Three Views of Thucydides

Why do we read Thucydides? Few authors have been read and re-read in quite the same way as Thucydides, from different disciplinary perspectives and with different questions asked of the text and its author. But does Thucydides’ own claim that his work was of permanent value – ‘a possession for all time’ – mean that it can be approached without consideration of the context in which it was written, or is being read? Has Thucydides’ claim about his work, and instruction on its use, created a history of anachronistic readings in which his methodology and analysis have been placed beyond criticism? Assertions of the timeless value of his text suit the purposes of some readers better than others, generating soundbites (or sententiae, as they were known in ancient times) that can add classical gravitas to political argument, without demanding any critical engagement. Likewise, the ‘belief in the veracity of his History’, as Neville Morley describes it, and the associated belief in his successful development and use of a scientific historical methodology, has led readers whose goal isn’t the critical exploration of classical Greek history to be curiously unquestioning about the relationship of his narrative and analysis to the world he describes.

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Syracuse’s former stone quarries, less idyllic in classical times

Reading Thucydides with these beliefs in place would be methodologically disastrous for present-day ancient historians. They need to take a more critical approach in comparing Thucydides’ account with other material and documentary evidence from fifth-century Greece, exploring his omissions and understanding the shape that he gives to events. The possibility of such an approach to Thucydides was exemplified by speakers at last term’s Corpus Classical Seminar, who investigated the Peloponnesian War beyond Thucydides. While Thucydides presents his account of the war as all-encompassing, ancient historians have long found gaps in his coverage and questioned the way his account shapes the conflict; as is well-known, the war became a single conflict when Thucydides identified it as such in his preface, creating an entity comparable to the Trojan and Persian Wars, that in turn justified his focus on it. As Hans van Wees pointed out, Thucydides’ actual narrative contains accounts of multiple distinct conflicts, involving many different cities, but his direction encourages readers to link them together. But Thucydides is not necessarily right, either in his reporting or his analysis of events. As the seminar progressed, speakers demonstrated that the practice of treating Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian, whose text has a superior status to other ancient evidence and deserves different treatment, was thoroughly anachronistic.

Kostas Vlassopoulos identified some of the gaps that a modern historian might like to fill to gain a better picture of the political culture of fifth-century BCE Greece than Thucydides provides, and the difficulties in filling those gaps, given the absence of much other written evidence, and the paucity of documentary and material sources from this early period. Understanding both Thucydides’ own intellectual context and our own preconceived ideas about the Greek world are necessary for such a project. Alastair Blanshard took one of the accepted truisms about Thucydides’ text – his lack of interest in cultural and social history, and the omission of women as a subject of history – and found hints of these missing themes in his brief discussions of the capture of cities.

The developing history of Thucydides as an icon beyond criticism was explored in Kinch Hoekstra’s Carlyle lectures, which traced the reception of Thucydides in classical and early modern political thought within their own historical and political contexts, starting with historiographers Lucian, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with notably critical attitudes to the author), and ending with Hobbes. Hoekstra pointed to early modern readings of the text, which were not necessarily of the full text, but selections from the speeches, possibly even selected sententiae; such readings show that the contemporary focus on specific extracts, such as the Funeral Speech and the Melian Dialogue, is not a new phenomenon. Special luxury editions of selected speeches were prepared as gifts for princes; Thucydides’ account of the wars of independent Greek poleis was read anachronistically as a mirror for princes, by focusing on its treatment of leadership and diplomacy. For these ‘readers’, Thucydides’ wisdom became a material talisman, in the form of an illustrated manuscript edition, to take on campaign. Hoekstra distinguished these readings from those of Reformation scholars such as Melanchthon, which returned the focus to the larger scope of the narrative, and generated analytical accounts, precursors to nineteenth-century treatment of Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian.

Attempts to contextualise these historical readings of Thucydides have their own risks – Hoekstra showed how Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides had been used to interpret, and interpreted in light of, his views on English military and diplomatic policy, when the tortuous and prolonged pre-publication history of the work made strong claims about Hobbes’ intent difficult to establish in a fast-changing political climate. But understanding the long traditions of reading Thucydides is helpful in understanding why his text has accrued such a distinctive status in intellectual history.

This term the Anachronism and Antiquity team will be re-reading book six of Thucydides’ histories, the first part of his account of the Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415 BCE, in a seminar series organised and introduced by Chris Pelling and our own John Marincola. The Sicilian Expedition has inspired many different responses, from antiquity to the present, through its vivid characters, its dramatic debates, set-piece battles and tragic account of Athenian defeat. It has become a stock figure to invoke when warning of the difficulties of military expeditions and invasion, with its own reception history; on June 5, Tim Rood will look at the early stages of this reception history in antiquity.

The speeches of book six contain some of Thucydides’ most explicit political theorising and commentary on political processes, including Athenagoras’ account of the epistemic strengths of democracy (Thucydides 6.39.1). On May 15, I will be exploring how the arguments of the Syracusan debate prefigure and problematise arguments on the role of speech and knowledge in democracy set out by later thinkers from Aristotle to Foucault. In reading Thucydides now we need to be aware of not only Thucydides’ own historical and intellectual context, to the extent that we can discover it, but also the many layers of reception through which our own reading of the text and its context is likely to be mediated.

References

Morley, N. (2014) Thucydides and the Idea of History (London: I.B. Tauris).

  • See our Events page for news of talks and presentations by members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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