Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.24

Simon Hornblower, Commentary on Thucydides: Volume III: Books 5.25-8.109.   Oxford/New York:  University Press, 2008.  Pp. xix, 1107.  ISBN 9780199276486.  $350.00.  

Reviewed by Vivienne Gray, University of Auckland (
Word count: 2130 words

This volume completes Simon Hornblower's most excellent commentary on Thucydides. It supplements and makes notable advances on the continuation of the work of A.W. Gomme, by A. Andrewes and K.J. Dover: A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. In the introduction to Volume II, Hornblower recognized the strengths of Gomme and stated his areas of difference, which were his desire to address an audience with less Greek and to focus more on matters of religion and narrative art; he noted also the availability of new research tools. In Volume III he recognizes the strengths of Andrewes and Dover as well, and he continues to pursue his difference; but another most obvious advance on all his predecessors is his lucid and judicious and fair-minded summary reviews of the vast scholarship that has appeared since their time.

The Preface and Acknowledgements include a tribute to Alberti's completed text and the usefulness of Valla's Latin translation of Thucydides, which is said to have removed the need for the Appendix on textual matters that had been promised in previous volumes. Textual matters are not registered as such in the excellent and full Index, but there are entries for Valla's translation. The commentary pays full attention to textual matters, for instance where Thucydides' text confronts epigraphy at 5.47.

The General Introduction consists of a series of short essays on topics of relevance to the books of Thucydides under consideration, as in Volume II, some of them with origins in lectures and conferences. The first of these essays reviews the scholarship about the compositional difficulties of the books in question and argues that the books are a unity written quite late over a longish period of time. Passages in book 5 once thought inconsistent are explained away and remaining difficulties are listed, while passages from book 8 that suggested incompleteness are also listed and defended against the charge; Thucydides' changing narrative art is suggested as one of the explanations of the impression. The second essay reviews Greek involvements in Sicily and Syracuse down to the fourth century, in order to prepare for the focus on the Sicilian Expedition in books 6 and 7. The third focuses on Sicilian culture and on what is said to be the most prominent aspect of that culture in other sources, namely, the theatre: the trouble is that Thucydides does not mention it, even though he has an interest in other kinds of spectacle, such as the sea battle of Syracuse. Suggestions are made about the reasons for Thucydides' silence silence on theatre, but no firm conclusion is reached. The fourth essay addresses the similarity between Thucydides' characterization of Syracuse and Athens, directing us to relevant passages in the commentary. The fifth addresses his silences about the Athenian Boule and suggests that Thucydides preferred to speak of the licence of the assembly, which he could condemn, in contrast to the more sober behaviour of the council. The sixth divides the books under consideration into recitation units for sympotic delivery, which is one of the special interests of Hornblower. The seventh addresses differences between direct and indirect speech and the reasons for one form or the other, including the demands of narrative pace. There is a final short page with examples of 'stylistic enactment' where the words enact what is being described.

This introductory material is relatively short (36 pages, with more than 1000 pages of commentary) and some of it may strike readers as idiosyncratic, but that just adds delight to usefulness. Some essays are important enough to stand alone in the General Introduction, but others would be equally at home in the introductions to sections of the commentary as described below.

The excellent features of the commentary itself begin with the large range of matters addressed: the text and its readings, the translation, the language and linguistic devices including the use of rhythm, the facts and dates and causes and effects of events, narrative emphasis and art, as well as values and social and historical phenomena such as homosexuality and colonization. This range puts it ahead of the older Historical Commentary.

Another excellent feature is the division of the narrative into major sections, often with extensive introductory material. This is where we regularly find that impressive engagement with the relevant scholarship, not of the 'cf.' kind, but with summaries and evaluations of predecessors' main conclusions. These displays of the commentator's reading and learning are of special value to those who want to gain an immediate impression of what is available.

Another is the translations provided for each lemma, which are more useful than they might be in another author, since the translation of Thucydides is often contested. Volume II indicated that these translations were for those without Greek, but this commentary overall is not for novices: the scholarship discussed is often in foreign languages and there are detailed and precise discussions of Greek words and phrases. Hornblower appeals more than once to the 'innocent reader', but that is where he is challenging complicated interpretations. The interest in the language extends to its metricality, e.g in the note on the iambic rhythm of 7.87.5.

The range of interests in the commentary can be exemplified in a selection of passages of commentary.

The commentary begins on 5.25: 'On some unascertainable day after the spring of 421, Th. decided that the Peace of Nikias was not the end of the Peloponnesian War.' Several long notes address the difficulties arising from the new beginning, cautiously canvassing 'progressive correction' or 'correction in stride' as explanations. Hornblower has a firmer view about the six years and ten months of inactivity than Andrewes; the answer is to emend, but the precise figure cannot be restored. Canfora's theory that Xenophon wrote 5.26 is rightly dismissed. Hornblower encourages us to read the biographical material in terms of Thucydides' self-representation: a dignified delay in his postponed report on the consequences of his failure at Amphipolis and poignancy in the juxtaposition of the self-reference with the fall of his city. New scholarship is presented on a range of matters including the eventual destruction of the city walls, 'ktetics', the ten day truce and the meaning of κατὰ τοὺς χρόνους. There is a judicious essay about Thucydides' exile. The interest in religion is pursued in Thucydides' reference to those who 'insist on' oracles, who are said to offer a contrast to Thucydides' own method of verifying the facts he insists on. This interest in religion recurs in the commentary on the mutilation of the Hermai and the parody of the Mysteries (6.27-29), where Hornblower praises Dover's authority on most points, but not on the importance of religion.

The introductory section to 5.84-114 on the Melian Dialogue is exemplary. Hornblower finds evidence of Thucydides' tight narrative focus on the events in Melos and the preparations for Sicily in 416 in the contrast between his failure to mention the Olympic Games of that year and his full description of the quarrel arising from the games of 420 (5.49-50); those games attract his attention because of the sensational barring of the Spartans by the Eleans. The argument is also for thematic continuity over books 5-7: the Melian Dialogue continues the theme of the subjection of the weak that appears in previous narrative and raises the theme of colonization that continues into the Sicilian excursus and Expedition. The rest of this section evaluates recent scholarship on the Dialogue, its relations with tragedy, its 'experimental' literary form, its structure, its focus on the relations of the Spartans with Melos, the implications for the imperialism of Athens, the historicity of the debate, the reasons for the attack, and five suggestions why Melos (and not, say, Scione) becomes the paradigm victim of Athenian imperialism. There is a note and map on the topography of Melos. The commentary especially addresses the contested and nuanced readings of Thucydides' Greek.

The commentary on 6.2-5 argues quite successfully that the account of the demography and settlement of Sicily is designed to foreshadow themes of colonization and kinship in the Sicilian Expedition. Advances are presented in understanding the barbarian settlement of the Kyklopes and Laistrygonians as well as the Greek settlement, where Hornblower praises Dover but attends to advances in archaeology and in the understanding of the phenomenon of colonization. The commentary is packed with information on names and places and connexions, making full use of IACP and LGPN. There is a basic map of Sicily and Italy. Hornblower reconciles Plutarch's story about Archias the oikist of Syracuse, which associates the cause of colonization with violence in the mother colony, with Thucydides' view that early colonization was accompanied by violence toward indigenous peoples. There is general interest throughout this section in the indigenous reaction to colonization.

The commentary on the catalogue of the forces at 7.57-9 continues the theme of colonization and kinship, acknowledging Dover but advancing the literary analysis by comparing catalogues in Homer and Herodotus and epigraphic casualty lists, particularly Herodotus 8.43-8. This brings out the similarities, but also the essential difference, which is Thucydides' focus on motivation and on the dislocation of colonial and kinship bonds in favour of compulsion and hatred and goodwill and other typical motives for alliance. As is regular by now, new information on names and places abounds.

The introduction to the excursus on the tyranny of the Pisistratids (6.54-9) pursues the theme of the fear of loss of liberty in the surrounding context and in the future narrative (8.68.4). Hornblower focuses on the homosexual affair and returns to his interest in the comparison of Thucydides and Herodotus, noting differences (the structure of Thucydides' account, his language, his use of inscriptions, his omission of the dream of Hipparchus, and particularly the homosexual cause), but also similarities (the appearance of the female, the naming for the grandfather, the intimate and personal narrative). The explanations of the excursus include the desire to show he could write like Herodotus and improve on his method (e.g. his use of inscriptions), but also the exaggerated concern to correct error (the result of sympotic delivery?), the desire for narrative pause, to show how misconceptions about the tyranny affect views in the surrounding narrative and to reflect perhaps the family interests of Alcibiades and Pericles.

On the incomplete ending of the work, Hornblower is interested in the Herodotean echoes that close the unfinished account, particularly the reference to Protesilaus, so prominent in Herodotus' own finished closure. He does not engage with the 'continuations' of Thucydides by Xenophon or others.

Hornblower is a noted champion of narrative and literary analysis and demonstrates its worth in this volume. In the treatment of the death of Nicias for example (7.86), he notes the ring composition that frames the account, and also how Thucydides suppressed the account of his wealth in his earlier narrative where he wanted to oppose him to the wealthy Alcibiades and only now mentions his wealth in the account of the motives of the Corinthians for wanting him dead (fear that his wealth would allow him to bribe his way out of the situation). It seems that his passing equation here of Nicias' wealth with his notorious success also achieves the pathetic effect that his success worked against him by giving his enemies plausible grounds to kill him. Another passage of successful literary analysis is the reading of the reference at 8.1.1 to those who offered the Athenians hope of success (oracle-collectors, seers and all those who used divination...') not as three clearly delineated sets of people but as a rhetorically amplified triple. At 8.2 the triple is responsible for more serious historical exaggeration in the three-fold scheme of allies and others. Hornblower also continues to note the importance of focalization, for instance at 5.52.1 and in the many instances cited in the index. More space would have produced explorations of smaller narrative matters such as the anonymous tis who provokes the turning point at 6.25.1. Xenophon has such a man at Hellenica 4.2.22. But something must be left for others to do.

Hornblower defended the commentary form in his second volume as an enterprise that was not atomistic, but brought to the individual passages and items the sense of the space in which they floated, which was Thucydides' enterprise overall. In this volume he has superbly managed that integration, and should add to his own modest claims that he has placed the atoms within an even wider cosmos, which is his own vast knowledge about the ancient world, its history and literature, which is everywhere in evidence. The overall impression is of a rich and learned final volume, stamped with an authority that is yet open to different points of view and approaches, invaluable for its discussion of scholarship, and for its exposition and explanation of Thucydides' achievement on the large and the small scale.

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