Skip to main content

The Fascination of Thucydides

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995
The Humanity of Thucydides.> By Clifford Orwin. Princeton. $35.00.

Thucydides continues to fascinate. The old Athenian historian, who died before he could finish his one masterwork, was a pioneer in a remarkable number of academic fields which have found a place in modern education: analytical history, political science, mass psychology, not to exhaust the list. That modern reputation would no doubt have pleased him, for he claimed to be a difficult writer, but one whose goal was to produce a “possession for all time” that would be useful for the future. No reviewer could ever have applied to him the phrase that damns in modern learned journals: “He writes well.” His subject was the so-called Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece which occupied the last three decades of the fifth century B. C., and he made it a case study of imperialism gone wrong, flawed political leadership, and democratic government under stress.

His great predecessor in the field, the “Father of History,” Herodotus, had produced a very different sort of work. His subject was the invasion of Greece by the Persians in 490—479 B. C., and he was the first to treat history something as more than “one damn thing after another,” to borrow a phrase from Henry Ford. Rather he examined the Persian invasion as a problem. What, he asked, was the motive force behind the expansionism of the Old Persian Empire? Herodotus invented the word “history”; before he used the noun historia to describe his work, the meaning of the term was “research” or “investigation.” But Herodotus wrote with an audience in mind. The epic poets, particularly Homer, were among his ascendants, and his Histories are full of charming digressions where he regales his audience with folk tales based on history. Not so Thucydides. He has a few digressions, but his tone is relatively severe. He reveals the course of the Peloponnesian War year by year until 411 B. C. when his history breaks off in mid-sentence.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science, a pupil of the late Allan Bloom. Thucydides differs from Herodotus in this too: political scientists recognize him as a master in their field, and Orwin has already published a clutch of articles on him in the American Political Science Review, the American Scholar, and the Journal of Politics.> His interests are not quite those of most professional classicists, though he is familiar with the latest classical scholarship. He pursues the question of justice in its many aspects as revealed in the Thucydides’ speeches.

Thucydides assigned his characters speeches. So had Herodotus before him, but his speeches were intended to carry on the narrative, whereas Thucydides used speeches to make statements. Yet he claimed a degree of authenticity for them: not the precise words that were used, to be sure, but the general sense, and what was suitable for the occasion. There is a potential contradiction here, for what if what Thucydides considered suitable was quite different from what the speakers actually said? There is no good answer to this problem and Orwin does not bother with it. It is clear that he believes Thucydides was no mere stenographer. Rather he was a reporter who controlled the speeches he put in the mouths of his characters. The precise words that were spoken did not greatly concern him.

The most famous speech in the History is the Funeral Oration of Pericles, delivered over the bones of the soldiers who died in the first year of the war. This public funeral was an annual ceremony, when the remains of the dead were collected into ten cypress-wood coffins, one for each of the ten “tribes” or political divisions of Athens, and given a public burial. Pericles was the chief architect of the Athenian Empire, and the proponent of the hard-line imperialism which made the war inevitable. Thucydides chose to reproduce his Funeral Speech with intent. What he said sounds a little threadbare to a modern reader who has heard the same sentiments many times, for he spoke of the perpetual remembrance of the dead and the resolution with which they risked their lives. Orwin compares the speech with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and he is not the first to do so, but he does not press the comparison. The two speeches are, in fact, quite dissimilar. Pericles’ chief point was that Athenian imperialism had created a city which was a unique contribution to Greek civilization, and if it cost the lives of brave men, it was worth it. The tone is sharply different from that of Pericles’ last speech, delivered a year later. Plague had devastated Athens in the meantime, and shaken Athenian resolution. Pericles urged the Athenians to stand firm. Yet his tone was more sombre; he acknowledged that the Athenian Empire, like every other empire, must eventually pass away, but nonetheless, the memory of its achievement would live on.

The test case for justice under wartime conditions is the Melian Dialogue. Melos, the site of the Venus de Milo, was an island in the Cyclades which had been colonized by Sparta and hence had tried to remain neutral, but after the Athenians raided their territory, the Melians became openly hostile. In the 16th year of the war, a naval force arrived from Athens, but before the Athenians attacked, they offered to negotiate. Their spokesmen would have preferred to address the assembly of Melians, but Melos was controlled by an oligarchy which had no intention of allowing the people as a whole to decide the island’s future. So the Melian dialogue took place between the governing council and the Athenian envoys.

The envoys recommended that the Melians take a realistic view of their situation, and treat questions of justice as irrelevant. The “superior power” (of the Athenians) “defines the context of the conversation, a fact which discussion cannot undo and from which it therefore must begin,” to quote Orwin. Still, the Melians pressed the argument that fair play was worthwhile for both sides: Athens herself might someday fall and face the same grim choices as the Melians. The envoys were unmoved. What imperial powers had to fear was not other imperial powers, like Sparta, but rather their resentful subjects, and if the subject states of the Athenian Empire saw Melos remaining free, they would take it as evidence of Athenian weakness. But would not an attack on neutral Melos alarm other neutrals? No, for most of the other neutrals were land powers, and they did not fear the naval might of Athens, nor did she fear them. The sensible course for the Melians was to save their own lives and yield to the overwhelming power of Athens.

Then the Melians ventured that the gods would help them. It was the Athenian envoys who first brought up the supernatural, warning the Melians not to trust oracles and the like, but the Melians replied that they did trust the gods, and they put their trust as well in Sparta, their mother city state, which was honor bound to help them. The Athenians replied that Sparta, more than most states, considered honorable whatever was in its own interests. As for the gods, they were as likely to help one side as another. The course dictated to the Melians by common sense was surrender.

The Melians decided not to surrender. They preferred to put their trust in the gods, and hope for Spartan help. So Athens besieged the island city, and took it the following winter. The Melian males of military age were slaughtered and the women and children sold as slaves. In the same winter, Athens decided to send a great armada to Sicily, which was to be completely destroyed there in 413 B. C. “The drama of Melos,” remarks Orwin, “finds its completion only in this still greater drama.” It seems that something like justice existed after all. The historical process maintained an equilibrium of sorts.

Orwin’s eighth chapter deals with “Domestic Politics” and his ninth and final one brings the reader to the “Humanity of Thucydides.” Under “Domestic Politics” Orwin examines Thucydides’ analysis of stasis, that is, civil discord, when extremists take over society and destroy mutual trust, thus dissolving society itself. The classic example was Corcyra, where the pro-Athenians and the pro-Spartans fought it out. In his final chapter, Orwin draws the threads together. The speeches which Thucydides gives his readers are improved versions of what may have been actually said. They are, to quote Orwin, “an improvement on truth that serves the truth.” The historical “truth” that is, as Thucydides saw it. But, unlike the epic poets or the prose chroniclers whom the Greeks called “logographers”, he did not embellish his account of deeds, the erga (works) of the past. For them he reserved accuracy.

The aficionado of Thucydides will not find a vast amount here that has not been said before. What is refreshing is Orwin’s point of view on the familiar texts, and it makes the book well worth reading.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading