Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.17

Haruo Konishi, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume Four. The Eleventh Year - The Eighteenth Year. Supplementi di lexis 55.   Amsterdam:  Adolf M. Hakkert editore, 2009.  Pp. x, 503.  ISBN 9025612474.  €100.00 (pb).  

Haruo Konishi, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume Five. The Nineteenth Year - The Twenty-first Year. Supplementi di lexis 56.   Amsterdam:  Adolf M. Hakkert editore, Pp. xi, 491.  ISBN 9789025612528.  €100.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (

With these two volumes Konishi finishes his commentary on Thucydides. The first three volumes of the series have already been reviewed for the BMCR by Tim Rood.1 As Rood rightly remarks, the five volume set forms in fact a comprehensive set of which the individual volumes are hard to separate from each other. During this review we have, therefore, constantly to keep in mind Konishi’s goals, as set out in the first volume: “one is to demonstrate in detail the structural rationale of Thucydides’ composition, and the other to present analytically the theoretical system of the concept of power that determined the contents and the arrangement of Thucydides’ work as a whole”.2

Also throughout these last two volumes Konishi’s view on Thucydides’ idea of power (which contains four elements, sc. stability, unity, wealth, and sea power) stands out as the leading concept of this commentary. Occasionally, it might be revealing to work from such a strictly observed starting-point. However, I sometimes got the impression that the concept rather than Thucydides’ text has determined Konishi’s commentary. Konishi generally does not translate Thucydides’ Greek (though he frequently does give some kind of a paraphrase), thereby making this commentary pretty much inaccessible for a wider audience. Necessarily, due to the dominance of his main concept , the scope of Konishi’s commentary is less wide than that of a more traditional commentary: this, however, does not make Konishi’s observations less valuable.

A frequently returning theme in Konishi’s work is the antithesis between nomos and physis, one of the philosophical aspects of what he envisages as Thucydides’ theory of power (as Konishi explains in the ‘Introduction’ in volume 1). A relevant example, I believe, is presented in vol. 4, recounting the confrontations between the Spartans and the Argives during the fourteenth year, finally leading to the battle of Mantinea (= Th. 5.57.1-5.74.3). Konishi views the antithesis in two contexts, sc. that of ‘the Many and the Few’ (relevant to matters before the battle) and that of ‘Logos and Ergon’ (relevant to the battle itself): 1526-1570.3 Konishi’s views on this antithesis are generally sound, sometimes perhaps a little provocative, but at the same time they appear occasionally rather artificial and rigid: I, at least, sometimes found the discussion on this episode of the war insufficiently nuanced.

‘Physis’, specifically Athenian ‘physis’, also plays the main part in Konishi’s treatment of the trend of the Melian dialogue (1596-1618). In his discussion of the Melian dialogue (Th. 5.85.1-5.111.5), I find Konishi’s approach, again, too rigid. Reasoning along the lines he set out, his conclusion “Consequently, between the Athenians and the Melians there is no logical communication in the proper sense” (1597) appears to be correct. However, I firmly believe here again he has missed the nuance of a key element, i.a. expressed in the Melian statement in Th. 5.86. The Melians showed themselves from the start of the discussion well aware of the Athenians’ intentions and tried to undercut Athenian logic –and muscular language- by reasoning. On the other hand the Athenian messengers knew what the Melians wanted, but stated they could not accept that , mainly for reasons of strategy. Therefore , although the participants seem to move on different levels, there definitely was a kind of logical communication in the proper sense (as in a Harold Pinter play), even if the outcome was not what each of the parties had hoped for, though they are perfectly aware that it could end like it did. A question Konishi does not answer is on whose initiative the messengers parlayed with the Melians (Th. 5.84.3): that of the Athenian assembly or that of the generals in charge, sc. Cleomedes and Teisias? If it was the Assembly’s, why had there not been an embassy to Melos at an earlier stage? If it was the generals’, was it not risky to bypass the Assembly’s directives by such an initiative? I should have been glad to read Konishi’s views on this topic.

Athenian ‘physis’, already displayed during the Melian affair, culminated in the Sicilian expedition (Th. 6.1.1/6.30.1-7.87.6). “Thucydides views the Sicilian expedition as a result of the extreme Physis of the Athenian people as the destruction of Melos was also its consequence. The many in Athens (οἱ πολλοὶ), blinded by hope, could not clearly see the difference between Melos and Sicily, but Sicily was not a Melos” (1630). To illustrate his point, Thucydides makes use of arguments from geography (Th. 6.1.1-6.5.3). I found the part of Konishi’s commentary discussing this geography very useful, though shorter than I had hoped for (1630-1636), as are his observations (1637-1641) regarding the functions of the Epidamnian-Corcyrean affairs (Th. 1.24.1-1.55.2) and the Segestean embassy at Athens (Th. 6.6.1-3). “Thucydides seems to have consciously created the similarity between the beginning of the Archidamian war and that of the Sicilian expedition” (1650).

In this part of his commentary as well, Konishi frequently explores the boundaries of the antithesis between ‘physis’ and ‘nomos’, the latter here symbolized by the figure of Nicias. Simultaneously he elaborates two underlying antitheses, sc. that of the balance between ‘The many’ and ‘The few’ and that between ‘To koinon’ and ‘To idion’, the latter personified by Alcibiades. Konishi’s comparisons between Th. 2.65.7 and Th. 6.10.5, between Th. 2.65.1-13 and Th. 6.15.2-4, and between Th. 1.67.3-1.88.1 and Th. 6.8.3-6.26.1 are very apt and do fully justice to his first goal. The same goes for his description (1757-1762) of how Thucydides exposed “Alcibiades’ duplicity and falseness” (1760) in Sicily (Th. 6.48.1) as well as Alcibiades’ failing leadership.

The Sicilian expedition and the occupation of Deceleia in Attica by the Peloponnesians (on the advice of Alcibiades: Th. 6.96.6) caused Athens a loss of both ‘wealth’ and ‘sea power’, two out of four Thucydidean ingredients of power, both contributing to the final destruction of the Athenian empire. In the first part of vol. 5 Konishi pays special attention to these two incidents and their consequences for Athenian wealth (1949-2112). His structural analysis of Thucydides’ account of these occurrences generally looks sound, though occasionally it all appears rather rigid as well. Next, special attention is given to Thucydides’ treatment of Athenian leadership, notably comparing the generals Demosthenes and Nicias. In particular, Konishi’s analysis of Nicias’ behaviour underlines his view that Thucydides’ conclusion on Nicias’ quality of command was quite damning (2136-2140). Regarding Nicias’ surrender Konishi remarks: “not a noble gesture …, but the desperate plea of a shortsighted man who has lost his reason amid a disaster of his own making”.4 But some tension between Thucydides’ text and Konishi’s view becomes apparent (2143), making clear once again that maintaining a schedule too rigidly may cause unnecessary problems (which Konishi, I must admit, solves neatly).

Konishi explains the fact that Athens was not defeated immediately and completely after the Sicilian expedition, in spite of the fact that the city’s power –as defined by Konishi on the basis of Thucydides- was lost, by pointing both at Sicilian and Peloponnesian failures to exploit the opportunities at hand and the fact that Athenian political systems “functioned remarkably well” (2153). That the latter conclusion might well be at variance with his conclusion regarding the consequences of the Sicilian expedition is an issue that Konishi does not address. He simply separates imperial power and political situation as if these were completely unrelated, disregarding the ambiguity of Thucydides’ words at 7.87.6. Again the rigid application of his theory does not help to make the situation easier to understand.

Konishi’s treatment of book 8 has two aims: to “demonstrate that the theory of power functioned as the binding rationale of ‘book eight’, and that Thucydides had no intention of continuing his work beyond 8.109.1” (2169; cf. also 2303: “Thucydides’ work comes to its logical end at 8.109.2”). The latter part of this aim Konishi had already advocated earlier, though in that same contribution he still stipulated that book 8 was stylistically incomplete.5 I regret that he does not refer to his earlier point of view, or explain why or to what extent he has changed it, and why he chooses to disregard or at any rate not to discuss so many arguments and so much evidence –both in secondary literature and, more importantly, in Thucydides’ text itself– that book 8 was not complete. Konishi’s remark “… Thucydides stopped at 8.109.1 because his theme was Athens’ imperial power, not the Peloponnesian war” (2307) appears to me in direct contradiction with Thucydides’ statements in 1.1.1 and 1.23.1-3, where a full account of various occurrences is announced. Personally, I believe Thucydides amply fulfils that promise in his books 1-8, not limiting himself exclusively to the aspect of Athens’ power. As regards the former aim: though Konishi does not mention his previous work in this field, his thoughts on Thucydides’ concept of power were first shaped at least as early as 1968 and appear to have remained consistent ever since.6

Konishi puts much emphasis on the lack of unity between the Spartans, the Spartans and their allies, and the Persians, all described by Thucydides in book 8. In spite of all this display of disunity, Athens’ power crumbled, partly due to Alcibiades’ scheming. According to Konishi: “Thucydides squarely places the full responsibility for the destruction of Athenian ‘unity’ on the shoulders of Alcibiades” (2188; see also 2226, 2261-2290, 2305). I believe that, in spite of Alcibiades’ efforts, this does him too much credit. I also believe Konishi reads Thucydides sometimes perhaps a little prejudicially. It should be observed that Thucydides introduces Persian influences at a relatively late stage into his account (e.g., treaties are mentioned in Th. 8.18.1-3, 37.1-5, 58.1-7) and incompletely (Thucydides passes over Athenian support for Amorges almost completely: Th. 8.5.5, 28.1-5): this might be an indication that book 8 was not yet completed.

Though it may have become apparent in the preceding paragraphs that I question several of Konishi’s views, especially because I believe he has been entangled in too rigid a concept of Thucydides’ work, there also is much in these two volumes that is well worth considering. For example, one of the minor gems is that Konishi shows how over time the meaning of vocabulary and ideas completely changed, e.g. in the case of Alcibiades’ use of words and/or ideals defined by Pericles (1679-1686). A point of criticism is that, at least to me, it is not always clear what Konishi intends to state exactly (e.g. 2146 and note 62 on theodicy), leaving the reader to guess. Another animadversion is that the indexes are insufficient: many ideas and concepts discussed in the text remain unlisted.

A severe word of criticism should go to the publisher, A.M. Hakkert. Though it is commendable that the publisher should have ventured to publish such a specialist work –no doubt for a smaller audience than the work deserves– the quality of the printing itself is, in both volumes I received, seriously substandard (I do not mean the number of typos, which is within limits of acceptability). Moreover, in the copy of volume 4 I reviewed, four pages remained empty. This is annoying for the reader and displays carelessness of the publisher both towards audience and, at least as important, towards the author; it makes the book poor, no value for money. A missed opportunity.


1.   See BMCR 2009.09.10.
2.   H. Konishi, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume One: The Pre-war Period – The First Year, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2008, ix.
3.   The pages are numbered continuously from volume 1 onwards.
4.   Konishi, 2137. Contra, e.g., A. Andrewes and K.J. Dover in: A.W. Gomme, A. Andrewes, and K.J. Dover, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, volume 4, Oxford 1970, 462: “and at the last he redeemed his earlier preoccupation with his own good name by surrendering to save his men from slaughter.”
5.   Haruo Konishi, ‘Thucydides’ History as a Finished Piece’, LCM 12(1987), 5-7.
6.   Haruo Konishi, ‘Thucydides’ Subjectivity. On the Structure of the Archaeologia’, JCS 16(1968); in Japanese, with a summary in English: 55-65.

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