In Our Time: Thucydides

Thucydides was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th Century BC, and is regarded as a “Father of History” alongside Herodotus – although I confess that before I listened to the In Our Time programme about him I had never heard of him. I think he’s been seen as more of a “historian’s historian”, whereas Herodotus is more of a “popular historian”. The programme also told me that Thucydides’s work is still important in the field of international relations. The experts who discussed him were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Katherine Harloe (University of Reading) and Neville Morley (University of Bristol).

Thucydides was born around 460BC and a citizen of Athens, not much is known about his life. In fact the only details known about him at all are those found in his book on the Peleponnesian War – which includes that he was a general at a particular early point during the war, and he at least lived through the war. This gives a feel for his age as he must’ve been a mature adult at the beginning of the war yet still young enough to survive till the end. The Peleponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta, and their allies, which lasted for 27 years at the end of the 5th Century BC. Thucydides’s book clearly contains passages written after the end of the war (as he mentions who won – Sparta), but it was never finished. It also doesn’t really mention the role that the Persians played which was important later in the war, the experts speculated that if he’d finished the text he may’ve revised the existing parts to bring in that thread earlier.

Herodotus and Thucydides were writing very different sorts of history, with different purposes. I think they said that Thucydides was writing his history in reaction to the way that Herodotus wrote his – deliberating doing things the way he thought was “proper”. For instance Herodotus is the historian as a story-teller. He doesn’t necessarily believe all the stories he writes down, but he tells them because that’s what the people he’s writing about believe. Thucydides in his introductory section says that he is intending to set down the objective truth about what actually happened. This means that he also rejects supernatural explanations of events. Herodotus is also outward looking – partly by the circumstances of recent history but also because of his interests. The big war that Herodotus talks about is the Greek/Persian war of the early 5th Century BC, and his history is of the world outside Greece. By contrast Thucydides is interested in an intra-Greek conflict and in the history of the Greek world. Even, potentially, to the extent of ignoring the Persian role in the Peloponnesian War (although as I said above he may’ve revised that later if he’d finished the book).

Of course Thucydides isn’t as objective as he would like to present himself, and doesn’t stick strictly to the known facts either. In contrast to modern historians he doesn’t present his evidence, merely says he examined it and has come to the conclusion that what he writes is what happened. So his biases aren’t always clear, but in some cases they are obvious. In particular he generally approves of Pericles, and frequently editorialises about his greatness. He also editorialises about the poor decisions by “the mob” who vote for courses of action that Thucydides feels were wrong. There are also sections of the text that are clearly made up to show how something might have happened. The speeches are a good example of this – as well as Thucydides’s chronological dicussions of events there are also sections purporting to be speeches given by various people. Pericles is given many of these. In style they sound like Thucydides rather than different individuals, so they definitely aren’t accurate representations of actual speeches. Some might be paraphrases of things that Thucydides witnessed, but others are clearly invented out of whole cloth – accounts of secret meetings on the Spartan side for instance that Thucydides was obviously not present for.

In terms of his legacy and his status as a Father of History Thucydides has had a large impact in the past on how historians approach research and objectivity. But all three experts were in agreement that he wouldn’t quite fit in in a modern historical department. Modern history also has commonalities with Herodotus’s approach – looking at the history of a people as that people see it is an important aspect of approaching history. However in the field of internal relations and of war theory Thucydides is still hugely influential, and his work is still used in teaching at military academies like West Point. Which seems appropriate as that was his primary interest – how different states (cities, nations etc) interact, and what are the causes that lead to conflict between them. Not the causes they use to justify aggression but the underlying conflicts and tensions that get the relationship to the point where aggression is a next step.

In Our Time: Strabo’s Geographica

Strabo was a Greek scholar who lived in Rome (and other parts of the Roman world) from the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century AD. During this time he wrote his Geographica which was a large work describing the “known world” of the Romans. Discussing it on In Our Time were Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge), Maria Pretzler (Swansea University) and Benet Salway (UCL).

They started the programme with some context for both Strabo and the world he lived in. He was born in what is now Turkey in around 64BC, which at the time was a part of the Greek world. He lived through a time of great expansion of Roman territory, and the change from Republic to Empire. Not long after he was born the Romans expanded eastwards past his homeland, when he was around 30 Egypt became a part of the Roman empire, and Julius Caesar’s first campaigns in Britain were within his lifetime too. So this is a time when the geography of the Roman territory was changing rapidly, and also a time when a lot of Greek intellectuals like Strabo were incorporated into Roman culture. We don’t know much about Strabo himself, Cartledge (I think) noted in passing that we don’t even know his full name. Strabo means something like “squinty eyed” and would once have been a nickname, but got incorporated into Roman names as a cognomen. Strabo first came to Rome when he was around 20 for his education, and also spent time in Alexandria which was one of the other major intellectual centres of the classical world. As well as the Geographica Strabo is known to have written a history – which has not survived. It was also an ambitious work and it updated a previous work to bring it up to the “present day” of Strabo’s time.

The Geographica is about 17 volumes, and as I said in the opening paragraph it covers the “known world”. The Romans were aware that the Earth is a globe, and Pretzler said that they were even fairly close to being right about the size of the world (although I think she implied that the calculations used were wrong but they got to the right answer anyway). So they were aware that there was a lot of world unaccounted for – their known world was about a quarter of the globe. There were different theories at the time about what else was there – one was that there was ocean filling the rest of the space. This lead some Romans to be dubious about the existence of Britain even after Julius Caesar had campaigned there – it wasn’t logical, because it was off the edge of the land. And Strabo wasn’t convinced by reports from an explorer of islands to the west of Britain – what we now know as Ireland and Iceland.

The first couple of volumes are introductory in nature. This is, in fact, where most biographical details about Strabo come from. The text also says that Strabo is very widely travelled and knows much of the world first hand, but Pretzler explained that this was a standard thing for geographers and historians of the time to say. It was intended to give them some authority but wasn’t necessarily true. She said that you can make some reasonable guesses about which bits were first hand and which weren’t – in part because the first hand bits are so much more vivid (and accurate). In these introductory chapters Strabo also explains the many sources he has consulted – I think they said it was a couple of hundred, of course only a few of these are his major sources. He also takes the time to write about Homer’s geographical knowledge in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These volumes of the Geographica also go into the theory of geography of the time, and the mathematical principles behind drawing maps.

The remaining volumes cover the actual geography – not just the physical geography but what we would now call political and social geography: what the countries/provinces are, what the people are like. The text was organised following the then current convention of moving around the coast of the Mediterranean from Spain to the east of the sea, and the back westwards along the north coast of Africa. Obviously to fit in the whole of the known world of the time Strabo also needs to take a couple of detours – one when he fits in Asia Minor up to around Afghanistan, and one to cover India.

The contemporary audience for the work would’ve been fairly wide. Cartledge said that it was written in a style that would be accessible to the general literate & educated population of the time. Strabo himself made the assertion that he intended it to be of particular use to generals and politicians. Remember this was a time of expansion for the Roman Empire, and although we know in hindsight that it had reached its furthest extent during Strabo’s lifetime that wasn’t clear at the time. Strabo was making the point that if you know the geography & the sorts of peoples living in each part of the world then you can better plan your conquests, and your ruling of the territory afterwards.

After Strabo’s death the Geographica isn’t cited much for the next few centuries – in part because the conventions of the time were not to cite recent works. People were keen to root their new works deeply in the classical past, and Strabo was too recent. I think the experts thought he was probably read by these later authors just not referenced. The only mentions of Strabo’s work from that sort of era are by Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian. Strabo’s Geographica was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and had an influence on map making for a couple of centuries after that. One of the experts (possibly Salway?) was saying that even into the 18th Century there would be maps made, for instance of Africa, where the coasts were done with the new modern mapmaking methods, but the inland regions might come straight out of Strabo.

In Our Time: The Amazons

The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology. The In Our Time episode about them talked about the sorts of myths that were told about them, whether there was any factual basis for these myths and how they’ve lasted into the modern day. The experts talking about them were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Chiara Franceschini (University College London and the Warburg Institute) and Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge).

The Amazons are mentioned in Homer’s poems in a couple of places, and stories are told about them through into Roman times – so they have about a thousand years of appearing in “current” mythology. The feel was consistent across the centuries, although the details often changed. They were a tribe of warrior women who are always situated somewhere on the periphery of the known world – where exactly depends on what parts of the world are best known. Even down to close to the modern day this is true – the Amazon river is named after this myth because an early European explorer came back with tales of being attacked by warrior women as he travelled down the river.

As well as “the people on the periphery” Amazons are women who live apart from men, and so women fulfil the functions that in “proper” Greek society are filled by men – they are warriors and leaders. Vout made the point that the Amazons are one of the “others” that the ancient Greeks defined themselves against. There are reliefs and art depicting Amazons in the same way and the same places that there are reliefs and art of Centaurs. Centaurs are the barbaric people that the Greeks are not – Cartledge told the myth where the Centaurs attend a human wedding and get drunk & try to rape the female guests, sparking a battle. That’s a display of “how not to behave”, the moral is to be Greek not barbarian. In a similar fashion the Amazons are the feminine against which the Greeks prove their masculinity. All three experts talked about particular myths where a Greek hero goes to visit the Amazons & wins over the Amazons or falls in love & brings home an Amazon Queen. The specific legends they mentioned were Hercules stealing the belt of Hippolyta, Penthesilea and Achilles fighting but falling in love as (or after) Achilles kills her, Theseus bringing Hippolyta back to Athens to marry her.

Franceschini talked about the iconography of the Amazons – they are always shown fully dressed. At first in Greek style clothing, but later in a style of outfit that she described as like a jumpsuit. They carried weapons, normally bows & arrows. They were often (particularly later) shown on horseback.

Herodotus was sure they existed – he places them towards the Black Sea, intermarrying with the Scythians. This is one of the legends as to how they managed to have children, another is that often they are depicted as living on an island where men cannot go and they go out into the world to find a man to become pregnant by. Girls are brought up by the Amazons, boys are killed or returned to their fathers depending on the legend.

Cartledge was keen to say that he thought the myths were complete invention – that the Greeks needed no “kernel of reality” to make up their stories from. But there is archaeological evidence in the area roughly where Herodotus places the Amazons for a culture where 20% of the fighting force were women and Vout (I think it was) said she thought this might be the origins of the initial stories. (And that percentage reminded me of this article about how it shouldn’t be a surprise to find women in fighting forces stretching right through history, yet somehow the stories we tell ignore this.)

The programme ended by very briskly moving us up from Roman times to the modern day, talking about how the myths have changed yet stayed a part of the culture. Franceschini was talking about how Queens were often represented with iconography that recalls that of the Amazons – concealing clothing, weapons, on horseback. She said that the chastity of the Amazons (often one of their virtues in myths) is what was intended to be evoked with this. Right at the end Cartledge name checked Xena: Warrior Princess for a modern representation of Amazons.

I was left at the end wondering about other modern re-workings of the Amazons – there’s a sub-genre of SFF that I tag in my head as “worlds run by women”, that’s feminist science fiction written in the 70s or so. A brief look on wikipedia backs me up that this is actually a thing not my invention. Which is just as well coz I can’t actually remember the names of any specific books I’ve read that precisely fit that category. However, what springs to mind are Sherri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Carnival” which are both more recent than the 70s and more in dialogue with that sub-genre than part of it from what I recall. Anyway, I was left curious what debt that sub-genre owes to the Amazon myth and what is “convergent evolution” so’s to speak.