Be Spartans!

James Romm

  • Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present by Geoffrey Hawthorn
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £21.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 107 61200 6

Thucydides may well have been the first Western author to address himself to posterity. His forerunners – Homer and Herodotus, principally – show no awareness of a readership extending beyond their own time. But Thucydides called his work ‘a possession for eternity’, and spoke of the chaos of civil war as something ‘that is and always will be, as long as human nature remains the same’. Most strikingly, he imagined that, in ages to come, the physical remains of Athens would make its power and wealth seem greater than it was, those of Sparta, less. Visitors to modern Greece can attest to his sure-sightedness.

Unlike other classical Greek authors, Thucydides gives us information that we lack but his contemporaries didn’t. ‘Epidamnus is a city on one’s right as one sails into the Ionian Sea’ are the words with which he launches his account of the 27-year pan-Hellenic conflict that has come to be known as the Peloponnesian War. I suspect that few fifth-century Greeks needed to be told this, though it’s enormously helpful for modern readers, at least after the Ionian Sea has been identified as the Adriatic. Similarly, when Thucydides records that, at the start of the war, public opinion was far more on the side of the Spartans and their allies than on that of the Athenians, he is not speaking, primarily, to the public that made up that opinion.

But if Thucydides was talking to us, what was he trying to tell us? Why did he think it essential that we know, in fantastic detail, what occurred in Greece between the years 432 bc and 410, the year his history comes to a sudden stop, mid-sentence, though the war it relates continued for another six years? These questions have proved extremely difficult to answer. Some scholars have suggested that the lessons of Thucydides’ work – often today given the Athenocentric title The Peloponnesian War, though the recent translation by Jeremy Mynott for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series hews closer to Thucydides’ own language by calling it The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians – would have become clearer had its author completed it. But what prevented him, or how he would have framed Athens’s ultimate defeat, or why the final book has such a markedly different character from the seven that precede it, are unknown and, quite likely, unknowable.

Over the centuries, many lessons have been drawn from Thucydides’ writings. Often, his text can be used to support radically opposing theses. Some foreign policy analysts have seen his tale of the downfall of imperial Athens as a warning against overreaching; others have taken it as a caution against the undercommitment of force. Statesmen and political theorists have pointed to its descriptions of shifting, divided assembly meetings at Athens as harsh indictments of pure democracy, but they have also held up Pericles’ funeral oration, delivered in 430 bc over the graves of the first casualties of the war, as a eulogy to the civic virtues of the ancient world’s most democratic society.

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