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.

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.


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

Scholarly communities ancient and modern

This term, while getting our own research project started, the Oxford-based members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team have participated in the Corpus Christi Classics Seminar on ‘Shared Knowledge and Scholarly Communities’. We have looked at communities past and present, local and global, real and imaginary, and the way in which they have been constructed and transmitted, from before the establishment of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece to the professionalisation of Classics as an academic discipline over the last 200 years.

A good seminar creates a scholarly community in itself, and in some respects the academic practice of antiquity remains the same for humanities scholars of today; reading and discussing texts with colleagues is a productive way to work. Xenophon has his Socrates describe his great pleasure in studying with friends:

Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird: my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I unroll with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we excerpt it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. (Memorabilia 1.6.14)

Christopher Stray’s introductory session explored the development of Classics as an academic discipline in the UK through the stories of different groups and communities, based in particular universities, working together on journals. In discussion, the continuing importance of reading together became clear. Scholarly communities may develop from formal reading groups, such as the Cambridge ancient philosophy seminar that has met on Thursdays for over 30 years, or from informal groups. The latter often play an important role in transmitting new scholarship from one community to another. For example, Oliver Taplin described an Oxford reading group that helped to introduce the work of the Paris School to Oxford classicists (and the faculty still has an annual Journée Vernant). But the publications, archives and oral testimony that provide evidence for recent scholarly communities are not the same as the literary evidence we have for ancient ones, and the anachronistic practice of treating ancient literary evidence as if it were documentary evidence has led to distorted views of ancient scholarship.

For example, as I showed in my paper, Plato’s concern to establish intellectual genealogies often outweighs the depiction of Socratic community. We rarely see Socrates in conversation with his own community, but observing and interacting with others. Memorable scenes, such as the opening of his Protagoras, show him as an outsider exploring the teaching and rhetoric of others. Nonetheless, the vivid scene at Callias’ house (Protagoras 314d-316a), in which Protagoras and Hippias hold forth to their spellbound customers, has long been treated as a depiction of scholarly community, albeit one whose credentials Plato is querying. Socrates observes them:

Of those who were following behind, listening to what was being said, the majority were evidently foreigners. Protagoras collects them from all the cities he passes through; he puts a spell on them with his voice, like Orpheus, and they follow the voice, spellbound. But there were some Athenians in the chorus as well. This chorus I found a delight to watch, such care did they take never to be in front of Protagoras and get in his way. When he and his group turned, then this retinue parted on either side, this way and that, in a nice orderly fashion, came round in a circle, and each time took up station again to the rear. Perfect. (Protagoras 315ab, translation Griffith)

This scene returned again and again throughout the seminar series; for example, Dawn LaValle showed how early Christian writer Methodius of Olympus, building his own scholarly community in 3rd-century CE Lycia invoked the authority of Plato by imitating this setting in his own dialogues.

The tension between sophists and philosophers constructed by Plato has dominated intellectual histories. Joshua Billings, posing the question ‘What is a sophist?’, explored the way in which ‘the sophists’ as a group were a product of Plato’s critical presentation, and of later responses to it, rather than a genuine scholarly community. Colin King looked at how shared knowledge is implied by Aristotelian endoxa and the doxai he attributes to named and unnamed philosophers. In both cases classical scholars have built on, rather than deconstructing, these presentations of rival scholars or predecessors, maintaining artificial orders and typologies.

Raphael’s fresco ‘The School of Athens’ collapses time in its depiction of the community of Greek philosophers

The retrospective construction of scholarly communities has a long history. The temporal manipulation of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ extends the practice of ancient philosophical dialogue, manipulating time and space to get ideas and their proponents into a position where face-to-face debate can take place. Plato’s own complex dialogues create networks and genealogies in this way, an aspect of his writing that I’ll be exploring as part of this project. For example, the Parmenides presents Socrates in dialogue with the older philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, when they visit Athens for the Panathenaea. Plato frames the dialogue so that we see both the community of scholars gathered to hear the reading of Zeno’s book, that provides the occasion for Socrates’ encounter, and also the community of visiting scholars who have come to Athens to hear an account of the earlier conversation. Through the structure of the dialogue, two different schools of philosophy come into contact, Socrates is positioned within their genealogies, and knowledge is shared between them. As Tom Phillips showed, philosophical dialogue is not the only genre to employ such devices to represent and to create community. One way that Hellenistic poets invoked the idea of community was through the representation of and allusion to collective performance, with Theocritus 18, an epithalamion for the marriage of Helen and Menelaus performed by a chorus of girls, providing a complex example in which the reader is immersed in the mimetic experience of an imaginary community. Such representations might collapse the temporal and generic distinctions between Hellenistic epic and archaic lyric, between written text and oral performance, and between mythical and historical time.

While Plato’s depiction of the sophists might suggest an Athenian disdain for visiting intellectuals, the connections forged within his dialogues, especially the links between Socrates and Italian philosophers, suggest that international cooperation was integral to the idea of scholarly community from the outset. While Christopher Stray pointed to 19th century ideas of national identity as a factor in the professionalisation of the discipline, building international networks of scholars has been vital, and particularly evident in specialist sub-disciplines. Amin Benaissa charted the development of the international community of papyrologists, and changing attitudes to the collection, distribution and authentication of fragments. Ilse Hilbold explored the fascinating history of that essential bibliographic tool for classicists, the Année Philologique, and showed the difficulties Juliette Ernst, its chief bibliographer and driving force, had in building an international network to support this very large-scale endeavour. International cooperation in the creation of scholarly community has been central to the success of these continuing projects, just as they were to Plato’s Academy and other ancient schools that brought together researchers from across the world to build on their shared knowledge.

  • With many thanks to Constanze Guthenke for organising the seminar programme, and to Corpus Christi for its hospitality to this scholarly community.

The two towers: looking at time in Athens and Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage.

The Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage. The eight-sided tower and its sculptures of the winds consciously evoke Athens’ octagonal Tower of the Winds, a Hellenistic structure that has survived largely intact, albeit stripped of its equipment. The original purpose of both buildings, and the instruments they housed, was to assist in measurement, whether through the mechanisms of water clocks and sundials (Athens) or through telescopes and other instruments enabling observations of astronomical phenomena (Oxford).

Looking from the window of our less distinguished post-war office building, we can see the eighteenth century tower as a link between present and past, suggesting both the desire for cultural continuity between antiquity and the modern world, and, through its adaptation of the original, differences and disruptions between the two, that one cannot recreate the past without change. The change in scale and disrupted proportions of the newer building exemplify the shifts in emphasis and understanding that mark historical inquiry, as the object of observation is distorted by changes in focus and interest, and what was small (as the original Athenian tower is) may become large (as the Observatory is) in its reception and recreation.

The Radcliffe Observatory’s obsolescence as a place of scientific activity is also a reminder that perspectives and paradigms are subject to shifts and changes; most of its equipment is now housed in a museum. One of our questions is whether such shifts took place within ancient historiography, and how the consciousness of different temporalities affected historical and political analysis.

While some have argued that the concept of anachronism is a modern one and unknown to ancient writers, we are finding examples of the sophisticated manipulation of time and temporality in ancient texts, and indeed in ancient commentary on objects and practices that seemed ancient to them. The Athenian Tower of the Winds in the Agora reminds us that time and its measurement were a concern of both ancient science and engineering and of everyday life. The presence of the figures of the eight winds on both buildings connects timeless myth with the conscious and scientific measurement of time and space.

Engagement with antiquity can assert novelty as well as an antiquarian respect for cultural authority. The Radcliffe Observatory’s architect James Wyatt, in modelling his observatory on an Athenian building, was responding to the latest contemporary fashion. The details of the older tower’s structure and its sculptures had recently been featured in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, first published in 1762. Wyatt produced a great many solid neo-classical buildings in Oxford and elsewhere (including a Pantheon in London’s Oxford St), but was no stranger to architectural fashion and experiment. The altered proportions and scale of the Radcliffe Observatory, compared with its ancient original, perhaps hint at the extremes he would demonstrate in later buildings such as the Gothic Revival Fonthill Abbey, with its magnificent but short-lived tower.

Uncovering the complexity of ancient engagement with time, temporality and history, will be at the heart of our research activities over the next three years. We can take inspiration from Wyatt’s re-use of the past, and the collaborative efforts of Atlas and Heracles, holding up the world on the top of the tower.