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Review of Thucydides: History of the Pelopenesian War
by Tom Radcliffe

Date: 2000-08-27
Forum: Enlightenment
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe

There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into the internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions.

So writes Thucydides of the consequences of civil war in Corcyra, an island off the western coast of Greece. Reading it I felt a sense of wonder and confusion: was I reading about something that happened in Greece 2400 years ago, or in East Timor yesterday? Or in Russian in 1917, or in France in 1789? Or in England in the 1640s? Or in the Balkans again and again and again?

Thucydides the Athenian, son of Olorus, set out to write a history of the only worthy subject of his time: the great war between Sparta and Athens that came to consume the whole of the Hellenic world. He did so mostly in exile, after a brief and presumably unsatisfactory stint in command of Athenian forces around Amphipolis, on the river Strymon in north-eastern Macedonia. In his own estimation, his work was "not a piece of writing to meet the meet the the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever." Despite the dry, difficult prose, and complex, detailed narrative, it shows every promise of lasting at least that long.

What can I say about this book? It is history by essentials.

Thucydides tells us he was interested not in recording the first tale that came to his ears, but in the facts of what actually happened. And beyond the facts he presents us with the truths he extracted from them, the insights that go beyond the particulars to types and classes of behaviour and event.

Truth is not much in favour these days: a child molester who wrote a novel that included a bunch of falsehoods about treatment of inmates in a Canadian prison by a particular historical personage struggled off complaints from the dead man's family with the comment: "Everyone knows there is no absolute truth." But then, truth has never been much in favour: only very recently has the notion that there are truths that are discoverable by human action rather than divine revelation had much currency. The Englishmen who founded the United States, for instance, didn't believe that fundamental political and moral truths could be justified by argument or observation, but simply and absurdly claimed them to be self-evident, or decreed from God.

In classical Greece, truth was a pretty rare commodity as well, and not much esteemed. Historical truth was a particularly slippery subject, and the first historians were still working out the nature of the problem they were trying to solve. Apart from myths and poetry the Greeks didn't have written histories. Herodotus, writing a few decades before Thucydides, created the first historical treatise in the Western world, and Thucydides picked up roughly where his predecessor left off.

The two men could have hardly been more different in their approaches. Herodotus gives us the whole truth and a good deal besides: he is interested in telling us what the people in various places themselves believe about their history. His book is full of folk-tales and improbable events alongside what we would today consider fairly solid historical accounts. An interesting aspect of Herodotus' method is that he himself was not always capable of telling the difference between folk-tale and truth: he seems to take seriously the notion of ants the size of lions, while dismissing as fiction the claim that the Phoenicians sailed around Africa, because the story said that the sun was on their right side as they sailed west -- that is, was in the north! The indiscriminate nature of his data gives Herodotus' book value far beyond simple reporting of facts.

Thucydides takes a very different approach: an Aristotelian might call him the golden mean between the indiscriminate fact-gathering of Herodotus and the sentimental moralizing of the Roman historians who followed him. He is on the one hand deeply interested in the precise facts, and on the other hand, he is not content to just throw the facts into a bag and shake them -- he wants us to see as deeply as he does, so he boils the facts down, reworks them, emphasizes this, diminishes that, until what is left are essentials, the skeleton beneath the factual flesh, giving it form and structure.

The essentials to Thucydides are types of people, and by extension, the types of thing that people do. One thing people do is to degenerate into civil war, as described in the quote above, and the compelling, timeless quality of the description is a measure of how well he did his job. Here we have what is quite plausibly an accurate description of Corcyra in his time, and yet is no less an accurate description of the Balkans -- or East Timor -- in our time.

One of the most impressive portraits of a type of person is that of Alcibiades, an Athenian who was exiled from Athens by partisan strife, fled into the arms of the Peloponnesians, and over the subsequent course of the war managed to betray just about everybody, sometimes more than once. One would have to look a long way to find a better archetypal example of the cynical, profiteering manipulator. Yet he is not just a symbol: he is also concrete and fully real.

This is what gives Thucydides' history its power: the particulars of human behaviour change, but certain essentials are much more stable, if not absolutely invariant. His ability to show us not just archetypal examples of individuals, but also of social conditions, gives his work lasting worth far beyond the often fascinating details of Greek life, warfare and death that he describes.

The details he gives us are worth mentioning in their own right, as well as many of the opinions he expresses about them. He tells of the Plateans "jamming" Thebean fire-signals by lighting fires of their own; of estimating the height of a wall by having several people count the layers of bricks and averaging; of the Boeotians attacking Delium with a hollow, iron-plated beam that spewed burning pitch and sulphur at the walls, genuine "Greek fire" predating the Byzantine use of similar substances by a thousand years. He offers us opinions like: " a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals" and "In all relations with one's neighbours freedom is the result of being able to hold one's own."

He shows us the logic of empire and the horror of war, now and forever. And the single most common sentence in all writing from and about classical antiquity appears again and again after each city falls or is retaken: "The women and children were sold into slavery, and the men were killed." Nowhere is the place of the male in history so evident as in that single, oft-repeated phrase, or in the fact that no one to the best of my knowledge has ever stopped to contemplate what it means. To this day, as we saw not long ago on this list, the claim that women and children are being killed is the rallying cry of "civilized" peoples to arms. The ordinary killing of men is not and never has been such a rallying cry, because men's lives do not and never have mattered. Men have always been disposable, and no one has ever been able to explain to me why I should not consider a white feather an instrument of wilful murder.

Beyond the human dimensions of his times, Thucydides also gives us a few glimpses of Greek thought about the natural world. He mentions earthquakes perhaps half a dozen times, and he argues for the association between earthquakes and tidal waves. He mentions an eclipse of the sun, and notes that they seem only possible when the Moon is new.

But despite these asides, it is the human dimension that dominates, and Thucydides is pessimistic and cynical about the possibility of human progress. Well he might be, given we are still able to recognize ourselves in his portraits of brutal, savage, heroic, noble, violent and misguided people. In a few places, a few people have tried and succeeded in being better than this, but the forces the decimated Greece 2400 years ago are still with us now, lurking just beyond the shadows. We can point to all of our achievements, but the ghost of Thucydides is still waiting to have the last laugh, and if we are not careful he well could.

The grand flaw in Thucydides' method is the complement of its strength: he suppresses his sources ruthlessly, so that all we know is filtered through his interpretations. We have a Thucydides'-eye-view of nearly three decades of Greek history, but we might well ask what others saw. I would not want to see all history written this way, but in the hands of a master it can show the reader much more than a more conventionally objective historian would.