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Tortoise Tuesday: Sources in The History of the Peloponnesian War

Perhaps the most laborious task of any scholarly endeavor is the research process, whereby one scours libraries, archives, or the Internet to find the sources around which they will craft an argument.  But imagine having to hunt for sources in a world without accessible libraries, archives, or even the Internet.  This is the world in which historian Thucydides of Athens lived nearly 2500 years ago.  In this excerpt from The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes how he evaluated, corroborated, and analyzed various primary sources to arrive at his thesis regarding the cause of the war.  He acknowledges the gaps and flaws within his own argument, and he warns his readers about contradictory firsthand accounts.  While his explicit and conscious examination of his sources seems like an obvious step of the research process to scholars today, there was little precedent for this method prior to his time.  Nonetheless, the clarity and thoroughness with which Thucydides discusses the treatment of his sources are impressive, and it is no doubt why his method of source use created a lasting legacy within the discipline of history.

—Leina Thurn ’20

“Of the various speeches made either when war was imminent or in the course of the war itself, it has been hard to reproduce the exact words used either when I heard them myself or when they were reported to me by other sources. My method in this book has been to make each speaker say broadly what I supposed would have been needed on any given occasion, while keeping as closely as I could to the overall intent of what was actually said. In recording the events of the war my principle has been not to rely on casual information or my own suppositions, but to apply the greatest possible rigour in pursuing every detail both of what I saw myself and of what I heard from others. It was laborious research, as eyewitnesses on each occasion would give different accounts of the same event, depending on their individual loyalties or memories.” (I.22)

Citation: Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Martin Hammond, Oxford University Press, 2009.