Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: History is Written by the Losers

I am sure more examples can be found. The example most relevant to this roundtable is one Thucydides, son of Olorus. It is here in Book IV we finally learn a tad about the man behind the curtain:

The passage of Brasidas was a complete surprise to the people in the town; and the capture of many of those outside, and the flight of the rest within the wall, combined to produce great confusion among the citizens; especially as they did not trust one another…. Meanwhile the party opposed to the traitors proved numerous enough to prevent the gates being immediately thrown open, and in concert with Eucles, the general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides, son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis, to tell him to come to their relief. On receipt of this message he at once set sail with seven ships which he had with him, in order, if possible, to reach Amphipolis in time to prevent its capitulation, or in any case to save Eion (4.103).

Now pieces of Thucydides work start to click together. Few Spartans are mentioned by name; fewer still are Spartans mentioned by names on multiple occasions. The exception is Brasidas. Brasidas, brave defender of Methone, and thus “the first man in this war to receive the official honors of Sparta” (2.25). Brasidas, whose stratagems almost defeated the Athenians at sea (2.86-87). Brasidas, the daring leading who almost stormed the fort at Pylos (4.12). Brasidas, the savior of Megara (4.70-73). Brasidas, the only Spartan eloquent and wise enough to raise all of Thessaly into revolt (4.84). Brasidas, the general who defeated Thucydides.

Thucydides’ obsession with Brasidas is easy to understand once his personal relation to Thucydides is made clear. His portrayal of Brasidas as daring, brilliant, charismatic, and clever beyond measure also begins to make sense—the greater Brasidas’ past feats appear, the less damning Thucydides defeat at his hands becomes.

Thucydides treatment of Brasidas is hardly unique. You can play this game with many other aspects of Thucydides’ History, from his attitude towards Athenian democracy (which voted for his exile) to his unflattering portrayal of Cleon (who replaced him). Thucydides lost battles with them all. The History of the Peloponnesian War was written by a loser.

Why have so many great histories been written by the losers?

I like Mr. Rees’ suggestion:

These men probably didn’t see themselves following in Vidkun’s bloody footsteps. They remained loyal to a political community of their birth, just not the flesh and blood political community of their birth. They pledged allegiance to a nation in being that remained moored just over the horizon in the Scapa Flow of their imaginations, waiting for Der Tag of political change.

This works for the Quisling historians well enough, but it does not explain the plain sore losers like Sima Qian. I’ll suggest something simpler. Defeat gives brilliant minds like Thucydides the two things they need to become great historians: time and motive.

Those who rule do not have the time to write about it. Occasionally history produces a Caesar or a Mao, men who can lead the masses to war on the one hand, while serving as prolific propagandists for their cause on the other. The greater part mankind is not so talented. Sima Guang would never have finished his history had he not been shunted out of Song court politics. Had Thucydides defeated Brasidas, he would be known today not as a historian, but as a military strategist, a strategist who never had the time to travel the world and collect the material needed to write his history. Even winning historians need time in defeat to write their histories—had Churchill’s party not been kicked out of power by British voters after the Second World War was over, Churchill’s famous account of that war would never have been written.

When high position is stolen from you, and access to the heights of wealth and power denied, there is little one can do about it—except write. History is thus rarely a “weapon of the weak.” The judgments of the historian do not serve the margins. They do not even serve the masses. They are a weapon in the hand of defeated elites, the voices of men and women who could be in power, but are not. What was true in Thucydides day is true in our own. The simplest explanation for modern academics’ hostility to 21st century capitalism’s  “structures of power” is their complete exclusion from them.

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