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Warfare, especially its unpredictable course and unexpected consequences, has often spurred interest in Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. As a young professor at the University of Virginia, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, the first great American classicist, spent his summer vacations campaigning with Robert E. Lee’s army and took from this experience a wound that troubled him for the rest of his life. When he wrote about his experiences more than thirty years later, he playfully entitled the piece “A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War.” [1] Half a world away, the Boer War, for better or worse, suggested to Francis Cornford that shadowy commercial interests, barely discernible in Thucydides, were the real cause of the war.[2] In the early months of the First World War, a reading of the Melian Dialogue, in which the Germans, British, and Belgians were cast as Athenians, Spartans, and Melians, was staged at the University of Toronto. On the other side, Eduard Schwartz dedicated his book on Thucydides to his son Gerhard, “killed at Markirch, on November 2, 1914.” A generation later, Louis Lord ultimately gave to his 1943 Martin Classical Lectures the title Thucydides and the World War,[3] and Robert Connor reported that the “shattering experience of the Vietnam War” brought him to focus upon Thucydides with greater intensity.[4] The Second World War increased the prominence of Thucydides outside of classics. Thucydides’ generally pessimistic view of human nature and his disdain for pious illusions struck a responsive chord among many who had lived through the struggle with fascism. Observers of contemporary affairs from George Marshall onward compared the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union to that between Athens and Sparta. Hans Morgenthau’s masterful Politics among Nations, first published in 1948, made him only the most influential of the new realists who would decisively shape a generation of American foreign policy. Members of this school regularly turned to Thucydides as their earliest member—Robert Gilpin has even questioned whether twenty-four centuries have substantially advanced our understanding of how states relate to one another and of why wars occur.[5]

My own interest in Thucydides intensified during the preliminaries, rather than the actual course or aftermath, of a war. During the fall of 1990, I was teaching a course on Thucydides, sitting in on lectures by Stanley Tambiah about economic anthropology, and observing, with the deep unease prevalent at the time, the diplomatic maneuvers that led to armed conflict. These three strands interacted in ways that I had not anticipated. I had always viewed the world from the vaguely “realist” slant of the cold war. Nations pursued power and interest. Having worked on economic anthropology the previous year with Stephen Gudeman, then visiting at Harvard, I continued to learn from Tambiah’s lectures in the fall of 1990 how problematic many of my assumptions about human motivation had been. International morality was a marginal force and constituted, to a large degree, a mere exercise in propaganda. But in listening to Gudeman and Tambiah and in reading such works as Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Marcel Mauss’s The Gift (1990), and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), I began to see how much more complex human motivations were than my rather cynical outlook had allowed. It was not that individuals and groups did not pursue their “interests” or that they were not “rational” actors. Rather, the rationality was often complex, with competing, often mutually inconsistent, systems of value, while different cultures defined vital interests in very different ways.

Watching the news or reading the New York Times, I realized that the definition of interest was not simply an academic pursuit. Many Americans could not, for example, understand how or why the ruling family of Saudi Arabia would, faced with a rampant Iraqi army just across the border of Kuwait, hesitate in the summer of 1990 to call for as many American troops as possible. The Saudis defined themselves as Arabs and as Muslims, linked by blood and religion to the Iraqis, but “national interest” pulled them toward the United States and the industrialized democracies, and the resulting tensions proved foreign to most Western and especially to American sensibilities. The importance of Mecca and of the religious inviolability of Saudi Arabia could be grasped intellectually, but it was hard to assimilate its true significance: the press never ceased to marvel as American soldiers camped in the middle of the Saudi desert were forbidden the open practice of their religions or as the President of the United States, deferring to Saudi sensibilities that trampled on his own constitution, celebrated religious services on an American ship in the Persian Gulf rather than on land. When the dispatch of American troops was linked to the personal friendship between George Bush and Saudi prince Bandar, there was widespread incredulity in the press, and even professional diplomats had difficulty coming to grips with the situation. But if such personal factors clashed with traditional power politics, they nevertheless dovetailed neatly with the forces that the ethnographic literature traced in many non-Western societies.

At the same time, I began to see that many of the same tensions that played themselves out in the New York Times were also at work in Thucydides. Classical Greece—untouched by Judaeo-Christian values, precapitalist, a small country that developed late at the periphery of an ancient civilized world—seemed to occupy an intermediary position between modern Western powers and more traditional societies. On the one hand, the power politics that Thucydides articulates in the so-called Archaeology that opens his work and that he puts into the mouths of his Athenians has seemed oddly modern to many readers. Thucydides has attracted attention in part because he includes many sentiments that practitioners of Realpolitik take for granted. On the other hand, Thucydides was the product of a society profoundly foreign to modern sensibilities: hundreds of city-states with cultural centers such as Delphi and Olympia but no powerful political union, each vying for individual power while stubbornly grudging much authority to everyone else; extended families that maintained ancestral “ritualized friendship” with their counterparts in other city-states; an amorphous set of alternately vapid and effective ties based on a shared Greek culture; competing subcategories of ethnicity such as Dorian and Ionian, which provided the loose quasi-familial ties that anthropologists term classificatory kinship. Thucydides may marginalize and even mock these phenomena, but his History includes them all.

The more I read Thucydides, the more I appreciated the degree to which this apparent familiarity was deceptive. In an earlier book,[6] I tried to quantify the extent to which Thucydides’ outlook—and especially the degree to which he marginalized religion and the family in his explanation of events—played into assumptions that many modern readers take for granted. I cannot help but think that Thucydides would be astonished (even dismayed) if he could see how readily later readers accept many notions that were extremely radical in his own day.

In this study, I examine Thucydides’ political realism, a particular political outlook that Thucydides did much to shape, and one that has remained a vital force into the twentieth century. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is surely a classic of realist analysis, but the complexity of Thucydidean realism is difficult for us to gauge, because our assumptions are so different from those of the fifth-century elite. First, Thucydides represents as commonplaces ideas that would have stirred angry debate among many. The very sentiments that have become standards of political realism—the anarchic nature of international relations, the domination of the weak by the strong, the primacy of interest over emotional or sentimental considerations—still clashed with the image that Greeks cultivated of themselves. When Thucydides says that the weak endure douleia, “slavery,” because they desire profit (1.8.3), for example, he highlights the coercive element of, and thus oversimplifies, a client/patron relationship. This account is no more complete than the ideology of megaloprepeia, according to which the powerful, because of their inherent goodness and generosity, lavish their wealth on gifts and public displays. When Thucydides’ Athenians at Sparta readily concede that they exploit their empire for their advantage, they may be telling the truth, but they are emphasizing a very different aspect of their position than when they see themselves represented as champions of Hellas and protectors of the weak in the suppliant plays of tragedy.

Second, if Thucydides pushes some ideas to the foreground, he also rejects established pretensions. Thucydides wrote to shock. I believe that he would be surprised, if not shocked himself, to discover the broad acceptance his view of the world has won. Vietnam, decades of cold war, and its chaotic aftermath of “Corcyraean” civil wars have made Thucydides’ “moral bleakness,” to use G. E. M. Ste. Croix’s phrase,[7] seem to many a natural state of affairs. Thucydides’ vision of history has proven so prominent that the elements of traditional culture that still pervade his work are easily overlooked. To take only one example: Thucydides is notorious for the degree to which he minimizes the role of religion—this despite the fact that impiety was a capital offence that his fellow Athenians persecuted with vigor and that each Athenian army had its own professional seers (with catastrophic results for the Sicilian expedition). This secular bias corresponded to the attitude of more than one Thucydides scholar (including, for example, A. W. Gomme, whose massive commentaries are a monument of twentieth-century Thucydidean scholarship). Not only have modern scholars generally taken the marginal role of religion and especially the great religious sanctuaries for granted, but such religious phenomena as did find their way into the narrative received less attention than they deserved.[8]

In composing the History, Thucydides thus pushed many traditional factors off to the side while dragging other phenomena into new prominence. Each of these moves was provocative, and together they lend tension to the text, a tension that the success of Thucydides’ outlook has done much to mask. There are really two very different aspects of Thucydides, and much scholarship has constituted a tug-of-war in which scholars seek to redress the balance, stressing one side over the other. On the one hand, there is the “modern” Thucydides—the writer who appeals directly to the changing sensibilities of the twentieth century. The scientific Thucydides of Charles Cochrane and even Jacqueline de Romilly is, in this sense, comparable to the postmodernist Thucydides of Robert Connor, for each of these visions emphasizes an element of Thucydides that speaks to contemporary thought.[9] This is also of course the Thucydides whom I will examine in chapter 3 and whose influence lives on among political scientists and philosophers whose field of study is not the ancient Greek world per se.[10] On the other hand, there is a more foreign Thucydides—a Thucydides who is produced by and despite himself reproduces an archaic Greek outlook—whom Francis Cornford’s brilliant Thucydides Mythistoricus largely established as a subject of scholarship, to which others have continued to contribute.[11] I will not pursue the relationship between Thucydides and Athenian tragedy for which Cornford argued and which John Finley articulated. Some scholars have questioned this relationship,[12] but whatever the impact of tragedy, Cornford’s basic thesis, that Thucydides does not escape the outlooks and values of the traditional archaic Greek world, remains valid.

Of course, none of the scholars whom I have cited has completely neglected the other Thucydides. Connor’s work, for example, contains much material about Thucydides’ cultural background. My goal in this study is to highlight the tension between the archaic and the modern Thucydides. This tension between archaic and modern is linked to the conflict between “real” and “apparent” factors that drives the History from beginning to end. If I may oversimplify for the moment, Thucydides spent much of his time critiquing the “apparent” explanations provided by traditional Greek thought and articulating in their place “real” causes (such as the Athenian triad at 1.76 of fear, honor, and advantage) that would fit neatly into the cynical news analyses of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. But Thucydides seems ambivalent. Although his text repeatedly pushes into the foreground the sad fates of those who, like the Plataians and the Melians, depend upon traditional values, Thucydides makes it clear in his description of civil war at Corcyra that he takes a dim view of those who trampled upon such values.[13]

Thucydides was always searching for “the cause that was most true, even if least apparent in public discourse” (1.23.6: hê men alêthestatê prophasis, aphanestatê de logôi), and he insisted upon “basing observations on the actual realities” (1.21.2: ap’ autôn tôn ergôn skopousi). But if Thucydides felt that he could provide an accurate account of individual events—how many men fought at a given place, the symptoms of the plague, even the general pattern of moral collapse in civil war—to his great credit, he never pretended to resolve the larger ambiguities of his narrative.[14] The ideas that shape his account of early Greek history and of the Archidamian War seem to have little relevance to the events of book 8. The Sicilian expedition, which occupies books 6 and 7, is almost a separate monograph, and book 5, with its complex and messy multipolar politics, anticipates the atomization of events that characterizes book 8. His unfinished account of the war sputters to a close with the desultory warfare of 411. We do not know why the History was never finished. Certainly, death with little or no warning may have carried off Thucydides, but I think it at least as possible that Thucydides simply stopped because events diverged from both the vision of history that he articulates in the Archaeology—according to which, Athens, with its sea power, financial reserves, and clear-eyed ruthlessness, should logically demolish its atavistic foes—and the synthesis between public and private interest that Perikles develops in all three of his speeches.

I believe that, like Hobbes, who lived through the Thirty Years War, Thucydides sought to assimilate the decades of brutality that he had observed and that he wished to reconstitute, in a new rationalized form, that “ancient simplicity” (as Crawley renders to euêthes at 3.83.1) of which the “well-born” (to gennaion)—the old Greek elite to which Thucydides belonged—had enjoyed such a great share. In part, the methodological integrity that Thucydides claims for his text seeks to replace the moral integrity that vanished during the war,[15] but I think that Thucydides attempted to do more. The Thucydidean Perikles and Diodotos each offer syntheses of the old and the new. Neither vision takes root, of course: the forebearance at Mytilene vanishes at Melos, while no one except the ambiguous and brilliantly self-centered Alkibiades can approach Perikles’ stature after his death. One of Thucydides’ greatest achievements was to help define the problems that would occupy a much more prolific Athenian from the following generation throughout his life. But if Plato counters the ideas of the Melian Dialogue with his Republic and the conditional patriotism of an Alkibiades with Sokrates’ submission to the state in the Crito, Plato was a philosopher and not a historian. If the world Plato saw was not satisfactory, he could construct an idealized republic, fabricate a symposium that outdid Herodotus’s meeting of Solon and Kroisos, or project his ideas onto an Atlantis. Thucydides subordinated himself to a stricter set of rules. He insisted that he wanted to view the world as it really was. We may question how successful he was in this, and indeed much of this study will emphasize the problems of Thucydides’ History. Some have even questioned Thucydides’ honesty,[16] but no one before Thucydides and few since have insisted so firmly on the importance of sticking to the facts.

The model of ideology articulated most prominently by Louis Althusser provides a useful tool with which to measure the goals, achievements, and limitations of Thucydides and his Athenians. According to Althusser, ideology serves, above all, to reproduce exactly the means of production—to ensure that those in dominant positions hand on their privileges undiminished to their children, while the oppressed members of society never rise above their traditional status. In such a scheme, ideology can never be an obvious rationalization cynically exploited by a ruling class. Once the claims upon which privilege are based have been exposed as fictitious and self-serving, they lose their best protection and become powerful targets for resistance. If ideology is to be effective, it must be invisible.[17] “Ideologies are, after all, illusions that are outfitted with the power of common conviction.” [18] As the feminist materialist Shakespearean critic, Jean E. Howard, puts it, ideology “is the obviousness of culture, what goes without saying, what is lived as true. It is therefore precisely not a set of beliefs known to be ‘false’ but cynically sold to others to hold them in an inferior position, nor does it originate from a conspiratorial power group (or author) bent on dominating or deceiving others.” [19] Or, as Althusser remarks, “It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’” [20] Ideas that would have been ideological in this sense at certain periods include the following: “Some human beings are destined to be slaves,” “European nations have a manifest duty to civilize and improve their less developed brethren,” and “Women should devote themselves to child-rearing and other familial pursuits.”

Thucydides rejected such fictions and euphemisms. His Athenians act as if they wished to do away with ideology altogether and conduct their affairs according to straightforward if harsh rules.[21] His Athenians call their rule a turannis and proudly abandon many illusions about the nature of their power. No extant Greek author before Thucydides had ever subjected human behavior to such cold, reductive analysis, and, for many, this “objectivity” has been Thucydides’ distinguishing feature. To take one well-known scholar as an example, in her analysis of the Athenian speech at Thucydides 1.72–78, de Romilly gave eloquent expression to a common reception of this piece in particular and to the work of Thucydides in general. She calls attention to the “objective realism, which, fully recognising the more unfortunate aspects of Athenian imperialism, excuses them only by relating them to the needs inseparable from any imperialism.” [22] Thucydides, in de Romilly’s eyes, had transcended the particular conditions of his age and begun to work with the timeless truths of the human condition. For her, Thucydides was a kind of heroic realist and pioneering antecedent to the modern, scientific mind.

Thus Thucydides’ Athenians do more than critique and break down the old truths that even Herodotus still inscribes in his work. If gratitude and loyalty are secondary emotions, if pity and fellow feeling are wasted, and if traditional justice is irrelevant in international affairs, the Athenians do not, like Jokasta at Oedipus Rex 979, fall back in despair and choose to “live at random,” abandoning any hope for rationality. They frame a new, deeply logical system based upon the principle that the strong rule the weak. In modern terms, they seek to ground their empire in natural law and, to this end, assume a transhistorically valid, universal human nature to which I will return in the final chapter.

But, of course, if we accept the view of ideology popularized by Althusser, we can see that the flight from ideology that Thucydides inscribes in his History is ultimately futile. More important, though, I argue that Althusserian ideology, with its need to be invisible and to disappear into accepted common sense, allows us to understand some of the unresolved tensions in the History.

Thucydides’ Athenians never quite succeed in establishing the rule of the strong as an invisible, Althusserian ideology. However hard the Athenian representatives at Sparta in book 1, Cleon and Diodotus in book 3, and the Athenian commissioners on Melos in book 5 may argue, the natural rule of the strong never finds the kind of immediate and spontaneous acceptance that strict ideology should attain. There are always Melians or Syracusans who, with greater or lesser success, refuse to accept the Athenians’ self-serving ideological pose.

My argument in general form traces the tension in Thucydides between the ideals toward which he struggled and the goals that he could achieve. For Leo Strauss, however, this tension lay in the gulf between the universalism of the city and the universalism of the History. As he puts it, “The longing for sempiternal and universal fame calls for boundless striving for ever more; it is wholly incompatible with moderation. The universalism of Athens, the universalism of the city…is doomed to failure. It points therefore to universalism of a different kind” [23] —the universalism of understanding that Thucydides inscribes in his History. Strauss continues: “The difference between the sempiternal Memorials of evil things and of good ones and the sempiternal possession which is useful points to the difference beween the brilliant and sham universalism of the city and the genuine universalism of understanding. For Thucydides bases his claim on behalf of his work on the fact that it brings to light the sempiternal and universal nature of man as the ground of the deeds, the speeches, and the thoughts which it records.”

There are other points of view. Unlike Strauss, Hannah Arendt, for example, reveled in the vitality of the city—she reversed a traditional opposition of Western thought, subordinating the life of contemplation to that life of action in which human beings define themselves by their dealings with one another: in her view, the public sphere is the theater of humankind’s highest activities.[24] Arendt’s work is especially interesting because she drew a broad distinction that sheds even greater light upon the tension within the History. Thucydides’ work occupies an unstable, indeed uncomfortable, moment where an older force still exerts its pressure, but a newer, still inchoate, force has begun to make itself felt. Simply put, Greeks had traditionally striven to approach, insofar as the human condition would allow, that immortality that their gods enjoyed. Arendt remarks: “By their capacity for the immortal deed, by their ability to leave non-perishable traces behind, men, their individual mortality notwithstanding, attain an immortality of their own and prove themselves to be of “divine” nature.” [25] As much as any figure in Greek literature—the Homeric Achilles not excepted—Perikles gives eloquent expression to this passion for immortality, not only in the Funeral Oration but in the heroic vision of Athenian greatness with which he departs from Thucydides’ narrative. And Thucydides himself, in the opening pages of the History, asserts with transparent pride that Athens’s achievement is real, that it requires no flattering poets to justify its claim to immortality.

But, if, in his feel for immortality, Thucydides plays upon a deep chord in Greek tradition, his work, albeit less tangibly, gropes toward a newer vision, one to which Plato would give shape. Thucydides names himself in the first sentence of the History and thus lays a claim to immortality, but in struggling to efface himself as analyst and to serve his readers as a pure, transparent lens onto events “as they really happened,” he moves to reduce that immortality to an empty name, minimizing his personality and, insofar as he is successful in this project, calling into question the meaning of that immortality. In fact, Thucydides strives for truth—not only what happened but why, not only the “Is it true?” and the “Does it exist?” but the “why” and the “cause” to which Aristotle gives fuller form in book 2 of the Posterior Analytics. Both Thucydides and the Athenians whom he represents struggle to establish for themselves positions that stand beyond ideology. They labor to ground their actions firmly in a natural law tied to an unchanging human nature. In this, Thucydides and his Athenians strive to grasp what Arendt termed “the eternal.” Thucydides could go only so far if he was to write down his thoughts: “It is obvious that, no matter how concerned a thinker may be with eternity, the moment he sits down to write his thoughts he ceases to be concerned with eternity and shifts his attention to leaving some trace of them. He has entered the vita activa and chosen the way of permanence and potential immortality.” [26]

But while Thucydides’ striving for objectivity and universal knowledge may be clear, he was too honest to claim either that he had himself attained such a vision or even that the antiheroes who dominate his narrative, his Athenians, had established a true, what would once have been called scientific, understanding of events. Thus Thucydides’ Athenians seek to annihilate those who disagree with them—the Melians, for example, must die because they refuse to accept the logic of Athenian imperialism and thus undermine the assertion that such imperialism is both natural and self-evident. Likewise, the new logic of power and self-interest proves as ambiguous as any Delphic oracle. In book 6, the Athenian Euphemos even presents us with a dazzling perversion of this logic, boldly adducing cold power politics to argue that Athens’s interests in Sicily are limited—when in fact Thucydides’ readers know that the Athenians are there to conquer the island. Euphemos’s speech is ironic: although Euphemos is lying, his assessment of Athenian interests is actually accurate. The most prudent Athenian strategy would pursue limited goals in Sicily and keep forces potentially hostile to Athens tied up and unable to intervene on the Greek mainland. The consequences are significant. If there is indeed a natural law that governs human relations, no human actors in Thucydides—with the possible exception of Perikles—are able with any reliability to interpret where their true interests lie, and even with Perikles, the plague arrives to dramatize the problems inherent in the best rational planning. The rule of the strong and the pursuit of interest may constitute natural law, but this natural law produces no certainty.

Much of the best scholarship on Thucydides in this century, from Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus through John Finley’s famous essays on Thucydides to Robert Connor’s famous “postmodern” Thucydides and Simon Hornblower’s emphasis on Thucydides’ emotional power,[27] has constituted a reaction against the scientific, even cold, Thucydides of scholars such as Charles Cochrane, Jacqueline de Romilly, and F. E. Adcock.[28] Thucydides the Hippokratic observer and Thucydides the proto-Euclid have exerted rather less of a hold upon recent scholarly imaginations. Nevertheless, these analogies, though inexact, do capture a crucial element of the Thucydidean project. Like Lowell Edmunds,[29] I attempt to take seriously Thucydides’ quest for objectivity and to treat it as something other than merely an authorial pose.

Nowhere in the exact sciences does any thinker take a greater leap in the direction of reductive analysis than Thucydides. Operating without any mathematical models and with only the most rudimentary numerical measures, Thucydides applies a small but powerful set of rules to human events and, in so doing, transformed his understanding of events. Two ideas play a particularly crucial role. First, the powerful naturally dominate the weak, and, second, essential human nature—“the human thing,” as Marc Cogan has neatly rendered it—remains the same in all cultures and at all times. Thucydides did not discover these principles (his speakers often refer to it as a piece of general knowledge, and it certainly influenced Herodotus), but, for better or for worse,[30] he perfected them as an analytical tool and refined them to an unprecedented and still unsurpassed degree. Much of the History is devoted to working out these ideas, and Thucydides’ Athenians are, in some sense, his avatars, testing these principles against the different situations that crop up during the course of the war.

Thus whatever Periklean Athens may have contributed to Hannah Arendt’s vision of a humane society, the universal glory of Athens is, as Leo Strauss argued a generation ago, in Thucydides’ History, an illusion. The great Athenian achievement was not the empire and its fleeting temporal authority (both rather modest achievements by the standards of the ancient Near East), but the intellectual adventure of Thucydides’ History and of the historian’s Athenians as they labor to construct a perfect, Archimedian vantage point from which to understand the world.[31] Fewer scholars would probably accept this praise at face value now than thirty years ago when Strauss first published The City and Man. I have no intention of lauding Thucydides for a perfect objectivity to which he never laid claim or of undercutting him for pursuing a chimerical goal. I seek to emphasize at once both the boldness of his objectives and the degree to which he ruthlessly includes in his own narratives the problems and contradictions that he never resolved. Long before Descartes established doubt as the only certainty, Thucydides sensed that “even if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.” [32] No writer ever worked harder to achieve that Archimedian position. No writer ever understood more deeply the impossibility of that quest.

In the first two chapters of this book, I attempt to frame Thucydides within the modern school of realist thought. Machiavelli and Hobbes are regularly enlisted as intermediaries who, closer to us in time and culture than Thucydides, serve to bring the History into focus. While I will have occasional recourse to these benchmark figures, I have chosen as a bridge William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who earned fame both as a strategist for his daring march from Atlanta to the sea and as a major figure in the development of modern war. I mean, in part, to address a standard bias against figures such as Sherman in the study of Realpolitik—the British major general and military historian J. F. C. Fuller argued that European disinterest in the American Civil War generally, and in the achievements of men like Sherman in particular, had contributed substantially to the slaughter of the “European Civil War,” as he termed World War I in 1932.[33] At the same time, not only does Sherman offer a surprisingly close point of comparison—both he and Thucydides were conservatives, generals, and authors who helped change the way in which their contemporaries conceptualized armed struggle—but his memoirs also include a strong parallel to one of the most often quoted sections of Thucydides’ History.

The second chapter sets the stage for much of the remaining discussion, identifying Thucydides as a “realist” in the most general terms—for there are scientific, literary, and artistic as well as political realisms—and then moving on to those features of Thucydides’ work that have inspired a number of contemporary political theorists to see in this Athenian author the forerunner of their own school of thought.

In chapter 3, I survey the raw cultural materials on which Thucydides would later build. I begin, however, not with the sophists of the fifth century but with the discourses of absolute power that appear already in Homer and Hesiod. Then, to illustrate the contemporary model of authority that Thucydides would reject, I turn to Herodotus and his subtly normative account of Sparta’s rise in book 1 of the Histories. Even as Herodotus attributes to the Spartans a leading position in the Greek world, he builds into his account conditions and limitations on Sparta’s authority that both empower and constrain Sparta. For Herodotus, Sparta is a hegemonistic power, whose authority depends in large measure on the fact that it has only a limited will and ability to project power beyond its borders. Xenophon, however, writing in the fourth century and influenced by Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, has a very different model of Sparta. For Xenophon, Sparta defines itself. It does not depend so much upon the consent of its fellow Greeks as upon its ability to project military force and thus to compel respect. The change in attitude reflects the extent to which Thucydides had helped develop a new paradigm for power and authority.

In chapter 4, I argue that the debate between the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians at Athens is programmatic. First, the Corcyraean and Corinthian representatives illustrate the dynamics of gift and countergift as well as the value attached to gratitude and to accumulating over long periods of time moral debts on which individual subjects or whole city-states could draw. Thucydides’ speakers deftly articulate this personalized system of interstate relations, with its roots in the alliances that bound aristocratic families. These ideas, however, enter the narrative only to be discarded. Athens ignores the old conventions to which Corcyraeans and Corinthians alike point and demonstrates at the start of the History that it is a new kind of state with a different paradigm for human relations. Where the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians see exchanges as embedded in long-term, ideally affective relationships, the Athenians analyze their dealings with other states as if they were simple market transactions: short-term exchanges that are unaffected by past dealings and that do not institute any new social relationships.

In subsequent chapters, I demonstrate that Thucydides uses much of book 1 to flesh out, in programmatic fashion, the revisionist principles that shape his work.[34] In chapter 5 I trace not only the explicit conclusions of the Archaeology but the implications of Thucydides’ method. Thucydides marginalizes the importance of agriculture and of all material production. For him, the rise of agriculture and other arts is not the beginning of human civilization (as it is for other authors of the fifth century). Rather, he takes small farming and basic production as a given that has limited value of its own. For Thucydides, political stability is the true source of prosperity. Human society did not develop because of material technology, but because powerful rulers were periodically able to yoke ever larger groups of states together into well-ordered imperial units. Thucydides’ Archaeology presents a world in which city-states are quarrelsome, unfit to govern themselves in isolation and unable to provide that order that is the only true basis for human prosperity. Even as he explicitly revises many traditional ideas that classical Greeks held about their past, he implicitly constructs a world in which empire, archê, is necessary and beneficial. The Solonic ideal of balanced production and consumption—the ideal model for maintaining a consistent number of small farmers—yields to the acquisitive logic of empire, for paradoxically empires alone can provide a world in which the small farmers can enjoy their quiet, “steady-state” lives.

In chapter 6, I explore further the new paradigm of wealth that, for Thucydides, shapes events during the Peloponnesian War. I also examine the system of symbolic capital that had dominated traditional Greek relations. Lacking developed and pervasive financial institutions, there were few ways in which accumulated wealth could “bear interest” and grow. Where modern capital is invested and yields a return that augments its value over time, Greeks had traditionally invested surplus wealth as gifts by which to establish alliances and friendships both at home and abroad—a scheme that Pierre Bourdieu has popularized with the phrase “symbolic capital.” Such networks of gift and countergift, which were often treated as family treasures and maintained over generations, constituted a powerful store of wealth on which Greeks could draw in times of need. For Thucydides, however, the Athenian empire was a radical departure: while not a financial institution per se, the Athenian empire was a social formation that not only supported itself with money (only tribute made the vast Athenian fleet feasible) but also, because the tribute was greater than the peacetime expenses of maintaining the empire, provided Athens with a steady flow of surplus wealth. This imperial system was so powerful that, at least in Thucydides’ view, it upset the traditional balance between repression and ideology: the Athenians no longer felt the same need to advance arguments with their subjects or to wrestle with them in contests for moral high ground. If the allies sought to break off their relations with Athens or to withhold tribute, the Athenians could bring overwhelming naval power to bear. Where Sparta had exercised hegemony over its allies, Athens had constructed a system that could support domination and convert allies into subjects.

In chapter 7, I pursue the consequences for human relations of the power politics described in chapter 4. The traditional language of friendship and reciprocity is found throughout key passages of the History, but Thucydides gives his own slant to these traditional ideas. He introduces the mechanisms and assumptions of symbolic capital in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of such conceptual tools. In particular, the often overlooked Mytilenean speech at 3.9–14 articulates a radical reassessment of the limits on friendship. Furthermore, the critique of reciprocal relations that runs throughout the History is crucial to our understanding of the eloquent Spartan offer of peace in book 4. Where the Spartans muster a sophisticated argument for the Athenians to show generosity and earn symbolic capital, the History as a whole and even the Spartan argument itself undercut the strength of such claims.

In chapter 8, I examine the dilemma that Athens, this new kind of power, constitutes for Sparta, the traditionalist leading state in Greece. Two distinct Spartan types—the old king Archidamos and the blunt government official Sthenelaidas—argue over how best to confront Athens. Both men recognize the dangers that Athens poses to Sparta’s position in the Greek world, but each stresses a different side of the problem. Archidamos clearly understands the fundamental difference between Athenian power, with its roots in the empire and in the coercive extraction of wealth by which to maintain a near-professional military force, and Spartan authority, with its reliance upon consensus and upon the willing support of many disparate and touchy allies. Archidamos argues that Sparta should wait before declaring war and accumulate financial reserves of its own. Sthenelaidas, by contrast, delivers a brief but furious harangue in which he calls for immediate action. Scholarly opinion has sided almost unanimously with Archidamos, but I emphasize the degree to which Sthenelaidas stresses a critical aspect of Sparta’s position: whatever Sparta’s financial reserves, it depends first and foremost upon the respect, more or less freely given, of its many allies. Because Spartan power is qualitatively different from that of Athens, the Spartans must act decisively to dramatize their continuing good faith. The two men thus articulate two sides of a dilemma to which no good solution existed—in Thucydides’ eyes, the ultimate Spartan victory was an accident, more the consequence of Athenian errors than of Spartan strength.

With chapter 9, I turn from the Spartans to the Athenians and specifically to the transitional position that they occupy in Thucydides. Athens may, as the Corinthians at 1.68–71 eloquently assert, represent a new kind of power, but this supposed newness has its own history, The Athenians, who, in the name of imperial policy, scorn the heroic defense of freedom, crush Melos, and massacre the population, had themselves established their position in the Greek world by standing up to the Persians in a hopeless cause on behalf of freedom. The parallels between the Athenian position in the Melian Dialogue and the Athenian refusal in Herodotus to accept generous terms from Xerxes illustrate the development that Thucydides posits in his narrative.

The Athenian position is not, however, completely negative, and in chapter 10, I consider the ideology of power that Thucydides’ Athenians attempt to construct. Thucydides’ Athenians continue to mention the Persian Wars, but the lessons that they draw from these events are very different from those that we find elsewhere. These Athenians have no interest in the morality of their grandfathers’ stand against Persia. For them, success against the Persians simply testifies to Athenian military power and resolve. The Greeks should study the Persian Wars well, but only so that they can learn to fear Athenian prowess. Athenian courage and virtue have little intrinsic value and matter only insofar as they contribute to victory. Nevertheless, Thucydides includes clear evidence for the limitations on such a calculus of power. All states may pursue their interests, but the true best interest of Athens is not always clear ahead of time. The Athenian speaker Euphemos and the dialogue at Melos each bring out different problems for this reductionist perspective.

The concluding chapter moves from Thucydides’ Athenians to Thucydides himself. The greatest strengths of Thucydides’ narrative are also among its greatest weaknesses. On the one hand, he fashioned a model that not only proved extraordinarily compelling and powerful for the events of his own time but also laid the foundations for a realist paradigm that still exerts force today. At the same time, however, Thucydides was able to see some elements by ignoring others: he introduces biases into his work that distract our readerly gaze away from other crucial forces; he creates a story about the decline of Athenian civil society that converts a contested and at best temporary Periklean model of citizenship into a timeless myth; he attempts, I believe, to reconstruct the aristocratic ideology—that “ancient simplicity” to which he was born and in which he was raised—according to the constraints of a more “rational” (or at least more cynical) age but fails to establish that synthesis. Plato would make the pursuit of this synthesis his life’s work, but Plato, if he has achieved an even more prominent position in the Western canon, did so by leaving the “real world” behind. Thucydides, more than any extant Greek thinker before him, balanced the general and the particular, following the phenomena wherever they led and refusing to give in to one side or the other. Thucydides never achieved a stable balance—for intellectual closure in human affairs is, of course, an impossibility—but he participated in, and indeed helped fashion, a practice of observation and analysis that we still pursue to this day.


1. Gildersleeve 1897, reprinted in Gildersleeve 1915. [BACK]

2. Cornford 1907. [BACK]

3. Lord 1945, originally entitled Thucydides: The First Modern Historian, derived its ultimate title from its final chapter (pp. 223–250), which compares the Peloponnesian War with the two world wars. [BACK]

4. So Connor 1984. [BACK]

5. Gilpin 1981, 226–227. [BACK]

6. Crane 1996a. [BACK]

7. Croix 1972, 23. [BACK]

8. Hornblower 1992 emphasizes Thucydides’ disinterest in the political dimension of religion; for Thucydides’ treatment of the sanctuaries themselves, see the chapter on religious space in Crane 1996a. [BACK]

9. Cochrane 1929 has grown unfashionable and is unjustly neglected; a similar fate has befallen Lord 1945; see also Woodhead 1970; de Romilly has continued to refine her “modernist” view: cf. de Romilly 1963 and 1990. Connor made the characterization “Post-modernist Thucydides” famous in Connor 1977a; he develops this view further in Connor 1984. [BACK]

10. Thucydides has received a substantial amount of attention from scholars outside of classics in recent years. Consider, for example, the following book-length studies: Forde 1989; Palmer 1992; Johnson 1993; Orwin 1994. [BACK]

11. Cornford 1907; also Stahl 1966; Lloyd-Jones 1971, 140–144; Edmunds 1975a and b. [BACK]

12. For a skeptical view of the specific influence of tragedy upon Thucydides, see Macleod 1983; for the relationship between ideas expressed in Thucydides and Euripides, see Finley 1967. [BACK]

13. Euben 1990b, 197–198; White 1984, 68–82. [BACK]

14. In this I agree with White (1984, 85–87), who insists that many of the inconsistencies that remain in the History reflect structural tensions that Thucydides would not have resolved had he finished the work. [BACK]

15. So Euben 1990b, 197–198. [BACK]

16. For an example of extreme skepticism toward Thucydides, see Badian 1990, reprinted as Badian 1993, 125–162; also Hunter 1973. [BACK]

17. Compare Gramsci (1971, 377), who distinguishes between “arbitrary” ideology, that can “create individual ‘movements,’ polemics and so on” and “ideologies that are historically necessary” and “create the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.” [BACK]

18. Habermas 1977, 22. [BACK]

19. Howard 1991, 226. [BACK]

20. Althusser 1971, 172. [BACK]

21. The limits of any such attempt to transcend ideology will be pursued during the course of this chapter; on Athenian ideologies, see Ober 1989, passim and esp. 332–333; Ober argues that the masses at Athens exercised “ideological hegemony” over the elite; for the utopian ideologies of the Oresteia and of the funeral oration as a genre, see Rose 1992, 185–265, and Loraux 1986a, 328–338. [BACK]

22. De Romilly 1963, 271. [BACK]

23. Strauss 1964, 228. [BACK]

24. Arendt 1958. [BACK]

25. Arendt 1958, 19. [BACK]

26. Arendt 1958, 20–21. [BACK]

27. Cornford 1907; Finley 1967; Connor 1977a; Connor 1984; Hornblower 1987; see now also Walker 1993; Howie 1984 is a particularly thorough examination that reads the Archaeology against Pindar and explicates Thucydides’ relationship to his Panhellenic Greek audience. [BACK]

28. Cochrane 1929, passim; de Romilly 1963, 271–272; Adcock 1963, 3. [BACK]

29. See Edmunds 1993 (which was actually submitted in finished form in 1988). [BACK]

30. On the ambiguity of Thucydides’ achievement, see, for example, Hornblower (1987, 30), who points out that Thucydides’ influence was “in one way…also profoundly damaging because…it was Thucydides who by his influential practice ordained that history should henceforth be primarily a matter of war and politics”; on the general dominance of the Thucydidean (vs. the Herodotean) model of history, see Lateiner 1989, 220–224; Momigliano 1990, 44–48 (who is somewhat more cautious). [BACK]

31. So Strauss 1964, 226–236; such an Archimedian point of view is, even insofar as we can realize it, not without its problems: see Arendt 1958, 257–268. [BACK]

32. Arendt 1958, 279. [BACK]

33. Fuller 1957, 8, 43–50. [BACK]

34. On the complex structure of book 1, see now Ellis 1991. [BACK]

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