Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.27

Holger Sonnabend, Thukydides. Studienbücher Antike, 13.   Hildesheim:  Olms, 2004.  Pp. 140.  ISBN 3-487-12787-3.  €18.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edith Foster, College of Wooster (
Word count: 1169 words

Sonnabend's aim in writing this book is to introduce Thucydides to undergraduate and graduate students of history. He succeeds admirably, and one can only regret the lack of a similar introduction to Thucydides in English. Sonnabend's book is economical, yet thorough and well informed.

The book is divided into ten short sections. The first section sets Thucydides in his historical context, describing what we know of his life and delineating his situation as an aristocrat in the Athenian democracy. The second section outlines the topics and structure of Thucydides' History and addresses questions that influence our interpretation of the work as a whole, in particular the so-called "Thucydidean Question." On this question, and S.'s remarks, see the latter part of this review.

The third section of the book addresses Thucydides' historical method, discusses the chapters (e.g. 1.22-24) in which Thucydides himself takes up this issue, and provides a useful introduction to Thucydides' attitude towards causation.

In sections four through seven, S. provides summaries and analyses of some of the most important sections of Thucydides' History. In section four he outlines the proem (the so-called Archaeology) to Thucydides' History. Section five describes some of Thucydides' most important characters (Pericles, Kleon, Brasidas, and Alcibiades, together with a brief section on Pausanias and Themistocles).

While section six offers brief remarks on Thucydides' literary style, section seven summarizes and analyzes four famous passages: Pericles' Funeral Oration, the description of the plague at Athens, the Mytilinean debate, and the Melian Dialogue. Throughout these sections and indeed the entire book, S.'s translations are excellent, and cause the reader to want to read Thucydides.

S. has chosen to discuss personalities and passages that show both the variety and the depth of Thucydides' writing. His emphasis on Thucydides' relationship to the past (many of the passages were chosen to demonstrate this) works in tandem with his explanations of Thucydides' method. Thucydides emerges as an historian with a grasp of the past that was important, if not key, for his explanations of contemporary times. As for S.'s analyses of the various characters and passages, I would say that they are sensible and moderate, and that they capture many of the important meanings available in the text without belaboring or forcing any point.

Section eight covers the reception of Thucydides' History since the 4th century and provides a useful discussion of Thucydides' popularity since the Enlightenment. The book closes with a short assessment of the contemporary view that Thucydides was the greatest ancient historian. The bibliography is solid and generous, but mostly German, and also generous are the indices of people, places, and topics. Sonnabend has done as much as he can to make his book into a resource accessible to students.

English-speaking students who read German fluently and would like an introduction to Thucydides would be well advised to consult this book. Philologists suddenly confronted with the task of teaching Thucydides for the first time would also benefit greatly from reading this short and focussed introduction. Students who do not read German can consult the Cambridge Ancient History for an introduction to Thucydides' History. The scholarly questions S. addresses are discussed at magnificent length in Hornblower's Commentary on Thucydides.

In other words, students without German will be compelled to undertake laborious efforts in order to be introduced to Thucydides and the tradition on Thucydides. This fact illustrates the importance of Sonnabend's book, and my few criticisms stand in the light of his achievement. Furthermore, the usefulness of this book is in no way compromised by the fact that it offers American readers some surprises.

An example of the differences between German and American attitudes emerges in the discussion of the "Thucydidean Question." (The Thucydidean question asks whether Thucydides' history can be considered and analyzed as a whole, or whether it should be considered as separate pieces of writing. Unitarians tend to think that large sections of the book, at least, can be treated as finished. Analytical scholars tend to be less sure of this.) In regard to this question one instantly notices that only German scholarship, and only analytical scholarship, finds a voice. The unitarians (de Romilly, Connor) are left unmentioned and uncited, and the conclusion (that the analytical viewpoint makes more sense, 40) will seem to us over here to be more a defense of the German scholarship on this issue than a conclusion about the status quaestionis.

Another difference between continental and Anglo-American scholarship is that S. makes no direct remarks about the relationship between the narrative portions of the text and the speeches. By contrast, the way in which Thucydidean narrative corrects the claims and impressions produced by the various speakers usually seems quite important to American readers. This difference in focus reveals one of the consequences of our differing answer to the Thucydidean question: our attention to the relations between the speeches and the narrative is enabled by our conclusion that large sections of the text are unified enough to undergo analysis of these relations.

S.'s use of the ancient sources on Thucydides is also less familiar, at least to me. It seems as if Marcellinus, whom S. cites with a frequency puzzling given the unreliability of his account, should be considered less important than Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose work on Thucydides S. mentions, but does not discuss.

Finally, Thucydides gets considerable attention from political theorists in Britain and the U.S. Their work on Thucydides, in its volume, and in the public attention it receives, entirely overwhelms the work of philologists and ancient historians. It is a fact, for instance, that a philologist or ancient historian publishing on Thucydides will be lucky to find one tenth of the readership of Richard Ned Lebow's The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders (Cambridge, 2003). It is possible that political scientists and political theorists in Germany also produce work on Thucydides, although I don't know of any. If they do, they find no mention in S., nor does his bibliography reflect the work on Thucydides undertaken by political theorists of other nations.

In my view, it would be better if this were not the case. In America, at least, Thucydides scholarship is an important arena for the discussion of political questions of great contemporary interest. This is an important fact about the reception of Thucydides, first, and second, it is perfectly possible that some of our colleagues in political science and political theory have important and useful things to say.

These problems or differences pale in comparison to the good done when students are provided with a comprehensive, yet concise, introduction to the text and the most important scholarly questions pertaining to it. S. provides German-speaking students with essential information. His interpretations demonstrate a deep knowledge of this difficult book: S. does not reduce or dumb down his arguments in order to achieve concision. Both in terms of his example as an interpreter, therefore, and in terms of the information he chooses to impart, Sonnabend provides the most useful introduction to the great historian available.

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