. Men perform their own actions, as a result of their own conscious choices, and they reap the consequences of those actions. In the space that has opened up between men and the gods, history begins to happen, and what does history consist of? Above all, it consists of conflict, of struggle, the struggle among men and the parallel struggle of men’s hubris against the nemesis delivered by the gods. Without this dual conflict, there would be no movement, no history, and therefore no human achievements, be they famous cities or glorious deeds, great monuments or great empires. That’s the profound bottom line of the whole process.

History turns out to be an inherently violent activity. There’s no avoiding the violence. When it comes to depicting how deeply violence is woven into the world, Herodotus is remorseless. He goes right back down into nature to find its origins. The Arabs, he writes, say the world would long ago have been overrun by flying snakes, which swarm in great numbers, if it weren’t for the reproductive habits of these snakes. At the moment the male snake ejaculates, the female snake seizes her partner by the neck and bites it through. That puts paid to the male snake but the female too must pay for her behaviour: the young in her belly revenge their father by gnawing the female’s insides until they end up by eating their way out. From the smallest to the greatest, this principle remains the same. Darius, the Persian king, on hearing the Athenians have helped to sack and burn his city of Sardis, fires an arrow into the air and cries out “Grant, O God, that I may punish the Athenians.” Then he commands his servant to repeat the words “Master remember the Athenians” three times to him whenever he sits down to dinner. The result is the Persian war with Greece, which will end in Persia’s defeat and the rise of Athens- whose empire in turn will be destroyed by the Spartans, with the aid of Persia.

The logic is relentless. The death toll is appalling. There is death by stabbing, by garrotting, by immersion, by crucifixion, by impalement. The men of Barca are impaled all around their city walls and their wives’ breasts are cut off and stuck up beside them- this is the last act in a series of murders stretching back three generations. The Babylonians, deciding to revolt and needing to secure their city against siege by reducing the demand for food, strangle all their womenfolk, each man being allowed to spare only his mother and one female servant to do the housework. The Scythians drink the blood of the first man they kill, strip the skin from his head and make it into a handkerchief they hang from their bridles. The Persian emperor Xerxes answers a father’s plea for mercy by having the man’s eldest son cut in half, then ordering the army to march between the two halves. Croesus of Lydia has a conspirator dragged to death over a carding comb. Cambyses punishes a corrupt judge by having him flayed alive and his skin made into the seat for a chair: then he appoints the man’s son as judge in his father’s stead and orders him to sit in the chair. This same Cambyses invades Egypt on the advice of a renegade Greek mercenary named Phanes. When the Persian army arrives in Egypt, the Egyptian forces take Phanes’ sons out in front of their army, where Phanes can see them, and cut their throats, catching the blood in a bowl where they mix it with wine and water and have every soldier in the army drink from the bowl.

A man murders a rival in his native city. This is politics. The murderer flees into exile in a different city or state- whereupon either his fellow countrymen demand his surrender or the fugitive conspires with his new hosts to invade his old home town. This is how wars start. When the victorious side in war takes a city, the men are massacred and the women and children sold into slavery. This is how empires are built. But the rulers of great empires, in their turn, fall prey to fits of paranoia or capricious rage ordering the murders of favourite courtiers, captains, priests, doctors, messengers, slaves, relatives and their own children.

Empires themselves, acting out of the same paranoia and the same rage as individuals, engage in continuous wars of expansion until they are defeated by rival powers that become empires in their turn. History in Herodotus is both cyclical and a totally closed system, reflecting and reproducing itself at every turn. It’s a house of horrors in which power and paranoia, murder and war, massacre and mutilation stare at each other in its dark mirrors.

The same stories, the same scenarios recur over and over in both Herodotus and Thucydides. A group sits down to a banquet and gets murdered while off-guard. Or- this is the wartime variation of the same story- an army launches a surprise attack while the enemy is having lunch. People under siege barricade themselves in buildings where they’re either surrounded and burned alive or they burn themselves alive rather than be taken prisoner. Some of these stories may be factual. Some seem clearly mythical, that is to say they contain folk elements which have persisted down the ages and which must correspond, in some mysterious way, to the basic structures of the human imagination. A story of this sort concerns the king who orders a baby to be killed, lest it grow up to usurp him, but the killers relent and the child lives under a false identity. Another folk story involves children being murdered, cooked and served as food to their unwitting parents who end up eating their offspring. Since we’re dealing with the tribe that invented the Oedipus myth, it shouldn’t surprise us that a lot of these violent tales, both the more factual and the folk kind, revolve around the family. The Greeks didn’t share our sentimental and moralistic approach to families. Depending on your point of view, they had either a darker-or a more realistic- view of family dynamics.


If Herodotus presents History as a closed system, does he offer any alternative, any means of escape? To put it another way, if violence was the central problem for the Greeks, is there any way to break the cycle of violence? By naturalising Homer, Herodotus has already shifted the ground on which those questions can be asked- and potentially answered. Violence is no longer an existential force whose only real significance are the great and glorious deeds it gives rise to. Instead, it’s real violence, resulting from real actions taken by real people. Those actions have consequences that can be predicted using the hubris-nemesis system. And what can be predicted can perhaps- it’s only a “perhaps”- be changed.

The hubris-nemesis axis is crucial to the Greeks, it’s a template from which they derive their whole moral code; but it’s not their primary insight. There’s another, still more fundamental principle on which the hubris-nemesis system itself depends, and that’s the principle of proportion, (if proportion is a principle). The Greeks saw proportion more as a religious law than a principle, a sort of divine building plan for the universe and everything in it. Proportion is the quasi-mystical source of logic and ethics alike, both of which, in purely historical terms, it precedes. Proportion is Pythagoras studying nature and concluding that nature is based on ratio-proportion-harmony. The cruel fate of the flying snakes turns out not to be the whole truth about the universe. There’s this other, more hopeful aspect to nature called proportion.

And that in turn leads on to notions of moderation and non-retributive justice on the one hand; and on the other hand, to the essentials of logic and rational thought. We still preserve the connection between the two in phrases like “I’ll reason with him” i.e. to produce a fair, just result, a result in proportion to the demands of both parties. So proportion is fundamental for the Greeks and if you get it wrong, if you become dis-proportionate due to hubris, then it’s going to cause disaster. Conversely, if there were a way to keep things in proportion, if you made that your aim instead of, say, seeking your own glory, maybe there would be a chance to break the cycle.

That’s as far as Herodotus gets and you can really only find it in his work by close reading between the lines. It’s no more than a hint. Herodotus is still busy inventing History and History has to be invented before it can be overcome. There are all sorts of problems with Herodotus’ historical model and it’s the problems, rather than any overt solutions he offers, which suggest there may be a way to progress in History after all. Herodotus’ version of how History works is full of contradictions. For one thing, how can you reconcile a universe in which “man is entirely a creature of chance” with the workings of the hubris-nemesis system? They don’t add up. Secondly, the sum total of individuals plus their actions is an inadequate account of historical causation. Thirdly, what about that gap between the human and divine where, as we’ve noted, History takes place according to Herodotus? For Herodotus, this is the territory scouted by the oracles. The oracles are the mouthpieces of the gods. Throughout his work, Herodotus uses the pronouncements of the oracles as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the action. The oracles give the divine perspective on events and they always speak the truth, though men usually misinterpret them thanks to hubris. But this is rather a ramshackle construction by Herodotus, a bit of a botch job, shoehorning in the oracles and making too literal use of the deus ex machina. It’s a way of avoiding the issue.

As Thucydides immediately recognised. The first thing Thucydides did was to close the gap-get rid of it. He did it by the simple, but radical, move of demolishing one of the sides, the divine side and that whole apparatus, the oracles, the prophecies. Thucydides wasn’t alone in making this move. It was a general trend in Athens during the Golden Age and it revolved around the central question of prophecy- were prophecies true? Did they have any value? The price of denying propechy was denying the mystery in life- the gods -religion- a meaning-full world. The price of keeping prophecy was to limit or even deny free human will and action. We think of the conflict between science and religion, materialism and miracle, a world full of meaning and a disechanted world as a modern conflict, as indeed it is. But the Greeks had their version of the same conflict and at the far end of that conflict was the same hope many moderns cherished, and some perhaps still cherish, of human beings being able one day consciously to master and shape their history and the world as a whole. But something gets lost. You can see Sophocles Oedipus, for example, as a defence of the prophetic meaningful world; and on the other hand, you can see Plato’s Republic as an attack on all that in the name of man’s ability to construct his own society out of his own rational abilities (even if we don’t like Plato’s idea of the perfect Republic) .

Anyway, the result for Thucydides is that the gods play virtually no part in his book. Thucydides records when the various armies he’s writing about consult the oracles, but that’s all. It’s a simple statement of fact. He doesn’t want to go there. Getting rid of the gods as historical actors, even semi-detached actors as they were for Herodotus, frees up the whole problem of historical causation. There’s a new level, the level of broader historical forces, up for grabs once supernatural determinism is out of the picture. So Thucydides’ two main innovations as an historian are firstly, that he cross-checks and double-checks his facts much more rigorously and sceptically than Herodotus ever did (or so claims Thucydides himself!); and secondly, that he is the first Western historian to look beyond events in order to tell us what’s going on behind the scenes. Thucydides peers through the dust of all those battles and murders and the seesaws of outrageous fortune in order to discern some general historical laws. And he does the job so effectively that his central conclusions remain basic premises in political science to this day.

What general historical laws did Thucydides identify? He tells us history is a matter of power relations. “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” Power in turn depends on economic resources. “War is not so much a matter of armaments as of the money which makes armaments effective”. If Herodotus naturalized Homer, then Thucydides is a materialist version of Herodotus. Economic resources may mean money (gold) to Thucydides rather than production as they did to Marx; and the motor of history for Thucydides may be war rather than class conflict and changes in the system of production as it was for Marx; but it’s basically a materialist conception of history. And Thucydides sticks to it like glue. There are no digressions in his book, no extraneous matters, no genial authorial “I” like Herodotus. Everything is honed, concentrated, shaped to make the argument so that, for example, when he describes civil war in cities- a frequent occurrence in his period- he describes it in detail only once, in case of Corcyra. All the other instances get a mere mention. We’re meant to understand that the Corcyran example stands for all the others.

This rigorous compression is not the only Thucydidean manner. He has several different manners that he tries out over the course of his massive work, but it is the main one. For Thucydides, the events of history are important mainly as examples. The point of History as a subject is the way the examples can be classified and the general laws that can be deduced from them. The surprising thing to modern readers is that, when Thucydides comes to tell us his conclusions, he does so by putting them in invented speeches he inserts in the mouths of real-life historical figures.

Actually it’s not so strange. The role the speeches play in Thucydides is the same as the role the oracles play in Herodotus. Greece was still in the process of changing from an oral society ruled by superstition to a society based on writing and reasoning; and the medium that carried the change forward from one type of society to the other was talk. Not talk as in casual conversation; but talk of the more structured sort- talk as in speeches and debates and formal arguments.

Nobody has ever talked like the Greeks, and like the Athenians in particular. They talked about everything and debated everything. If you asked people to name two things they know about the ancient Greeks, one would probably be the Trojan War; but the other, in all probability, would be Greek philosophy-Plato and Socrates- Socratic dialogues- people talking. Before it became philosophy, talking was the basis of Greek politics and that’s very important because it’s been argued the Greek state is a replacement for war as much as it’s a vehicle for war. The Homeric heroes aren’t the only ones who seek immortality through “great and marvellous deeds” on the battlefield. Men in general do the same thing. Because men are mortal, they seek immortal fame; so maybe immortality rather than violence is the real problem. Maybe the violence is secondary. And if that’s the case, what you need to do is to create a peaceful structure within which men can seek immortality, a society instead of a battlefield. Politics replaces war (including private wars of revenge, blood feuds, which are the other primitive form that violence takes).

The Greeks discovered reason and what they did was their discovery was to create the Greek city-state, that precious island of (quasi-) peace) and (a degree of justice) in the middle of the appalling, surrounding violence. On the one side was clan, tribal, private violence, the endless pre-political violence of the vendetta. On the other side was the bloody soap opera of empires, the constant wars of conquest, ethnic cleansing, enslavement, again, like private violence, triggered by the will of a single individual, the emperor. And in between was the Greek city-state that began, and only began, to offer a new way for men to live together, but it was highly unstable, it was constantly menaced from both sides and of course in the end it didn’t last, the city-states fight among themselves and they get conquered and subsumed into a new empire.

Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides wrote history for its own sake. Both men were historians engage and what they were engaged with was Athens and behind Athens the problem of the Greek city and behind that the problem of violence. The state of Athens, seen as the archetypal Greek city, is their real subject and the subtext of their histories- what were the prospects for Athens? Why were the Greek cities so unstable? What were the past mistakes and how could they be avoided in the future? That’s why Thucydides famously ignores Persia in his work.[4] Here is an historian with an acutely realistic grasp of power, living in a world where Persia was the superpower, writing about the Peloponnesian War whose resolution was determined by Persian intervention, and he has little or nothing to say about Persia. Why not? He simply wasn’t interested in Persia. He was interested in the Greek cities, and in Athens in particular. What had Athens done wrong? What had it done right? What lessons needed to be learned for Athens?


What is the basis of the state? The main tradition in Western political science is the state as organised violence: the state has a monopoly on violence and everyone agrees to obey it out of fear, because the only alternative is a Hobbesian war of all against all which is the modern, supposedly realistic version of the world of the Homeric heroes. But there’s an alternative tradition, also stemming from the Greeks, of the state as the collective, creative expression of its citizens. Some commentators who’ve been drawn to this alternative version, like Hannah Arendt have described it as the primacy of the political, but that’s not quite right.

If you start with reason, that Greek gold standard, there are two ways you can go with it. One way is to use it to seek for some ultimate Truth or Facts. The other is to use it to argue. It’s been suggested that the unity of the Greek city-state rested on consensus but this consensus didn’t come from an appeal to some essential Justice or Law that was beyond debate, however much the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle would have liked it to, but out of argument, out of politics itself. What the Greeks had to pit against private revenge and imperial hubris was politics, the process of reasoning and arguing, but it wasn’t merely the results of that process the Greeks agreed to accept but the process and the nature of the process itself. They didn’t just agree to accept The Law meaning a code or series of rules: they went one stage farther back and agreed to accept their own continuing political negotiation of those laws as constituting The Law. The consensus that held together the best of the Greek city-state was an agreement on the status of reason itself. They agreed to be bound by reason rather than by, say, force[5].

Rather than representing the successor to random violence, or the organisation of violence, the state is the answer to violence, a great historical step forward because it provides human beings with a way to co-operate- and compete- for immortality peacefully rather than violently. Like most human advances, it’s very unstable. Thucydides’ History is full of campaigns, battles, and massacres. But it’s also full of speeches and debates among people about whether they should make treaties or go to war or sue for peace or surrender. Those aren’t the sorts of conversations you find in The Iliad. The conclusions people reach in Thucydides might not be the humanitarian, peace-in-our-time conclusions we’d like to see, but, as the saying goes, at least they were talking. Athens was a direct democracy in Thucydides’ time which meant that every issue facing the city had to be debated in speeches given for one side and the other, then the people voted their decision. Thucydides even suggests (and he’s not the only one) that the Athenians’ love for and enjoyment of debate had gone too far, that they were too easily swayed by fine oratory rather than the merits of a case. In any event, it was as natural for Thucydides to present his own ideas in the guise of speeches supposedly made by others as it was for Plato to present his philosophy in the form of dialogues starring Socrates. In both cases, the literary device catches the movement of reason from the spoken to the written word at the precise moment it’s taking place. It also reflects a culture where literary divisions or boundaries are not yet established, so it’s perfectly acceptable to mix fact and fiction, reality and invention in ways we don’t accept nowadays- although we have biographies and other supposedly factual works that make use of “reconstructed” scenes and dialogue.

The speeches Thucydides wrote for his characters all have one thing in common. Their tone is relentlessly pragmatic and hard-headed- what a businessman would call “bottom-line thinking.” Now we know from surviving examples that real Greek speeches weren’t like that. They were much the same as political speeches are today, meaning they were full of rhetoric, fine phrases, even finer sentiments, appeals to morality, decency, compassion and so on. Thucydides cuts all that out because he wants us to focus on what’s really going on, on the real wellsprings of human affairs, which in his view are money and power and the confluence of the two in empire. Thucydides is like a forensic psychiatrist of the new Greek politics. The Athenians think they’re being reasonable, they think they’ve replaced the world of violence with this wonderful invention, their democratic city-state, but just below the surface what they’re actually using reason for is as a gloss for old motives like money and power, and that’s going to ruin the whole enterprise. Those are the unconscious drives that are going to bring the new world of politics and reason crashing down, cause it to self-destruct.

If Herodotus is the great chronicler of violence per se, Thucydides is the great analyst of political violence organized as empire. His imperial speechmakers are totally ruthless in their grasp of realpolitick. As Cleon tells the assembled Athenians, “to feel pity......to be carried away by the pleasure of hearing a clever argument, to listen to the claims of decency are three things that are entirely against the interests of an imperial power.” Later, the Athenians tell the Melians, “where these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” What the weak have to accept is domination since “our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men leads us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whenever one can.”

That’s from the Melian Dialogue, which represents the summit of Thucydides’ realism, or some would say his cynicism. Either way, it’s a breathtaking development, seemingly light years from Herodotus though in fact it’s less than fifty. What Herodotus would have considered hubris is now simply the norm of international statecraft. And Thucydides, even as he grasps its disastrous consequences- as disastrous for the strong as for their victims- can’t bring himself to condemn it. On the contrary he makes it into the motor of history; and he doesn’t think men can overcome history. He doesn’t think they’ll be able to use reason to control their destiny, which is to say themselves.

The Athenians cherish freedom and democracy for their own city but go out to conquer and rule others. This basic contradiction of empire, once it’s set in motion, leads to an endless quest for an ever more elusive security. “It is not possible,” says the Athenian leader Alcibiades, “for us to calculate like housekeepers, exactly how much empire we want to have. The fact is…we are forced to plan new conquests and forced to hold on to what we have got because there is a danger that we ourselves may fall under the power of others unless others are in our power.”

Meanwhile, Athens’ enemies, led by Sparta, were caught up in an inexorable political bind of their own. The Spartans claimed they were fighting to free Greece from Athenian imperialism, but Sparta was a military oligarchy: so the cities they “liberated” generally switched from democracies to oligarchies, with an accompanying massacre of the local democrats. Moreover, Spartan policy towards would-be neutrals was identical to Athenian policy towards would-be neutrals (and the same as the policies of the US and the USSR towards would-be neutrals during the Cold War)- i.e. there were no neutrals.

The Spartan commander Brasidas uses virtually the same argument to the Acanthians that the Athenians used to the Melians. If the Acanthians won’t allow Brasidas to “liberate” them “I shall call on the gods and heroes of your country to witness that I came here to help you and could not make you understand it. I shall lay waste to your land and try to bring you over by force…We Spartans are only justified in liberating people against their own will because we are acting for the good of one and all alike.” Sound familiar? To someone of my generation, Brasidas echoes the US commander in Vietnam who reported he had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”- or members of the Bush regime talking about liberating Iraq by invading and occupying it.

Political realism this brutal never gets a good press, except among professional politicians and diplomats, whose worldview is often very similar when they’re out of the public gaze, or among intellectuals seeking to prove their credentials as men of action. Probably the only thing that’s saved Thucydides from having as dubious a reputation as Machiavelli is his greater distance from us in time. So are there no constraints on power in Thucydides? There are factors which should make the wise man-or the wise state-hold its hand, seek justice, or even mercy, rather than go with “might is right”. But most men (or states) aren’t wise. And most of these factors are purely pragmatic, as when the Athenians decide not to massacre the Mytilenians, who revolted against them, because it’s in their, the Athenians’, own interest not to do so (even then it takes Athens two debates and a change of heart to reach their conclusion). To put the problem of power the opposite way around, there was no rulebook the Athenians could have consulted, no Ten Commandments they could have read off which would have told them, for example, “executing every male inhabitant of Mytilene regardless of whether or not they supported the revolt against you is wrong. Period.”

There are a few vague principles of the general “Ten Commandments” type in Thucydides- basically the same ones we find in Herodotus, only weaker. One is the prevalence of chance and the instability of life, which suggest the victor should be merciful to the vanquished because their roles could be reversed at any time. Another is the law of hubris-nemesis, still hanging around behind the scenes like fortune’s enforcer. In Herodotus, these factors were hard-wired into the divine order: they were part of the framework of the universe. Defy them at your peril. In Thucydides, they sound more like scraps of worldly wisdom, like the maxims of some 18th century sage, worth bearing in mind only no one ever does. In any case, factors that almost always failed to deter personal violence in Herodotus are not likely to deter the collective violence of states and political parties in Thucydides.

Thucydides treats that violence within broadly Homeric assumptions, despite his own hard-earned credentials as a realist. Thucydides describes the nature and consequences of war and violence in greater and more realistic detail than either Herodotus or Homer himself. Homer’s accounts of what goes on in a battle are vivid and terrifying, but Thucydides’ account of the stasis at Corcyra, which turned into a moral and physical black hole, a savage war of all against all, is agonising and disgusting. Thucydides depicts war and violence in all their squalid brutality with no redeeming features. The stasis at Corcyra is the moral heart of his history, the archetype not only of civil wars but of the Peloponnesian War itself, and therefore of the process by which civilization and political order can break down. In the Thucydidean version of history, a people start out in a primitive state, and then they create a civilization, but the very impulses of power and political organization that enable them to achieve this end up by destroying their own creation. Society becomes empire, empires are engulfed in wars, and the whole of Thucydides’ massively detailed and extended work, which incidentally is unfinished, is really an account of what war means- what war does. At its worst, it does what it did in Corcyra, which is to destroy civilization entirely and return people to a condition of total savagery, of kill and be killed.

So the background or the underlying structure in Thucydides is a naturalised form of the hubris/nemesis principle. It’s hubris/nemesis brought down to earth and recast as a general law of politics and history, not so much for individuals now as for whole societies, which were Thucydides’ main interest. History with a capital H has moved on. It’s no longer a matter of heroes- though there’s still plenty of room for heroism- but of states and the clash of powerful political units. Historical narrative is less about the lives and deaths of individuals than it is about the rise and fall of cities and civilizations, which turn out to rise and fall according to the general law, as revealed by Thucydides. This is a very influential idea. Very influential in Western thought- the idea that states and empires and even whole civilizations rise and the same factors that lead to their rise inevitably lead to their decline and fall. Thucydides is one of the first to formulate it and his formulation is particularly rigorous and implacable. Where later historians will seek these fatal factors in the traits and structures of particular societies, Thucydides makes them univeral and grounds them in human nature. There isn’t a more pessimistic view until Freud, who also wrote after living through a world-engulfing war.


For all his clear-eyed view of the horrors of war, which included the defeat and virtual destruction of his hometown, his beloved Athens, Thucydides never arguesthat war is wrong. Nor does he argue that participating in history, being an “historical people”, which inevitably means going to war and in time being destroyed by war, is wrong either. That’s the Homeric hangover in Thucydides, only now it’s associated with society as a whole rather than with heroic individuals. Rather than the individual storming fate, the collective has to invade History and win glory which it can only do by becoming a violent imperial power. Like one of his own heroes, the great Athenian politician Pericles, Thucydides believed that a group, a people, wants to enter history and make their mark on history. To act as a people means to become an “historical people” in the same way to act as an individual means to become a great individual, to win fame, to make your name live historically.

Thucydides’s book is an account of the most terrible suffering and destruction. You might think it’s the ultimate riposte to Homer, but Thucydides can’t bring himself to condemn it, and he ends up siding with Homer after all. Reluctantly perhaps. In a rather stoic and austere fashion that anticipates the Roman view (or one Roman view-there were several) of greatness as a duty and a burden rather than the expression of Homeric elan vital. According to J.P. Euben, Thucydides’ work enacts “a dialectic of greatness and suffering” but this is a dialectic that’s destined never to produce a synthesis. It’s history as frozen dialectic, permanent dialectic, endlessly repeating itself except in those few, isolated cases where men are able to learn enough from history to avoid its mistakes.

From Homer to Herodotus to Thucydides is a process of coming down to earth, a stripping away of what Thucydides calls “the romantic element”, meaning not only the metaphysical element as such, but fantasies, illusions of all kinds. Nobody likes to come down to earth. It involves facing the bleaker facts about oneself and the human condition in general. But if you’re tough enough to look harsh truths in the face- and the Greeks were good at that- then the reward can be knowledge which points the way to change. History, as it’s developed by these two writers, can’t answer its own questions, but then we shouldn’t expect it to: History’s job is to pose the questions in the first place. When Herodotus reveals the true nature of Homer’s heroes as bloodthirsty killers and Thucydides reveals the true nature of war as a conflict of raw power and self-interest, then the unavoidable question becomes: how can we change this situation? How can we change anything when the mechanism that propels this bloody history, the drive that lies behind it, is pride, hubris, everything that’s included in Herodotus’ will to “prosperity”, meaning money, security, sex, fame etc.. To which Thucydides adds his analysis of the same drive operating on the collective, state level, where it leads to empire. On both levels, individual and collective, the problem with this drive is that it’s limitless by definition, which means it’s also self-defeating. Individually, it’s bound to lead to murder. Collectively, it’s bound to lead to war, and not just any old war with winners and losers, but to Corcyra and the war of all against all. But isn’t that human nature? Isn’t that what it means to be human in the first place?

That would be a bleak vision indeed. It’s also a familiar vision to us, as the children of Freud, who felt rather the same way about human beings. Freud didn’t like human beings very much. And there are times when Thucydides comes very close to sounding like a thoroughgoing pessimist, for instance when he tells us that “cities and individuals alike, all are by nature disposed to do wrong.”

Herodotus’ tone is lighter. He’s more inclined to lay some of the blame for human error on the general ill chances and instabilities of life. There’s a grey area in Herodotus where it’s not certain which is most at fault- the pride of men or the envy of the gods? But Herodotus too ends up reaching much the same conclusions about the outlook for human history. And this basic pessimism has been a major theme in Western thought ever since, especially once it became divorced from classical polytheism and stoicism and met up with the Judeo- Christian doctrine of moral guilt and original sin.

Herodotus and Thucydides set the stage for Socrates and Plato. In fact, they do more than set the stage: they create the need for a new philosophy because their work shows up the crisis underlying Greek life and the Greek conception of the world. At the root of that crisis was the violence which permeated all of the ancient world’s political and legal structures, as it were from both ends. At one end the ancient world was rooted in the pre-political, in the world of clan, family and tribe where justice, the key demand of collective life, is a matter of individual honour, revenge and blood feud. But when the ancient world builds political structures to replace the violence with law and politics, not only do they remain in many ways contaminated with pre-political anarchy (all those murders) but they rapidly and inevitably develop into empires. And at the other end of the process, empires indulge new types of violence over subject populations before consuming each other in geopolitical rivalries whose logical terminus is a war of all against all, Corcyra.

Why do things work that way? And why is the best that Thucydides can do to wrap it up in ideas of “greatness”, becoming an “historical people” and some naturalised notion of the rise and fall of cities and societies, putting an ideological gloss- the gloss we call “History”- on to sordid and blood-soaked reality? It’s because the Greek city-states were only in part the creations of reason and concerned with liberty. For one thing, they also depended on, were formed around, slavery. “The classical polis was based on the new conceptual discovery of liberty, entrained by the systematic institution of slavery.”[6] The Greeks turned slavery into the basis of the economy and society of the ancient world. That was another of their achievements as important as and certainly more fundmental than Greek philosophy or Greek tragedy, or the Greeks’ invention of History.

Slavery bound city-states and empire together as the two faces, the two poles of a single state form. City-states based on slavery had to expand or grow geographically and by force of arms- by becoming empires- because they had a constant need for more slaves. Conversely, if they stopped their constant, colonial-style aggression, if they gave up and tried to fix their frontiers, the whole thing imploded, as the greatest of the classical empires, the Roman Empire, was to demonstrate in spectacular fashion. Identical types of violence stain this process all the way through, with city-states behaving like empires with constant rivalry and colonising aggression towards each other; and empires like city-states being riven by personal violence among rival candidates and clans, plots, assassinations, coups, civil wars. The pinnacle of Greek city-state development is Athens but at its peak Athens is also a ruthless empire. The Athenian polis is so attractive to people down the ages (like Hannah Arendt) because it didn’t distinguish between society and the state. There was no separate state in classical Athens: the whole society was the state without the need for any specialised military or civil bodies or bureaucracies. Yet this apparently exemplary democratic approach crippled the Athenians as imperialists because it meant they had no apparatus with which to control or administrate an empire . Meanwhile, the same slavery that enabled Athens to develop its polis also impelled and dictated its imperial expansion.

Is there no way out for the Greeks? If both the search for retributive justice and for imperial power are self-contradictory- if the first leads to the insane logic of the blood feud and the second to empires whose destruction is implied by, built in to, the very process of their creation; and if the passage from one to the other is both made inevitable and fuelled by slavery, which is the only mechanism anyone has found to sustain a would-be peaceful and just society and state- then the search for such a society is bankrupt before it begins. There has to be another, better way to live. Herodotus and Thucydides point to the question but they don’t provide any answers; or rather their basic answer is a despairing one, thus establishing History’s equivocal reputation as a guide to action. Herodotus and Thucydides seem to show that human nature itself is contradictory, impelled by limitless desire into a cycle of violence and death. Hubris is not so much a matter of choice as it is a biological necessity. Applying reason to history to produce “History- the authorised version” only reveals an utterly irrational world in which violence rules and everybody dies. Universal death, rather than survival, is the human tendency.

But that can’t be right either, or where did reason itself come from? The ethical turn in Greek philosophy away from metaphysical speculations about the cosmos and towards concrete questions about how should a man live? which is associated with Socrates, is unthinkable without the work of Herodotus and Thucydides and their creation of this kind of knowledge called “History”. History provides the raw material for Socrates’ famous questions about justice and virtue and History gives those sorts of questions their urgency, putting them at the forefront of Greek inquiry. At the same time, Greek history since Homer included some positive developments along with negative ones, developments that gave Socrates and Plato building blocks for their work.

Those developments revolved around the idea of heroism. Homeric heroes, half way between men and gods, had the whole of their existence on the battlefield. They lived only to kill and be killed and, as Homer implies, they had to wipe themselves out as a type for any sort of stable civilised life to become possible. Arete- the pursuit of fame or glory- had to take on a different meaning or, at least, find a different forum for its activities other than war. In psychological language, the Greeks needed a new “immortality project” and they found it in politics. As Hannah Arendt noted, “...human mortality- the fact that men are ‘mortals’ as the Greeks used to say- was understood as the strongest motive for political action in prephilosophic political thought. It was the certainty of death that made men seek immortal fame in deed and word and that prompted them to establish a body politic which was potentially immortal.”[7]

The shift occurs in Arendt’s last sentence where she moves from seeking immortal fame for oneself as an individual to establishing a body politic, a state, which provides a process for the immortality of the group or the whole. That’s the move the Greeks made from the Homeric hero to the Athenian Republic in its golden age, and of course, it was only a partial one. You could now seek your own individual glory or immortality within a structure that was at least as much to do with peace as it was with war. You didn’t have to become immortal by killing everybody else, like Achilles: you could become immortal by crafting laws and giving speeches and trying to help your fellow men rather than murdering them, like Pericles.

Seen in this positive light, the state is an answer to history- and to death. If history is pure violence, the state sets power over against it: power is the antidote to violence because ultimately it rests on consent instead of force.[8] It’s no accident that, when Plato comes to outline the applications of his and Socrates’ philosophy, he does so by describing the ideal state. And all the well-known objections to The Republic show just how hard a task that is, and how readily the state gets drawn back into History, turned back into being one more type of more or less violent oppression. The dismal record is there in Herodotus and Thucydides, states that become vessels for civil war or vehicles for empire. The Greeks were always looking for a constitution or a type of state that would avoid these problems. They thought they’d found it in the republican form, but then that goes bad, and so on.

As for the underlying reason for states becoming corrupt in one way or another, it’s because the power/violence distinction is an incomplete one. Power is an antidote that can be worse than the disease. In Lord Acton’s famous phrase “power corrupts (and) absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And the corruption is not just a later distortion, a matter of evil choices on the part of a bad ruler or a greedy ruling class: it’s built in to the very process of state formation or, in Marxist terms, into the process of social differentiation that precedes state formation and launches the class struggle. A tribe may own land in common and have no peacetime chieftain, but its leading warriors accrue wealth through capturing slaves or plunder, they begin to form an hereditary aristocracy, they acquire armed “retinues”, a key stage since a retinue cuts across the ties of clan and family and creates a different type of loyalty. Increasingly, conflicts arises between the rank and file warriors and this elite seeking to take control of the tribe. Contact with a more developed society, such as an existing empire, hastens the passage to a territorial state system governed by quasi-kings. Every state, at every new beginning, has to wrench itself out an existing state of affairs, which is a violent process. A mature state may represent itself as legal power incarnate, but every state’s dirty little secret is that it began in violence. The corruption is built in from the start. Men’s answer to history only arises, can only be realised, within the context of History itself. The problem infects the solution.


Questioning an existing state thus becomes a risky business, like touching a sore nerve. States don’t like being reminded of their origins or held to account. The official story the state-any state- tells about itself is always false: there is always something to hide. Yet questioning is vital when, as inevitably happens, states turn corrupt as when Athens slips from republic to empire and the disaster of the Peloponnesian War. At the start of ‘The Republic’, Plato makes Socrates reject any definition of justice either as the interest of the stronger or as doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. Yet these are precisely the definitions of justice that sum up Athenian power, its state ideology, during Athens’ imperial age. Socrates’ arguments couldn’t be more subversive. He’s setting himself up as an enemy of the state, and since by Socrates’ time Athens is a defeated state, humiliated by Sparta, Socrates is also spitting on the graves of the glorious dead.

This is the historical context for the death of Socrates. It was no wonder they killed him. It was left to his pupil Plato to elaborate a revolutionary new view of justice, because, if reason has uncovered the fundamental contradictions in the old ideas of justice, and their embodiment in history, then History must be wrong- or, to put it the other way round, reason can’t have gone far enough. Reason needs to push the contradictions to the limit until they crack open to produce a resolution. Which is a rough and ready description of the so-called Socratic method of doing philosophy. We examine the idea of justice based on retribution or raw power and it leads us into contradictions, it doesn’t work, so the answer must be something else. We examine the notion of the good life based on fulfilling your desires, getting what you want, and that leads to contradictions too, so that doesn’t work either. Again, the answer must be something else.

Virtue, justice and reason are the three pillars of the new dispensation sketched by Socrates and Plato: between them, they mean to hold out the prospect of a rational man living in a rational world. They’re the lessons History teaches which can help us to overcome history. They’re also a measure of the tremendous journey the Greeks have taken from Homer to Plato. The whole conception of what it means to be a good man living the good life in Plato is the opposite of the Homeric version of being a great warrior, meeting a great death, killing and being killed. The world has turned a full 360 degrees. So it’s a poignant moment when Socrates, choosing death rather than dishonour, cites as his example Achilles, the most violent and immoderate of all the Homeric heroes, and thus identifies the thread the unites them, which is the idea of heroism itself- the individual hero, the heroic ego, however differently conceived.

That sounds as if it should be the end of the story and in one way it is. Greek thought, in the sense of Greek philosophy, doesn’t go beyond it[9]. The Platonic idea of justice is fatally limited, famously anti-democratic even within its own context, the citizens of a Greek city-state, and not even willing to consider human beings defined as lying outside that context, such as slaves. But Greek tragedy does go further than the philosophers.. Already in Socrates and Plato’s time, the Greek tragic poets developed a deeper critique of heroism and the heroic individual- one so revolutionary it remains controversial to this day. Tragedians like Aeschylus had shown man progressing spiritually and morally through suffering. It’s as if the spotlight was slowly shifting from the warrior and the battle-hero to his victim, and in the process revealing something suspect in the idea of individuality itself. The free rational individual beloved of Socrates and Plato turns out to be neither free nor very rational. He’s not the replacement for the Homeric hero: he is the Homeric hero himself in a different guise, but just as set on dominating the world and causing murder and mayhem while imagining he’s creating himself as a sovereign, self-made individual. In other words, he’s Oedipus. We’re all Oedipus. Moreover, our very notion of a free, rational individual is an illusion since all of us are constructed by forces over which we have no control and many of which we don’t even understand, from our place in society to our time in history, our parents, our psychology, our geography, from our genes to the gods. More materially, our freedom and the luxury of exercising our reason depends on the immiseration and destitution of others, with slavery as the exemplar, and this link is not a coincidence or an accident, but constitutive.

No wonder that the whole message of Greek tragedy is that reason- that wonderful development which was the basis of Greek civilization- is not enough. It doesn’t work, it’s inadequate, it can’t do what it’s supposed to do. Worse still, rather than dispelling our demons, it gives them even more powerful ways to express themselves, rather as critics of modern science, which is our contemporary applied reason, sometimes say about science today. Greek tragedy is the revenge of the Greek unconscious- slavery finding a voice. It’s important to understand how devastating tragedy’s critique really was both for the Athenian Greeks and for mainstream Western thought ever since. Tragedy is so radical it’s tempting to believe it could only have been conceived in traumatic circumstances, like the Peloponnesian War (making Tragedy an example of its own, central tenet, that suffering alone brings wisdom). At the same time it’s not clear how aware the men (they were all men) who created the Greek tragedies were of their own implications. Aeschylus, for example, was as much of a master propagandist for Athens as Herodotus and Thucydides. All three men, writing at much the same time, were equally involved in creating the myth of Athens’ glorious victory over the might of the Persian empire, and with it that mixture of the martial, the moral and the patriotic which is our template for Western heroism.


Both things were going on at once. The raising up of heroism on the one hand and its undermining through tragedy on the other hand. Tragedy equates individuality with heroism: every man is (or wants to be) a hero and the hero is everyman. Then tragedy exposes our drive to become free, rational individuals as a vicious illusion, a piece of hubris on a par with the legendary heroes in Homer- or with Herodotus and Thucydides’ real-life tyrants and emperors.

What was the most prominent example of hubris in the Greek world? Persia and Persia’s self-styled Great Kings. Put in its Greek context, that’s the profound bottom line of the whole critique: everything becomes empire. Everything becomes Persia. Athens becomes Persia or no better than Persia although this wasn’t a conclusion any of our writers was willing to voice out loud. Individuality, the leading of an ordinary human life even with the aid of the supreme Greek quality of reason, is hubris, with all of the consequences hubris unleashes both for the individual hero (sic) and for the world in general. And the antidote to hubris can’t be reason, which has been co-opted as it were and is therefore part of the problem. The antidote has to be wisdom, which tragically only comes about as a result of the suffering involved when hubris meets its nemesis.

Individuality is the Oedipal project par excellence, Oedipus being “a mortal whose evolving desire for absolute sovereignty and self-engendering (which the acts of parricide and incest imply) transgresses the boundaries between men and gods”[10] Refusing to admit we are largely the creations of invisible forces from our unconscious to our upbringing, born into a world we didn’t make, with a character we didn’t choose, we rampage at first over everything about ourselves we reject, like the respectable Victorian bourgeoisie who refuses to admit his sexual voracity or his racism; then over everyone else, who we treat either as our enemies or our instruments. In personal terms, the result is tragedy. In social terms, injustice.

Those two run like red threads, painted in blood, through the great Greek tragedies. Greek tragedy is the unconscious of the Homeric world, with Thebes instead of Troy, and Oedipus instead of Ulysses. So the Orestian trilogy deals with the terrible cycle of injustice and revenge, and no sooner does this shows signs of finding a resolution- as Aeschylus shows in the Eumenides- than it turns into empire and domination summed up in the figure of Oedipus; and Sophocles’ Oedipus plays examine this fatal, and fatally, heroic identity.

In other words, Greek tragedy examined both ends of the structure of the ancient world, the pre-political and the imperial, and found both to be forms of violence; and what’s worse both violences infect all attempts to nurture a peaceful state and the rule of law in the space between them. These were not results that would please the philosophers. Tragedy is the reason Plato banishes poets from his ideal Republic, even though it springs from the same set of circumstances as his own work and the work of Socrates, namely Athens’ recent history.

Aeschylus created tragedy in the thirty years after the battle of Marathon in 490BC, which halted the Persian menace for a time, until the second Persian invasion ended in Athenian victory in the sea battle at Salamis in 480 (and a subsequent land battle at Platea). These are the years of triumph for Athens’ young democracy and the so-called “golden age” of Athens. Tragedy then flowered with Euripides and Sophocles, whose long life from 496 to 406BC, as well as making him a friend of Herodotus, included serving among the treasurers of the Greek league against Persia (443BC), which created the Athenian Empire, and on the special commission following the disastrous Sicilian expedition (411BC), which marked the beginning of its end. The Peloponnesian War ended in defeat by Sparta. Hubris was followed by nemesis.

Sophocles died a couple of years before Athens was starved into surrender, the Long Wall destroyed and the Spartan fleet moored in Piraeus (405-404BC).

Like Socratic philosophy, Tragedy is a response to the state of Athens, another attempt to find out what went wrong. But its conclusions were much more radical. Tragedy seems to suggest there is no objectivity, there are no free, rational human beings, there is no way of ordering the world without domination, power and injustice. Societies develop into empires. Individuals, in the unavoidable course of asserting their individuality, turn into petty emperors, tyrants with feet of clay. Conflict is as endemic and ineradicable as the attempts to resolve it, which only end up reproducing conflict on a greater, still more destructive scale. In the end, everything is indeed empire!

Philosophers, representing what Martha Nussbaum calls “ambitious rational beings”, find such conclusions intolerable, Certainly Europe, and the West as a whole, has consistently rejected such ideas over the last 2000 years, preferring the Socratic/Platonic solution of modified and moralized heroism, heroism that can be prevented from reaping violent havoc by encasing it in a prophylactic of morality. Instead of the ur-cycle of injustice, revenge and murder with its later mutation into empire and civil war, Socrates and Plato tried to set up a virtuous cycle of reason, morality and justice. Arete is specifically redefined as the pursuit of virtue. Later, Christianity will give virtue a sexual emphasis. The repeated, historical failure of this strategy to deliver either peace or justice is the answer to today’s conservatives, who claim that reason has been divorced from morality and all we need to do is to re-attach it, via some return to “traditional values”.

If Athens’ philosophers rejected the tragic view, its historians may have learned from it. It’s been argued that Thucydides, for one, absorbed the tragedians’ approach, for example, in his reluctance to draw conclusions from his own work, or in his unwillingness to judge between glory and the suffering that the pursuit of glory creates. Tragedy deconstructs heroism to the point where the audience is able to recognise themselves in the hated or hostile or despised Other. But at the same time tragedy seems to argue against any attempt to use this insight, the wisdom that comes from suffering, as a basis for social organisation or politics, since tragedy shows societies, and men in general, as irredeemably split between reason and passion, creation and destruction, conflict and reconciliation, one moral truth and another etc etc.

Rather than being a basis for healthy state, tragedy may be the product of a healthy state so that as the corruption of Athenian democracy passed a certain point- symbolised by the trial and execution of Socrates- tragedy itself became impossible, and the philosophers stepped in in the person of Plato with a very different message.


To the problems of Athenian democracy, defeated by Spartan military dictatorship, Plato offered a solution (in The Republic) that resembled nothing so much as Spartan dictatorship. For all its genius, The Republic signals the end of what was great about the Greek experiment. To embrace the tragic view, as opposed to the Socratic/Platonic one, would have meant breaking apart the Greek world, and the ancient world as a whole, but the philosophers’ solutions didn’t save it either. There followed conquest, first by Macedonia, then by Rome, a brutal dictatorship worse than Sparta. Finally, Christianity delivered the coup de grace to the Hellenized classical worldview.

The triumph of Christianity was the long-postponed and reworked triumph of tragedy, with Christ as the anti-Oedipus. Christ’s suffering figure takes on and redeems Oedipus’ sins, the first and foremost of which is hubris- pride. But Christianity did not appear de novo. Like all the major world faiths, Christianity had its roots in the axial age of the mid-first millennium BCE, between 800 and 200 BCE, the age that encompasses the major Jewish prophets; Zoroaster; Lao Tzu; the Indian Upanishads; and Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. Historians of religion like John Hick see pre-axial religions, typified by ancient Egypt, as cyclical, cosmic, timeless, world-accepting and collective; while post-axial religions are salvatory and individual. Pre-axial religions are about maintaining the cosmic order, opposing change seen as degeneration, and casting out impurities through ritual sacrifice. In post-axial religions the stress shifts from the cosmos to mankind and from the collective order to the (dis-) order of the believer. A gap has opened up between man and the universe. Hick associates the monotheistic religions, together with their message that man is alienated from reality and needs to be “saved”, with two factors. One was the rise of individuality. The other was the discovery of history[11].

The invention of History, by Herodotus and Thucydides, proved the cosmic order to be disorderly through and through. The cosmic wheel has a spoke loose: it’s programmed for violent wreck, from the flying snakes to Corcyra. That makes something like Christianity, and its philosophic outriders Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, a development waiting to happen. The only solution to the terrible vision history reveals, once the light of reason is shone on it, is to re-conceive the universe as a just and orderly creation and for mankind to take the blame for the almost continuous violence. This re-conception came with its own escape clause. Men acquired guilt- conscience- but were no longer doomed to self-destruction as the helpless carriers of a cosmic flaw. The gap that we noted between men and God turned out to be a blessing in disguise, the blessing in question being the chance for men to change, and therefore for History one day to be overcome, through the newly invented spiritual mechanics in post-axial religions, whether Buddhist meditation, or Christian baptism, Jewish ritual or adherence to Koranic law. If the universe is whole, then the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves and we can correct it by re-uniting with reality. Christianity therefore is an optimistic creed, the Good News, and even more obviously so in its early days before the Church turned to emphasising sin in general, and sexual sin in particular.[12]

The Greeks had only one thing they could oppose to History and that was the tool they’d used to create it in the first place, namely reason. Christianity, on the other hand, had two powerful soteriological tools-faith in redemption through Christ; and a codified morality. The early history of Christianity recapitulates the Greek experience. Just as tragedy gave way to philosophy in Athens, so the original, suffering figure of Christ gives way to an institutional church that shifts the focus to morality and “original sin”. The Church was Christianity’s great invention, the organisation that enabled it to survive and spread, that singled it out among numerous small extremist sects. But Christ Himself was Christianity’s new idea, its real greatness. It’s only when Christ comes along and radically expands and recasts the notion of victimhood that you get a whole new concept of the hero as someone who is sacrificed and sacrifices himself. The individual hero, the heroic ego who sets out to conquer the world, is prone to hubris and tries to play god, evolves into the hero who becomes a hero by sacrificing himself, dissolving his I, and giving up his life, either actually or metaphorically, and summed up in the story of a god who lets himself be murdered.

The ethical history of the West consists of little more from Homer to Christ and on down to the present day, since we are post-Christian in the same way we’re post-Marxist and post-modernist, defined by what we come after. At the beginning of that History stands the all-conquering Homeric hero, still our traditional idea of heroism, and at the other end there awaits the spiritual hero, the Christian hero, the anti-hero of renunciation, the self-sacrificer. In between is Leonidas, that freedom-loving Western paragon of virtue and arms whose self-sacrifice enabled the defeat of the Oriental Evil Empire. Even today, some two thousand plus years later, we remain caught up and hesitating among these figures, still struggling to move from Homer to Christ and getting stuck in fantasies of last stands at Thermopylae. But then, as every schoolboy knows, no one ever learns from History.

[1] George Cawkwell, ‘The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia’. Oxford, 2006, OUP.p. 100.

[2] Cawkwell p. 6.

[3] George Cawkwell argues “it would be a bold man who asserted that Herodotus did travel widely beyond Babylon.” Cawkwell p.5.

[4] Many readers have been puzzled by this. George Cawkwell is typical in throwing up his hands and declaring that “for some dark reason, which cannot even be guessed at, he (Thucydides) omitted these matters.” Cawkwell, ‘The Greek Wars’p. 10. But there is no real mystery.

[5] Andrew Goffey, ‘If Ontology, Then Politics-The Sophist Effect’ in Radical Philosophy 107 (May/Junr 2001) p. 11-20.

[6] Perry Anderson, ‘Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism’ (London, Verso, 1978) p. 36.

[7] Hannah Arendt, ‘On Violence’ (NY/London, Harcourt Brace, 1970) p. 68.

[8] The distinction between power and violence is Arendt’s basic argument in ‘On Violence’. However, when she comes to reflect on actual conditions in a real state, the United States circa 1969, Arendt’s reflections are all negative, undercutting her own argument and suggesting that power and violence are not such discrete and opposing entities after all.

[9] Nor do the Romans, those born imperialists and ruthless killers.

[10] J. Peter Euben, ‘The Tragedy of Political Theory’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) p. 104.

[11] John Hick, ‘An Interpretation of Religion- Human Responses to the Transcendent’ (London: Macm illan/Yale University Press, 1989)

[12] See Elaine Pagels, ‘Adam, Eve and the Serpent’ (London, Penguin Books, 1990).

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014