Our book today is that tried-and-true classic, ‘The Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides, experienced this time around in the latest Norton Critical edition, with a new translation by Walter Blanco.

It’s a very good translation, but can we pause for a moment here to praise the Norton Critical editions in general for the worthy work they do? They present a generally fine edition of their central work, and then they provide a marvellous spread of context, not just contrary versions and contemporary responses, but a wide variety of responses prompted over time, so the reader gets a great one-stop visual of the central work’s impact on the canon. It’s a winning approach aimed at students, but it works wonderfully with the general population – mainly because the general population has over time degenerated to roughly the stupidity-level of the average college freshman and now NEEDS to be provided with the context they would otherwise know already. Plus, it’s dashed convenient, even for the expert, having so much great secondary material assembled in one place.

And oh, the material that’s been generated by this book! This immediate, intransigent example of the old adage that the winners write the history books. Thucyidides’ subject is the decades-long war between Athens and its maritime Delian League and Sparta and its land-based Peloponnesian League, and he was an Athenian general. Granted, his relations with Athens were anything but smooth, but still: you could hardly expect him to write a pro-Sparta account of the war (it would be a singularly revelatory discovery if a full Spartan history of the war were ever uncovered).

Still, Thucydides makes a conscious attempt at objectivity, and that in itself is so remarkable he’s remembered for it almost to exclusion of Herodotus, who also made efforts toward that new historical idea and never gets credit for it (we’ll get to his book in the fullness of time here at Stevereads).

What often gets lost in discussions of Thucydides is how enjoyable he is to read. You could scarcely be otherwise and survive twenty five hundred years.

He has a wonderful story to tell, but you’d hardly know it from the ripples it’s inspired in other art – it lacks all the dumb, simple elements that help wars to be remembered. There’s no simplistic signature battle, no standout hero or villain (massively charismatic Athenian general Alcibiades would have been perfect, except he switched sides a half-dozen times, which renders him less than John Wayne-ish), and although the whole black-and-white comic book rendition of Athens=brains/freedom v.s. Sparta=force/facsism has an eternal appeal, the Peloponnesian War continues to defy the easy categorization our idiot age requires.

So much the better, then, that its foremost historian is this man, this sour, cynical, dispeptic, exacting, and conscience-haunted man. This book is an eternal masterpiece not because it stands as almost solitary record to the world-changing events it chronicles (that ‘almost’ would have galled Thucydides, but its truth stands nonetheless: Thucydides, the seminar teacher you least want – for his tough grading – will forever be joined to Herodotus, the tenured old duffer undergraduates sign up for in droves not for his classes but for his laughing willingness to buy them the beers they need to stay up late with him laughing at his stories) but because its author is as unforgiving with himself as he is with everybody else. And he knows how to tell a good story.

It IS a good story, although only Mary Renault’s sweet, bittersweet, and ultimately heartbreaking novel “The Last of the Wine” captures it in fiction. There were endless betrayals, countless little victories, and (as befits the era of not only Demosthenes but that great immortalized-but-eloquent oaf Pericles) lots of great rhetoric. All of Greece rose (belatedly, but still) together to face the prospect of total annihilation at the hands of the world-straddling Persian empire, but when that threat faded and the banding-together inevitably soured, all that centralized power had to go somewhere, had to do something. It split, and it eventually brought Athens and Sparta slamming against each other, each cloaked in a cloud of allies, but each bespeaking an essential character: the Athenians with their unmatchable navies and their savant’s grasp of geopolitics, and the Spartans with something even more elemental – the fact that in their age, wars were won by land-battles, and in Sparta there lived the greatest army-infantry the world had ever seen (and would ever see, until, alas, the stunned 20th century experienced the almost inhuman proficiency of the Wehrmacht … proving if nothing else the insulating propensity of the centuries, falling like snow).

It doesn’t stay that restorative, of course; Sparta eventually acted as craven and back-stabbing as all fascist regimes always do, in this case taking back-door money from Persia, the very arch-enemy everybody had fought against only a generation before, but that hardly matters. For participants (well, Ionian participants anyway), the jingoistic thought-v.s.-force living metaphor held a kind of illusionist’s comfort.

Thucydides knows all about that illusion, as he knew first-hand about the realities behind it. He was an Athenian general, and he it was who lost Amphipolis to the Spartans for the one unpardonable sin of any general, being late when you absolutely need to be on time. The Athenians banished him for twenty years, which was very probably worse than a death sentence for a man as proud as Thucydides.

So he wrote his book, a large fragment of which is left to us – and how could it not be an intensely personal book, given the circumstances of its genesis? Indeed, one of the most consistently harrowing threads of Thucydides’ work is watching him violently suppress everything he himself is feeling in order to write his own idea of history, as coldly analytical as anything his near-contemporary Hippocrates was trying to bring to the study of the body’s ills (a tip to those of you in search of an utterly fascinating reading experience: read the Penguin Classics edition of the writings of Hippocrates – you’ll come to them quite unconsciously bearing the miracle-burden of the last five hundred years of relentless medical advances, a hundred thousand simple things that were black-shrouded mysteries to us twenty-five hundred years ago. Oh, not the simplistic stuff, don’t get arrogant – we knew perfectly well that the brain was the seat of consciousness, and we knew that the stomach was where all the important and grotesque stuff happens. We knew of course that the lungs held their vital cargo, just a couple of wineskins full of air. We were less sure about the heart, and we knew nothing of what you all take for granted, the creep of invisible infections, the devil-work of viruses and bacteria, the arcane inter-connectedness of the body’s various smithies. YOU take such things for granted (although even in the United States, the full details of such knowledges seem to have escaped the proletariat, judging by the number of tools out there who slather themselves in antibacterials in defense of viral infections) and we were no less intelligent per capita than you are – we lacked only the mindframe, the technology, and the subsequent schooling … it’s chillingly, thrillingly fascinating to watch Hippocrates – and all of his uncredited junior writers – try to WORK THROUGH the shroud of this technological ignorance, case after case, symptoms carefully noticed, crazy theories ruthlessly dismissed, everything measured … we have the bulk of Hippocrates’ writings, and reading them ought to bring about a very unaccustomed feeling in you bloodthirsty little ewoks: a feeling of being daily GRATEFUL for the age and nation in which you live.

So too Thucydides, who tried first and hardest of his day to understand and extricate the PROCESS of history, its tendons and tensions. True, he largely adhered to the style of his time while he was doing it – most noticeably, the speeches. We all know about speeches: both Thucydides and Herodotus, and generations of ancient historians after them (most skillfully and memorably Livy), they all put long and eloquent invented speeches in the mouths of all their historical players major and minor, and they did so without footnote or qualifier. They did this not only because their written records were so spotty as to be nonexistent but also because even when there WERE semi-accurate records of what important people said at important moments, the quotes they actually spoke were no different than the ones important people speak today: largely boring. Who wouldn’t like a President Clinton who didn’t always sound like he was parsing a legal document? Who wouldn’t think better of George W. Bush if he spoke every day the way he does every year at the State of the Union? Quotability and eloquence on demand are enviable traits given to very few, but Thucydides’ Athenians, like every other audience in history, wished their forefathers all had the gift, as befits their exalted place in history. Hence the speeches.
Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, in her fine introduction to this Norton Critical volume, makes the essential argument pretty cogently:

“To Twentieth Century readers, this habit of Greek and Roman historians appears peculiar; today it marks a work as historical fiction – or as history written for children. Ancient readers thought differently. They knew perfectly well that the words they encountered in these speeches were not likely to be the actual words spoken, even in those rare cases where the historian was actually present (as Thucydides surely was, for example, at many of the speeches given in Athens prior to his exile). By the insertion of speeches in dramatic form, Thucydides and other ancient historians were able to give their text a transparent feel, breaking down the barriers that divided their readers from the actual events described.”

Take for instance the pep-talk Athenian general Nicias gives his men on the eve of their doomed expedition in 413:

“Always remember, men, that you must be good soldiers, because there is no place nearby where you can be cowards and still find safety. If you escape your enemies now, those of you who are not Athenians will get to see the homelands you long for, and the Athenians will restore the fallen greatness of their city, because a city is its men, not empty walls and ships.”

(for curiosity’s sake, here’s the same speech in the workhorse Rex Warner translation that Penguin Classics has been using roughly since the time Thucydides wrote it:

“In a word, soldiers, you must make up your minds that to be brave now is a matter of necessity, since no place exists near at hand where a coward can take refuge, and that, if you escape the enemy now, you will all see again the homes for which you long, and the Athenians among you will build up again the great power of Athens, fallen though it is. It is men who make the city, and not walls or ships with no men inside them.”

To our ear here at Stevereads, Blanco’s version is clearly better – cleaner and less verbose, although the Warner has a kind of stateliness to it)

Our translator Blanco is very good with the speeches, and indeed his translation does him extreme credit even in a field crowded with illustrious contenders. His may very well be the most readable Thucydides in English, and his translation is very well-served by the selection of essays chosen to support it. Albert Cook and Glen Bowersock are here, and of course R. G. Collingwood’s famous passage on Thucydides is trotted out again in all its incomprehensible glory:

“If history is a science, why did history share the fate of the arts and not of the other sciences? Why does Plato write as if Herodotus had never lived?
The answer is that the Greek mind tended to harden and narrow itself in its anti-historical tendency. The genius of Herodotus had triumphed over that tendency, But after him the search for unchangeable and eternal objects of knowledge gradually stiffened the historical consciousness, and forced men to abandon the Herodotean hope of achieving a scientific knowledge of past human actions.
This is not a mere conjecture. We can see the thing happening. The man in whom it happened was Thucydides.
The difference between the scientific outlook of Herodotus and that of Thucydides is hardly less remarkable than the difference between their literary styles. The style of Herodotus is easy, spontaneous, convincing. That of Thucydides is harsh, artificial, repellent. In reading Thucydides I ask myself, What is the matter with the man, that he writes like that? I answer: he has a bad conscience. He is trying to justify himself for writing history at all by turning it into something that is not history.”

OK, R.G. Whatever you say. ANYwaaaay….

Getting back to our book today, we here at Stevereads can heartily recommend the Norton Critical Peloponnesian War. In addition to a lively translation and a thought-provoking bouquet of essays, it has a chronology, a glossary, and a nice selection of maps (although for the ne plus ultra of mapped Thucydides, the winner and still champion is and will remain “The Landmark Thucydides,” still in print and findable at your local soulless big chain bookstore staffed by idiots). This book is where so much of your culture’s underpinnings come from; isn’t it time you explored it, or explored it again? We thought so.

  • steve

    Why, pray tell, the deafening silence? You sprokkin’ squajes have nothing to say about Thucydides? Or the 3000 words with which I discuss him for your elucidation?

  • Sam

    Well it’s a wonderful post! It hardly brooks addition–gilding the lily and all that.

    I also love all the supplementary material in Norton Criticals (which sometimes extend to more pages than the actual book)–but isn’t the type awfully small most of the time? And what’s with the tissue-paper pages? Not to be a kvetcher…

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