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May 10, 2016

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Thucydides and the Language of Power

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War looks at political events without romance.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the first major contribution to Greek historiography after Herodotus’s Histories, is a much grimmer work than its predecessor. 

This is partly due to the subject-matter; Herodotus was writing about the relatively cheerful subject (for a Greek) of a conflict which the united Greek cities won against a foreign invader, while Thucydides’ topic was a savage struggle among the no longer united Greek cities, a struggle which devastated Greece and which no side really won.  (Technically Sparta won by conquering Athens, dissolving the Athenian empire, destroying Athens’ defensive walls, and installing an oligarchy friendly to themselves.  But a year after the Spartan troops left, the Athenians overthrew the oligarchy; a little over a decade later, they rebuilt the walls; and a couple of decades after that, they’d in large part rebuilt their empire.  How many dead bodies is such a fleeting victory really worth?)

But the contrast is also in large part a matter of temperament; Thucydides is a steely-eyed political realist with a cynical view of human nature, ever ready to puncture romantic illusions about the Trojan War (I.1) or the origins of Athenian democracy (VI.19).  Not for him Herodotus’s digressions on fascinating cultures, his collections of tall tales, or his professions of reliance on divine providence.  If Herodotus’ history is Star Wars, with its excursions to exotic cantinas, and its plucky band of freedom fighters fending off the evil empire, then Thucydides’ history is Game of Thrones, a brutal and ruthless clash of ambitions in which the weak are trodden underfoot.  It’s no accident that Thucydides was the favorite historian of Thomas Hobbes, who describes him as the author “in whom … the faculty of writing history is at the highest,” since “there is not extant any other (merely human) that doth more naturally and fully perform” the “principal and proper work of history,” namely, to “instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future.”1

Thucydides (c. 460-c. 400 BCE), an Athenian citizen, served as a general in the war, until he was accused of being responsible for a major military loss (he denied it), and was consequently sent into exile, much of which he spent in the company of Athens’ enemies, thus giving him insight into the perspectives of both sides of the war.  During this period he apparently observed events at hand, interviewed people about events afar off, and kept careful notes; after the war he retired to his estate in Thrace and began assembling all this material into a magisterial history which, in the event, he never finished.  (The first two books of Xenophon’s Hellenika, or History of My Times, seem to be intended as a posthumous completion of Thucydides’ History; in any case they a) begin where Thucydides stops, b) carry the narrative through to the end of the war, and c) are much more Thucydidean in tone and style than the rest of the Hellenika.)2

In his impatience with fanciful tales and sentimental illusions, and in his insistence on identifying underlying causes rather than stopping with superficial ones, Thucydides often seems strikingly modern.  Indeed, at one point (I.1) he, like some displaced time traveler, describes, quite accurately, how the ruins of Athens and Sparta will look to later generations and how the two will differ in their appearance. 

Yet while Thucydides is a magnificent writer and a brilliant historian, by the standards of modern historical research he shares some of the shortcomings of his predecessor.  Indeed, he is even vaguer about his sources than Herodotus was.  Also, the impression he gives of thoroughgoingness can be misleading; he covers so much that it is easy to overlook the possibility that he is omitting a great deal.  For example, many Greeks in his day believed that the protectionist Megarian Decree was the principal cause of the war – indeed Aristophanes devoted a whole play, the Acharnians, to this economic analysis of the conflict3 – but Thucydides barely mentions the Decree, and were it not for rival sources like Aristophanes one would never guess that it might be important.

One of the most problematic features of Thucydides’ narrative is the lengthy speeches he assigns to various historical figures.   His readers, from attending the tragic and comic theatre, would have been used to seeing moral and political issues dramatized through pairs of opposing speeches, and Thucydides duly supplies his audience with the same feature in his history.  But how historical are the speeches?

Noting that some speeches he heard himself while others were reported to him (though he doesn’t tell us which are which), Thucydides explains that in either case it was “difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory”; hence his decision to “make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions,” while at the same time “adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”4  In other words, when Thucydides reports a speech by Pericles, what we’re getting is some mixture of Pericles and Thucydides, but the relative proportions are anyone’s guess.

Accordingly, just as it’s not easy to tell how far the speeches represent positions genuinely taken by the people he attributes them to, it’s not easy to tell how far the speeches represent Thucydides’ own views either.  Most of the speeches share his own unsentimental realism, which might lead us to see the speakers as mouthpieces for the historian – except that the speakers are often arguing against one another.  Thucydides puts enthusiastic defenses of democracy in the mouths of such figures as Pericles (II.7) and Athenagoras (VI.19) – we’ve looked at his main Pericles speech earlier in this series5 – but his own political preference appears to have been for the “mixed constitution” combining aspects of democracy and oligarchy;6 at any rate, he writes of the short-lived Constitution of the 5000, which was an attempt at just such a mixed constitution:

It was during the first period of this constitution that the Athenians appear to have enjoyed the best government that they ever did, at least in my time. For the fusion of the high and the low was effected with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold disasters.7

Herodotus had attributed Athens’ rise to prominence to its democratic institutions;8 but Thucydides prefers a geographical explanation:

The richest soils were always most subject to this change of masters; such as the district now called Thessaly, Boeotia, most of the Peloponnese, Arcadia excepted, and the most fertile parts of the rest of Hellas. The goodness of the land favoured the aggrandizement of particular individuals, and thus created faction which proved a fertile source of ruin. It also invited invasion. Accordingly Attica [the region where Athens is located], from the poverty of its soil enjoying from a very remote period freedom from faction, never changed its inhabitants.9

(Thucydides here anticipates Plato’s account in the Republic of how wealth breeds militarism.)10

Thucydides sometimes allows his speakers’ hard-headed realism to be placed in the service of what might seem like bleeding-heart goals.  For example, he has the Athenian politician Diodotus argue against harsh punishments, but on purely pragmatic rather than compassionate grounds – namely, that punishments actually do a fairly poor job of deterrence, while clemency can motivate people to reform:

[C]ommunities have enacted the penalty of death for many offences far lighter than this: still hope leads men to venture, and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design. … All, states and individuals, are alike prone to err, and there is no law that will prevent them; or why should men have exhausted the list of punishments in search of enactments to protect them from evildoers? It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that, as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless; and that as long as poverty gives men the courage of necessity, or plenty fills them with the ambition which belongs to insolence and pride, and the other conditions of life remain each under the thraldom of some fatal and master passion, so long will the impulse never be wanting to drive men into danger. … In fine, it is impossible to prevent, and only great simplicity can hope to prevent, human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever. … We must not, therefore, commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement of their error.11

One of the most famous passages in Thucydides is his description of the effects of civil war in Corcyra and elsewhere, particularly as regards his account of linguistic change in service of political ends.

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party.12

Nowadays the idea of politically motivated linguistic change is one that we associate with dystopian science-fiction writers like Zamyatin,13 Rand,14 and Orwell;15 but the issue was likewise of concern to Hobbes, who, e.g., having distinguished three basic forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) according to whether the rule is by one, few, or many, goes on to say:

There be other names of government, in the histories, and books of policy; as tyranny, and oligarchy: but they are not the names of other forms of government, but of the same forms misliked. For they that are discontented under monarchy, call it tyranny; and they that are displeased with aristocracy, call it oligarchy: so also, they which find themselves grieved under a democracy, call it anarchy, which signifies want of government; and yet I think no man believes, that want of government, is any new kind of government: nor by the same reason ought they to believe, that the government is of one kind, when they like it, and another, when they mislike it, or are oppressed by the governors.16

This alertness to the political use of language is one of the many lessons that Hobbes learned from Thucydides.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, introduction to his translation of Thucydides.
  2. We’ll return to Xenophon later in this series.
  3. See part 17 of this series.
  4. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (London:  Longmans Green, 1874), I.1.
  5. See part 7 of this series:
  6. See part 11 of this series.
  7. Thucydides, History VIII.26.
  8. Herodotus, Histories V.78.
  9. Thucydides, History I.1.
  10. Plato, Republic II.
  11. Thucydides, History III.9.
  12. History III.10.
  13. Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (1921).
  14. Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938).
  15. George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948); see also his “Politics and the English Langauge” (1946).
  16. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan II. 19.


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