Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.27

Jonathan J. Price, Thucydides and Internal War.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xi, 410.  ISBN 0-521-78018-7.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by James V. Morrison, Centre College (
Word count: 2469 words

Thucydides and Internal War by Jonathan Price (hereafter "P.") argues that Thucydides views the Peloponnesian War as a stasis ("civil war") between Greeks. The war from 431-404 "was most profoundly an internal war which brought degeneration to Hellenic civilization in much the way stasis destroys the entity which it afflicts" (77). P. uses this idea -- war as stasis -- to explain the Archaeology, Spartan propaganda, Pericles' speeches, and Thucydides' presentation of religion. P. effectively marshals evidence to make this ambitious argument coherent. The book is divided into four parts with seven chapters overall, beginning with the model of stasis in Corcyra (3.70-83) and building from there. Every student of Thucydides should read P., and he offers all classicists an excellent model for how to argue from textual evidence, take account of scholarship (while always focusing on the ancient work itself), and blend in judicious scepticism when dealing with difficult texts and multiple possible interpretations. While P. may not convince all readers of his overall thesis, he offers valuable insights on virtually every aspect of Thucydides' work.

Part I: "The model of stasis" (1-78) includes a brief introduction and the first chapter, "Beyond Corcyra," which offers a detailed analysis of Thucydides' account of the civil war in Corcyra and suggests that this model is the key to understanding the rest of Thucydides' work. Thucydides' "original" definition of stasis derives from examining how people speak and act, beginning with the Corcyrean model that encapsulates how language is affected in times of stasis. Central to this exploration is P.'s insistence that Thucydides does not say that the meaning of words have "changed" (3.82.4). Based on his translation "people exchanged the valuation of words (ἀξίωσιν ... ἀντήλλαξαν)," P. interprets: "Thucydides means that during stasis words retain their agreed-upon meaning but the value assigned to them, that is, how their meanings were enacted in society, changes" (41). During civil conflict, society's values have been transformed: the value of "courage true to the party" for example has changed from a constructive to a destructive one, illustrating how the relationship between words and reality, which rests on convention, is undermined" (47).

The stasis model also characterizes people's actions: political allegiance to faction outweighs loyalty to family, personal advancement trumps all other considerations, intelligence is used to outwit an opponent by violating his trust, moderates are eliminated, oaths are meaningless, violence reigns supreme. P. establishes that Thucydides "through his syntax...demonstrates that cities are organisms as much afflicted by stasis as individuals" (26). The rest of the book continually returns to the stasis model with the goal of showing that the words and actions of the Hellenes at war fit the stasis pattern.

Part II: "Logoi" comprises three chapters, concerning the manipulation of words and the breakdown of communication. Chapter 2, "The transvaluation of words" (81-126), examines three famous debates: the Corinthians and Corcyreans (1.32-43), Cleon and Diodotus (3.37-48), and the Thebans and Plataeans (3.53-67). Most provocatively, P. sees the Plataean debate through the prism of stasis: "In Boeotia we witness the spectacle of two sides in a stasis, each guilty of crimes, both justifying their actions and condemning those of their enemy under the guise of patriotism and universal values, especially 'justice.' What is lost is precisely those values" (117-118). The Plataeans' appeal that "all Hellas stands against its enemies" (110) is anachronistic, belonging to the earlier era of the Persian Wars (118). The Thebans argue that the Plataeans have betrayed a different community, Boeotia, which amounts to "a betrayal of Hellas itself" (118).

Chapter 3, "Hellenic states redefine the community of Hellas" (127-189), argues that speakers in the Peloponnesian War "invent new conceptual boundaries" by redefining oppositions and affinities. Both sides see Athens as distinctive, yet for different reasons. The Peloponnesians redefine the Hellenic world in such a way as to exclude the Athenians by equating them with the Persians. Sparta and her allies articulate three themes in support of this redefinition: the liberation of Hellas (Athens-Persia) and the two related themes of Athenian difference due to their inherent nature and due to their ethnicity. This, of course, is rhetoric -- a way of defining the world -- and it is worth noting that Archidamus questions the idea of inherent differences (1.84). P. also cautions against seeing Thucydides' authorial comment on the Spartans and Athenians (8.96) as endorsement of the Corinthians' grand dichotomy at 1.70-71.

So much for Peloponnesian talk. As the principal spokesman for the Athenians, Pericles uses unconventional rhetoric and daring arguments to show that the Athenians are "a breed apart." Echoing language from the Archaeology, Pericles' first speech "places the Peloponnesians at a distinctly primitive stage in an historical continuum"; their "barbaric backwardness" makes them alien to the Athenians who are historically superior (177). Pericles' radical claim in the Funeral Oration is that "by the Athenians' own inborn courage to act...and manner of living...they defeat opponents" (181). Yet Pericles also manipulates language. Among Pericles' "linguistic transvaluations:" his "definition of freedom as both the domination of others and equally the subordination of self to the city" (185).

P. makes an interesting distinction. According to Pericles, because "Athens has advanced beyond the last stage recorded in the Archaeology," their city can only be compared with polities in the future. But this vision "is falsified by its violation of a cardinal principle of the Archaeology, namely Hellenic unity and the ability to act 'in common.'" Pericles' false rhetoric "serves only further to divide Athens from the rest of Hellas in his listeners' minds" (186). Pericles' third speech reorders the world by flouting the conventional categories of Hellene and barbaros; rather he distinguishes between Athens and all other peoples and nations, lumping Persians and other Greeks in the "not-Athenian" category. Indeed, P. suggests that "Pericles' last speech comes close to negating the very concept and fact of Hellas, since he portrays Athens as having achieved not the next stage in Hellenic development but in historical development from a larger perspective" (188). Looking back to the stasis model, P. concludes that Pericles' speeches illustrate two features of stasis rhetoric: "a transvaluation of words and an elaborate re-ordering of the κοινωνία and Athens' relation to it" (189). The "pathology" of public discourse, P. maintains, is that of stasis.

Chapter 4, "The failure of communication" (190-204), examines the Athenians' speech at the first Peloponnesian Congress (1.73-78) and the Melian Dialogue (5.84-116). In the former, "through astounding misperception" the Athenians not only compare themselves to the Persians (albeit favorably, due to their mild rule), but also, due to "a fundamental disharmony and collapse of shared values and world views," they have lost the ability to communicate with other Greeks (195). In the Melian Dialogue, when Athens "proves its assertions" by brute force, this becomes "an almost grotesque example" of a key feature of the stasis model: the disjunction of logos and ergon (198-199). Both speech and dialogue are used to support P.'s contention that the Athenians have a private vision, "expressed in what is almost a private language" (185).

After these three chapters on words, we move to Part III: "Erga," divided into two chapters. Chapter 5, "The 'greatest kinesis'" (207-274), explores barbarity, religion, and civic virtue. Thucydides examines more than simply war -- battles between opposing cities -- he also highlights aspects of the whole "upheaval" (kinesis): the brutality, suffering, and violation of moral values. P. explains Thucydides' focus on what many have seen as "minor" events. For example, Thucydides recounts the massacre at Mycalessus (7.29-30), "not only because of what happened there but also because of where it happened. The violence had spread from the main parties in the war to previously uninvolved elements of the Hellenic world, in much the same way as stasis starts with the warring factions but soon engulfs the entire population of a city" (215).

Extremely valuable is P.'s analysis of Thucydides' "frequent" mentions of religion, as even Panhellenic settings are the scenes for "internal and...bloody Hellenic confrontation." P. is brought to the conclusion that these incidents do not reveal anything about Thucydides' own personal beliefs regarding religion; rather the intent is to demonstrate "Hellenic disunity" (219). P. instructively compares the role of religion in Thucydides and Herodotus. In Herodotus, religion is an element of shared Hellenic identity; temples are the setting for "positive, unifying...action." In Thucydides, however, "the exploitation and abuse of religion form a central part of the narrative of the collapse of common values and shared institutions in Hellas" (233-234).

After violence and religion, P. pursues his idea that "Thucydides implicitly or explicitly compares all important individuals active in the war to Pericles" (237). Pericles, "the model of civic virtue, contains just those qualities which in the stasis model are replaced by distorted, harmful forms or disappear: moderation, civic devotion, political talent and 'intelligence' are displaced by extremism, greedy attention to one's private interests and a kind of obtuseness which cannot see beyond the immediate moment" (239). It's no surprise that Cleon and Alcibiades suffer from the comparison; more interesting is P.'s argument that Nicias pursues personal reputation and advantage; and that Brasidas, often seen as one of Thucydides' "heroes," lacks a "moral dimension." This chapter closes with a look at the Peace of Nicias in which both sides "entered into the agreement in bad faith, so that their subsequent behavior made a mockery of the solemn oaths accompanying the pact" (263). Again, the Peloponnesian War is unlike other wars, for "wars can end in negotiated settlements; staseis usually cannot" (268).

Chapter 6, "The Peloponnesian War and stasis" (274-329), examines the cause and beginning of the war, explains how instances of staseis are employed to organize Thucydides' narrative, and offers a detailed analysis of Athens' own stasis recounted in book 8. P. seeks to prove not only that civic conflict arose because of the war but that "the war itself arose from and was fueled by smaller staseis" (274). The first cause (aitia) of the war is triggered by stasis in Epidamnus; indeed, Thucydides links that outbreak with the stasis in Corcyra in 427 "by writing up each incident fully and cross-referencing one to the other" (277). Although the Spartan invasion of Attica is the first event of the war itself, the narrative begins with the Theban attack on Plataea because "the conflict at Plataea began with stasis" (288). P. examines other outbreaks of civil conflict, notably clustered around the Peace of Nicias (the years 424-418), in order to reveal Thucydides' "focus on what he judged the most important and revealing aspects of the war at each juncture" (293), namely, the disintegration of Hellenic convention and morality: the stasis of Hellas. Finally, in a detailed analysis of the stasis in Athens, P. helpfully portrays Samos as a "healthy" polity in contrast to the "sick" city of Athens. Part IV: "Thucydides and Hellas" contains Chapter 7, "The Archaeology, the Pentekontaetia and the Persians" (333-377). Once the patterns of behavior (words and actions) for stasis have been fully examined, P. moves on to the nature of the entity afflicted by stasis: Hellas itself. The Archaeology tells the story of "the creation and development of Hellas [which] constituted the one thing in human history most worthy to be told" (339). P. sees the Pentekontaetia as "a kind of anti-Archaeology, in that Hellas...begins to break apart as the elements of Hellenic greatness are turned inward on Hellas itself" (358). There's a very good section on Thucydides' use of superlatives to mark precedents, although Connor perhaps puts it best: "the greatest accomplishment of the Greeks is now to destroy other Greeks" (on 7.87.5, quoted at 360 note 60). The Persians' role highlights the breakdown of Hellenic unity: "less than two generations after Persia had come to represent abomination and the antithesis of Hellas, Hellenic states allied with Persia against other Hellenic states" (369).

Overall, P. does an excellent job setting Thucydides' innovations in their historical context, with regard to historiography and the scientific and medical aims and methods of fifth-century Greece (15-22); frequent references to Plato and Aristotle shed light on Greek politics and ideas. P.'s detailed analyses of passages treat Thucydides' language like dense poetry; he never shies away from problematic passages, either textual or in terms of translation (see, e.g., his discussion of Thucydides' character sketch of Nicias -- 7.86.5 -- at 242-244). We are repeatedly treated to perceptive remarks on ambiguity and etymology regarding words such as allotrioteron (60-61), kinesis (208), allokoton, (216 note 22), omos (216), logizesthai (265), prophasis (282), and more. P. is very up front about his methods and assumptions: we need to analyze passages with respect to their context; the speeches offer no evidence for Thucydides' own opinions; he lucidly explains and illustrates "Thucydides' principle of narrative selection" (228). P. does not engage with the composition problem (generally a wise decision), but he does follow a path that will make many historians uneasy. With respect to Alcibiades' redefinition of φιλόπολις (6.92), P. remarks, "it is not important whether Alcibiades actually said this or something similar, for it has a powerful place in the History" (261). P. seeks not the historicity of Thucydides' speeches only the historical vision of Thucydides.

But there's a larger issue: the status of the stasis model. According to P., Thucydides views the Peloponnesian War not as a war, but as a stasis. "A stasis is basically different from a polemos, and viewing the Peloponnesian War as a destructive internal conflict had profound consequences for Thucydides' historical vision" (5). Near the end of the book, P. appears to back off a bit: "All these features of the larger war fit the criteria for logoi and erga in stasis and strongly suggest that the Hellenes engaged in the generation-long conflict were afflicted by a condition much like, perhaps identical to, stasis" (329). Until this point, I thought P. was arguing for identity or equivalence (Peloponnesian war=stasis), but "much like" is a significant qualification. An alternative interpretation would be that stasis operates much like Thucydides' other metaphorical models, such as Athens-as-tyrant, Athenians-as-islanders (1.143), the citizen-as-erastes (2.43), which Thucydides develops to varying degrees throughout the History. While very sympathetic to P.'s aims (and enlightened and persuaded by much of his argument), I was not fully persuaded that viewing stasis as metaphor may not be more accurate.

I highly recommend this book, which is extremely well produced -- virtually no typos -- and includes a useful bibliography and indices (P. is generous in his notes). The analysis is first-rate. In addition to the standard commentaries, Ostwald's work and Rood's Thucydides. Narrative and Explanation enjoy a prominent place.1 I would never play "gotcha" with regard to Thucydidean bibliography, but pieces by Cogan, Monoson, Stadter, and White are sympathetic to P.'s argument. Though he does not examine Thucydides, Wolpert -- just out this year -- may also be of interest.2


1.   Especially M. Ostwald. Nomos and the Beginnings of the Athenian Democracy (Oxford 1969); Autonomia: its Genesis and History (USA, 1982); From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law. Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkeley, 1986); αναγκη in Thucydides (Atlanta, 1988). T. Rood. Thucydides. Narrative and Explanation (Oxford 1998).
2.   M. Cogan, "Mytilene, Plataea, and Corcyra: Ideology and Policy in Thucydides, Book Three," Phoenix 35 (1981) 1-21; S.S. Monoson, "Citizen as Erastes: Erotic Imagery and the Idea of Reciprocity in the Periclean Funeral Oration," Political Theory 22 (1994) 253-276; P.A. Stadter, "The Form and Content of Thucydides' Pentecontaetia (1.89-117)," GRBS 34 (1993) 35-72; J.B. White. When Words Lose Their Meaning. Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (Chicago 1984); A. Wolpert. Remembering Defeat. Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens (Baltimore, 2002).

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