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Ombres de Thucydide

Valérie Fromentin
Sophie Gotteland
Pascal Payen

Première partie. L’imitation littéraire de Thucydide dans l’Antiquité

Thucydides’ awareness of herodotus or. Herodotus’ awareness of thucydides?

Simon Hornblower

Note de l’auteur

I extend thanks, for their invitation and hospitality, to the organisers of the successful and interesting conference at Bordeaux in March 2007, Valerie Fromentin and Sophie Gotteland.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Hornblower 1995.
  • 2 The possibility considered in this paper was adumbrated briefly in Hornblower 1996, 45, Books 4-5.2 (...)

1This volume, like the conference from which it derives, is devoted to the reception of Thucydides. The first phase of that reception is in many ways the hardest for us to evaluate, that is, Thucydides’reception by his own contemporaries, and by the writers of the first few decades of the fourth century1. My concern in this paper is with an undoubted contemporary, none other than Herodotus. I shall consider the possibility that Herodotus knew of Thucydides’ work, rather than the other way round2.

2The proposition that Herodotus was a contemporary of Thucydides rests on a handful of forward-looking passages in his history, where he alludes to events of the time of the main Peloponnesian war of 431-404. The most convincing of them are well known, have been much discussed, and can be easily enumerated. He speaks (7.233.2) of the Thebans who led the attack on Plataia which began the war. Th. (2.1) corrected him on this point. Herodotus mentions the death of the Korinthian Aristeus in 430 (7.137), as does Thucydides (2.67), not exactly correcting him on the facts, but with a different and religious slant. I shall come back to this item later. Again, Herodotus says (6.98) that in the reigns of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes, there were more evils, kakça, for the Greeks than in the previous twenty generations, some arising from the Persian Wars themselves, some from the struggles of the leading Greek states, t) wn korufaçiwn, for hegemony. Now, Artaxerxes died in 424, so this (‘struggles’) seems to be, among other things, a reference to the so-called Archidamian war of 431-421. Finally, Herodotus says (9.73) that the Spartans abstained, for religious and sentimental reasons, from ravaging the Attic deme of Dekeleia in the ‘war which happened many years later between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians’ (for the ravaging of Dekeleia in 413 see Thc. 7.18 and 27-28). This also shows, in the usual view which I share, that Herodotus did not know about the Spartan occupation of Dekeleia in 413, because that brought an end to the Spartan abstention from ravaging.

  • 3 Lukes 1973, 397.

3My title is a paradox. Could Herodotus, surely a considerably older man, really have known about what Thucydides was writing? Less radically, could Herodotus and Thucydides really have been working side by side on their very differently executed projects? It is possible, even in modern times, for two distinguished authorities working at the same time and in the same field to take little or no notice of each other. A celebrated modern example of this is the relationship between Emil Durkheim and his contemporary Max Weber, each of whom can be regarded as the founder of the discipline of sociology. But in their writings they show a ‘total lack of interest in each other’s work’3.

  • 4 For full references see the Introductory n. to my commentary on the section (above, n. 2).

4I do in fact firmly believe that Thucydides wrote his history in reaction to Thucydides and that he is part of the history of the reception of Herodotus. But, as is well known, neither author mentions the other, so we are not talking about strict proofs. A pair of lengthy parallel passages concerns the murder of Hipparchos the brother of the tyrant Hippias and son of the tyrant Peisistratos, in the late sixth century BC. Herodotus narrates this at length in his book 5 (55-65), Thucydides in his book 6, in an excursus, written in notably Herodotean manner, placed exactly in the middle of the first book of his two-book account of the Sicilian expedition (54-59). Much has been written about the relation between the two accounts, and such great scholars as F. Jacoby and K. J. Dover have pronounced firmly that Thucydides and Herodotus are in agreement both in general and in detail4. It is to me extraordinary that the biggest difference of all appears to have gone unnoticed. I refer to the complete absence in Herodotus of the homosexual aspect of the affair. Dover says nothing about any such relation between Harmodios and Aristogeiton, and about the sexual advances made by Hipparchos towards Harmodios. Thucydides by contrast repeatedly uses the language of sexual passion and jealousy, and speaks more than once of the pass made by Hipparchos at the young man (πειρᾶν, 54.3 and 4, cf. 56.1). This is the correct word for a sexual pass. As a result, the novelist Mary Renault, in her 1978 novel The Praise Singer (about the poet Simonides) drew closely and with acknowledgment on Thucydides, not on Herodotus, for her brilliant depiction of this episode. Thucydides also shows himself aware of Spartan male homosexuality, when in book 1 he casually uses the word παιδικά of the young lover of Pausanias the Regent (1.132.5). In complete contrast, Herodotus nowhere mentions Greek homosexuality, except to say in passing in book 1 that the Persians learned pederasty from the Greeks (1.135). Which of them wrote his account first? Now it might be argued that it was Thucydides who was first and that Herodotus knew and disliked Thucydides’ account, which he had perhaps heard in recitation. Recitation, to which I shall return at the end of this paper, is the only way in which Herodotus could have been aware of any part of Herodotus’ narrative, if we accept that Thucydides was still adding to his history in the early 390s. That is made likely by the material about Archelaos king of Macedon at the end of book 2 (100.2), which has the feel of an obituary to it. Now Archelaos died in 399 (Diod. 14.37). The implications for Thucydides’composition date are obvious. However that may be, Thucydides, we can safely say, was still writing in 404 at the earliest, because he was aware of the fall of Athens in 404 (see most fully 5.26.1). On this hypothesis, Thucydides originally wrote the excursus on the tyrannicides separately from the Sicilian expedition of 415-413 and then recycled it. In the same way Puccini re-used some very early student material for his mature opera La Bohème. But it is surely more probable that Herodotus has priority, and that Thucydides added the male homosexual dimension to accounts such as Herodotus’(we should not forget Hellanikos and others, including poetic versions) which omitted or suppressed it, than that that dimension was censored by Herodotus. In which case we need not, after all, suppose that Thucydides’ version of the Harmodios and Aristogeiton story originally had a literary or recitational existence separate from its narrative context.

5I wish to concentrate, in the rest of this paper, on two episodes narrated in the early part of Thucydides’history, and to discuss the possibility that they have a Herodotean aspect. They are the two sections which we know as the Kerkyraika and the Potidaiatika, the affairs of Kerkyra (Corcyra, Corfu), in the north-west, and Potidaia in the north-east, both of them Korinthian colonies. They are the publicly alleged pretexts which began the Peloponnesian War. Between them, they make up a large part of Thucydides book 1. But they spill over into later books as well. Famously, Thucydides describes stasis, civil strife, at Kerkyra in book 3 under the year 427 (82-84), an obvious candidate for a separate recitation piece, and he finishes off the stasis story in a particularly gruesome section of book 4 (46-48). As for Potidaia, that story is concluded in book 2, in a remarkably vivid ch. (70).

6I shall take them in reverse order, that is, Potidaia first and Kerkyra second. Potidaia, in Thucydides, is subjected by the Athenians to a lengthy and horrific siege, which lasts for nearly two years, and ends only in winter 430/29 after great suffering, including the best-attested case of cannibalism in all of classical antiquity (2.70.1), ‘they even tasted each other’, note the fastidious formulation. The siege ends (para. 3) by an agreed withdrawal of the population, the men with one item of clothing, the women with two, an interesting and poignant detail which Thucydides does not explain.

7Now, another siege of Potidaia is described at length-by Herodotus (8.126-128). This siege took place in 480-479. It was a siege of Greeks by Persians, specifically by the Persian Artabazos. He had no trouble with his siege of neighbouring Olynthos, whose inhabitants he slaughtered and threw into the lake nearby. But the god Poseidon, who had been slighted by Artabazos, protected Potidaia, as well he might, because the city’s name is of course the Doric form of ‘Poseidon-town’. So the siege was, from the Persian point of view, a failure. One detail stays in the reader’s memory: the system of communication by arrows, between Artabazos and the traitor Timoxenos of Skione inside the city of Potidaia, breaks down when a message-bearing arrow goes astray and by unlucky chance wounds a Potidaian in the shoulder. A crowd gathers round, ‘as happens in war’, and the treachery is discovered – a nice example of contingency in history. This memorable story or stratagem was picked up in the middle of the fourth century by Aineias the Tactician in his treatise How to survive under Siege, written in about 360 BC; Aineias lifts the story straight from Herodotus, down to the detail ‘as happens in war’ (31.25-27). Now Macan, in his fine commentary on Herodotus of a century ago, asserted confidently that Herodotus’ failure to say anything about another siege of Potidaia half a century later – the siege described by Thucydides – proves that Herodotus was unaware of the later siege and therefore could not have been composing his history as early as 430. On the contrary, it seems to me very possible that Herodotus elaborates on this earlier and unsuccessful siege precisely because he was aware, and knew that his listeners would be aware, of the later and partially successful one. A siege of Potidaia would surely be of particular interest to Athenian and Korinthian listeners if another siege of the same place was going on at that same moment. But did Herodotus need to derive his knowledge of the later siege from Thucydides? I return to this question a little later. Before we leave Potidaia, let us ask what possible link there might be between the two salient and almost surreal details we have identified: cannibalism in Thucydides, and the wounded shoulder in Herodotus. The answer is of course that the link is the mythical Pelops, whose shoulder was eaten by the absent-minded Demeter before he could be rescued from the cooking-pot, and so had to make do for ever after with a shoulder made of ivory. This is the shocking version which Pindar refused to tell in Olympian 1. But which of Herodotus or Thucydides improved the other’s story?

8A final detail: the death of Aristeus son of Adeimantos, which, as I said above, features proleptically in Herodotus (7.137), is a further Potidaian overlap. This is because Aristeus was the Korinthian commander at Potidaia, and was captured by the Athenians on a mission to the Thracian king Sitalkes, son of Teres, to try to persuade him to help the besieged Potidaians. Herodotus was as interested in Sitalkes and his family, if not to the same degrees as was the part-Thracian Thucydides. Sitalkes and his unnamed sister feature in Herodotus’ remarkable story of Anacharsis and Skyles the Dionysiac initiate (4.80.2). In about 430, all Greece trembled at the huge 150,000 host assembled by Sitalkes on the northern borders of Greece proper (see Thc. 2.98.3), and Herodotus’ allusions are surely topical, not just because of Aristeus and Potidaia, but because of the contemporary threat of Sitalkes and his Thracian horde.

9Now for Kerkyra. Here the forward-looking aspect of Herodotus’account is even more conspicuous. As I mentioned earlier, both Potidaia and Kerkyra were Korinthian colonies. But Herodotus does not mention this colonial relationship in his Potidaia narrative. His Kerkyra narrative in the middle of book 3, part of the story of Periandros, is in sharp contrast. Here he says (3.49.1): ‘if after the death of Periandros, relations between the Korinthians and Kerkyraians had been friendly, the Korinthians would never have taken part in the expedition against Samos, on account of this incident (the interception by Samians of three hundred Kerkyraian boys sent by Periandros to be castrated in Sardis). But the fact is that ever since the Korinthians originally founded the island of Kerkyra, the two peoples have been on bad terms’.

10It is hard to read this sentence and not think of the quarrel between Kerkyraians and Korinthians which opens Thucydides’ narrative proper. We may recall the reported Korinthian complaints that the rest of their colonists love them and do them honour, but the Kerkyraians do not give them the usual privileges in their common festivals, nor do they allow a Korinthian man to begin the sacrifice like the other colonies (Thc. 1.25). Thucydides there (para. 3) actually uses the very strong word m) isoj, hatred, for Korinthian feelings about the Kerkyraians, and this idea will be repeated, with a different word (ecqoj, ‘hostility’, many books later, in the catalogue of ships before the great sea-battle in the harbour of a another Korinthian colony Syracuse (7.57.7).

11If we move on in Herodotus to book 7, the pre-Salamis narrative, we find the Kerkyraian attitude equivocal; their promised sixty ships do not arrive, and accordingly they do not, unlike the Potidaians, feature on the serpent column at Delphi (ML 27 coil 9 for the Potidaians). But note the detail (168.3) that the Kerkyraians boast that their fleet is second only to that of the Athenians in size; we recall the speech of the Kerkyraians to the Athenians at Thucydides book 1 (36.3): there are three mighty Greek fleets, ours, yours and the Korinthian.

12If we add a third of the immediate causes which were thought by contemporaries to have led to the main Peloponnesian war, namely the hostility between Athenians and Aiginetans, we will find that here too there are possible pre-echoes in Herodotus, who has much to say in books 5 and 6 about Aiginetan-Athenian hostility. The detailed correspondences are, however, less striking, and in any case Thucydides himself notoriously under-reports both this and the fourth of the alleged causes, that concerning Megara.

13There is, then, a case for saying that Herodotus gave special attention to the siege of Potidaia because of a contemporary siege of the same city fifty years later; and that he goes out of his way to remark on the hostility between Kerkyraians and Korinthians because he is not unaware, and he knows his audience are not unaware, of an important and topical manifestation of that hostility. Could he have heard Thucydides’ account of these events?

  • 5 See section 6, ‘Recitation Units’, of the General Introduction to my forthcoming commentary vol. II (...)

14That Thucydides could have pre-recited selected sections of his work is a possibility which should not be ruled out. Certain parts of the work lend themselves particularly to recitation5. One candidate I have already mentioned; the stasis at Kerkyra. But there are plenty of others. I have, after experiments, worked out that the entire Sicilian narrative books 6 and 7 would take about eight hours to recite, something like an evening at the opera. Some closures and false closures can be explained very well by the recitation hypothesis; thus 7.75.6-7 anticipates the real closure at 7.87. But ch. 75 closes off the tremendous and theatrical or rhetorical narrative of the final sea-battle, which is surely, like the Kerkyraian stasis, another very suitable candidate for a recitation unit.

  • 6 See my commentary (n. 2 above), General Introduction, section 2.

15We have seen that Herodotus is unlikely to have been aware of the 413 fortification of Dekeleia by the Spartans. Could he have been aware of the diplomatic build-up in 416 to the great Sicilian expedition of 415-413? It is a curious fact that the city which in Thucydides’ account (6.6) precipitated that expedition, namely Egesta, features twice in Herodotus. One of those expeditions is the Dorieus episode in book 5: a man from Kroton called Philippos of Kroton, an Olympic victor, is given hero-cult at Egesta because of his beauty (5.47.2). And then Gelon of Syracuse mentions Egesta in book 7 in his reply to the Spartans, who have asked for military help (158.2). Now the Dorieus expedition, or rather the Dorieus disaster, which involved the loss of a considerable Spartan army, can be seen as a kind of Spartan precursor and equivalent of the Athenian expedition a century years later. Both expeditions were imperialist attempts to get control of Sicily, except that the Spartans started from the western not the eastern end6. But a Herodotus who is aware of the Sicilian disaster of 413 runs up against our chronological argument from Dekeleia. The objection is not, however, fatal. There was an Athenian expedition to Sicily in 427-424, and it is very likely that Egesta featured here too. This, rather than the great expedition of 415-413, could have been in Herodotus’ mind when he described the adventures of Dorieus and his army.

16A final detail: both Philippos of Kroton in the late sixth century, and Kleinias the son of Alkibiades, at the battle of Artemision in 480, are said to have equipped their own personal triremes with their own personally paid-for crews (5.47.1 and 8.17). When we hear this we think, surely, of the famous Alkibiades, another Olympic victor like Philippos. Of this later Alkibiades, Thucydides says, in very similar and emphatic language, that he left Sicily on his recall with his own ship (6.50.1 and 61.6). Surely Thucydides means us to remember Kleinias, his great-grandfather, and also Philippos. But is it not also possible that Alkibiades, fatherless since 446 and the battle of Koroneia, was already known in the 420s for his private trireme, something like the modern equivalent of a private jet? Did Herodotus write as he did about Kleinias son of Alkibiades because he knew his contemporary audience would immediately think of the young glamorous Alkibiades son of Kleinias of their own time?

17But any theory needs to be tested scientifically against counter-evidence and against controls. An obvious objection is that there are many elaborate local and personal stories in Herodotus which have no Peloponnesian War resonance to them, and it is arbitrary to single and privilege out those which do. To this I have no reply, except to repeat that the parallels seem too verbally and thematically striking for this negative reaction to be justified.

18More fundamentally, is there an alternative to the idea that the middle-aged or elderly Herodotus heard a youngish Thucydides at some time read out extracts from his work in the mid 420s? The occasion could have been sympotic, or even public, such as one of the panhellenic festivals: Thucydides knows a lot about the games of 420 at which the Spartan Lichas was excluded but competed as a Boiotian (5.49-50). We should remember that another and surely related Spartan Lichas – the name is a rare one – had featured in Herodotus book 1 (67.5f.).

19An alternative exists. It is a prosaic and commonsense one. We do not need theories about literary indebtedness. We do not need Thucydides and his embryonic History to put awareness of the Peloponnesian War into Herodotus’ head, whether we are thinking of great themes like Greek ambitions for Sicily, or the Korinthian-Kerkyraian hostility, or the private trireme of the wealthy family of Alkibiades. All that the parallels I have listed show is shared preoccupation with the places and people who in one way or another precipitated wars in the period 431-415: the Kerkyraians, the Potidaians, the Aiginetans, the Egestaians, Alkibiades. Whether we want to go further and posit awareness by Herodotus of Thucydidean recitation pieces, will depend on whether we think that there are close verbal parallels. ‘His own ship’, ‘our navy second only to yours’, and so on. But any such linguistic argument can always be reversed, so that it will be Thucydides who was echoing Herodotus’ language. I have to say that I think this latter line of explanation the most convincing of those available.

20But in conclusion, I repeat that I am impressed by the extent to which Herodotus and Thucydides share certain political and personal preoccupations of a noticeably topical character. To the limited extent that Thucydides’ great theme of the Peloponnesian War seems to have left its mark on his predecessor’s history as well, we can speak of Herodotus as part of the reception of Thucydides. But that, it may be said, is a rather special sense of the word ‘reception’.



Hornblower, S. (1995): “The Fourth-century and Hellenistic Reception of Thucydides”, JHS 115, 47-68.

– (1996): Commentary on Thucydides, vol. II: Books IV-V. 24, Oxford.

– (2008): Commentary on Thucydides, vol. III. Books V. 25-VIII. 109.

Irwin, E. (2007): “The Politics of Precedence: First ‘Historians’ on First ‘Thalassocrats’”, in: Osborne 2007, 188-223.

Lukes, S. (1973): Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, London.

Osborne, R., ed. (2007): Debating the Athenian Revolution: Art, Literature, Philosophy and Politics 430-380BC., Cambridge.


1 See Hornblower 1995.

2 The possibility considered in this paper was adumbrated briefly in Hornblower 1996, 45, Books 4-5.24 (the last three lines of the eight-line note in square brackets at the end of the p.), cf. 27 n. 83. For an argument that Thucydides (Thc.) should be thought of as a contemporary rather than a successor of, Herodotus (Hdt.), and that Hdt. could ‘well be seen as responding to [Thc.]…’, see now Irwin 2007, 188-223, esp. 193. She is mainly concerned with the relationship between the ‘Minos passages’ of the two authors, Hdt. 3.122/Thc. 1.4 (but she also discusses e. g. Thc. 1.8, the Karians). The relationship between those Minos passages has been much discussed recently: see App. 2 (‘Passages from 1-5.24 Reconsidered’) of Hornblower 2008), on Thc. 1.4. (In this paper, I shall refer, for the sake of economy, to that vol. of my commentary, where full documentation is given for some controversial claims or much debated topics).

3 Lukes 1973, 397.

4 For full references see the Introductory n. to my commentary on the section (above, n. 2).

5 See section 6, ‘Recitation Units’, of the General Introduction to my forthcoming commentary vol. III (above, n. 2).

6 See my commentary (n. 2 above), General Introduction, section 2.


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