Thucydides’ Tower

Thucydides, one of the rival brothers who founded the Western tradition of history, who lived in the period 460 to 400 BC, was a general in a series of wars over 27 years that he would later name the Pelopennesian War.

He was a failed general ultimately, since after a fashion all human endeavour of the complexity of military leadership fails. Thucydides’ failure was to arrive late for battle, after a summons to save the town of Amphipolis. The town fell to the Spartans before Thucydides could reach the city, and for this failure, he was sent into exile, most likely in his family estate near Thrace.

There, Thucydides spent the next twenty years of his exile writing his History of the Pelopennesian War. His liminal status as an internal exile stimulated Thucydides to see the wars from multiple perspectives, and allowed him to gather intelligence far and wide on the human and emotional drivers of human history, which he contrasted to the supernatural, scandalous and divine fabulations of his great rival brother, Herodotus.

Noone quite knows the location of the estate on which Thucydides was exiled, nor can can anyone describe from documents or ruins the look of the building in which the exiled strategos wrote his masterful reflections on war, politics, and human conduct. However, I imagine, for small reason, that we wrote in a stone-walled tower overlooking his garden refuge from his disintegrating world.

I imagine myself in the same kind of tower, in internal exile, separated from the interests and factions of the world in which I once was a minor part, and recording here the sense of these events.

And from the History of the Pelopennesian War there comes this strange echo of our own times, even if the scourge of the plague then was more fearsome than this coronavirus now. Here is part of Thucydides’ description of the plague of Athens:

But the greatest misery of all was the dejection of mind in such as found themselves beginning to be sick (for they grew presently desperate and gave themselves over without making any resistance), as also their dying thus like sheep, infected by mutual visitation, for the greatest mortality proceeded that way. For if men forebore to visit them for fear, then they died forlorn; whereby many families became empty for want of such as should take care of them. If they forbore not, then they died themselves, and principally the honestest men. For out of shame they would not spare themselves but went in unto their friends, especially after it was come to this pass that even their domestics, wearied with the lamentations of them that died and overcome with the greatness of the calamity, were no longer moved therewith.”

Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War 2.51

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