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Dark Thunder from an Ancient War

Paul Monk on Thucydides, Donald Kagan and The Peloponnesian War 

 “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”
-         Thucydides The Peloponnesian War (c. 400 BCE)[i]

 “Thucydides is one who, though he never digress to read a lecture, moral or political, upon his own text, nor enter into men’s hearts further than the acts themselves evidently guide him, is yet accounted the most politic historiographer that ever writ.”
-         Thomas Hobbes (1628 CE)[ii]

 “We are still waging Peloponnesian Wars…Or to put it in the terms of the tragic design drawn by Thucydides: our fleets shall always sail toward Sicily, although everyone is more or less aware that they go to their ruin.”
-         George Steiner (1961 CE)[iii]

What is a classic? A book that is not ephemeral; that has endured across generations. A book that has set a standard to which others perennially aspire. A book that draws serious readers back, again and again, to reflect on what is has to offer. A book characterized not simply by the factual or narrative material in it, but by the power of the author’s insights into that material. A book that is, finally, inimitable and cannot be displaced merely by someone covering the same material.

By all these criteria, the history of the Peloponnesian War ( the great war between coalitions led by Athens and Sparta that tore the Greek world apart between 431 and 404 BCE and ended in the downfall of the Athenian empire), by the 5th century BCE Athenian general Thucydides, is certainly one of the great classics. Indeed, it is my own master classic. I hold no other book in quite the same regard as The Peloponnesian War - though I hold many in very high regard and value countless others. It possesses, I believe, a universal relevance to human affairs, a gravity, a somberness, an originality, a quality of humanity without illusions and a concern with critical objectivity that put it in a rare class.

I deeply admire what Peter Levi once called “the dark thunder of Thucydides’s prose”. Above all, I am awed by the fact that such a work was written so long ago and yet even now seems unsurpassed in its intelligence, realism and intellectual restraint. More than any book of moral or political theory, or any modern work of history that I can think of, I consider this book to be the greatest primer in war and human affairs, not simply in the Western canon, but in the world.

One of the reasons for this is that the Peloponnesian War, though it was believed by Thucydides to be the greatest war ever fought up until his own time, was a very small affair compared to the colossal wars of later history. Thucydides was, therefore, able to relate it both in detail and yet within the bounds of an almost theatrical dramatic structure, in which the key characters are as active and articulate as those in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Yet they were not theatrical characters. They were actual, historical individuals. Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Agis, Brasidas, Hermocrates, Cleon, Gylippus and Demosthenes, among others, remain alive in the pages of Thucydides as individuals clearly drawn, who are not the pawns of either tyrants or fate. They are shown making choices, making commitments, facing challenges and addressing their contemporaries. They occur as the articulate and purposeful citizens of polities with which we can still empathise, since they were ancestral to our own.

Thucydides self-consciously set himself a new project: to get history right and in doing so to understand the true nature of human affairs. He freely took on this project as an individual and spent some thirty years working on it. History, according to a tired and cynical saying, is merely the propaganda of the victors. But Thucydides embarked on his project shortly after the Peloponnesian War began and when he was writing his final draft he already knew that his side had not been the victors. He attempted accurate understanding and explanation, so that it would be truly useful to those who came after him - forever. This, as he knew, was a new idea.

Few things mark Thucydides out more clearly than his introductory remarks about evidence and method, as the world’s first really serious historian. From the very beginning of the war, he decided to write its history, “believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” This was a belief which, he claimed, “was not without its grounds.” The war looked likely to be the greatest upheaval yet known, not only among the Greeks, but even in the ‘barbarian’ world around them, he thought.

But his dominant design was to be more accurate and incisive than the poets and chroniclers who preceded him. His skepticism and interest in evidence are registered in his very first paragraph, with the remark that “though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately precede the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable lead me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a greater scale, either in war or in other matters.”[iv]

The depth of historical awareness which an educated person may, in our time, take somewhat for granted, was simply unavailable to Thucydides. There were almost no reliable records, as he testifies. What he meant by remote antiquity was no more than a thousand years or so before his own time, back to the era preceding the more or less legendary Trojan War. He makes no mention of Egyptian antiquity, or of the rise of the Persian Empire, to say nothing of the earlier empires of Assyria, Babylon, Hatti or Akkad, of which he would seem to have been unaware. Of China he was certainly wholly ignorant.

Yet regarding the Trojan War he exhibits a critical reflectiveness that is striking. He does not doubt that the war took place under the leadership of Agamemnon of Mycenae. He is skeptical, however, of “the exaggeration which a poet [Homer] would feel himself licensed to employ” and after reviewing the meager evidence concludes that the expedition must surely have been “inferior to its renown and to the current opinion about it formed under the tuition of the poets.”[v]

“Mycenae”, he observes, “may have been a small place…but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition for the magnitude of the armament [in the war against Troy]. For I suppose that if Sparta were to become desolate, and only the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power.”[vi]

He reflects more broadly on earlier history, but then makes a highly characteristic remark, which is the kind that has always - and increasingly - appealed to me. “Having now given the result of my inquiries into early time, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever…So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.”[vii]

His own conclusions, he argued, were, however, likely to prove reliable and “Assuredly will not be disturbed either by the verses of a poet displaying the exaggerations of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value, by enthroning them in the realm of legend.”[viii]

He claims, as regards the narrative of events in his history, “far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report always being tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.”[ix]

Coming as they did in the context of a long and bitter war and in a culture still only partly literate and steeped in legends and auguries, these are stunning passages. They show Thucydides to have been a worthy contemporary of Democritus of Abdera (460-357 BCE), one of the world’s first true natural scientists and the chief proponent of atomism in the ancient world.[x] He was also a close contemporary of Socrates (469-399 BCE) and of the great, skeptical tragedian Euripides (480-406 BCE), of Hippocrates of Cos (469-399 BCE), the pioneer of Western medicine, whose work was not to be surpassed until after 1800 CE[xi]; and the brilliant comic playwright Aristophanes (450-385 BCE).

 One aspect of Thucydides’s introduction seems to depart from the high standard he set himself - the record of speeches in his history. There are over one hundred and forty of them; a remarkable number and an extremely rich part of his narrative. Yet he allows that he did not have access to written records of them and comments, “some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.” (emphasis added)[xii]

No historian could get away with doing this now, but what else was Thucydides to do? In any case, the speeches are extraordinary in their economy and power of expression and one would not want to be without them, or have substituted for them what may have been inferior speeches actually delivered by the historical individuals in question. In this respect, The Peloponnesian War has something about it of the appeal of Shakespeare. The Funeral Oration of Pericles, the single most notable example, belongs in any anthology of great speeches, regardless of how precisely the historian recorded what the great Athenian statesman actually said.

Indeed, George Steiner, forty years ago, suggested that the speeches in Thucydides may have been among the first demonstrations that literary prose was even possible. There had, of course, been literature before Thucydides, but it was in verse, not prose. Greek lyric and epic poetry were advanced art forms well before Thucydides and Greek tragedy flourished as an art form for decades before, as well as during, the Peloponnesian War. But it, also, was written in verse - being “a convergence of speech, music and dance.” Thucydides, Steiner speculated, may have been the first to masterfully conceive “that prose could aspire to the dignity and ‘apartness’ of literature.”[xiii]

Nowhere is this more evident than in the famous Melian Dialogue, in Book V of The  Peloponnesian War. This passage is unique in being set out by Thucydides in dialogue form, with the alternate remarks labeled, as if in a stage drama, ‘Athenians’ and ‘Melians’. And the dialogue is completely worthy of a tragedy by Euripides - except that there is no deus ex machina at the end to save the Melians from their grim fate.

The dialogue is about justice and ‘realism’ and is breathtaking in its lapidary clarity and hardness. The Athenians had come to the island of Melos to demand its submission and its participation in the war against Sparta. When the Melians declined, the Athenians destroyed the place, slew all the adult males and enslaved the women and children.

There can few passages in historical or political writing as memorable or reflected upon as Book V:89 of The Peloponnesian War: “Athenians: For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses - either of how we have a right to our empire because we [defeated the Persians seventy years ago], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us - and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[xiv] 

This passage itself, but even more the dialogue as a whole, is wonderfully representative of those qualities of Thucydides’s history which led Clifford Orwin to remark, “What Thucydides offers, through the unsurpassed artfulness of his narrative, is a vicarious experience of the events that he describes, for which no dogmatic presentation of the truths of political life could substitute.”[xv] I believe this is so and that, for this reason, the study of The Peloponnesian War is more likely to impress upon reflective minds the enduring nature of human politics and conflict than anything in Plato or Aristotle.[xvi]

Yet Thucydides’s history is not complete. Indeed, it ends abruptly, in mid-sentence, in the middle of the year 411, seven years before the war ended. We know that Thucydides lived to see the end of the war, for he speaks of it at various points in his history. We can even see emendations to his history which have plainly been written by him after the war ended with Athens’s defeat and surrender to Sparta in 404. In short, he has left us a kind of grand, unfinished symphony.

It is, surely, a remarkable tribute to the faithfulness of 2,400 years of copyists, scribes and commentators that the text of The Peloponnesian War has come down to us - unfinished. It is greatly to be regretted that Thucydides died before completing his masterpiece - and that we do not have whatever notes he had accumulated for completion of the work. It is poignant, really. A testimony to the vulnerability of human endeavours. It lends an almost Romantic glow to this most severely Classical of monuments.

Modern historical scholarship, however, has finally enabled us to round out the history. Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, in particular, has laboured, over four decades, to produce a complete history of the Peloponnesian War. In four volumes - The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1969), The Archidamian War (1974), The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (1981) and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (1987) - he drew together the findings of more than a century of Thucydides scholarship and created a monumental history. Last year, he published a condensed version in one volume, simply titled The Peloponnesian War.

Whereas Thucydides could look back on little serious historical scholarship of any description and but scant records, Kagan was heir to an enormous and institutionalized tradition of scholarship - the scrupulous, painstaking work of translation, documentation, archaeology and epigraphy that have made it possible for post-Enlightenment scholars to reconstruct the remote past in astonishing detail.

Jacqueline de Romilly’s Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism and A. W. Gomme’s Historical Commentary on Thucydides, written in the mid-twentieth century, laid the groundwork, but as Kagan remarks, the literature of specialized studies on the war and related subjects is vast. This is the work of Western universities. It’s what they are for and it can only be accomplished when advanced standards of higher education are upheld. It is far from clear that they are being upheld in many Western universities as of 2004.

Donald Kagan, however, is of an old school, having been educated half a century ago. He has produced an impressive body of work in the great tradition, of which his history of the Peloponnesian War has been his greatest labor and is his crowning achievement.[xvii] When the four volume history had been completed, Bernard Levin remarked of it, “although the great shadow of Thucydides must have been looking over his shoulder throughout, when Professor Kagan wrote The End, the shadow [would have] nodded in admiration.”

This would have to be said, also, of the one volume edition, since it completes the work Thucydides dedicated his life to, while exhibiting in the highest degree that relentless attention to detail and cross-checking of facts on which the Greek historian prided himself. Kagan even observes that restraint in digressing to ‘read a lecture, moral or political, upon his own text’, for which Hobbes praised Thucydides 380 years ago. In his own words, “I have avoided making comparisons between events in the Peloponnesian War and later history, although many leap to mind, in the hope that an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions.”[xviii]

What is most striking, though, is the tribute Kagan pays to Thucydides himself. He declares of the great original, which he has laboured to update, that it “is justly admired as a masterpiece of historical writing and hailed for its wisdom about the nature of war, international relations and mass psychology…[Thucydides had] an extraordinary and original mind and, more than any other historian in antiquity, he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity.”[xix]

Has Kagan’s history finally displaced Thucydides, though? From the point of view of scrupulous accuracy and completeness, yes, it has.  Perhaps that is, in part, what Levin meant, in writing of the ‘great shadow’ nodding in admiration. Yet the original is more powerful, I think. Kagan’s writing, though lucid, seems to me to lack the characteristic gravity of the original, conceivably because Thucydides was a general and a contemporary of the war, whereas Kagan is an academic at a very great remove from the blood and fire of what he describes. But what diminishes his version most is his omission or extreme condensation of the speeches that we find in Thucydides.

Even the Funeral Oration of Pericles and the Melian Dialogue are reduced - in both the four volume and the one volume histories - to bare summaries. He does not explain why he has done this, yet it is a major alteration in the character of the narrative. The effect is to excise the resonant voices of the figures of antiquity from the history, very much weakening its dramatic impact - the way it is ‘heard’ in a reader’s mind, in my judgment.

Did Kagan omit the speeches precisely in order to leave the classic its most inimitable strengths - the reconstruction by Thucydides of one hundred and forty memorable and instructive public speeches on war, politics and strategy? Whether he omitted them deliberately or not, out of homage or strange tone deafness, I imagine the ‘great shadow’ raising an eye-brow, then smiling and resting in peace, secure in the knowledge that his work is honored and its stature undiminished by Kagan’s labors.

The decline of the humanities has been widely heralded for quite some time. There are those who have argued that the displacement of print media by electronic media is a good part of the problem. Alexander Stille, for example, in The Future of the Past, wondered recently whether our sense of history itself - a product of the technology of writing - was in danger of being reduced to a televisual “flat world in which everything occurs in a consumer present.”[xx]

Whether that is so is a subject for another time, but what is indubitable is that no one individual made a more original or striking contribution to creating the sense of history, using the technology of writing, than did Thucydides of Athens. When, therefore, with Henry Petroski, I contemplate the books upon my shelves[xxi], few stand out as powerfully as my various editions of Thucydides. His history is, for me, the master classic that has indeed become, as its author purposed, a possession for all time and a work to last forever.

A version of this essay appeared in Australian Financial Review, Jan 30 2004

[i] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War Book I:22, translated by Rex Warner , Penguin, 1954, p. 48. Hobbes, translating the same passage in the early seventeenth century, rendered it: “And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.” Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War - The Complete Hobbes Translation, edited by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 14. Richard Crawley, translating Thucydides in the nineteenth century, rendered the same sentence: “In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler, with an Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson, Touchstone Books, New York, 1998, p. 16.

[ii] Thomas Hobbes ‘To the Readers’, in Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War - The Complete Hobbes Translation, edited by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. xxii.

[iii] George Steiner The Death of Tragedy, Faber and Faber, London, 1961, pp. 6-7.

[iv] Thucydides I:1. Strassler op. cit. p. 3.

[v] Thucydides I:10-11. Strassler p. 9.

[vi] Thucydides I: 10. Strassler p. 8.

[vii] Thucydides I:20. Strassler pp. 14-15.

[viii] Thucydides I: 21. Strassler p. 15.

[ix] Thucydides I:22. Strassler p. 15.

[x] Among the many works from classical antiquity that have not come down to us are, in addition to many of the lost works of Aristotle and most of the tragic dramas composed by the great masters Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the entire corpus of the writings of Democritus. According to the reliable Diogenes Laertius, his work was voluminous and of the highest quality. He wrote books on ethics, physics, geology, mathematics, music, literature, biology, medicine, agriculture, painting, law and tactics in war; an astonishing range, fully at the level of Aristotle. Why then did it all perish beyond recall? One cause was the hostility of the idealists, who detested his materialism. Plato, it is recorded, “wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he could collect”, but was dissuaded by Pythagorean friends from doing so. Others, however, venerated him as “the prince of philosophers” and “the guardian of discourse.” Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Vol. II, Loeb Classical Library, 1925, reprinted 2000, pp. 449-51 and 455-61.

[xi] “What unites [the Hippocratic writings] is the conviction that, as with everything else, health and disease are capable of explanation by reasoning about nature, independently of supernatural interference. Man is governed by the same physical laws as the cosmos, hence medicine must be an understanding, empirical and rational, of the workings of the body in its natural environment. Appeal to reason, rather than to rules or supernatural forces, gives Hippocratic medicine its distinctiveness. It was also to win a name for being patient centred rather than disease oriented, and for being more concerned with observation and experience than with abstractions.” Roy Porter The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity From Antiquity to the Present, Harper Collins, 1997, 831 pp., p. 56.

[xii] Thucydides I:22. Strassler p. 15.

[xiii] George Steiner The Death of Tragedy, Faber and Faber, London, 1961, p 239.

[xiv] Thucydides V:89. Strassler p. 352.

[xv] Clifford Orwin The Humanity of Thucydides, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 4.

[xvi] I have in mind here, in particular, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. Both are extraordinary pieces of work, though the latter is incomparably more practical than the former. There is a brilliant passage in Nietzsche which has long seemed to me to throw into high relief why Thucydides is ultimately more powerful than either of the great philosophers as an educator in worldly affairs. “My recreation, my preference, my cure from all Platonism has always been Thucydides…For the deplorable embellishment of the Greeks with the colours of the ideal, which the classically educated’ carries away with him into life as the reward of his grammar school drilling, there is no more radical cure than Thucydides. One must turn him over line by line and read his hidden thoughts as clearly as his words: there are few thinkers so rich in hidden thoughts…Courage in the face of reality ultimately distinguishes such natures as Thucydides and Plato: Plato is a coward in face of reality - consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control - consequently he retains control over things…” Twilight of the Idols, ‘What I Owe to the Ancients’ #2. Penguin, 1968, pp. 106-07.

[xvii] His other books include The Great Dialogue: A History of Greek Political thought From Homer to Polybius; Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy; and On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.

[xviii] Donald Kagan The Peloponnesian War, Viking, New York, 2003, pp. xxvi-xxvii.

[xix] Ibid. p. xxvi.

[xx] Alexander Stille The Future of the Past, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002, p. 338.

[xxi] Henry Petroski The Book On the Book Shelf, Vintage Books, New York, 1999.