Barbarians and Greeks: Thucydides theorizes the shift from barbarian banditry to settled civilization (late fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarians and Greeks: Thucydides theorizes the shift from barbarian banditry to settled civilization (late fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Thucydides, History of the Peloponessian War 1.1-21 (link).

Comments: Writing just after 411 BCE, Thucydides of Athens’ work on the Peloponessian War begins by asserting that this was the greatest war ever. This then leads him on a bit of a digression about how things were different in the old days before peoples in the region had a common sense of being “Greeks.” This also means he theorizes about the concept of “barbarians,” which, he points out, was not current in Homer’s time at all. Unlike the contemporary situation in which Athenians and Spartans were well-organized, settled societies that carefully directed their energies to military dominance, in the old days peoples in the region were just like “barbarians” today in using their energies for unorganized banditry and plundering. People therefore had to walk around armed in daily life in order to protect themselves. Virtually all peoples were at some point in the habit of banditry, Thucydides suggests, but in “modern” times only barbaric or semi-barbaric peoples continue such practices.

Paradoxically Greeks were at one point just about as uncivilized as modern barbarians: “One could demonstrate that the early Greeks had many other customs similar to those of the barbarians of the present day.” If followed through, this idea could start to challenge a stark Greek-barbarian dichotomy. But Thucydides expressly has other aims in mind beyond any assessment of “barbarians.” Primarily he wants to affirm that the Athenian people (who were the first to stop carrying around weapons in daily life) represent the culmination of civilized, modern progress and that his book about the Peloponnesian War (his topic) is covering the most important topic ever.

Portions of this passage are also notable with respect to legends of migration as Thucydides contrasts the firmly settled urban life of Athens and Sparta of his own day to the more itinerant situation in the “old days.”

Note: The comments and material configured here reflect a larger forthcoming article (and ultimately a book) by Philip A. Harland, “‘You are the bandit!’: Criminalizing Conquered Peoples, and Some Retorts.”


[Introduction to the “greatest” war ever]

1 Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war waged by the Peloponnesians and the Athenians against one another. He began the task at the very outset of the war. He did this in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before, inferring this from the fact that both powers were then at their best in preparedness for war in every way and seeing the rest of the Greek peoples taking sides with one or the other, some immediately and others planning to do so. For this was the greatest movement that had ever stirred the Greeks, extending also to some of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of humankind.

[Nature of life in the old days]

[Migrations and lack of stable settlements]

As to the events of the period just preceding this and those of still earlier times, it was in fact impossible to get clear information because of the passing of time. But based on evidence which I find that I can trust after pushing my inquiries to the furthest point, I think that those events were not really great either with regard to the wars then waged or other particulars. 2 For it is clear that what is now called Greece was not settled with fixed habitations in the old days, but that migrations were frequent in former times. Each people readily left its own land whenever it was forced to do so by any other people that was more numerous because there was no mercantile traffic and the people did not mingle with one another without fear, either on land or by sea. They each tilled their own land only enough to obtain a livelihood from it, having no surplus of wealth and not planting orchards. This was because it was uncertain when some invader might come and despoil them, especially since they did not yet have walls. And so, thinking that they could obtain anywhere the sustenance required for their daily needs, they found it easy to change their abodes. For this reason, they were not strong with regard to either the size of their cities or their resources in general.

Furthermore, it was always the best quality land that was most subject to these changes of inhabitant: the districts now called Thessaly and Boiotia [east-central Greece], most of the Peloponnesos except Arkadia, and the most fertile regions in the rest of Greece. For the greater power that accrued to some communities on account of the fertility of their land occasioned internal quarrels by which they were ruined. At the same time, these communities were more exposed to plots from outside tribes (allophylai).

[Early colonization by Attica]

Anyways, Attica was free from internal quarrels from the earliest times because of the thinness of its soil, and therefore was inhabited by the same people always. And here is an excellent illustration of the truth of my statement that it was owing to these migrations that the other parts of Greece did not increase in the same way as Attica. For the most influential men of the other parts of Greece, when they were driven out of their own countries by war or sedition, resorted to Athens as being a firmly settled community. On becoming citizens, these people made the city still more populous from the very earliest times. The result was that Attica proved too small to hold them, and therefore the Athenians eventually sent out colonies even to Ionia.

[Cooperation among communities and the emergence of a common sense of “Greece” / “Hellas”]

3 The shortcomings of the old days are further proved to me mainly by this circumstance: before the Trojan war it appears that “Greece” (“Hellas”) did not engage in any common enterprise. Indeed, it seems to me that as a whole it did not yet have this name, either. Rather, before the time of Hellen son of Deukalion this title did not even exist. Several peoples (ethnē), mainly the Pelasgian people, gave their own names to various districts. But when Hellen and his sons became strong in Phthiotis and were called in to the aid of the other cities, the peoples started more and more to be called “Greeks” (Hellenes) because of this interaction, even though it was a long time before the name could prevail among them all.

[Homer’s use of “Greeks” and lack of use of “barbarians”]

The best evidence of this is given by Homer [eighth century BCE] because, although his time was much later than the Trojan war [sometimes placed in the twelfth century BCE], he nowhere uses this name of all or indeed of any of them except the followers of Achilles of Phthiotis. These were in fact the first Greeks. But Homer designates them in his poems as Danaans, Argives, and Achaians. And he has not used the term “barbarians,” either. It seems to me that the reason for this is that the Greeks on their part had not yet been separated off so as to acquire one common name by way of contrast. However this may be, those who then received the name of “Greeks” – whether severally and in succession, city by city, as far as they understood one another’s speech, or in a body at a later time – engaged together in no common enterprise before the Trojan war, on account of weakness and lack of intercourse with one another. And they united even for this expedition only when they were now making considerable use of the sea.

[Legendary king Minos and the first imperial power]

4 Minos is the earliest of all those known to us by tradition who acquired a navy. He made himself master of a very great part of what is now called the Greek sea, and became lord of the Kyklades islands and first colonizer of most of them, driving out the Carians and establishing his own sons in them as governors. He also naturally tried to clear banditry (lēstikon) from the sea, as far as he could, desiring that his revenues should come to him more readily.

[Lack of civilization and banditry explained – similarities between early Greeks and current barbarians]

5 It should be explained that in early times both the Greeks and the barbarians who dwell on the mainland near the sea, as well as those on the islands, turned to sea-banditry after they began to cross over in ships to one another more frequently. They did so under the leadership of their most powerful men whose motive was their own private gain and the support of their weaker followers. Attacking cities that lacked walls and consisted of groups of villages, they pillaged them and got most of their living from that source. For this occupation did not as yet involve disgrace, but rather conferred something even of glory. This is shown by the practice, even at the present day, of some of the peoples on the mainland, who still hold it an honour to be successful in this business. Furthermore, it is evident in the words of the early poets, who invariably ask the question of everyone who put to shore whether they are pirates. The inference being that neither those whom they ask ever disavow that occupation, nor those ever censure it who are concerned to have the information.

On the mainland also men plundered one another. Even today in many parts of Greece life goes on under the old conditions, as in the region of the Ozolian Lokrians, Aitolians, Akarnanians, and the mainland around there. These mainlanders’ habit of carrying weapons is a survival of their old lifestyle of banditry (lēsteia; or: plundering). 6 Indeed, all the Greeks used to carry weapons because the places where they dwelt were unprotected, and intercourse with each other was unsafe They regularly went around armed in everyday life just like the barbarians did. And the fact that these districts of Greece still retain this custom is an evidence that at one time similar modes of life prevailed everywhere.

[Athenians first to leave behind carrying weapons and lifestyle of banditry]

But the Athenians were among the very first to lay aside their weapons and, adopting an easier mode of life, to change to more luxurious ways. In fact, because of this delicate living, it was only recently that their older men of the wealthier class gave up wearing tunics of linen and fastening up their hair in a knot held by a golden grasshopper as a brooch. This same clothing obtained for a long time among the elderly men of the Ionians as well, because of their kinship (xyngenes) with the Athenians.

An unpretentious outfit like the current fashion was first adopted by the Lakedaimonians [Spartans]. In general their wealthier men adopted a lifestyle that brought them as far as possible into equality with the populace. And they were the first to bare their bodies and, after stripping openly, to anoint themselves with oil when they engaged in athletic exercise. In early times, even in the Olympic games, the athletes wore girdles around their loins in the contests, and it is not many years since the practice has ceased. Indeed, even now among some of the barbarians, especially those of Asia (where prizes for wrestling and boxing are offered), the contestants wear loin-cloths. One could demonstrate that the early Greeks had many other customs similar to those of the barbarians of the present day.

[Settlements on the sea]

7 However, the cities which were founded in more recent times – when navigation had become much safer and were consequently beginning to have surplus resources – were built right on the seashore, and the isthmuses were occupied and walled off with a view to commerce and to the protection of the several peoples against their neighbours. But the older cities, both on the islands and on the mainland, were built more at a distance from the sea because of the sea-banditry that long prevailed (for they were used to plundering not only one another, but also any others who lived on the coast but were not sea-faring people) and even to the present day they lie inland.

[Islanders, the contribution of king Minos of Crete, and walled cities]

8 Still more addicted to sea-banditry were the islanders. These included Carians as well as Phoenicians. Carians inhabited most of the islands. This may be inferred from the fact that, when Delos was purified by the Athenians in this war [3.104; ca. 426 BCE] and the graves of all who had ever died on the island were removed, over half were discovered to be Carians. These were recognized by the style of the armour found buried with them and by the mode of burial, which is that still in use among them.

But when the navy of Minos had been established, navigation between various peoples became safer (for criminals (or: evil-doers) on the islands were expelled by him, and then he proceeded to colonize most of the islands). Also those living on the sea-coast now began to acquire property more than before and to become more settled in their homes. Some, seeing that they were growing richer than before, also began to put walls around their cities. Their more settled life was due to their desire for gain. Actuated by this, the weaker citizens were willing to submit to dependence on the stronger, and the more powerful men, with their enlarged resources, were able to make the lesser cities their subjects. . . . [omitted detailed description of the rise of Mykenai and Peloponessian influence in connection with Homer’s account of the Trojan war].

[Post-Trojan war migrations and colonizations]

12 Indeed, even after the Trojan war Greece was still subject to migrations and in process of settlement, and hence did not get rest and become stronger. For not only did the return of the Greeks from Ilion, occurring as it did after a long time, cause many changes, but factions also began to spring up very generally in the cities. As a consequence of these, men were driven into exile and founded new cities. The present Boiotians, for example, were driven from Arne by the Thessalians in the sixtieth year after the capture of Ilion and settled in the district now called Boiotia, but formerly Kadmeis. Only a portion of these had been in that land before, and it was some of these who took part in the expedition against Ilion. The Dorians, too, in the eightieth year after the war, together with the Herakleidians occupied the Peloponnesos. And so when after a long and painful course of time Greece became permanently tranquil and its population was no longer subject to expulsion from their homes, it began to send out colonies. The Athenians colonized Ionia and most of the islands. The Peloponnesians, the greater part of Italy and Sicily and some portions of the rest of Greece. All these colonies were planted after the Trojan war. . . . [omitted extensive discusssion of the rise of fleets and naval power among the Corinthians, Ionians, Phokaians, and other Greeks, especially the Athenians and Spartans of the Peloponnesian war].

[Prominence of the Spartans and Athenians in reaction to the Persian invasion]

18 . . . Not many years after the overthrow of the tyrants in Greece by the Lakedaimonians the battle of Marathon was fought between the Athenians and the Persians. Ten years after that the barbarian [Persian king] came again with his great host against Greece to enslave it. In the face of the great danger that threatened, the Lakedaimonians [Spartans], because they were the most powerful, assumed the leadership of the Greeks that joined in the war. The Athenians, when the Persians came on, resolved to abandon their city, and packing up their goods embarked on their ships, and so became sailors. By a common effort the barbarian was repelled. But not long afterwards the other Greeks, both those who had revolted from the [Persian] king and those who had joined the first confederacy against him, parted company and aligned themselves with either the Athenians or the Lakedaimonians, because these states had shown themselves the most powerful, the one strong by land and the other on the sea. The defensive alliance lasted only a little while. Then the Lakedaimonians and the Athenians quarrelled and, with their respective allies, made war upon one another. Any of the rest of the Greeks, if they happened to be at variance, from now on resorted to one or the other. So that from the Persian invasion continually, to this present war, making peace at one time, at another time fighting with each other or with their own revolted allies, these two cities prepared themselves well in matters of war, and became more experienced, taking their training amid actual dangers.

19 The Lakedaimonians maintained their hegemony without keeping their allies tributary to them, but took care that these should have an oligarchical form of government conformably to the sole interest of Sparta. The Athenians, on the other hand, maintained theirs by gradually taking over the ships of the allied cities, with the exception of Chios and Lesbos, and by imposing on them all a tax of money. So the individual resources of the Athenians available for this war became greater than those of themselves and their allies when that alliance was still unimpaired and strongest.

[Unreliability of accounts of earlier times but Thucydides’ relative reliability]

20 Now the state of affairs in ancient times I have found to have been such as I have described above, although it is difficult in such matters to credit any and every piece of testimony. For men accept from one another hearsay reports of former events, neglecting to test them just the same, even if these events belong to the history of their own country. Take the Athenians, for example: most of them think that Hipparchos was a tyrant when he was slain by Harmodios and Aristogeiton. They do not know that it was Hippias, as the eldest of the sons of Peisistratos, who was ruler, and that Hipparchos and Thessalos were merely his brothers. Further, that Harmodios and Aristogeiton, suspecting, on that very day and at the very moment of executing their plan, that information had been conveyed to Hippias by one of their fellow-conspirators, held off from him as forewarned. But wishing to do something before they were seized and then take their chances, they fell in with Hipparchos, who was marshalling the Panathenaic procession near the sanctuary called Leokorion, and killed him. There are many other matters, too, belonging to the present and not forgotten through lapse of time, regarding which the other Greeks hold mistaken opinions. For example, there is the notion that at Lakedaimon [Sparta] the kings cast not one but two votes each, and that the Lakedaimonians have the “Pitana company” in their army. This never existed at any time. So averse to taking pains are most men in the search for the truth, and so prone are they to turn to what lies ready at hand.

21 Still, from the evidence that has been given, any one would not be mistaken if he held the view that the state of affairs in antiquity was pretty nearly such as I have described it, not giving greater credence to the accounts, on the one hand, which the poets have put into song, adorning and amplifying their theme, and, on the other, which the chroniclers have composed with a view rather of pleasing the ear than of telling the truth. Their stories cannot be tested and most of them have from lapse of time won their way into the region of the fabulous so as to be unbelievable. A person should regard the facts as having been made out with sufficient accuracy, on the basis of the clearest indications, considering that they have to do with early times. So, even though men are always inclined, while they are engaged in a war, to judge the present one the greatest, but when it is over to regard ancient events with greater wonder, yet this war will prove, for men who judge from the actual facts, to have been more important than any that went before. . . . [omitted methodological discussion of speech composition].


Source of the translation: C.F. Smith, Thucydides, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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