Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon

Still in a state of formation as late as the eighth century b.c.e., the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Homeric epics, represented the foundational myths of early Greek civilization. They were histories of the Trojan War—informative, didactic, and entertaining.

Some two centuries later another confrontation was rendered epic, this time in the hands of Herodotus: the Persian Wars (499–479 b.c.e.). Herodotus depicted them as a clash of civilizations, the protodemocratic city-states of Greece staving off the autocratic Achaemenids of Persia.

Accent was placed on an insuperable divide between a hazily defined, but diametrically opposed East and West. To this struggle Herodotus added substantial doses of genealogy, ethnography, and geography. He may have been the Father of History, an epithet first bestowed on him by the Roman Cicero, but Herodotus was the son of epic poetry.

Little is known of Herodotus’s life, save that which is revealed in his work. In the early fifth century b.c.e. he was born in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). His journeys began prior to 454 b.c.e., when he was banished by Lygdamis, a local tyrant.


Herodotus visited Babylon, Phoenicia, Egypt, southern Russia, and Athens, settling in the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy in 443 b.c.e. Written sometime between 450 and 425 b.c.e., Herodotus’s work is divided into nine books.

This partitioning was a development of the third century b.c.e., carried out at the library of Alexandria. The first three books cover the reigns of Cyrus II (r. c. 559–529 b.c.e.) and Cambyses II (r. 529–521 b.c.e.), as well as the accession of Darius I (521–486 b.c.e.). The second triad treats the rule of Darius I.

The third and final section explores the kingship of Xerxes I (485–465 b.c.e.). The title of Herodotus’s work was Histories. At its origin, historĂ­a also meant "inquiry" or "research". Since the 19th century, Herodotus has often been regarded as an amateur of history.

His technique and methodology were trifling. Traditions, legends, and personal interviews misled him. He does demonstrate a desire to track down the most trustworthy evidence; however, much still separated Herodotus from the practices of contemporary historiography.

The work of Herodotus and that of Thucydides contrasts starkly, even though they were contemporaries. Eons seem to separate the tone, character, and style of their respective works. Herodotus is flighty and imprecise. Thucydides is sharp and probing.

Some have suggested that because Thucydides is devoid of metrical elements, this indicates that poetry and prose had finally parted ways. Thucydides’ aristocratic background and wealth, derived from family mines in Thrace, may have caused this difference.

He was also educated in the cultural lighthouse on the Aegean that was Athens at its height. The Sophists of late fifth-century Greek culture also influenced Thucydides. Only a few fragments of the Sophists’ actual writings survive, but their impact was primordial and has been compared to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

They provided instruction in rhetoric, grooming men for oratorical life in the radical democracy of Athens. They were less interested in the ethical implications of a given argument and more in the persuasiveness of its delivery. For Plato such a lack of moral compass was troublesome.

Thucydides was one of 10 Athenian generals elected in 424 b.c.e. When Sparta took Amphipolis, Thucydides bore the brunt of the failure. His remaining years were spent in exile, some of them in Thrace but others among the enemies of Athens, where he collected historical material. As an aristocrat, Thucydides idealized the Periclean model of democracy.

Thucydides is often taken as a model of objectivity, bringing history into the orbit of science. From the twists and turns of the war between Greek city-states Thucydides tried to extrapolate fundamental principles of human and political behavior.

Long held to be the lesser third of the great triumvirate of Greek historians, Xenophon was demoted further by the 1906 discovery of a papyrus fragment that covers the years 396–395 b.c.e.

Some would attribute its authorship to Cratippus, but this is inconclusive. The anonymous Oxyrhynchus historian offers a corrective to Xenophon’s work. Revered across the fourth century b.c.e., largely as a philosopher, his entire oeuvre survived.

As an associate of Socrates, Xenophon’s interpretation of Socratic thought was taken, incorrectly, to rest on par with that of Plato. Another factor contributing to Xenophon’s renown was his prose. For generations it served as stylistic model for students to emulate.

Xenophon is dismissed as fathoming little of the events he chronicled. His Hellenica is that work whose interpretive underbelly was exposed by the Oxyrhynchus historian. It is, as its title would suggest, a history of Greece.

Xenophon chronicles the fall of Athens in 404 b.c.e., then the political instability of the three-way struggle between Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, down to the Battle of Leuctra (371 b.c.e.).

Glaring omissions and biases have been noted in his work: his failure to address the Second Athenian Confederacy of the 370s b.c.e. and his tendency to look too favorably upon Sparta, despite his own Athenian background.

Xenophon’s other works include a historical novel depicting the idealized education of Cyrus II, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty and assorted treatises on estate management, hunting, horsemanship, and the duties of a cavalry officer.

Sometimes taken as a historical work but also readily dismissed as the mere memoir of a military commander, Xenophon’s Anabasis details events of 401–399 b.c.e. In a taut third-person narrative he recounts the failed exploits of Cyrus the Younger, the junior sibling of the Persian king Artaxerxes II.

There is speculation as to why the work was composed. Some suppose that it was intended as a corrective to another account of these same events, portraying Xenophon in an unflattering light. Others reach further, claiming that the intent was to demonstrate the extent of Persian weakness, letting an army of such a size escape.

If the Anabasis was indeed such an invitation, three-quarters of a century would pass before Alexander the Great would accept it, bringing a close to the epoch which had begun with Greeks playing prey to the Persians, documented first by Herodotus.