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While it may seem obvious to many in the contemporary world that human history is a story of progressive and cumulative change, moving civilization and its citizens towards ever greater material, technological, and social advancement, such ideas are rather uncommon in the history of history. To modern social theorists, growth is everything. Technocrats and economists continually refine their measurements of per capita GDP and capital stockpiles in order to verify that we are, in fact, still growing materially. Such growth, according to theory, will result in the increased well being of individuals and the improvement of quality of life for each. Though scholars and academics often decry the so-called myth of progress, in practical terms it seems to have embedded itself in the socio-political matrix of the current age.

Traditionally, however, such linear and progressive views of history were unusual or even aberrant. Ancient myths often saw human history in terms of a decline through successively more brutal and decadent stages. What had once been a Golden Age of gods and god-like-men, was now, for the ancients, a corrupted Age of Iron and bloody warfare. Christian and Hebrew histories, too, saw civilization in terms of a fall, both material and spiritual. And, while Plato, in his Republic, envisioned a Utopia ruled by a philosopher king, even this perfected city-state was subject to decline and a reversion to anarchic type. The moral arc of history was unreliable at best, at worst perverse, and it appeared to bend in the wrong direction.

In the Early Modern Period (c.1500–c.1800), theorists such as Giambattista Vico, writing in his 1725 study of political philosophy, the New Science, could still see, in the rise and fall of civilizations, a cyclical and recursive process. Even more recently, public figures such as Steve Bannon have notably adhered to theories of cyclical history, such as the so called 4th Turning, which hypothesizes regularly predictable crises appearing in world history.

In light of this background, then, perhaps 19th and 20th century positivism may itself seem the deviation rather than the rule. But if it is the exception, then it is one that has ensconced itself within the societal control room, and Oz-like, has had its hand upon all the levers of politics and commerce for many decades.

The 18th century… saw the greatest flowering of belief in progress, with belief that a benevolent providence had secured for us perfectibility of knowledge and reason. In the 19th century belief in progress continued to flourish, with Comte and Marx equally enamoured of it.”

Simon Blackburn. “Progress,” Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

In its progressive and political modes, positivism envisions society, properly managed, as susceptible to impelled growth by interventionist policy. Such theories have been linked with paternalistic colonialism, classical liberalism, racism, and unrestrained capitalism by their critics. They have also provided a concrete framework and systematic approach to governmental concerns by modern technocrats and economists since such positions began to move away from the control of political patrons and into the domain of professional careerists. But the base assumption is that the movement of history is in a positive direction; that happiness, if not goodness, increases; and that things are better, or at least grander, than they once were.

History came to be seen as a single linear progression encompassing every region of the globe. The future came to stand for improvement, rather than degeneration from a previous golden age or simply a product of inevitable cycles of rise and fall.

Lynn Hunt. History: Why It Matters. Polity Press: 2018. 93.

As far as we know, Thucydides is the first historian to take an analytical approach to history, and in the Archaeology in particular, he attempts to provide a progressive account of Greek history. Thucydides purpose is not merely to describe what happened or relate popular stories about events, but to understand the causal reason behind events. Thucydides knew what had happened, he wanted to know why.

The Archaeology is normally considered to be comprised of the next twenty chapters following the first—by some accounts twenty-two—of the first book of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In the Jones and Powell’s Oxford critical edition, the standard scholarly version of this work, the Archaeology consists of fewer than 150 lines of Greek text. The text is so named, not because it deals with archaeology in the modern sense of the word, but rather because it is an account, a logia, of ‘the earliest events’ (archaia) (Hornblower, A Commentary On Thucydides, 1991:3).

The purpose of the Archaeology is to defend Thucydides’ initial supposition that the war was the greatest (megista) of any such events up until that time, and that it was necessarily greater due to the relative weakness of the Hellenes and their states in prior eras.

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it….  Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world—I had almost said mankind. Thucydides: I.1.1-2

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Robert Strassler editor. Free Press: 2008. 3.

In order to demonstrate this, Thucydides provides the reader with a broad overview of the development of Greek power from the earliest times known to him: through the Minoan period, the Trojan war as related by Homer, and finally down to his own present, the 5th Century BC.

To show that this war was the greatest conflict ever engaged, Thucydides needed to illustrate how an expansion of power and organization could build up a civilization out of the rough building blocks of brigandage and raw subsistence. Thucydides invents the idea of progress in order to justify his history. What Thucydides constructs with this new model of thinking is the history of a Greece, and especially an Athens, that possesses an ever widening circle of influence and power. From this it must follow that only in his own time were the Greek powers able to undertake such an all-encompassing endeavor as the Peloponnesian war, since in prior ages they lacked both the political unity and the resources to do so.

So powerful is Thucydides’ belief in his thesis that he is willing to directly challenge received tradition, even when that tradition is the semi-sacred Homeric account of the Trojan War. Thucydides represents the powers of Mycenaean antiquity in their invasion of Illium, not as a massive overweening power gone abroad to project its power, but as a pathetic ragtag force of would be pirates, barely able to sustain itself in the field.

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.
    And this was due not so much to scarcity of men as of money. Difficulty of subsistence made the invaders reduce the numbers of the army to a point at which it might live on the country during the prosecution of the war. Even on the victory they obtained on their arrival… there is no indication of their whole force having been employed; on the contrary, they seem to have turned to cultivation of the Cheronese [a nearby peninsula] and to piracy for want of supplies. Thucydides: I.1.10,5 ff.

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Robert Strassler editor. Free Press: 2008. 9.

This great new modern power of Athens, now active as an empire in Thucydides’ own time, is shown to be possible because of three factors: economic growth leading to surplus resources, the spread of Greek culture and language across the Aegean and onto the Ionian shores of Asia Minor, and the political unification of diverse island and coastal populations under the umbrella of the Delian League.

The Olympias: A modern reconstruction of an ancient Athenian Trireme, workhorse of 5th century navies.

While Sparta, though a land power, leads the Peloponnesian League, all of Athens’ power lies in her ability to project force and the threat of force through her navy, and the revenue which that produces. What the Archaeology’s analysis attempts to demonstrate is that all of this power and growth has been due primarily to sea power, and as such directly favors the Athenian camp. The Archaeology is not merely a statement of historical fact, but rather, since it attributes expansion as belonging to a particular kind of power, namely naval, it is also a kind of political manifesto.

That Athens was eventually defeated does nothing to lessen the impact of Thucydides’ hypothesis, since defeat only happened after Spartan forces themselves had acquired a sophisticated modern navy and could challenge the Athenian empire both on land as well as at sea. For Thucydides, naval power must ultimately be triumphant, since it was the best and swiftest vehicle for the spread of commerce and culture. It was his view that whosoever controlled shipping controlled the ancient Aegean, and who every controlled that controlled the world in which he lived. It was this insight, that the progression from rude exchange and clumsy piracy into expansive trade networks and sophisticated armadas, could be driven by the adoption of new technologies, openness to commerce, and the willingness to risk failure for the sake of expansion, that changed forever how power was viewed by history, historians, and the rulers who read them.