Here is the program summary and a list of the participants:
Melvyn Bragg [MB] and his guests discuss the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. In the fifth century B.C. Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War, an account of a conflict in which he had himself taken part. This work is now seen as one of the first great masterpieces of history writing, a book which influenced writers for centuries afterwards. Thucydides was arguably the first historian to make a conscious attempt to be objective, bringing a rational and impartial approach to his scholarship. Today his work is still widely studied at military colleges and in the field of international relations for the insight it brings to bear on complex political situations.
Paul Cartledge [PC]
Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge
Katherine Harloe [KH]
Associate Professor in Classics and Intellectual History at the University of Reading
Neville Morley [NM]
Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol
Producer: Thomas Morris.
What follows are my notes on the program. Most of it is a summary of ideas presented, sometimes fairly close to what was said while other times I paraphrase a discussion in own words. If I include quotes I am trying, not always successfully, to use exactly the language in the recording.
[PC] Easy to think of Thucydides as a “world war historian.” Thucydides is the inventor of the one-war theory, and it’s a key dimension in the way he was a revisionist historian. We have him to thank for the concept of this being a 27-year war instead of several smaller conflicts (or three separate phases). Why was he interested in making it so? Competitiveness (as a historian)? Or does he recognized something greater, linking the phases together?
[KH]: Although the 5th century B.C. has many great accomplishments in Greece, the period also has a lot of war during this time, too.
Thucydides makes a distinction between reasons for the war. Reasons include what is apparent (and often given as a pretext), and there is the truest, least evident reason. In this case, the truest cause of the Peloponnesian War (according to Thucydides) was the growth in Athens’ power and Sparta’s fear of it.
[NM] Aims of Thucydides’ reasons for writing the history are important. He wants to understand what had happened, but that wasn’t the only reason. He thinks his history will be useful in understanding how history works and its implications for later generations. Human events tend to repeat, so understanding what happened in the Peloponnesian War will show how people and states behave, providing guidance for future generations.
[MB] Thucydides tries to get rid of the mythologizing and propagandizing of war reporting.
[NM] Thucydides can be disparaging toward accounts that take into account fantastical reasons. He’s trying to understand what lay behind those myths and legends. He takes into account other points of view to get to real reasons.
Regarding structure: his use of year-by-year accounts helps reveal the complexity of events. Different things were happening in different arenas, many of which affected multiple areas. Thucydides’ presentation is more complex than sometimes appears. He uses foreshadowing and emphasizes relationships of what happened with previous events. His style is usually judged negatively: austere despite using complex sentences. Was the style deliberate to focus on the message?
[PC] This complexity highlights that Thucydides’ history was a written work, not meant for oral presentation (or competitions) like Herodotus’ history. It is to be studied, used, etc. and not meant to win prizes. He does not use the word historia like Herodotus, using other words for ‘inquiry’ and ‘composition’ in order to highlight the differences between his work and that of others.
The early years Thucydides covers focuses on the conflicts and why tensions escalate. The early conflicts don’t involve Athens or Sparta directly, but involves their allies.
[MB] Thucydides’ style highlights the different roles he plays and what he includes: narrator, studier of case histories, reflections and analysis of what happened.
[KH] Thucydides rarely mentions predecessors who write ‘history.’ There’s a sense of competition at times with previous writers, and Thucydides does pick up where Herodotus left off. At times there is imitation of Herodotus, at other times rivalry. Thucydides’ work is marked by its absence of religious explanations (at least in comparison with Herodotus).
A marked contrast: Herodotus reports he feels he has a duty to report what he has heard, whether it’s true or not. Thucydides wants to convey the truth about events, so he selects what gets presented, filtering out other accounts.
[NM] On Thucydides’ extended discussion about Corcyra: he spends time on this because it is a civil war, where participants fall into irreconcilable factions, and as his history unfolds we see more examples of civil wars in Greek states. Thucydides uses Corcyra as a case study to show what civil war is like and what happens in those circumstance. It's a topic that recurs in his history and he uses this example to stand in for future occurrences.
[MB] What conclusions can we draw from the increased prevalence of civil wars (as Thucydides presents it)?
[NM] Thucydides presents characterizations of civil war, the tendency toward extremes. This includes extremes in behavior, where loyalty is defined as supporting a particular faction instead of the community as a whole. Even language changes. Moderation, usually seen as a virtue, is now viewed as cowardice. Recklessness is valued instead. So violence = bravery in this type of world. As society falls apart, Thucydides has provided a new template for history. “This is the template for describing how societies are fragile, how they can very easily fall apart, [how] the ties that unite them break under pressure…”.
[PC] Civil war / conflict in Thucydides’ time was called stasis, which has the opposite meaning from today's usage.
Regarding Thucydides in translation, “It’s often very difficult to know exactly what register, what nuance, what precise (if you like) jargon or technical equivalent to choose for his language, so one must be very careful not to say that we know, or we are reading Thucydides. We are reading various versions of Thucydides which we read in our own ways.”
On Thucydides’ speeches: Why include them at all in a written work? Because it was still largely an oral world at the time he’s writing about, and speeches would present all the facts of the decision being voted on.
In an early section outlining his methodological approach, Thucydides distinguishes between his narrations and the speeches he provides. He admits the difficulty in knowing what exactly was said and how it was impossible to repeat the original speeches. So we’re reading Thucydidian speeches in his style, not that of the original speaker's words. The speeches highlight the drama, the tragedy, the agon coming to bear on history. Pericles is given three speeches, the most of any character in the history, which points to his being a (or maybe, the) principle character.
[NM] The Melian dialogue stands in contrast to the speeches. With the speeches, there is a chance Thucydides could have heard them or talked to someone that was there. With the Melian dialogue, we’re supposedly listening to a secret meeting. In other words, he most likely invented it.
[NM] Thucydides takes up a quarter of the (existing) work with Athens’ expedition to Sicily. What does it say about how Thucydides viewed the war and his deeper thoughts about history?
[KH] The introduction of the Sicilian expedition is sudden in Thucydides' text—Athens was supposedly seized with this desire. It characterizes the moment Athenian power finally overreaches itself. There are debates about whether to undertake this expedition. It was decided that a huge show of force is what is needed to keep its allies in line. The Athenian naval defeat at Syracuse echoes the Persian defeat at Salamis.
The defeat in Sicily doesn’t end the Peloponnesian War (in fact it took place during a lull in fighting between Sparta and Athens), but it does provide an image of the shattering of Athenian power.
[PC] (In response to a question about Thucydides’ political philosophy) Pericles details how best to resist the Spartans, but it all goes terribly wrong. There’s the plague. The Athenians take the bad turn of events out on Pericles, and Thucydides states he doesn’t sympathize with the mass reaction against a statesman. Athens deselected Pericles as their leader, and then, as Thucydides puts it, “as the masses tend to do” they re-selected Pericles as their leader. Thucydides is openly contemptuous of the hyper-democracy of Athens. He was a member of the elite the intellectuals, the wealthy, those that were well connected. He probably had no instinctive sympathy for democracy, and it shows here. There’s tension in Thucydides’ language. He seems willing to tolerate Athens under a strong leader like Pericles, calling him the ruler of Athens, but that is at odds with the strong democratic leanings of the city. The people are supposed to lead.
[NM] (On Thucydides as a historian) “On the account of events, we have Thucydides but we don’t have a lot else.” In other words, there is nothing to compare his account of events against someone else’s writings. We know he leaves out a lot of things.
(On being asked for an example of what Thucydides left out) He leaves out a lot about Persia. Given their later role in the war, he may have revised what he did include (since he lived to see the end of the war). Another example…there’s not much about the economic sanctions against Megara. It didn’t support his narrative. But if we reject Thucydides, we have little else to rely on or use as evidence. We have to take his work on trust.
[PC] Thucydides lives to see the end of the war, even though he didn’t finish writing his history. He mentions early on (in Book 2) that the Athenian leaders following Pericles weren’t up to his level, a major reason Athens lost the war. He even mentions the subsequent leaders contradict Pericles’ instructions of taking a defensive position, taking very aggressive actions instead (contributing to the loss).
Keep in mind this is Thucydides talking, not Pericles. Thucydides seems invested in the idea of the Spartans as the aggressors, supporting Pericles' instructions, which is why some of Athens’ aggressive actions leading up to direct conflict are downplayed or barely referenced. [Which also leads us back to his ultimate reason for the war…Sparta’s fear of Athenian power. Not Athens’ flexing its muscle in a provocative manner.]
[KH] So this leads us to believe that Thucydides is not quite the objective historian we expect him to be. But it does touch on one of the main political lessons of Thucydides’ text, which are questions about political leadership and political judgment. Thucydides emphasizes the difficulty of understanding the true meaning of events, even ones we live through. According to Pericles, or rather according to Pericles as presented by Thucydides, “Events tend to falsify the plans of men.” As a member of the elite class, Thucydides believes in a strong leader to lead the demos in the right way [implying he doesn’t believe in the whims of the demos, or in such a radical democracy in general]. At the start of the 5th century B.C. and with Pericles, Athens had strong leaders. Problems arise for Athens when they don’t have strong leaders.
Notes on Thucydides’ influence
[PC] Looking at the Renaissance, Machiavelli rarely mentions Thucydides. A contemporary of Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini (who wrote a history of Florence) mentions Thucydides by name and calls him a master historian. This seems to be the standard view of him at the time. “Thucydides is the historian’s historian.” It’s only fairly recently that Thucydides is questioned as to whether or not he can be called a historian.
[Cartledge mentions Nicole Loraux’s essay “Thucydides is Not a Colleague” as an example of the dichotomy prevalent today between historian and “something else,” although I think that was exactly Loraux’s point (although to be fair, Cartledge was only emphasizing the title, not the content of Loraux’s article). Which I think gets to a major point of Thucydides…even with the constructs he employs does he accurately reflect the truth of what happened? Does that reflect a truth down to this day?
Thucydides is viewed much more of a “maker, an artist” than a historian today.
[NM] Starting with Thomas Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides in the late 1620s, the first translation straight from Greek manuscripts to English, Thucydides is seen mostly as a political philosopher than a historian. Hobbes: “Thucydides is the most politic historiographer.” Starting here we see Thucydides as “part of the canon of political thought, so he’s seen quite often not as a historian but as a political philosopher, whose aim had been to study events in order to the laws or principles of human behavior.” This is amplified in the second half of the 20th century, where he becomes a prominent figure in the study of international relations.
[KH] Thucydides is included with Hobbes and Machiavelli as the three canonical founders of the discipline of international relations, a study of the relationship between states (and not the composition of the states). All three are seen as examples of “realism,” where moral considerations (and concepts like justice) have no part in the conversation (in its extreme form) when addressing the national self-interest. This outlook views states as tending to increase their power as a means toward security.
[MB] quotes from the Melian dialogue, that the strong have the power and the weak have to put up with it.
[NM] The difficulty in that line (and the dialogue) is that Thucydides puts the lines in the mouths of the Athenians. In the international relations studies, it’s often assumed that it’s Thucydides’ own principle rather than an actual quote.
[PC] Its hard to tell when something is Thucydidian in these opinions as opposed to the ideas actually presented.