Thucydides as Prophet: Interpreting the Oracle of the Plague

By Amy R. Insalaco

When Thucydides claims that he wrote the Peloponnesian War, he not only sets out to create the war, but he also sets out to create a new genre, history, and to define the role that historians play in the overall inquiry into truth and human knowledge. He expressly distances himself from the poets, specifically Homer; yet, in Thucydides’ description of the plague at Athens, there are parallels with Homer’s recounting of the plague at the beginning of the Iliad. Moreover, in the same passage, Thucydides parallels another poet, Sophocles, and his description of the plague at Thebes. The difference between these poetical versions and the historical version rests on the interpretation of a divine oracle. In the Iliad, the prophet Calchas, who Homer tells us can see things past, present, and future, interprets the causes of the plague and provides the answer for deliverance. Likewise, Teiresias, again described as someone who sees the past, present, and future, interprets the Delphic oracle for Oedipus. And it is not by chance that Thucydides also provides us with a rare repetition of a Delphic oracle at this juncture in his history. By mentioning the oracle, Thucydides places himself in a position similar to that of the poets’ recounting other plagues. Indeed, with his pointing out the play on the words with loimos and limos, Thucydides offers two possible versions of the oracle—two different interpretations. Essentially, he becomes the oracular mouthpiece like Calchas or Teiresias. As a historian, Thucydides does not have the prophetic second sight of a Teiresias, but he does have hindsight, through his inquiry into the past. As a historian, he also treats contemporary events, and influences the way those events will be interpreted in the future, something he alludes to when he states that his history will be a possession for all time. Thus, for Thucydides, the reasoning historian replaces he divinely inspired prophet and poet in the search for meaning.  In fact, Thucydides has already alluded that he will give us the alhthes prophasis of the war. This oxymoron is usually translated that Thucydides will see behind the pretexts into the actual causes of the war. But, although prophasis means “pretext,” it is closely related to prophainw, or “to reveal.” Thus, Thucydides is also saying that he will see behind the ancient prophecies, that were only pretexts in the first place, in order to get to the truth. Of course, the historian can only describe the plague and its effects; he can offer no means of ablution to end the plague, for he is dealing with things as they really are, not as they ought to be.

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