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11. Conclusion

Thucydidean Realism and the Price of Objectivity

We have explored the problems inherent in the realism that Thucydides’ Athenians claim for themselves. Their “real world” proves ambiguous, their claim to abstract knowledge a self-serving fiction, their candor simply another ideological gambit. But what of the realism that Thucydides’ text claims for itself? We cannot assume that the Athenians or anyone else in the History—not even Perikles—simply reflects the ideas of Thucydides himself.[1] Indeed, many have concluded that Thucydides never resolved on a single position,[2] and we are safer, by and large, to think in terms of Thucydidean voices rather than a single, monolithic authorial voice. Our analysis of Thucydidean realisms in chapter 2 concentrated primarily on those few passages in which the writer purports to make his judgments most explicit—the Archaeology and methodological chapters, and the descriptions of plague at Athens and civil war at Corcyra. Nevertheless, Thucydides’ practice has its own consistent patterns, and what Thucydides actually does is at least as enlightening as what he claims to do. I have stressed so far primarily the ambiguities that Thucydides brings out in the positions of his characters: the dissonance between the expectations of states such as Corinth, Corcyra, Plataia, and Melos and those of the two “great powers,” Athens and Sparta; the changing nature of power, which is prefigured in the Archaeology and which culminates in the Athenian empire; the irresolvable dilemmas with which this new power confronts Sparta; the Athenian attempt to reformulate and come to grips with their position.

But Thucydides, for all his insight, also faced the same pressures as did his Athenians. Let us return here to three of the assumptions common to political realists, ancient and modern, that we considered in chapter 2: first, that the rules governing international affairs are essentially constant if we move across time or from culture to culture; second, that the group, not the individual human being, is the proper unit of analysis; third, that the pursuit of power is a fundamental human motivation. Each of these assumptions is critical to Thucydides’ method—as it has been to that of many who have come after him. If Thucydides had not exploited these ideas with such vigor, his work would never have achieved its peculiar character or earned such a degree of success. At the same time, each of these assumptions limits Thucydides’ view, blinding him to many factors at work and constricting his intellectual range. Together, they constitute a part of that general paradigmatic quality, common to all realisms, that I discussed in chapter 2, and that directs the inquirer’s gaze toward some phenomena and away from others.

Essentialism, History, and Ideology in Thucydides

First, political realists, with their emphasis on the constants of human nature or society, have often had trouble accounting for major historical changes, since the emphasis on continuity and on common factors can, at the least, distract from the very real differences that appear as we move, either through time or space, from one cultural context to another.[3] Early Greek thought, in fact, identified this general problem very early on when it wrestled with the issue of unity and change. The sixth-century Milesian intellectuals Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all struggled to reconcile diversity with similarity, postulating fundamental elements from which all things were fashioned. In the fifth century, Parmenides, Empedokles, Demokritos, and others developed this problem even further. Thucydides’ subject—human affairs—was both more complex and more manageable than these cosmological speculations. Rather than turn to water, “the infinite,” air, the four elements, or atoms, Thucydides based much of his historical method on a single fundamental assertion, that, in the end, there exists an unchanging human nature, an anthrôpeia phusis.[4]

A constant human nature is hardly by itself a revolutionary concept in Thucydides—Herodotus uses the same phrase (Hdt. 3.65.3), and the traditional Greek exhortation that mortals should “think mortal thoughts” (thnêta phronein) assumes that all mortals, male and female, slave and free, Greek and non-Greek, share some broadly defined but single and unified position. The emphasis on cultural difference seems not to have developed until the fifth century, no doubt gaining particular impetus from the traumatic encounter in mainland Greece with the non-Greek Other, in large numbers, during Xerxes’ invasion.[5] Thucydides himself prods his fellow Greeks, reminding them that the prized distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks was comparatively recent: he stresses that the term “barbarian” does not appear in Homer (Thuc. 1.3.3; cf. also 1.6.5–6).

But if the constancy of human nature was not an idea peculiar to Thucydides, Thucydides nevertheless exploited the principle with a consistency and brilliance unattested before and rarely equaled since. Thucydides felt that he could work with partial or conflicting sources precisely because a certain number of major trends—the constant pull of human ambition, the tendency of the powerful to dominate the weak, for example—shape human behavior, and the historian can turn to these constants in order to unmask hidden motives, fill in gaps, and push beyond the surface of the evidence. Thucydides used his analysis of the present to “predict” the past. It is easy to speak condescendingly of hidden or unexamined assumptions in authors, but Thucydides was often quite conscious of his own limitations and advertised them as dramatically as he could.

By opening the History with the Archaeology, his revisionist picture of the ancient past, Thucydides confronted his readers with the implications of a constant “human nature” by showing concretely how such an assumption could turn the past upside down. The Kretan ruler Minos—famous in mythology as an icon of tyranny, the man who handed the young people of Athens over to the Minotaur, and villain of Bacchylides 17—becomes an agent of civilization, able to bring order and tranquillity and to suppress piracy (Thuc. 1.4, 8.2–3). Thucydides represents the distinction between Greeks and foreigners—which Euripidean drama shows to have been a prominent part of popular culture[6] —as a recent phenomenon, still irrelevant in the Homeric epics (1.3, 1.6). The Trojan War, far from being a major enterprise, was a primitive affair, hardly comparable to the events of the fifth century (1.10–11). Thucydides develops a fairly extensive argument that even Agamemnon based his power less upon the gratitude and honor of his allies than upon his overwhelming military power and the consequent intimidation (1.9). One particular configuration of forces drives the progress—and progress it clearly is as far as Thucydides is concerned—of human civilization: “The weak, hungering for profits (kerdê), endured slavery (douleia) to the powerful, while those with greater force, because they enjoyed a surplus of wealth, used to acquire weaker city-states as subjects” (1.8.3). The compulsive and unbounded quest for power and profit that Solon had described at the opening of the sixth century and of Athenian recorded history (frag. 13 West) becomes in Thucydides, almost two centuries later, a unifying force that drives the weak and the mighty alike.

The belief in a stable and even transcendent human nature runs throughout the History.[7] The speeches that Thucydides includes and that illustrate the very different subject positions of participants in the war return again and again to the universal laws that affect behavior.[8] Thucydides’ Athenians, of course, appeal to a vision of natural law throughout. In their opening speech, they argue that no one should feel resentment (phthonos) against those who “make the best arrangements for themselves when it comes to the most serious risks” (Thuc. 1.75.5). The “Athenian thesis” articulated at 1.76 presupposes a constant human nature. If the Athenians have acquired an empire, they have only exhibited “human behavior” (1.76.2: anthrôpeios tropos), and no one has any right to quarrel with them on these grounds, least of all the Spartans, who follow the same principles of self-interest (1.76.1, 4). If Athens’s subjects feel resentment, this is also a natural but irrational phenomenon: if the Athenians ruled by pure force, their subjects would, we are told, feel less oppressed. The restraint of Athenian rule provokes paradoxically greater anger—but such anger, though paradoxical, is represented as predictable, a consequence of universal human psychology (1.77.2–4). In book 6, Euphemos portrays Athens as a tyrant city that, as such, must subordinate its affections to its interests (6.85). Circumstances, he argues a bit later at 6.87.2, force the Athenians to develop their empire: “We assert that we are rulers in Hellas in order not to be subjects; liberators in Sicily that we may not be harmed by the Sicilians; that we are compelled to interfere in many things, because we have many things to guard against.” The Syracusan leader Hermokrates, terrified at the threat of Athenian expansion in Sicily, nevertheless strikes a similarly dispassionate pose. He takes it for granted that human beings seek power and that they will pursue aggression to gain their ends (4.59.2). A few paragraphs later he remarks that “it is human nature (pephuke to anthrôpeion) to rule the one who yields and to defend onself against attack” (4.61.5).

According to Thucydides, Hermokrates and his fellow Syracusans are similar in nature to the Athenians (Thuc. 6.20.3, 7.55.2, 8.96.5), but such generalizing thought is not confined to the Athenians and those like them. Thucydides’ Peloponnesians are equally prone to such universalizing arguments. The Corinthians, arguing before the conservative Spartans, assert, for example, that “it is characteristic of the self-possessed (sôphrôn) to remain quiet unless they suffer injustice, and it is characteristic of the brave (agathoi) to exchange war for peace when they suffer injustice and then, when the chance presents itself, to replace war with a settlement” (1.120.3). The Corinthians do not problematize the complex terms sôphrôn and agathos but represent them as constant values from which predictable lessons may be drawn. Even Thucydides’ Spartans are prone to such universalizing reflections on human nature:[9]

Indeed if great enmities are ever to be really settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success, and by forcing an opponent to swear to a treaty to his disadvantage, but when the more fortunate combatant waives these his privileges, to be guided by gentler feelings, conquers his rival in generosity, and accords peace on more moderate conditions than he expected. [3] From that moment, instead of the debt of revenge that violence must entail, his adversary owes a debt of generosity to be paid in kind and is inclined by honor to stand to his agreement.

The Spartans offer as universal a system in which gift demands countergift, and rivals compete in a theater of generosity. Although we may historicize the Spartan assertions and insist that such behavior is not universal, Thucydides’ Spartans offer no such conditions. Thucydides, of course, is deeply sensitive to the limits of megalophrosunê, “greatheartedness,” and, as argued above in chapter 7, the History provides ample material with which to critique the Spartan arguments, but the appeal to the universal—rather than the debatable content of this particular appeal—is ubiquitous in Thucydides. Gnomic wisdom and aphorisms are, of course, traditional in formal Greek speech, but Thucydides develops such generalizing maxims with an intensity surpassed by none of his contemporaries whose works have survived.

Not simply characteristics that Thucydides attributes to his speakers, references to human nature are a recurrent heuristic by which he shapes his own narrative. At 2.50.1, he remarks that the plague at Athens was “almost too harsh for human nature (hê anthrôpeia phusis)”. At 4.108.4, he sourly observes that the restive Athenian allies overemphasized Brasidas’s prospects, “for human beings (hoi anthrôpoi) are accustomed (eiôthotes) to entrust to an unexamined hope what they desire and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” At 5.68.2, he frets about a numerical estimate “because of the human tendency toward boastfulness (to anthrôpeion kompôdes) with regard to their own side.” His analysis of the effect of civil war on society at Corcyra is one of the most famous (if also one of the most complex) passages in the History. There, Thucydides makes explicit why his analysis of events on a particular island at a particular time is of transcendent importance:

The sufferings that revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of human beings (phusis anthrôpôn) remains the same.

The possibility of a change in human nature would seem, at best, remote in Thucydides’ relentless narrative of greed, fear, and warfare. He argues that human nature, at some level, remains unchanged and that there is, as we might now term it, an “essence” of common humanity that all biological human beings possess. This essential humanity allows Thucydides’ work to exert an appeal that transcends its particular time and origin. The stability of human nature lies behind and validates Thucydides’ famous claim that his work will be a ktêma es aiei, “a valuable possession for all time” (Thuc. 1.22.4).

Thucydides’ argument is a strong one. The rising cycle of brutalization that he explored at Corcyra seems grimly applicable to the savagery that has unfolded in the late twentieth century in Cambodia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Armenia, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and other places. Death squads and other mechanisms of internecine slaughter do indeed transcend any one culture, religion, or ethnic group—there are good reasons why Thucydides retains a foothold in many curricula as a kind of patron saint of power politics. Thucydides becomes the first surviving author in European literature who gave written expression to the world “as it really was” and made it possible for us to take human nature into proper account as we structure our dealings with one another.

But nothing is ever simple in Thucydides. Different readers have established very different visions of Thucydides—Der Derian, surveying realist thought, refers to “the eternal return of the ghost of Thucydides” [10] —but almost all of those who have studied him closely have sensed in his text dramatic and unresolved tensions. As Peter Pouncey put it, “The real difficulty in locating the whole of Thucydides lies in the fact that there is genuine ambivalence in the man, especially on questions connected with the pursuit of power, and the abuses to which its exercise can lead. Reticent but also self-aware, he makes room in his history for arguments that speak to each side of this ambivalence. But I do not believe that he ever fully resolved it, and the interpreter must resist the inclination to impose solutions on him.” [11] Sophokles, by contrast, seems to have thrived on ambiguity—his plays glory in their lack of closure, their resistance to any fixed or stable reading. Thucydides, on the other hand, concentrated the full power of his mind on the problem of establishing a settled account, a transparent window onto what really happened, and a history that answered more questions than it raised. And yet Thucydides never came close to such a goal. Not only did he leave his work only three-quarters complete (the narrative breaks off in 411), but his model of history implied that Athens, not Sparta, should have won the war.

Even the essentialism that shapes Thucydides’ History—the assumption that human nature was stable and historical inquiry thus possible—is problematic. Immediately after his reference to “the nature of human beings” at 3.82.2 (quoted above), Thucydides qualifies this remark:

[Human nature] is sometimes more [harsh] and at other times more peaceful and distinct in its manifestations (eidê, pl. of eidos), depending upon how all the vicissitudes of events bear upon it. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master that brings most people’s characters to a level with their fortunes.

Thucydides thus appeals to the stability of human nature as a necessary tool with which to tell his story—and yet the theme of his story is not stability but change. He describes not only the battles, the victories, the shifts in advantage, and other events of the war but also the qualitative impact that these events had upon human life. The Corcyraean civil war is important because its effects upon Corcyraean society were devastating. The murderous power struggles there shattered the assumptions and bonds that had previously maintained stable human relations.

Thucydides describes the plague at Athens not only because such a disease—whatever it was—might strike again but because he wanted to show how the terrible sufferings—“almost too harsh for human nature (anthrôpeia phusis)” (Thuc. 2.50.1)—broke down the restraints imposed by society and devastated the moral behavior of Athenian citizens. Athens itself fell in the end because, after Perikles’ death, it could no longer find leaders who had the intellectual power or moral vision to lead the city (2.65). Thucydides does not tell the story of traditional values validated. The assumptions of his class—the international Greek elite, with its supranational loyalties, countless and overlapping personal alliances, its conventions of what constituted appropriate behavior—all seemed to have collapsed around him, and Thucydides wanted to understand how this had happened. If Thucydides posited an essential, transhistorical human nature, this was not an easy, conventional idea, but a bold and determined assertion that flew against many of the experiences through which he felt that he had lived.

The tension between change and continuity runs throughout the History. The apocalyptic description of plague at Athens gives way to a narrative that, after Perikles’ final response, resumes its course and makes surprisingly few references to the ongoing devastation in the city.[12] The Athenians act brutally at Melos, but the logic of their reasoning remains consistent with that which they express at the prewar conference at Sparta. Although Thucydides constantly uses a timeless human nature to explicate events, both past and present, he uses this timeless human nature to explain why human society had so radically changed. Of course, one can argue that human nature and human society are distinct, but, in practice, Thucydides treats both as if they were orthogonal. Like a Renaissance painter who represents children as different in size but not in kind from adults, Thucydides conflates psychology and sociology.[13]

Thucydides’ History relates two simultaneous stories. First, warfare, civil strife, and plague had shattered human society. Second, things had always been pretty much the same: thus even Agamemnon, when he mustered the Greek expedition upon Troy, really depended upon intimidation rather than loyalty (Thuc. 1.9). The entire Archaeology proceeds from the assumption that Thucydides can apply the same heuristics to ancient times as to the present. Thucydides thus describes history as a process of dramatic, often corrosive change, but he does so by assuming that human beings think and react much the same way at all times and in all places. If history charts a consistent process in which humans rise from squalor into ever larger and more secure groups (like Minos and the Athenian empire), then why did this natural process miscarry, brutalizing Greek society and handing victory to Sparta? Although we can, of course, develop arguments to reconcile this tension between change and stability, Thucydides did not. This unresolved conflict between the two tendencies that Thucydides observed contributes much to the tension and nagging lack of closure that have struck so many readers of the History.

The City and Man

Strauss entitled his famous collection of essays on Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and Thucydides’ History (in that reverse chronological order) “The City and Man.” He drives home the significance of this choice, asserting, on the first page of the introduction, that “the theme of political philosophy is the City and Man.” Thucydides certainly shared this view. As I pointed out in chapter 2, almost all political realists have traditionally worked with groups rather than with individuals. Most students of international affairs have tended to concentrate on nation-states, since these have been the conventional dominant structures of European diplomacy since the Peace of Westphalia over 300 years ago, but analysts readily concede that fiefdoms, tribes, and city-states would be more appropriate in other historical circumstances. Thucydides’ focus upon the polis thus places him squarely in the tradition of realist thought. When he attributes speeches (and the points of view that they inscribe) to aggregates such as the Corcyraeans (Thuc. 1.32–36), Corinthians (1.37–43, 68–71, 120–124), Athenians (1.73–78), Plataians (2.71, 3.53–59), Mytileneans (3.9–14), and Thebans (3.61–67), he has, like any analyst, self-consciously reduced and simplified his data. Such simplifications are necessary in realisms as in any paradigms. The exclusion of some details can be justified by the increase in focus, and the exchange, in theory at least, helps us see much more than we lose. And, of course, we must reduce and simplify if we are to get anywhere—as our colleagues in cognitive science have shown, we cannot perceive anything unless we apply patterns to fields of detail. All that we can do is strive for the most finely meshed and insightful patterns.

Thucydides, however, narrows his intellectual focus to an extraordinary degree. I have elsewhere explored at length the extent to which he marginalizes in his work not only religion and women (as often, the realist voice is also distinctly masculine),[14] but ll kinship ties and social bonds.[15] Thucydides’ simplified model of the world systrematically minimizes all relationships that intervene between the city, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. Against speeches by the “Athenians,” “Corinthians,” or other groups stand speeches by individuals such Archidamos, Sthenalaidas, Perikles, Kleon, Diodotos, Nikias, Alkibiades, Hermokrates, and Euphamos, to name only the most prominent.

This extreme dualism reflects the most dynamic thought of the fifth century. Although the Platonic corpus, as we have it, begins with Euthyphro, earnestly intent upon prosecuting his own father for a dubious case of accidental homicide, this young man’s unreflective moralism has made it difficult to appreciate the underlying strength and idealism of his position.[16] In Sophokles’ Antigone, Kreon’s character proves so brittle and his fate so catastrophic that few have recognized what (I at least would argue)[17] is the idealism that mark much of his opening speech: when Kreon publicly values the polis above his family and friends (Ant. 163—210) and then maintains this stance against his own niece, he espouses a dramatically radical principle that the Thucydidean Perikles vigorously advances as well (see esp. Thuc. 2.60). Protagoras may have done most to articulate this subordination of individual to state, buy the historical Perkles seems to have contributed to it as well. Plutarch (Per. 7) reports that s soon as Perikles entered public life, he ostentatiously cut himself off from all of his social ties. Where the aristocratic Kimon exploited a network of personal friendships and familial alliances, Perikles devised a lifestyle that would dramatize that nothing could distract him from his devotion to the state.[18] Thucydides exploits the importance of subordinating individual to state by its converse: he does not object to the Greek tyrants because they were harsh rulers who took away freedom, but because they subordinated the polis to—indeed, treated the polis as an extension of—their own oikos.[19]

Here as elsewhere, Thucydides’ practice as an historian runs parallel to the reported practice of Perikles as statesman.[20] In this case, however, the results are at best problematic. In focusing on states and individuals, Thucydides imposes on his material an idealized view of the world that often did not fit events. His representation of Alkibiades makes this point, but much of what can be said about it could be extended to the complex diplomatic maneuvers of book 5 and especially to the events of book 8, where personal machinations and rivalries often drive the actions of states.

The confrontation between Nikias and Alkibiades establishes the latter as a brilliant and charismatic figure, but Thucydides pushes his Alkibiades to an extreme. Alkibiades, like Perikles before him, appears as an isolated individual, and the friendships and alliances—which were a crucial source of his power—receive little emphasis, appearing only when necessary to explain particular events and never identified as a general source of Alkibiades’ power. From the opening of this confrontation (Thuc. 6.15.2), Thucydides contrasts Alkibiades’ “political differences” (diaphoros ta politika) with his “private” good fortune (ta idia). Again, at 6.15.4 we hear that Alkibiades had an outstanding record in his public (demosiai) conduct of the war, but that his private (idiai) lifestyle offended his fellow citizens. The spotlight shines on Alkibiades alone, and Alkibiades reinforces this as soon as he begins speaking:

Athenians, I (moi) have a better right to command than others—I must begin with this as Nikias has attacked me (mou)—and at the same time I believe myself to be worthy of it. The things for which I am abused bring fame to my (mou) ancestors and to myself (emoi), and to the fatherland (patris) profit besides.

Alkibiades argues that he has benefited his fatherland—a logical assertion given that he is trying to persuade his fellow citizens. Alkibiades even refers to his own family, but only, it should be noted, to the dead and not to any of the many kin to whom he was related. His household, extended family and friends, pale before the lone figure brilliantly illuminated in the textual spotlight. Inflected forms of the first person singular pronoun egô appear four times in the first sentence. Thucydides presents Alkibiades, like Perikles, as a charismatic figure who acts alone and influences events with the force of his personality. But if the Thucydidean Perikles is also fond of the first person pronoun and tends to depict a world in which the only major players are himself and the polis, Alkibiades reverses the polarity in this exchange, placing himself, not the state, in the dominant role. Where Perikles asserts that the individual is nothing without the state (Thuc. 2.60.2–4), Alkibiades, in his arresting definition of “patriotism” (to philipoli), argues that the state counts for nothing if it does not support him as an individual (6.92.2–5).

Alkibiades, of course, mattered little as an isolated individual, and he would never have risen so far at so young an age had he not been born into an important family and inherited a network of preexisting connections, but Thucydides systematically minimizes in his History the role of such personalized alliances—or, more properly perhaps, from the Archaeology and Corcyraean debate onward, he minimizes these alliances when they work properly, so that gratitude is stored up, loyalty repaid, and ritualized friendship effective. Thus Thucydides has much more to say about Alkibiades’ enemies (who provide a major theme of his speesh at Thuc. 6.16–18) than about the widespread and influential friends who clearly helped Alkibiades rise to power, provided him with the levers that he needed to manipulate events outside of Athens, protected him during his exile, helped engineer his return to Athens, and allowed him to withdraw from Athenian affairs one final time. The importance of these relationships shows through from time to time. We hear, for example, that Alkibiades had persuaded the Mantineans and Argives to contribute major forces to the Sicilian expedition, but this corporate aspect of Alkibiades’ position occurs only in passing, when Thucydides explains the caution with which the Athenians recall him (6.61. 5). When the Athenians initially take him into custody, Thucydides remarks that not only Alkibiades but “those who had been verbally attacked along with him” (6.61.6) set sail for Athens. The subsequent escape is a collective one—the Athenians search for “Alkibiades and those with him” (6.61.7)—but these unnamed extras quickly disappear. In the very next sentence, Thucydides turns his attention to “Alkibiades, now being an exile,” and his passage back to the Greek mainland. Thucydides drops this thread of the narrative for a bit, and Alkibiades’ “fellow exiles” reappear briefly (6.88.9), but again immediately drop from sight.

When Alkibiades is summoned to Sparta, his extraordinary defence of his actions drives home, even more forcefully, his isolation:

It is necessary first to speak to you of the prejudice against me (tês emês diabolês), in order that suspicion may not make you disinclined to listen to me (mou) upon public matters. [2] The connection with you as your proxenos, which the ancestors of our family by reason of some discontent renounced, I personally (autos egô) tried to renew by my good offices toward you, in particular upon the occasion of the disaster at Pylos. But although I (mou) maintained this friendly attitude, you yet chose to negotiate the peace with the Athenians through my enemies (tois emois echthrois), and thus to strengthen them and to heap discredit upon me (emoi).

There are only two active parties here: Alkibiades and the Spartans. Alkibiades refers to the prejudice against himself, demands that the Spartans listen to him, claims that he personally reestablished the proxenia with the Spartans, defends his goodwill with the ingratitude of the Spartans. He continues in the next section (Thuc. 6.89.3) to speak of how he, in the singular, managed to influence the Mantineans and Argives—as if he had direct and unmediated access to both these groups and did not have to work through a network of friends and allies at each of these city—states. If Alkibiades pictures individual Spartans, they appear as an indistinct “someone” (tis). When he portrays his political status at Athens, he speaks of how he as an individual was attached to the common people (dêmos) as an undifferentiated group. At 6.89.4–6, he briefly widens the focus, shifting to “we,” but only because for the moment he wants to lessen his personal responsibility.

If Alkibiades at Sparta concludes the political speeches of the History, the solipsistic patriotism that be articulates shapes almost all of the subsequent events that Thucydides describes in the home theater of operations. Once the Sicilian expedition has been treated in book 7, events in book 8 disintegrate, and Thucydides’ realist inclination to analyze human beings in groups breaks down. The struggle between oligarchs and democrats at Athens is a major theme of the book, but this internal dissension continues to spread throughout the Greek world (e.g., Chios [Thuc. 8.9.3]). Civil war has scattered exiles other than Alkibiades throughout the Greek world, and these seek help against their home governments wherever they can (8.6.1). The Athenians, their prestige damaged, cannot even trust those allies who serve with them (8.10.2). Thucydides cites the ritualized friendship that binds Alkibiades and the Spartan ephor Endios (8.6.3), but only because this traditional Greek institution helps Alkibiades play a more effectively divisive role in Spartan affairs (8.12.2). Likewise, we hear that Alkibiades was “a close associate (epitbdeios) of the leading men in Miletos” (8.17), but only so that we may better understand how Alkibiades sought to manipulate this relationship to his own personal advantage. The Athenian commander Phrynichos chooses to betray Athens so as to damage Alkibiades (8.50)

Neither the conservative Spartans nor the imperial Persians can escape this fragmentation. We hear that Agis had plenary powers while operating near Dekeleia and that, “in a word, the allies at this point in time were subject to Agis rather than to the Spartans at home, for the force that he had with him made him feared wherever he went” (Thuc. 8.5–3). The Persian empire is no Greek city-state, in which the people or a small elite share power: the Great King presides as absolute ruler, his domain is an extension of his personal household, and all his subjects are (at least as the Greeks see it) his personal slaves. Nevertheless, even Persia ceases to function as a unit, as Tissaphernes and Pharnabazos, the two Persian governors adjacent to the Greek world, compete with one another and pursue actions designed to promote their own immediate interests rather than those of the empire as a whole (e.g., 8.5.5, 8.6.1).

The focus upon Alkibiades as an individual and upon his private advantage thus reflects a larger theme in Thucydides’ History: the failure of leadership and concomitant decline of Athens after Perikles. Thucydides sums up this process in his overview of Perikles:

Perikles told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their navy, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war and, doing this, promised them a favorable result. What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions (idiai philotimiai) and private interests (idia kerdê), in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies—projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war.

Alkibiades, for all his brilliance, belongs to this group of politicians who subordinated the interest of the state to their own (see 6.15.2–3). He is thus an example of change and a symptom of Athenian decline.

But decline from what? If Alkibiades reflects a decline from Periklean leadership, Perikles, and not Alkibiades, constituted the anomaly. The Alkibiades of book 6 is no innovation. He is—and is feared as—a classic figure of the archaic Greek world. When he claims credit for having sponsored four chariot teams at the Olympic games, he appeals to the same system of prestige through which the patrons of Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides had, in the first half of the fifth century, sought to win Panhellenic distinction for themselves, their families, and their homelands (Thuc. 6.16).[21] At the same time, this traditional pattern has its drawbacks: two centuries before, Kylon had effectively opened Athenian history by becoming first a victor at Olympia and then by trying to make himself a tyrant.[22] The Athenians of the late fifth century had not forgotten this collocation of lavish expenditure and tyrannical ambitions: according to Thucydides 6.15.4, the people feared that Alkibiades wanted to make himself the new turannos of Athens. While this speech contributes to the thread of disarming Athenian candor, real or affected, that runs throughout the History,[23] the ideas expressed are not new. Far from being an innovative figure, Alkibiades hearkens back to the aristocratic world whose demise Thucydides seems to record.[24] Neither A1kibiades nor the general infighting that fills book 8 constitutes a decline from normal standards, except if viewed in comparison with the earlier books of Thucydides. Both reflect the resurgence of traditional figures and politics, but Thucydides has relatively little sympathy for charismatic masters of competitive generosity and even less for the networks of loyalty strengthened by the exchange of favors.

Decline is a major theme in Thucydides[25] —Alkibiades is no Perikles, and Melos is worse than Mytilene—and Athens, along with the world, clearly did not stay the same, but Thucydides’ narrative, by its own biases, exaggerates and distorts this change. In Thucydides, stasis destroys politics—or, to be more precise, the politics officially sanctioned by the city-state[26]—but it might be more accurate to state that politics remained as important as before, shifting its locus from citizen and citystate to the complex webs of ritualized friendship, political clubs, family connections, and ideological alliances.

Thucydides’ concluding segment has earned, and for good reason, a reputation as “the least satisfactory of his books.” [27] Its narrative is fractured, covering too much ground in too confusing a manner for the tastes of most readers. Thucydides mentions too many individuals in too brief a space.[28] There are no speeches, although a number of the events—especially the revolution and counterrevolution at Athens—would readily lend themselves to such extended treatment. Consider the conclusion of Pouncey, whose book on Thucydides concentrates heavily on book 8:

I believe that the importance of the eighth book has so far been neglected. It is clear to me that in this book Thucydides finally settles on a pessimistic view of human nature that is applied not merely in ominous isolated episodes but fairly systematically through the narrative, and shows the basic level at which it operates and the basic tendency it has. The basic level is the individual, and the basic tendency is towards aggression. Various speakers in the war have complacently conceded this, but Thucydides now seems to insist that at least under circumstances of continued pressure, the primary aggression is applied for oneself, at the expense of any claims from any society or institution to which one belongs. The pessimism at the end seems to override any of the more positive strands we had noted earlier in the work, and the possibilities of collective action recede. The bonds between human nature and war and stasis are now complete.[29]

This is, like much in Pouncey’s book, a very perceptive reading of the History. At the same time, however, this judgment, valid as it may be for the text at hand, derives from a weakness in Thucydides’ outlook and the distortions that this weakness introduced. The basic unit of measure does indeed shift from the larger group, at the opening of the History, to the atomized individuals of book 8. Thucydides truly did study the city and man, as Strauss believed. The problem for Thucydides was that his method, because it consistently reduced too much of human affairs to this simple dichotomy, was ill equipped to capture and assess the many more complex ties that enmeshed anyone prominent enough to warrant mention in the History—not just Alkibiades but Phrynichos, Agis, Tissaphernes, and the mere names who appear briefly to push their schemes.

Book 8 has proven unsatisfactory to so many readers because it is unfinished, but I suspect that it is unfinished because Thucydides found the material too unsatisfactory. Almost ninety years ago Francis Cornford aptly observed that “the eighth book is a mere continuation on the old chronological plan, unfinished, dull, and spiritless.” [30] When Thucydides is no longer able to describe “the Athenians as a unit in civic or collective narrative, or to select one or two individuals whose ideas and policies eventually shape civic action,” then a “narrative convenience” indeed disappears,[31] but the consequences go beyond this. Thucydides’ intellectual approach thrashes in book 8 like a machine digesting material that is too coarse or too fine. Thucydides’ History—at least such of it as he managed to complete—works best when a small number of intellects, whether individual or collective, guide events according to large ideas. Thucydides could not properly describe the forces at work in book 8 unless he returned to its proper place, and gave full credence to, that ancient simplicity that made personal alliances possible and without which these grasping schemers could not have undermined the interests of their state.[32] Thucydides gives us no reason to assume that Peisistratos and his sons, who spent years in the mid-sixth century building up alliances in the Greek world so as to seize power one more time in Athens, would have felt out of place if they had found themselves transported a century and a half later into the Ionia of book 8.

Nevertheless, Thucydides’ least satisfying book is more influential than the best work that most of those who followed him ever produced. Successful historians (and scientists) create engaging stories to account for events, and the idea of Athenian moral decline appeals to scholarly pessimism better than the notion that Greek politics in book 8, to a great degree, returned to their customary fragmented state. Certainly, the values and assumptions prevalent in the Greek world changed during a generation of near-continuous warfare, but Thucydides, in emphasizing the consistency of human nature, failed to give proper emphasis to the continuity that bound individuals such as Alkibiades and Phrynichos to Peisistratos and Isagoras in the sixth century. If the ancient simplicity were as defunct as Thucydides argues, then the Athenians, Spartans, Chians, Milesians, and Persians of book 8 would have had far less opportunity to pursue their divisive courses of action. If we have only in recent years begun to recognize the degree to which fifth-century politics was in many ways as complex and stylized as the politics of Homer,[33] the elegance of Thucydides’ idealizing emphasis on individual and state bears much of the responsibility. If an overemphasis on unitary groups and on isolated individuals is a common danger for all political realists, Thucydides led the way here as elsewhere.

The Funeral Oration And The Price of Objectivity

We shall conclude with, by most standards, the least “realistic” document in Thucydides, the self-consciously idealizing Funeral Oration, because this speech captures one of the great tensions within the History. The Funeral Oration presents us with an Athens that not only balances the interests of city and man but also addresses a more historically contingent problem. It establishes a delicate synthesis that combines the values of the traditional Greek elite with those of a democratic society. Of course, the description of the plague, which follows almost immediately, betrays the fragility of Athenian society and undermines much of what Perikles says (although it is important to remember that Perikles delivers his heroic final speech after the section on the plague and Perikles, not the plague, has the final word). In at least one regard, however, Perikles anticipates the problems that will occur, for, in the final analysis, it is Athenian power that commands the respect and love of its citizens, and Perikles thus bases much of his argument on a motivation that virtually all realist thinkers have stressed:[34] the love of power, which emerges as a fundamental human trait in the Archaeology and continues to shape events through all eight books. The Thucydidean Perikles thus builds his idealizing vision[35] on a sound realist base and defends it against that scorn that would bring down the “ancient simplicity.”

At the same time, however, the emphasis on power is itself inconsistent with Perikles’ larger project, for the values of the traditional Greek elite, as a particular historical system, depended for their survival upon the at least partial mystification of power and especially upon embedding power within affections and social bonds. Thus even in the Funeral Oration itself, the problems of Thucydides’ outlook appear, for the realism that Thucydides takes for granted renders the Periklean synthesis unstable. Even if the History had broken off after the Funeral Oration, and there had been no description of the plague, no Mytilenean debate, no slaughter of the Plataians, no Melos, even so the Funeral Oration would have given up fundamental principles upon which that ancient simplicity had depended.

First, in the Funeral Oration the Thucydidean Perikles articulates a vision of democracy that synthesizes qualities that elsewhere clash, for the greatness of the Athenian polls makes aristocrats of all its citizens:[36] in normal language, the “good and the beautiful” (kalos kagathos) designated the persons and values of the upper class. Elsewhere, the Thucydidean Kleon also attempts to unify society when he daringly appropriates for “the more common sort” (Thuc. 3.3 7.3: hoi phauloteroi) that moderation, sôphrosunê, by which the elite defined themselves. In the Funeral Oration, on the other hand, the aristocratic Perikles pushes in the opposite direction, assimilating the common people upward into the elite: all Athenians, rich and poor, are champions of “greatheartedness,” which can lavish favors on friends without expecting anything in return (2.40.4). In the Funeral Oration, every Athenian—and especially those who lay down their lives for the community, whatever their private faults (2.42.3)—can share in the aretê of the city. In the Funeral Oration, all Athenians, because they are not afraid to die, fashion their own freedom (2.43.4).

The democratization of aristocratic values is a major theme of the Funeral Oration. A single passage will suffice to illustrate this. In this passage, Perikles notes that great families could erect imposing burial monuments to their dead, but all those who give their lives for Athens receive a far greater honor:

For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown that never grows old, and for a tomb, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their reputation (doxa) is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall fall for its commemoration. [3] For famous men have the whole earth for their tomb. Not only do inscriptions on stone columns (stêlôn epigraphê) serve as their memorial (sêmainei), but even in lands beyond our control there resides in every breast a memory unwritten (agraphos mnêmê) more of their resolve (gnômê) than even of their accomplishment (ergon).

This extraordinarily dense passage builds upon and extends the ideologically charged imagery of aristocratic burial. On the one hand, the Athenian state conventionally erected as funeral monuments stone slabs (stêlai) that listed the names of those Athenians and even their allies who had fallen in battle.[37] At the same time, wealthy Greek families had, in the archaic period, erected imposing funeral monuments to their dead. Not only were some of these still visible,[38] but, starting in about 430—roughly the dramatic date of Perikles’ Funeral Oration—there was a change in fashion at Athens, and Athenians began once again to lavish large amounts of wealth on impressive burial monuments.[39] Such private burial monuments defined stares and highlighted social stratification—that was, in fact, their purpose, for the rich chose to convert their wealth into visible symbols of their position.

Perikles, however, daringly converts this divisive practice into a unifying image-the boldness of this paradoxical maneuver is comparable to that of Diodotos, when he accepts the terms of debate imposed by Kleon. All of those who give their lives for Athens receive an imposing tomb—indeed, a tomb that is far more imposing than any material monument ever could hope to be. The richest aristocrats must content themselves with physical monuments that are, however splendid, fixed in place. The Athenian dead, by contrast, not only have their state monument but have achieved a reputation that travels far beyond Athens and its possessions.[40] This is a well-known convention: the poet Pindar, for example, boasts that his work is no statue, rooted to the ground, but can travel freely in every ship that floats (Nem. 5.1–3). But for Athens this idea has an added force: however far Athenian power may have extended the city’s possessions, the memory of these individuals will travel even farther. Loved or hated, they will be remembered far beyond the spatial and temporal limits of Athenian domination. Where the realist Thucydides resolutely champions the importance of erga, real accomplishments, his Perikles strikes an aggressively idealistic pose: these individuals will be remembered not so much for what they have done but for gnômê their moral resolve.[41]

Perikles, in good Thucydidean style, forcefully grounds the idealism of this speech on realist foundations. Perikles’ remark at the opening of Thucydides 2.41—where he calls Athens “the school of Hellas” [42]—has become famous, not least because Athens actually did, after the fall of the Athenian empire and especially during the Roman Empire, develop into the cultural center of Greece. The proof that Perikles adduces for this has, however, attracted less attention. Athens has not become the school of Hellas because Perikles filled the city with spectacular architecture (most Greeks would have preferred Delphi or Olympia) or because Athenian literature was preeminent (Athenian drama was still primarily a local literary form written by and for Athenians) or because Athenians were the greatest philosophers (Plato had not yet been born, and Sokrates was still just a local eccentric) or because the Athenians excelled at history (Herodotus, sympathetic as he may have been to Athens, was not Athenian, and Thucydides had scarcely begun work in 430). Athens is the school of Hellas because it has more power than any other state.

Nor is this Athenian power subtle or understated: the Spartan military power partakes, I have argued, largely of bluff; for the Spartans, with their fixed numbers, could not even annex Tegea, and although they (when reinforced by their allies) may be irresistible in a single battle, they cannot project their force over a long period of time. Spartan power has much in common with Foucault’s invisible, pervasive discipline, for Spartan leadership depends upon moral leadership and symbolic capital that, as I pointed out in chapter 8, places serious constraints on their action. On the other hand, Foucault’s “spectacle of the scaffold,” the public, dramatized display of power—the ability to inflict tangible violence upon the physical bodies of their opponents—constitutes the Athenian power that Perikles celebrates. If Athens is the school of Greece, then the Athenians can be grim schoolmasters. Melos and Skione, of course, lay in the future, as did that Athenian mercy that restricted executions on Mytilene to 1,000 men and gently reduced the remaining population to serfdom (Thuc. 3.50).[43] But many of those who listened to Perikles would have served under him when he had brought Athenian power to bear and crushed the revolt of Samas a decade before. Thucydides’ text, at least as it stands now, had already included a summary of the Samian revolt (1.115.2–117).[44]

The Athenian citizens are, we hear, uniquely accomplished. A symbiotic relationship links the excellence of individual Athenians to the power of their city as a whole: in this, the Thucydidean Perikles is surely appropriating for Athens a claim usually made for the Spartan way of life in the fifth century.[45] He goes on to develop his vision of Athenian power:

And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but truth of deeds (ergôn alêtheia), the power (dunamis) of the state acquired by these habits proves. [3] For Athens alone of its contemporaries is found when tested to be stronger (kreissôn) than its reputation and alone gives no occasion to its assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to its subjects to question its title by merit to rule.

Perikles is not content to make pious statements. He insists that Athens’s position is real, it is the “truth,” alêtheia, of “actual deeds,” erga. Athens is so powerful that no one exaggerates its accomplishments. It is so great that those whom it crushes in the field depart without loss of dignity. The reality of Athenian power is its anchor, now and in the future:

Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power (dunamis) without witness but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression that they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced (katanankasantes) every sea and land to be the highway of our daring and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments (mnêmeia) behind us. [5] Such is the Athens for which these individuals, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose it, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in its cause.

Perikles leaves no doubt as to the nature of Athenian power, and thus of the source of Athens’s position. The Athenians have brought the world to its knees—they have pushed themselves onto every sea and land. Nothing can stand in their way, and they have covered the world with “imperishable monuments” of their accomplishments. The boasts of the statesmen merge with those of the historian (cf. Thuc. 1.21): the Athenians have no need for the seductive fantasies of the poets, because their power is real and, being not “without witness,” can be confirmed despite hostile scrutiny. At the center of Athenian identity stands the power to compel and, if necessary, to destroy. It was not for some vague ideal or empty platitude but for this power that these individuals fought and died.

A few sentences later, Perikles returns to this theme, arguing that it is power that renders Athens an object deserving of adoration and worthy of every sacrifice. This is one of the few places where a speaker—especially an Athenian speaker—moves away from immediate self-interest and urges subordination of the self to some other goal. The dead deserve praise because they appreciated the city for what it was:

So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And do not consider with words (logos) alone the advantage (ôphelia) that is bound up with the defense of your country, though this would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present. Rather, you must yourselves day by day gaze upon the power (dunamis)—power in real fact (ergon)—of Athens and become its lovers (erastai). And then when the city seems to you to be great (megalê), you must reflect that it was by daring (tolmôntes), recognizing those things that had to be done, and a keen sense of shame (aischunomenoi) in action that mortals won all this. Whenever in any attempt they met with failure, they nevertheless resolved not to deprive the city at least of their own aretê but laid it at the city’s feet as the most noble (kalliston) contribution that they could offer.

The language is typically Thucydidean. There is the familiar, obsessive contrast between language (logoi) and material advantage (ôphelia). In the translation above I have also tried to bring out the force of dunamis as it is modified by ergon. Furthermore, these dead Athenians clearly resemble the Athenians of the Corinthian speech at Thucydides 1.68–71: they exhibit boldness (tolmê), forge ahead to do what they must, and let nothing stop them.

The most striking element of this passage, however, is the term erastai, “lovers” (pl. of erastês, “lover”). The Athenians who are still alive are supposed to gaze upon Athens and fall in love with their city. The language is quite strong, since an erastês is one possessed by erôs—erotic love. The Athenians are not supposed to feel a kind of sublimated, chaste love for a high ideal. Perikles frankly eroticizes the polis, making it an object that commands sexual desire.

Sexual passion for the city would not have struck Athenians at the time as a strange metaphor, for it seems to have been a topos in the later fifth century.[46] Thus, when Cloudcuckooland in Aristophanes’ Birds becomes a smashing success, the Herald declares: “You do not know how much honor this city earns among mortals / or how many erastai, ‘lovers,’ of this land you have” (Av. 1278–1279). A few lines later (1316), the Chorus glories that “passionate desires (erastes) for my polls prevail!” In the Acharnians, the Thracian Sitalkes is described as philathenian. He was, one character tells the Athenians, “your erastês ”(Ach. 143) and scribbled “Athens is beautiful” graffiti on walls, as a man would do for some sexual favorite. The Knights makes great play out of this image. Kleon appeals for help from Demos, “The People,” “because I love you, O Demos, and I am your erastês ”(Eq. 732). The claim is funny—not because it is absurd to claim to be a lover of the Athenian demos, but because the age and appearance of Demos in this particular play render the profession of love absurd. Men were expected to become erastai of beautiful young boys, not of old men.[47] Nor is this metaphor restricted in the fifth century to comedy: in Euripides’ Phoinician Women, Polyneikes, who in this play is a relatively sympathetic character, tells the Chorus that “all men must feel erôs for their fatherland” (Phoen. 358–359). At Plato Gorgias 481d, we hear of men who declared themselves the erastai of the Athenian demos in order to win their favor. Elsewhere (Alc. 1.132a), Sokrates warns Alkibiades not to become a dêmerastês, “an erastês of the dêmos.”

Perikles’ picture of the erastês transfixed with desire and awe for the erômenos, the object of desire, belongs to a larger tradition of depicting erotic possession. About 600 B.C., roughly the same period when Solon instituted his reforms at Athens, Sappho composed a poem describing the intense feelings of the lover’s gaze (frag. 31). At the sight of the beloved sitting with a man, and the sound of “her sweet voice and lovely laughter,” the poetic narrator loses her voice. A flame runs beneath her flesh. She sees nothing, and her ears hum.

Perikles does not here call upon the Athenians to love Athens for its physical charms or for its generosity or even for the advantages that it confers upon them and the security it provides their families. He explicitly tells his listeners to “fasten their gaze” (theômenous, from theaomai, another strong word) upon the power (dunamis) of the city, and this power is supposed to fill the Athenians with erotic love. Thucydides imagines his listeners contemplating the city in their mind’s eye not because it is good or even because it is, in some personified form, beautiful but because it is great (megalê).

The open worship of power had serious consequences for Greek culture. Consider, for example, the following passage from Euripides’ Phoinissai. In this play, Eteokles is the villainous brother who has cheated Polyneikes out of his position and refuses to deal reasonably with him. Confronted by his mother, Jokasta, Eteokles offers the following explanation:

I will tell you this, Mother, without any concealment: I would go to the rising of the stars and the sun, [505] or beneath the earth, if I were able so to do, to win Tyranny, the greatest of the gods. Therefore, Mother, I will not yield this blessing to another rather than keep it for myself; for it is cowardly to lose the greater [510] and to win the less.[48]

The love of power leads here to the glorification of tyranny, absolute domination at home. Four times Athens itself is characterized as a turannos over other cities,[49] and it is to Athens’s dominant position that Perikles here directs the gaze of his audience. But if the Athenians surrender themselves to their infatuation with Athenian power, then what is to prevent them from seeking their own private power at the expense of others and the state as a whole? This is, in fact, precisely what Thucydides reports to have happened (Thuc. 2.65) and what we can see happening as events splinter into small actions and feuds in book 8. Perikles gave eloquent expression to the importance of the state, especially in his heroic final speech, but his ideas lost force after death removed his personal authority from the scene.

The glorification of power is not simply problematic because it helps produce an Alkibiades. The Thucydidean Perikles anticipates Plato in the Symposium and especially the Phaedrus, where true love reacts not to the physical person but to the abstract qualities that the erômenos embodies. In the Phaedrus, Sokrates explains true love as a force that draws the incorporeal “soul,” psuchê, to it. True love inflames mortals with a kind of madness, mania, but this madness is a good thing (Phdr. 249d). This occurs when the soul of the lover sees to kallos, “physical beauty” (but also, in other contexts, “nobility”), on earth and, through this vision, recalls the “true” kallos (to alêthês). For Plato, justice (dikaiosunê) and self-control (sôphrosunê) constitute true beauty and inspire desire (250b–d). The true lover does not exploit the object of his desires for the sake of pleasure and pursue mere sexuality (250e).

True passion touches body and spirit equally:

When he sees a godlike (theoeides) face or form that is a good image of beauty (kallos), he shudders at first, and something of the old awe comes over him. Then, as he gazes, he reveres (sebetai) the beautiful one as a god, and if he did not fear to be thought stark mad, he would offer sacrifice to his beloved as to a cult statue (agalma) or a god. And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat; for as the effluence of beauty (to kallos) enters him through the eyes, he is warmed.

The physical symptoms are similar to those in Sappho, but Plato has subordinated the physical to another—in his scheme, higher—sphere. Love, in this view, is a personal submission to some transcendent, ultimately impersonal quality, but the experience remains deeply physical: trembling, sweat, and heat transfix the very corporeal sensations of the lover even as he senses through his equally fleshly beloved the grand, transcendent qualities that give this love its true meaning. The flesh remains as a barrier, but as a barrier that, with all its limitations, constitutes a kind of lens that gives shape to the very emotions that look beyond this world.

In Thucydides, by contrast, the object of erotic desire has no physical being. Athenian power has many proofs, but these are signs that point to a quality that is seductive but impersonal. This adoration of power constitutes, like the aggressive candor of Thucydides’ Athenians, a thoroughly modern simplicity, for it openly declares itself and does not hide behind hypocritical fictions. Perikles is in fact attempting to resolve a problem of Athenian nature. I have argued that the Athenians refuse from the Corcyraean debate onward to embed their dealings with others in affective ties, and in so doing they have set themselves apart from the Corinthians, Corcyraeans, Plataians, and other more traditional Greeks. Perikles attempts to re-embed the crucial relationship between the city and man. The realist’s love of power drives the idealist’s selfess patriotism.

Contrast this vision of the Athenian polls with that of Hannah Arendt. Confronted with the twin barbarisms of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, Arendt turned to the Greek polls as a space for “human plurality.” Totalitarian regimes had attempted to destroy individuality and render each person—even Hitler and Stalin themselves—the anonymous representatives of transcendent historical forces.[50] The fundamental equality and tangible distinctness of human beings combined to render each human life special, make possible interaction between people, and allow each of us to “insert ourselves into the human world”—to “act,” as Arendt interprets the term.[51] We are, in Arendt’s view, human only insofar as we “act,” setting into motion by our words and deeds—even by our birth—further trains of consequences that no one could predict. But we can act in this way only in the presence of other, distinct human beings: the people who witness our actions and feel their consequences provide these actions with their meaning. More than once Arendt quotes the Thucydidean Perikles to help explain this humanistic vision.[52]

But if the Funeral Oration—with its grand vision of a democratic society where all citizens share rights and responsibilities—provides Arendt with a starting point for her work, Thucydides and his Perikles reveal a habit of thought that would develop into the totalitarianism that haunted Arendt. When Perikles calls upon the citizens of Athens to lose themselves in their adoration of the polis, he undermines the distinctness of its citizens. Athens becomes an embodiment of power, and this power seduces each subject into the same position of submission and adoration. The power that makes of each Athenian an erastês foreshadows the ideological schemes and historical necessities that would make the supporters of Hitler and Stalin sacrifice their lives as well as their individuality to a truth that supposedly transcended human values.

But if the Thucydidean Perikles at his best reveals a potential for totalitarianism, his aristocratic vision paved the way for atomizing the citizens and for transforming them into what Arendt would call a mob.[53] While Perikles lived, he could, by the force of his will, twist the love of power to the city’s advantage, but the lover’s adoration, which inspires the individual to give up everything for the city, faded after his death. After Perikles was gone, “personal ambitions and personal profits” (Thuc. 2.65.7: idiai philotimiai kai idia kerdê) drove subsequent leaders to undertake projects that were not in the interests of the state. The grand exemplar of this attitude is, of course, Perikles’ own kinsman, Alkibiades, who is, more than anyone, the dominant personality in the last three books of the History. Where Kleon had been a would-be Perikles, the more able (at least in Thucydides) Alkibiades approached this level and fashioned himself as a kind of anti-Perikles.[54]

Alkibiades’ speech at Sparta (Thuc. 6.89–92) occurs more than two books before the History breaks off, but in several ways it marks an end. This, the final political speech in the History, balances the first Athenian speech, which also was delivered at Sparta. More important, Alkibiades articulates both the collapse of the Periklean ideal (and thus the decline that Thucydides cites at 2.65 and 8.89.3) and the resurgence of a traditional elite disdain for the state (of which Thucydides, as I argued in the previous section, has less to say and which he distorts according to his own prejudices). Consider Alkibiades’ famous enunciation of patriotism near the conclusion of the speech:

I hope that none of you will think any the worse of me if after having hitherto passed as a lover of my country, I now actively join its worst enemies in attacking it, or will suspect what I say as the fruit of an outlaw’s enthusiasm. [3] I am an outlaw from the iniquity of those who drove me forth, not, if you will be guided by me, from your service: my worst enemies are not you who only harmed your foes, but they who forced their friends to become enemies; [4] and love of country is what I do not feel when I am wronged, but what I felt when secure in my rights as a citizen. Indeed I do not consider that I am now attacking a country that is still mine; I am rather trying to recover one that is mine no longer; and the true lover of his country is not he who consents to lose it unjustly rather than attack it, but he who longs for it so much that he will go all lengths to recover it.

K.J. Dover, in his commentary on this passage, labeled the above reasoning “a sophistry that is obscure and lame.” Of course, it is sophistict—almost everyone in Thucydides speaks in sophistic terms, and Alkibiades was himself a product of the later fifth-century intelligentsia—but I do not think that the reasoning would have seemed either “obscure” or “lame.” Nathan Marsh Pusey was closer to the mark when he stressed that patriotism was, at least among the Greek elite with their many international connections, hardly universal.[55] Alkibiades is simply restating the deeply traditional Greek commonplace that one should harm enemies and help friends. The Athenians, who should have been his friends, have harmed Alkibiades, and Alkibiades thus has a right—even a duty—to retaliate in kind. The strong ahistorical streak in the History that was the focus of the beginning of this chapter has correspondingly deflected attention from the traditional aspects of Alkibiades’ position. No doubt, Peisistratos, during his long years of exile from Athens more than a century before, presented his case in a similar fashion as he prepared his return to power. Plato’s prestige has made famous the attitude of his Sokrates, who in the Krito allows his homeland, however unjustly, to take his life, but the Platonic dialogue itself is hardly the norm. Rather, it constitutes itself an attack upon the far less selfless norms of his time (doubtless obliquely defending Sokrates against his association with Alkibiades himself).

At the same time, the emphasis of Alkibiades’ speech has a decidedly modern—“Athenian” would perhaps be a better word—slant. All of his relationships seem contingent upon his immediate condition. Athens has harmed him, and he is thus now its enemy. He will aid the Spartans because they, although also his enemies, have wronged him less than the Athenians. He makes no attempt to establish a new, ongoing relationship with the Spartans: Alkibiades—in reality, the master of aristocratic alliances inside and beyond Athens—has, in Thucydides, no use for the rhetoric of gift exchange and of symbolic capital that permeates the Corcyraean debate in book 1, the Mytilenean speech and the Platalan defence in book 3, and the Spartan offer of peace in book 4. Like the Athenians after the Corcyraean debate and the Spartans at Plataia, Alkibiades lives in an eternal present, always ready to serve his immediate interests, loyal only to those who can help him in the future, mindful at best of advantages conferred in the immediate past. Alkibiades—energetic, insatiably acquisitive—may be the anti-Perikles, but he perfectly embodies the Athenian character that the Corinthians sketched at Thucydides 1.68–71, almost two decades before. Alkibiades has, if anything, refined the vision of the selfless lover that Perikles sketched at 2.41, for, pushing the city aside and concentrating on his own self, he remains true to the quest for power and advantage that Perikles situated at the core of his Athens.

If Thucydides set out, as I believe that he did, to reconstitute the ancient simplicity—the ideology of the elite into which he had been born and of which he was a product—and to reconcile what we might now call the real with the ideal, he failed. The irresistible desire for power promised but ultimately failed to deliver a calculus of advantage with which to measure each human action. If modern realists have at times been more optimistic in their faith that scientific knowledge can change the world, is this because they have proven more insightful or more knowledgeable than Thucydides, or that the twentieth century provides more room for hope than did democratic Athens? No one in the Greek world—with the possible exception of Aristotle and his school—would achieve this goal or fail with such brilliance. Plato could answer individual such as Kleon with the Republic and Alkibiades with the Krito, but he had to leave the realist program behind, disdaining mere advantage and seeking to ground his reasoning in the good. The Greek mathematicians, such as Euclid and Archimedes, would push human understanding as far toward “true knowledge” as any single body of thinkers ever has, but they too had to leave the human world behind and entered an ideal geometrical world of their own fashioning. Thucydides refused to make such compromises. He remained with the savageries and horrors of his time. A failed general, he nevertheless kept his gaze fixed upon events in which he no longer had a part. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his work—and they are both great—the struggle to “save the phenomena,” to synthesize the tangible with the ideal, continues now, as it will doubtless always continue. Thucydides contributed to this practice at an early stage of European culture, as ideas and writing began to evolve together. “With all his rationalism, Thucydides is equally on the side of the active life, no matter what its disappointments, and in the active life the prize is not truth, though there may be truth, but immortality.” [56]


1. Hornblower (1987, 155–190) goes into the problems of isolating Thucydides’ own ideas at length. [BACK]

2. E.g., Pouncey 1980, ix–x; similarly, Connor 1984, 249–250. [BACK]

3. E.g., Cox (1986, 243), who criticizes Morgenthau and Waltz for being “ahistorical” and insensitive to change; Ruggie (1986, 141–152) argues that Waltz’s systemic view is not very successful at explaining a major transformation such as that from the medieval to the modern state; the essays critiquing realism in Wayman and Diehl 1994 do not have much to say about its weakness in accounting for change because these studies concentrate on the modern political arena and make little attempt to deal with different systems. [BACK]

4. On this, see now Johnson 1993, 61–62; a political philosopher, Johnson contrasts Hobbes with Thucydides. Thucydides’ Athenians and Hobbes both argue that interest dominates events, but Thucydides’ narrative contains numerous episodes that reveal the inadequacy of such a universalizing deterministic viewpoint. Nevertheless, Thucydides differs not because he does not believe in a stable human nature but because, as the product of classical Greek culture, he believes that chance is too unpredictable and events too ambiguous to allow humans to behave predictably. There is a rich literature on chance and intelligence in Thucydides: see, for example, Cornford 1907; Stahl 1966; Edmunds 1975a. [BACK]

5. Thus Hall 1989, 54–55; on Herodotus’s view of the Other, the classic study is Hartog 1988. [BACK]

6. This is not to say that Euripides endorsed Greek chauvinism: see, for example, Eur. Med. 534–538, which cannot even win tepid ambivalence from the Chorus (cf. 576–578); the non-Greek appearance of Dionysos is a major theme throughout the Bacchae; the degraded picture of Helen’s Phrygian servants is one of the ugliest elements in an ugly play (Eur. Or. 1369ff.); on the representation of non-Greeks in tragedy, see Hall 1989. [BACK]

7. Ste. Croix 1972, 29. [BACK]

8. See, for example, de Romilly 1990, 61–104; Hammond 1973. [BACK]

9. Besides the passage quoted here, note also the rather surprising intellectualism of the Spartan king Archidamos at Thuc. 1.84; on the relationship between sophistic thought and the remarks attributed to Archidamos, see Hussey 1985. [BACK]

10. Derian 1995b, 382. [BACK]

11. Pouncey 1980, ix–x; similarly, Connor 1984 249–250. [BACK]

12. At the conclusion of his description of the plague, Thucydides reports the rumor that the Peloponnesians shortened their invasion of Attika because of the plague, but he then concedes that, in fact, the Spartans made their longest invasion (forty days) during the first plague year (2.57). Athenian reinforcements to Poteideia prove counterproductive because they brought the plague with them to the Athenian army in northern Greece (2.58), but it is at least surprising that the Athenians managed to send any reinforcements (or even had any functioning foreign policy) after the apocalyptic description of chaos and anarchy at Athens. Perikles’ final speech responds to the plague (2.61.3, 64.1), but the plague then plays very little role in the narrative. Thucydides mentions it again in book 3, explaining that the plague preoccupied the Athenians and prevented them from paying as much attention to Mytilene as they might otherwise have done (3.3), but military operations proceed for the most part as normal. At 3.87, Thucydides focuses again, although briefly, on a resurgence of the plague, citing the loss of 4,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry (a tremendous blow to Athenian labor power), but he does not subsequently integrate the ravages of the plague into his narrative, and, indeed, there does not seem to be a reference to the plague in his account of the following year. [BACK]

13. So Hunter 1989; Morrison 1994. [BACK]

14. Compare Tickner 1995. [BACK]

15. This is one of the major themes of Crane 1996a. For an interesting survey of how this narrowing of perception affects the rise of political thought generally in the fifth and fourth centuries, see Saxonhouse 1992, which treats Thucydides only in passing. [BACK]

16. Saxonhouse (1992, 93–101) locates Euthyphro’s position in the development of progressive political thought. [BACK]

17. On this, see Crane 1989. [BACK]

18. Kleon too is reported to have repudiated his friends to dramatize his devotion to the state: Plut. Mor. 806F; Connor 1992, 91–94. [BACK]

19. Thuc. 1.17; on this, see chapter 6. [BACK]

20. On this, see chapter 2. [BACK]

21. Kurke 1991, 171–177; Forde (1989, 186) suggests that Alkibiades differed from the traditional tyrants only in the single-minded extremism of his pursuit of “honor.” [BACK]

22. Hdt. 5.71; Thuc. 1.126.3. [BACK]

23. So Orwin 1994, 125. [BACK]

24. One of the best treatments of Alkibiades’ attitude toward the state remains Pusey 1940. [BACK]

25. So Euben 1990b, 167–169. [BACK]

26. Orwin 1994, 182. [BACK]

27. Connor 1984, 230. [BACK]

28. Pouncey (1980, 39 n. 11; pp. 173–174) relays statistics developed by Kenneth Rothwell about how many more individuals Thucydides names in book 8 than in other books. [BACK]

29. Pouncey 1980, 42–43. [BACK]

30. Cornford 1907, 244. [BACK]

31. Connor 1984, 214. [BACK]

32. By contrast, Plato recognized that personal justice and public corruption were not incompatible: see Rep. 351c-352a. [BACK]

33. See, for example, Herman 1987, which surprised many of us by showing how pervasive the “archaic” system of ritualized friendship remained in the classical period. [BACK]

34. See chapter 2. [BACK]

35. I take this speech to be an attempt to visualize Athenian democracy as it could be. Like all such praise it is prescriptive as well as descriptive, for, to the extent that the speech is specific, it challenges the recipient to live up to those claims made for it. Here, if nowhere else, Thucydides provides us with a vision of that “ancient simplicity” as it might exist in his modern, Athenian world. On the ideology of the funeral oration as an Athenian genre, Loraux 1986a has become the standard work, but Ziolkowski 1981 remains a useful and often more usable starting point. [BACK]

36. See, for example, Edmunds and Martin 1977. [BACK]

37. For examples, see Meiggs and Lewis 1988, nos. 33, 48; no. 35 lists Argives who died fighting alongside the Athenians at Tanagra; Crawford and Whitehead 1983, no. 127, translates the opening of Meiggs and Lewis no. 33. [BACK]

38. For a survey of these archaic funeral monuments in Attika, see Richter 1962; it is not clear how many of these early monuments would have survived the raids and destruction of the Persian Wars. [BACK]

39. For the implications of this, see Morris 1994. [BACK]

40. I take this to be the force of ἐν τῇ μὴ προσηκούσῃ not simply beyond Attika, but in land that is beyond Athenian control. [BACK]

41. On the role of gnômê in the Funeral Oration as a whole, see Edmunds 1975a, 44–70, esp. 68, where Edmunds stresses that it is the fact that these men chose to give their lives that makes their sacrifice a triumph of will and freedom over chance. [BACK]

42. On this phrase, see Hornblower 1991, ad loc. [BACK]

43. On the size of this number and the severity of this punishment, see Connor 1984, 86–87, with nn. 18 and 19. [BACK]

44. Duris of Samos (Plut. Per. 28) went farther and attributed to Perikles a spectacular ferocity: Perikles reportedly led the ship captains and marines into the marketplace of Miletos, crucified them, let them hang exposed for ten days before ordering their heads to be broken, and—worst, perhaps of all, to Greek sensibilities—had their bodies cast out without burial. Even Plutarch expresses his doubts about Duris’s reliability, however, and suggests that he may have added this detail to help slander the Athenians. Such a punishment was, however, standard for traitors, and Duris’s account may be at least partially true: on this, see the note at Stadter 1989, 258–259. [BACK]

45. Cf. the opening section of Xen. Lak. Pol., discussed in chapter 3. [BACK]

46. On this passage and its implications, see now Monoson (1994), who argues that by presenting the city as a lover rather than a nurturer, Perikles stresses the reciprocal nature of citizenship. [BACK]

47. On this passage, see Dover 1978, 146. [BACK]

48. This translation is based on that of David Kovacs, published both in Crane 1996b and in the Loeb edition. [BACK]

49. At 1.124.3, the Corinthians label Athens as turannos polis (cf. 1.122.3); the other three speakers are Athenians: Perikles (2.63.1–2), Kleon (3.37.2), and Euphemos (6.85.1). This phrase has attracted considerable attention: see, for example, Hunter 1973/4; Connor 1977b; Raaflaub 1979; Raaflaub 1987, 226. [BACK]

50. Arendt 1973; Canovan 1992, 17–62. [BACK]

51. Arendt 1958, 175–176. [BACK]

52. Arendt 1958, 197, 205. [BACK]

53. Arendt 1973, 305–326. [BACK]

54. Rawlings (1981, 122–125) compares Alkibiades’ speech at 6.89–92 with that of Perikles at 1.140–144. [BACK]

55. Pusey 1940; note, for example, that when Kimon reportedly sought, during his ostracism, to fight alongside the Athenians at Tanagra, he was rebuffed: the Athenians thought that he was at least as likely to be working for the Spartans, with whom he had close ties (Plut. Kim. 17). [BACK]

56. Edmunds (1975a, 214), who cites 1.22.4, along with 2.41.4, 43.2. [BACK]

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