Thucydides was an Athenian general, “the father of political history,” and a gifted analyst of power, chance, and necessity in international affairs. The History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the war between Sparta and Athens (435–411 BCE) and is meant as “a possession for all times.”
Very little is known about his life but for what he himself has conveyed through his own work. We learn from The Peloponnesian War that Thucydides was a general who saw combat in the war (4.104.4; 4.105.1), that he contracted the plague that struck Athens between 430 and 427 and would take the life of Pericles (2.48.3; 3.87.3), and that he was eventually exiled by the democracy for his failure to save the city of Amphipolis from the Spartans (5.26.5).
About his background, he informs us:
“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” (1.104.4).
His father Olorus is thought to be from the Athenian deme of Halimous. Thucydides’ father’s name, “Olorus,” was connected with Thrace and Thracian royalty. Thucydides was probably connected through family to the Athenian statesman and general Miltiades and his son Cimon, leaders of the old aristocracy, supplanted by the radical democrats. He was dispatched to Amphipolis as general in 424 because “he possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and thus had great influence with the inhabitants of the mainland” (4.105.1).
The great Spartan general Brasidas, aware that Thucydides was on Thasos and wielded great influence with the people of Amphipolis, and fearing reinforcements by sea, moved at once to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Thus, when Thucydides arrived, Amphipolis had already fallen under Spartan control. Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance, and with news of its fall, Thucydides fell victim to the full brunt of popular Athenian indignation. Because of his failure to save Amphipolis, he was exiled.
“It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely” (5.26.5). Thus it was as an exile from Athens that Thucydides traveled freely among the Peloponnesian allies and was able to view the war from the perspective of both sides. Thucydides says nothing more about himself, so we must depend on much later sources to learn more about his life. According to Pausanias, Oenobius was able to have a law passed that allowed Thucydides to return to Athens, presumably sometime after the city’s surrender in 404. Pausanias reports that Thucydides was murdered while traveling back home to Athens. Many doubt this, however, seeing evidence to suggest he lived as late as 397. Plutarch claims that his remains were returned to Athens and placed in Cimon‘s family vault. Still others explain the abrupt end of the work in Book VIII in 411 as evidence that he may have died while composing his masterpiece.
For more biographical reading, see:
Perez Zagorin, Thucydides, An Introduction for the Common Reader, Princeton: 2005.