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Was Ancient Historian One Of The First Spin Doctors?

Without a man named Thucydides, the chances are slim that we'd know anything about the Peloponnesian War. A new book about the man attempts to correct what we know.

For more than a quarter of a century, starting in 431 B.C., two Greek cities faced off. Sometimes they confronted each other directly, and sometimes through proxies and allies. Thucydides recorded the details of the conflict throughout the war and, Yale professor Donald Kagan tells NPR's Guy Raz, "invented the modern understanding of history."

The war between Athens and Sparta has long since become an allegory of modern conflicts like the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq — even Afghanistan. Historians and students of Thucydides all draw comparisons back to that ancient conflict. Kagan says Thucydides was the first person to apply rigorous scholarship in the approach to storytelling.

Kagan's own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is considered a seminal work, widely cited by students and scholars. His latest book, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, delves into the ancient author and why he may not have always told the truth.

Thucydides was born around 455 B.C. to a noble Athenian family. During his youth, the Athenian empire was ruled by Pericles, who was something of a benign autocrat. But after Pericles' death in 429 B.C., the governance of Athens was taken over by a group of self-proclaimed democrats — most likely an affront to Thucydides' family, Kagan says, who would have had a deep skepticism of democracy.

In his history of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides attempts to assign blame for Athens' eventual demise on those democratic leaders.

"I think he tried the best he could to be objective," Kagan says, but Kagan's new book is an attempt to revise and even correct some of Thucydides' accounts. Kagan draws upon other sources to argue that, at times, Thucydides is selective in the way he uses direct quotations and reconstructs events.

Thucydides' work remains required reading at the U.S. military academies, and Kagan says there's still good reason. "One of the wonderful things that his work does is to make it clear to us what is so little clear when most people get into war — and that is how terrible war is."

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