7. Thucydides Was Killed Mid-Sentence
Thucydides (circa 460 – circa 404 BC) was ancient Greece’s greatest historian, best known as the author of History of the Peloponnesian War, recounting the fifth century BC conflict between Sparta and Athens. His methodology, applying strict standards of objectivity, impartiality, and evidence gathering, while eschewing references to divine intervention, led to him being dubbed the “father of scientific history”. His analysis that the conflict and the decisions of the actors were driven by self interest and fear led to him getting dubbed the “father of political realism” as well.
Thucydides was a distant relative of the Athenian general Miltiades, victor of the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), and he was elected one of Athens’ ten generals at a relatively young age. However, he did not turn out to be as great a general as Miltiades had been, and when he lost the strategically important city of Amphipolis to a surprise Spartan attack, his fellow citizens turned on him. Thucydides was recalled to Athens, tried, convicted, and exiled.
The exile might have been a personal misfortune to Thucydides, but it was a stroke of good fortune for history, as it gave him the opportunity to write down his seminal work. He spent much of his now abundant free time carefully noting and writing down the events of the epic struggle, from the perspective of both sides. The History of the Peloponnesian War is the most reliable source we have on the war, and one of the most reliable sources for ancient Greek history.
Unfortunately, Thucydides’ history of the conflict, which stretched from 431 to 404 BC, is not complete, but abruptly cuts off at 411 BC. When the war ended with an Athenian defeat in 404 BC, there was a change of government in Athens, which allowed Thucydides to return home after a 20 year exile. However, the political situation was precarious, with a new oligarchic regime supported by Sparta, which engaged in political violence against those who had supported the democracy that ruled Athens during the war. In the midst of that turmoil, Thucydides was killed in the middle of writing a sentence in his history book.