previous sub-section
Archaeology I
next sub-section

The Original Humanity and the Heroic Past

First, Thucydides attacks the vision of early times found in Homer, the strongest source of authority for the heroic period, and begins to develop his own model in its place. The Archaeology immediately demonstrates the revisionist and reductive stance that Thucydides will strike throughout the History. On the other hand, all of the evolutionary theories preserved in other authors supplement but do not directly alter the conventional picture of a heroic past. At Euripides Suppliants 195–215, Theseus looks back from the heroic period to a period of human weakness in which the standard indices of culture—language, agriculture, shelter, seaborne commerce, prophecy, and religious worship—did not yet exist. Likewise at Prometheus Bound 436–506, Prometheus reflects upon a similar state of nature from which he delivered humankind, and the Chorus at Sophokles Antigone 334ff. envisions a comparably grim past. The stories that appear in Plato’s Protagoras and in book 1 of Diodoros exist in a timeless past that stands outside of or before the heroic traditions that constituted a part of Greek identity. The original humans may live in a primitive or inglorious state, but this primitive existence does not impinge upon the proud image of the heroic age.

Thucydides’ Archaeology approaches the problem of human development from a completely different, and far more controversial, direction. He does not insulate the prestige of the heroic period from his analysis of early human weakness. He builds by first demolishing the conventional vision of the heroic past, and then constructing his picture from the rubble. He sees the weakness of humankind in the heroic age itself. The proudest heroes of Greek tradition flourished before the Trojan War: Panhellenic figures such as Herakles, the greatest of the heroes and the dominant mythological subject of Greek art, and local heroes such as Theseus or even Triptolemos of Eleusis, who brought the secret of agriculture to humans. Thucydides does not choose to include such individual men in his narrative. He obliquely dismisses them by equating common action with strength and by pointing to the lack of such common actions as a sure sign of weakness: “Another circumstance contributes not a little to my conviction of the weakness of ancient times. Before the Trojan War there is no indication of any common action in Hellas.” [14] Prior to that time, “the Greeks accomplished nothing as a group on account of their weakness (astheneia) and lack of contact (ameixia) with one another” (Thuc. 1.3.4). The Trojan War itself was a crude affair. It dragged on far too long, not so much because Agamemnon lacked men as for want of money (achrêmatia) (1.11.1). Agamemnon always had to keep much of his forces busy gathering supplies and thus could not concentrate the force necessary to take Troy quickly.

Thucydides does, however, raise the issue of labor power and population. Without attacking the veracity of Homer, he devalues Homer’s strongest claims for the glory of the Trojan War. In so doing, Thucydides does not naively accept Homer at face value but instead accepts Homer’s testimony as a starting point for historical analysis.[15] Homer’s account may or may not be accurate, but, in Thucydides’ view, Homer’s account will err only on the high side, exaggerating its subject. If Thucydides can accept Homer’s exaggeration and still demonstrate that the expedition to Troy is inferior to the Peloponnesian War, then he can make his point even without attacking the bias of the epic account. Thucydides attempts a rhetorical and analytical tour de force. His analysis of Homer has, at least in recent times, encountered considerable criticism and thus, at least as a rhetorical exercise, is not entirely successful.

In the Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.484–760), the epic poem provides a list of the Greek states that contributed ships to the Trojan expedition. Twenty-nine contingents sent roughly 1,200 ships (1,186 by my calculation). Quantitative measures are important to Thucydides: who went where, with how many men, for how many days, with what number of casualties—these are the kinds of figures that Thucydides painstakingly collects for his own narrative. He thus subjects this kind of evidence in Homer to close analysis:

He has represented it as consisting of 1,200 vessels; the Boiotian complement of each ship being 120 men, that of the ships of Philoktetes 50. By this, I conceive, he meant to convey the maximum and the minimum complement: at any rate he does not specify the amount of any others in his catalogue of the ships. That they were all rowers as well as warriors we see from his account of the ships of Philoktetes, in which all the men at the oar are bowmen. Now it is improbable that many supernumeraries sailed if we except the kings and high officers; especially as they had to cross the open sea with munitions of war, in ships, moreover, that had no decks but were equipped in the old piratical fashion. [5] So that if we strike the average of the largest and smallest ships, the number of those who sailed will appear inconsiderable, representing, as they did, the whole force of Hellas.

Assuming that Homer will have, if anything, exaggerated his subject, Thucydides accepts Homer’s figures as an upper limit. The number of ships would probably, in Thucydides’ eyes, have been considerably smaller, but he lets that pass. Furthermore, he assumes that the Boiotian complement (120 men per ship) would have been as typical as that of the smaller ships brought by Philoktetes (50 men each), and thus assumes 85 men per ship. But as G. S. Kirk has recently noted, “Actually the Boeotian number is likely to be as exceptional as their other statistics, and fifty is a more realistic ship’s complement.” [16] Again, Thucydides gives Homer the benefit of the doubt and, like a careful statistician, conservatively chooses a high figure. If 1,200 ships each had a complement of 85, then the Greek expeditionary force contained 102,000 men. Thucydides does not multiply 85 by 1,200 and make this final calculation in his narrative. He just gives the figure for ships and men per ship and concludes that the total number was an “inconsiderable” number of men, if it is to represent all of Hellas.

Thucydides’ dismissive treatment of a 102,000 man force (far larger than any marshaled in the Peloponnesian War) has provoked harsh words and nervous apologies from modern scholars. Thucydides, according to V. J. Hunter, comes to “a conclusion that is patently absurd and generally recognized to be so.” [17] “Thucydides cannot,” comments Gomme, “in fact be acquitted of a certain inconsequence; this excursus, like most of the others, has not been fully thought out.” [18] De Romilly seeks only to change the focus of the analysis: “Even if there were no contradictions between this figure and the analysis given by Thucydides, one could at least say that this is hardly conclusive and that the method is here more original than the result.” [19]

Such criticisms of Thucydides’ analysis are misplaced. Thucydides’ point, though it may shock the modern reader, is consistent and defensible. The gap between military forces of the industrial age and those of the ancient period has made many scholars skeptical of the distinction that Thucydides might draw between the fifth century and the heroic period.[20] But Thucydides has good reasons for his observation. First, the Catalogue of Ships does not cover all of fifth-century Hellas, but only the Greek world of the Bronze Age. (The Catalogue of Ships, in fact, paints a surprisingly faithful picture of which sites were and were not important in the Bronze Age, and thus is a prime example of how retentive oral tradition can, in some cases, be.)[21] Since that time, Hellas had expanded both to the east and to the west. Ionia, Magna Graecia, and Sicily, as well as individual settlements scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin (such as Kyrene in North Africa, Massilia in France, Olbia in the Crimea), had greatly increased the scope of “Hellas.” Syracuse, founded long after the heroic period, was the greatest city in Sicily and as powerful as any other single Greek state.[22] The Bronze Age Greece outlined in the Catalogue of Ships was no more than a “rump Hellas” and constituted a subset of the classical Greek world.

Second, if we look beyond the impressive total of 102,000 and examine the individual contingents that form the basis of this calculation, Thucydides’ analysis does not seem nearly so outlandish. Agamemnon contributed the largest single contingent in the Trojan War, 100 ships (Il. 2.576), but, by Thucydides’ reckoning, this force would have included no more than 8,500 troops. Only six contingents provide more than 50 ships to the Trojan War (Nestor with 90, Diomedes and Krete as a whole with 80 each, and 60 from Menelaus and all of Arkadia). The remaining twenty-three contingents range from 50 ships (c. 4,250 men) from Boiotia, the Myrmidons, and Athens down to 3 ships (c. 255 men) led by Nireus.

By contrast, the Athenian fleet of 300 ships available at the opening of the Peloponnesian War implies a crew of 60,000. Even though a majority of the oarsmen may have been metics (resident aliens) or mercenaries (as the Corinthians assert at Thuc. 1.121.3, a charge that Perikles does not deny; see 1.143.1),[23] the Athenians also fielded 13,000 frontline hoplites, 16,000 garrison troops drawn from the very young and old, 1,200 cavalry, and 1,600 unmounted archers. How would Agamemnon’s 8,500 men have stacked up against the 100 triremes (with 20,000 crewmen), 4,000 hoplites, and 300 cavalry that the Athenians themselves dispatched against Sicily? Even if Athens is exceptional and more dominant than Agamemnon’s Mycene, the Greek forces of the Peloponnesian War overmatch those enumerated in the Catalogue of Ships. A powerful regional fleet such as that deployed by the Corcyraeans (Thuc. 1.29.4) could, just before the war began, simultaneously maintain 120 ships and thus a crew of c. 24,000 oarsmen (not counting hoplites or other categories of fighter). Agamemnon would have been hard-pressed to contend against the 50 ships that Lesbos and Chios (neither of which, of course, appear in the Catalogue of Ships) sent to accompany the Athenian expedition against Sicily (Thuc. 6.31.2).

Agamemnon may have assembled a large number of troops, but his expeditionary force could not, on serious scrutiny, compete with the potential resources available in fifth-century Hellas as a whole. Thucydides wrote for the Greek elite,[24] and those who read his History would have been veterans, wealthy enough to have served as hoplites or horsemen for various city-states. All of Thucydides’ contemporaries must have had some experience of the war that raged on and off for twenty-seven years. It is hard to imagine that such men would not have spent considerable time during their lives speculating on how many ships, hoplites, or horsemen a given polis could bring to bear. Likewise, Greeks were very conscious of what role their city-state did (or did not) play in the Catalogue of Ships,[25] and would thus have been well prepared to compare its present and past capacities.

Furthermore, Thucydides’ analysis goes beyond raw numbers, obliquely undercutting the dignity of the Trojan expedition. The Greeks in the Trojan War made no distinction between oarsmen and infantry. Philoktetes’ ships included nothing but archers, and Thucydides seems to assume that the only specialized foot soldiers would have been the “kings and those most in authority,” that is, the heroes mentioned by Homer. The ships themselves were, of course, not modern triremes but “equipped in the old piratical fashion” and would have been helpless in any serious naval encounter. They were useless except as transports that moved men from one place to another. Technically, the Greek ships sent to Troy were primitive, and their military organization was undeveloped. Thucydides scarcely deigns to mention the individual heroes and ignores the individual exploits around which epic tradition was built. From a qualitative point of view, the entire expedition was backward in conception and execution.

The Peloponnesian War does offer one parallel for a massive invasion, comparable in magnitude to the 102,000 Greeks who descended on Troy, but Thucydides’ parallel is barbarian, not Greek. The Thracian Sitalkes’ vast horde of plundering foreigners reportedly swelled to 150,000 men (Thuc. 2.98.3). This terrifying force threatened northern Greece, but only as far south as Thermopylai (2.101.2), and it departed after just thirty days. In future centuries the Greeks would learn how devastating such mass invasions could be, but for now the Athenians did not take Sitalkes altogether seriously, failing to send the forces that they had promised because they did not expect that he would actually materialize (2.101.1). Thucydides clearly sees in the earlier Greeks a group little different from the disorganized foreigners of his own day.

The point of Thucydides’ analysis is sharp and clear. He attacks Homer on his strongest point, the massive size of the Trojan expedition. When he is finished, the great Trojan expedition proves that it can compete neither in size nor in organization with the forces available in Thucydides’ own day. Thucydides is not naively accepting a vast Greek force at Troy, but conceding the figures implied by Homer so as to make his larger point all the more forceful.[26]

previous sub-section
Archaeology I
next sub-section