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Guide to the classics: Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War

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The fall of the Athenian army in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 413 BC as depicted in an 1893 illustration by J.G.Vogt.
Wikimedia Commons

Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War breaks off before the story is over. After detailing the armed conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans (and their respective allies) between 431 and 404 BCE, the eight-book text ends abruptly in the middle of a chapter as if, one day, the writer simply dropped his pen and left his desk, never to return.

Bust of Thucydides.
shakko, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

What required such urgent and final attention? And why did Thucydides never return to complete the manuscript? Whatever the answers, the book’s incompleteness adds a human touch to a work that is otherwise an accomplished and polished piece of writing.

The Peloponnesian War Thucydides recounts culminated in Sparta’s surprisingly late victory over the Athenians and ended a power dynamic that had shaped the ancient Aegean world for decades.

Everything changed in its aftermath. Both major powers came out of the war considerably weakened, opening the door for the later annexation of Greece by Philip of Macedon, his son Alexander the Great, and, finally, the Romans.

A fragment of the fourth book of the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Wikimedia Commons

In Thucydides, the war found an author of meticulous standard and dedication who created a work that still resonates in the disciplines of history, international relations, and political science. His thoroughness, sharpness, and matter-of-fact analysis have led some people to believe that he, and not fellow historian Herodotus, deserves the title “father of history”.

Thucydides would have agreed. His history includes several direct and indirect attacks on his immediate predecessors, most notably on Homer and Herodotus. While never once referring to him by name, Thucydides accused Herodotus of fabulation, storytelling, and a writing style that pandered to his immediate audience.

Needless to say, Thucydides was convinced that he himself offered a far superior product. He set the bar and set it high:

And the results, by avoiding patriotic storytelling, will perhaps seem the less enjoyable for listening. Yet if they are judged useful by any who wish to look at the plain truth about both past events and those that at some future time, in accordance to human nature, will recur in similar or comparable ways, that will suffice.

As a high-ranking Athenian military commander (or “strategos”), Thucydides brought to the project firsthand experience of the war, as well as an acute understanding of the complex power politics behind events on the battlefield. His analysis of the immediate and underlying causes of the war and his insight into the considerations and motivations of those fighting it remain one of the most brilliant pieces of political history to date.

His sharp analysis of the kind of forces that stir popular sentiments and drive collective decision making still resonates in the modern world. It fulfils its author’s own – somewhat preposterous – proclamation about the nature of his work:

It is a possession for all time (“ktema eis aei”), not a competition piece to be heard for the moment, that has been composed.

No self-esteem issues here.

Nonetheless, his programmatic prediction proved right. More than 2500 years later, Thucydides’ History still stands among the foundational texts in the classical canon due to its enduring analytical sharpness and the acuteness of his observations.

My war is bigger than yours

When Thucydides set out to compose his work, the writing of warfare was already a notable tradition launched with a bang by the legendary Homer about three centuries earlier. In his epic poem Iliad, Homer related the story of the Trojan War as an epic battle involving gods and humans alike. He was followed 300 years later by Herodotus who gave an account of the Persian Wars, similarly rich in iconic battles and larger-than-life personalities on both sides of the conflict.

A double bust of Herodotus and Thucydides.
Wikimedia Commons

With Thucydides, the writing of war took a new direction. In contrast to the wars of Homer and Herodotus, the armed conflict that concerned Thucydides was fought primarily among Greeks. It also involved events that occurred within the author’s lifetime, which introduced a contemporary dimension to the genre.

Thucydides focused on offering a strong and authoritative account of the war, its causes, and behind the scenes negotiations. To this end, he largely left out the gods and religious explanations more generally – although there is still more religion in Thucydides than one may think.

Instead, he offered a deep analysis of human factors and motivations. Although Thucydides was aware that all authors exaggerate the importance of their topic, he still felt inclined to make a case for his:

And this war – even though men always consider the war on hand the most important while they are fighting but once they have ended it are more impressed by ancient ones – will nevertheless stand out clearly as greater than the others for anyone who examines it from the facts themselves.

The reasons he gave were three-fold: the Peloponnesian War was fought between two cities at the height of their power; these powers went into conflict prepared; and most of the Greek world (and beyond) was subsequently drawn into the fighting.

The so-called “archaeology” of his work – a succession of observations laid out in the beginning – sets out his method: eyewitness accounts; the critical evaluation of sources and informants; and, finally, his own experience and insight.

What stands out throughout is the sharpness with which Thucydides reports. In contrast to Herodotus, he no longer includes alternative viewpoints and traditions but offers a strong, singular explanation of events. Yet the authorial voice Thucydides created in the History should not belie the fact that he engaged in his very own forms of make–believe.

Through the speeches, in particular, Thucydides offers evaluations of events and situations in a voice other than his own. Interspersed throughout the History, they provide a commentary on the events from the perspective of the historical actors.

A battle of words

Some modern critics decry the speeches in Thucydides’ History as the failure of an otherwise truthful and authoritative narrator. Yet Thucydides himself apparently saw no problem; there was no conflict between his aim to tell what really happened and his use of speeches, although he did find the subject important enough to warrant an explanation:

Insofar as these facts involve what the various participants said both before and during the actual conflict, recalling the exact words was difficult for me regarding speeches I heard myself and for my informants about speeches made elsewhere; in the way I thought each would have said what was especially required in the given situation, I have stated accordingly, with the closest possible fidelity on my part to the overall sense of what was actually said.

Among the speeches, the so-called “Funeral Oration” stands out. Allegedly delivered by the famous Athenian statesman and orator Pericles’ after the first year of the Peloponnesian war, the speech was intended to celebrate those who had fallen, and offers an appraisal of Athenian culture, identity, and ideology.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Wikimedia Commons

Thucydides’ Pericles makes an emphatic appeal to the very foundations of Athens’ power and supremacy. His appraisal of Athenian greatness includes references to bravery, military strength, democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, as well as to “soft” values such as the love of beauty, education and the arts.

However, a different picture of life in Athens follows this oration: Thucydides’ detailed account of the plague that broke out shortly afterwards. Thucydides, who was also afflicted, reports in detail on the plague’s impact on the human body, the city, and its people. Lawlessness, disregard for custom, egotism and a general lack of order in the face of death took hold of Athens.

The strong contrast between the high-minded “Funeral Oration” and the ravages of the plague provides a powerful insight into the principles that guide Thucydidean enquiry. This author is not afraid to point out that ideological premise and historical practice don’t always mesh. Time and again he shows that in extreme situations, it is human nature to diverge from ideals that are otherwise firmly held.

In these moments, the anthropologist and humanist in Thucydides comes to the fore. Recent scholarship has highlighted this dimension of his work. Even though the main focus in his History remains on warfare and the geo-political deliberations that inform it, there is more on human nature and culture in this work than one may think. And, more frequently than not, Thucydides extends his sharp analysis from politics and warfare to the human and cultural factors driving human history.

The tragedy of power politics

The same sharp analysis runs throughout the work. It cuts to the core of the hidden forces, motivations, and considerations at stake in various historical situations, and informs such diverse accounts as the so-called “Mytilenean Debate” and the “Melian Dialogue”.

The Mytilenean Debate revolves around whether the Athenians should revoke their decision to annihilate the entire western Ionian city of Mytilene in retaliation for a revolt.

Ruins of Ancient Sparta in Greece.
Thomas Ihle, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Thucydides has two main speakers set out the case. Both speakers make a series of complex arguments revolving around questions of justice, fairness, good governance, and the nature of hegemonic rule. Cleon (a General during the Peloponnesian War) argues for harsh treatment: doing otherwise would set a dangerous precedent for other allies. Diodotus (his opponent), on the other hand, takes up this point and insists that a more lenient response is the superior strategy: it would not corner those rebelling but provides them with a viable alternative that secures a future source of revenue for Athens.

Diodotus’s argument, in particular, invokes the principles and practices of these aforementioned “soft powers” successfully. As such, the Athenians choose to overturn the decision. A trireme is dispatched just in time to prevent major bloodshed.

However, a very different side of Athens emerges in the Melian Dialogue. This is the only section in the History that’s set out like a dramatic fast-paced sequence of direct speech – a dialogue like an Athenian tragedy. Importantly, this conceit allowed both the Athenians and the Melians to present their views directly and as a collective voice.

Should the Melians (a Spartan colony) be allowed to remain neutral? Or should the Athenians insist they submit and pay tribute? The Melians make a passionate plea for justice and the right to remain neutral. The Athenians counter by pointing out:

the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that … the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

Allowing the Melians to remain neutral would set a dangerous precedent and threaten Athenian hegemony.

Over two millennia later, this line of reasoning still resonates. Particularly now, as populism reemerges, insights into the power of words to influence public sentiments and decision-making remain acutely (and painfully) up-to-date.

In a modern context, the American political theorist Robert Mearsheimer calls the dynamics of such considerations which revolve around national self-interest “the tragedy of great power politics”. In his book of the same name, he describes the constant struggle of nation states to maintain and optimise power and hegemony in order to prevent other states from dominating them.

And a tragedy it is. Both the Athenians and the Melians remain steadfast. Melos (an Aegean island inhabited by Dorians) refuses to submit. Athens ends up murdering all men of military age and selling their wives and children into slavery.

Enduring sharp political realism

A statue of Thucydides at the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna.
Wienwiki / Walter Maderbacher, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

It is such resonances which make the History stand out and endure. The voice of the characters within the story reverberate with the voice of Thucydides as its author.

Despite his penchant for long-winded sentences – truthfully and painstakingly rendered into English in most translations – Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War has become a classic by virtue of the sharp political realism at its core.

It remains a must-read for all who want to understand how power politics manifest, and learn about its effect on the psychology of humankind, both individual and collective.

All translations are from M. I. Finley and R. Warner’s translation of Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War (New York, 1972)


(for my colleague Vras who never grows tired of arguing over Herodotus and Thucydides with me)

The ConversationJulia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Guide to the classics: The Histories, by Herodotus

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Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!

Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.

Statue of Herodotus
Wikimedia Commons

For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.

Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.

Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.

That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.

Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.

Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.

Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.

Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.

While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.

The father of history

What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?

Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.

The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.

His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:

As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.

My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…

Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…

Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.

The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.

From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.

Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).

To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:

The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.

At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.

Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.

Figuring out the fantastic

Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.

Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.

A fragment from The Histories on Papyrus dated to the early second century AD. Wikimedia Commons

All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.

And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.

Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:

There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.

Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.

Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.

A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.

A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.

Eternal themes of power, greed and fate

Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.

Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.

Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.

It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.

The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

Jacques Louis David’s painting of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae – an event described by Herodotus. 
Wikimedia Commons

The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.

Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.

As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.

Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.

All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.

Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.

Wonder and discovery

The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.

The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.

The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.


All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.

The ConversationJulia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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