Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.15

Emily Greenwood, Thucydides and the Shaping of History.   London:  Duckworth, 2006.  Pp. xi, 188; maps 2.  ISBN 0-7156-3283-3.  $31.00.  

Reviewed by Carolyn Dewald, Bard College (
Word count: 2190 words

This is an elegant, dense book that takes seriously the aims of the Duckworth series in Classical Literature and Society: to emphasize issues of genre and theme for works of classical literature by engaging closely with text, subtext and context. But Emily Greenwood (henceforth G.) begins her study of Thucydides' text with a paradox: exploring this text in terms of its subtexts and contexts is not easy, because Thucydides wrote primarily as an author who resisted contextualization. He conceived of and wrote for a type of audience that only became possible with the onset of literacy, aiming his text (designed, unlike that of Herodotus, as a written work from the outset) not at his own contemporaries but rather at audiences of the future. This means that text, subtext, and context are indeed deliberately "shaped" by Thucydides. They have been fashioned, to be sure, to reveal what happened in the Peloponnesian War, but equally importantly, they have also been designed by their author as an ongoing meta-narrative commentary about how to look beneath the narrative surface, to understand how to see/examine/think about/speak about/learn from such a war. He does not, however, give us an instruction booklet on how to read for the meta-narrative commentary; it is up to us, as readers, to figure it out for ourselves from the narrative, and G.'s book acts as a guide to the process.

G. does not lead us through the History as a whole, or the full range of its traditional literary issues (its structure, for instance, or the degree of deliberate characterization in the speeches), but selects out chosen passages for scrutiny which we can presumably use as models for how to see metanarrative commentary also in play in the rest of Thucydides' text. Four chapters focus fairly closely on particular aspects of Thucydides' procedures: his expectations for/constructions of his audience; his use of sight, point of view, and vantage point in constructing the narrative; his use of temporal and spatial perspectives to add the educational distance of hindsight; and the idea of historical truth that emerges from a careful look at the speeches. Throughout these first four chapters G. uses the tools of contemporary critical theory but adds to them the rhetorical assumptions and judgments of Greek theoreticians like Aineias Tacticus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to develop her idea of the intellectual positions that Thucydides shapes his narrative to achieve, and also to look at the kinds of assumptions they generated in later Greek readers. Two final chapters are loosely intertextual, one juxtaposing Thucydides' Book 8 with a reading of Sophocles' Philoctetes and finding themes that connect the two as almost-contemporary narratives of the vexed period of Athens' oligarchic revolution, and the other giving a reading of Lucian's engagement with the kinds of rhetorical challenge that Thucydides' notion of historical truth presents. The book ends rather abruptly, with Lucian, but much important and interesting ground is covered in the meantime.

Before embarking on a more detailed discussion of the six chapters, I would like to note in addition two very great strengths of the study as a whole. First, and unusually these days, G. is meticulous in citing previous scholarship. She does not overwhelm the reader with contemporary critical theory but uses it when it is useful and, even more importantly, she has read and cites carefully almost all of the influential Thucydidean scholarship in English from the last several decades germane to her investigations, as well as some important works in French and German. (This means that the book might serve as a useful base on which to build a graduate seminar focusing on Thucydidean literary criticism--though as the product of an earlier generation of scholarship, I would ask students to begin by reading Gomme, Andrewes, Dover and some de Romilly and Strasburger as well.) Throughout the study G. also pays close attention to particular terms that recur in Thucydides' text, and her analytical juxtapositions of passages using words like skopein, ponos, alêtheia, or kinêsis are worth consideration for their own sake. One might argue with some of her conclusions, but she lays the evidence out for a very useful discussion, and one that in any case deepens our engagement with important Thucydidean ideas.

Chapter One, "Whose Contemporary?," directly confronts the problem of contextualization. It starts with Thucydides' refusal to depict his authorial persona as one confined by context--the text, in effect, constitutes its own context. G. reviews some of the more influential ways we have contextualized Thucydides recently (notably those of Crane, Loraux, Connor, and Ober); her own view stresses Thucydides' desire to be a revisionist voice writing for Moles' "repeatable presents" and deliberately therefore defamiliarizing the narrative. (Thus she tacitly rejects the argument of earlier scholars like John Finley, who assume Thucydides continued throughout his work to write and think like an Athenian of the first sophistic.) Writing is what makes it possible for Thucydides to create out of the narrative a didactic metacommentary (particularly with regard to the speeches). Our job as readers now, however, is to realize that although Thucydides was ahead of his time, he was not of our time, and in three further chapters G. considers aspects of how Thucydides relates to but also critiques his own contemporary speech culture in the construction of his text.

Chapter Two, "Point of View and Vantage Point," turns to Thucydides' careful management of the angles from which events are seen, both by their participants and contemporary onlookers within the narrative and by the historian managing multiple viewpoints so that they sometimes ironize or problematize each other. A great deal of Thucydides' authority as the author/narrator comes from the issue of reliability of gaze (his own, as contrasted with that of almost all the participants in the war). Moreover, Thucydides makes it clear that he is writing for an audience that values clear-sightedness (saphôs skopein, 1.22.4, cf. 5.20.2, 5.26.2); he is exploiting the fact that the written word is visible and able to be examined, as the spoken word is not. Among the ways of viewing operative in the History that G. considers are the notion of the theatricality of an assembly, of Athens as a paradeigma to be studied and imitated (according to Pericles, at least, in the Funeral Oration), and, above all, of war as theater and campaigns designed to 'shock and awe' the enemy. Thucydides himself exploits the theatricality of the trireme racing to Mytilene (3.49) and the 'split screen' of the Spartans off Pylos (4.26.8-9); highly ironic is the contrast between Cleon's scolding of the Athenian assembly as theatergoers (3.38) and his role as one of the principal victims of Brasidas' carefully staged military theater in the Thraceward region in general and Amphipolis in particular (4.124-5.11). (Surely Thucydides himself, as an actor in the war, was another--a point that will be made in more general terms in Chapter Three.) Other theaters of war, too, receive analysis--in particular, those concerning Demosthenes and Alcibiades, and the multiple spectacles/vantage points relevant to the Sicilian expedition.

Chapter Three, "Temporal and Spatial Perspectives," builds on the problematization of points of view of Chapter Two, to discuss how Thucydides superimposes long-range vistas of space and time as correctives to the misleading points of view and vantage points of actors caught up in contemporary events. G. builds on Rood's discussions of prolepsis and analepsis and emphasizes that the artificial foresight exhibited in the narrative of the History is actually grounded in hindsight. Thucydides is highly critical of both local and temporal ignorance (the Athenians on Sicily; the Athenians about their own tyrants) and, like Herodotus, he uses the leverage of a historical perspective to re-order familiar but misleading coordinates of local place and present time. Very important is the sharp differentiation in the narrative of Thucydides the general from Thucydides the narrator (4.104); from this angle, G. argues that there are multiple parallels established between the rhetors in the text who berate the vagaries of collective judgment and Thucydides himself. A kindred sense of isolation and responsibility unites the major political players and Thucydides, but, unlike the symbouleutic speechmakers, Thucydides the writer does not have to submit to the distorting influences of the Athenian audience. It is distance in time and, after Amphipolis, in space that have permitted him to gain a clear view of events.

In Chapter Four, "Speaking the Truth," G. departs somewhat from her earlier analytical position to take a more aggressively argumentative and postmodernist stance towards Thucydides' speeches. She starts with the observation that Thucydides never confronts the implications of his own style of writing as an inevitable limitation on the accuracy and reliability of his work, as Hayden White and other theoreticians of narrative have now taught us to do. As G. puts it, "truth in verbal accounts will always be subject to formal fictions." She contrasts Thucydides' suspicion of kosmos as 'embellished arrangement' with the claims of strenuous accuracy made for his own account, although for his near-contemporary Gorgias, the notion of attractiveness paradoxically contains that of truthfulness, and for Dionysius of Halicarnassus, much later, alêthês when used of a speech seems to mean 'realistic in appearance' rather than accurate ("On Thucydides," 42). Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not often call his work a logos, and he sharply distinguishes his narrative from the logoi or speeches that he includes in it. But then, G. asks, what do we do with the Thucydidean speeches, that are clearly (cf. p. 87) Thucydidean inventions? Here I will recuse myself from discussing G.'s analysis of what ta deonta means, and the function and status of symbouleutic speech in the History (although there are many good things in it, especially in its discussion of talented individual speakers--and Nicias as a writer!--falling afoul of the demos). The putative inauthenticity of Thucydides' speeches is a scholarly issue I have never been able to understand. Speeches in Athens were long, no doubt often highly emotional, hyperbolic, repetitive, and egregiously partisan. Thucydides' decision to exercise selectivity, in putting into his historical narrative 'the needful,' still to this pre-postmodern reader seems a far cry from invention, and the selectivity exercised in constructing the speeches seems to me very similar to that which the narrative historian uses in choosing information of any kind to include and to omit; it seems anachronistic in this respect to ask Thucydides to have been alert to the issues about representation in language that agonize postmodern theoreticians. Again, however, G. engages in some very useful close reading of the text, cites carefully (though I would have liked Cogan's The Human Thing to be mentioned), and she is certainly correct that we should not interpret Thucydides' large claims for accuracy as a sign that his notion of historical truth is exactly like our own.

Chapters Five and Six, "New Theatres of War: Book 8 and Sophocles' Philoctetes," and "Reading Thucydides with Lucian," can be dealt with somewhat more summarily; each is effectively a self-standing article on another aspect of Thucydides' connection with potential audiences--that of his Athenian contemporaries at the end of the Peloponnesian War in Chapter Five, and that created by an elegant, subtle reader of the second sophistic, the rhetorician Lucian, in Chapter Six. They are each quite interesting. Chapter Five finds convincing parallels of theme and mood in Thucydides 8 and Sophocles' late play, in both of which one can find the same atmosphere of uncertainty, crisis of values, interest in sailors as political actors, and a confusing mélange of issues having to do with the tension between sea and land, the fleet, distant political communities shaping each others' destinies, and the denaturing of a familiar environment, reacting to the fact that Athens during the years 413-411 came politically unmoored and lost its once-proud democratic identity. Problems of identity and the question of the final blurring of politics and theater make this chapter fruitful as a literary reading of a large chunk of one of the most difficult books in Thucydides.

Chapter Six is, for this reader, very interesting as well, but somewhat more frustrating, in its placement as the final chapter of the book. Instead of a summary conclusion that would sum up what this study has shown us, G. moves instead into a challenging, oblique reading of Thucydides by Lucian, the well-traveled intellectual of the second century CE. She develops the paradox that Lucian, in two essays on history, lauds Thucydides for the self-denying practice of accuracy, historicity, and impartiality that made him by Lucian's time the pre-eminent historian but also finds Thucydides useful precisely for his name and fame. Lucian, that is, demonstrably uses Thucydides' possession of prominence as a historian to promote his own success-driven career, evaluating but also parodying the rhetoric of historiography. G. is surely right that Lucian's critique of Thucydides, six hundred years later, show what a vast intellectual frontier Thucydides (building on Herodotus) opened up, but to my taste she herself has been too self-denying here, in avoiding a restatement for the reader at the end of her study of what her careful readings have shown us about Thucydides the historian. In a way, a very Thucydidean ending to a challenging book.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:18, Friday, 03 April 2009