Three Cheers for Thrasybulus

So, if we look at Athens in 401, the democracy has been completely restored and I’d like to draw my comments about this to a close by focusing on Thrasybulus, a man, who I think probably none of you had ever heard his name when you came into this class. You had heard of Pericles, you may have heard of Themistocles, you heard lots of different Athenians, but you never heard of Thrasybulus. So, you might be surprised to hear the following. Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian of the first century B.C., in writing lives of famous Greeks and Romans, wrote the following about Thrasybulus: “If excellence were to be weighed by itself, apart from luck, I believe I would rank this man first of all. This much is certain, I put no one ahead of him in sense of honor, steadfastness, greatness of soul, and love of country.” That isn’t bad but it’s not the end.

A few years before 180 A.D., Pausanias the great travel writer of antiquity, wrote his guide to the famous and historic places of ancient Greece. In the section on Athens, he described the graves of the heroes and men that lined the roads outside the city beginning with the one leading to the place known as The Academy. Here’s what Pausanias the travel writer says, “The first is that of Thrasybulus, son of Lycus, in every way the greatest of all famous Athenians, whether they lived before or after him.” Think of all the names that are involved in that and maybe the weight of Pausanias’ general comparison is intensified by something a little bit more specific, because the next words in Pausanias’ account are these: “His is the first grave and after it comes that of Pericles,” just in case you thought he missed Pericles by mistake.

Now, that’s extraordinary and there’s a great puzzle that I can’t solve and probably never can be solved. How could it be that these fellows who lived centuries afterwards said these things about Thrasybulus and we have never heard of him? I mean barely heard of him. I mean, the best answer I can give you is there must have been lost histories, and we know there are of the period, and they must have given Thrasybulus the kind of credit for his remarkable achievements that don’t show up in Xenophon and Diodorus and the orators. But we at last, and you have an obligation to future generations, must not let the name of Thrasybulus lie in obscurity again, and just so that you don’t forget him, remember he is the only Greek I know whose name fits a Yale fight song — Thrasybulus, Thrasybulus.

Robert Kagan, Lecture 21 – The Struggle for Hegemony in Fourth-Century Greece