Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.27

Simon Hornblower, Thucydidean Themes.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 415.  ISBN 9780199562336.  £75.00. $150.00.  

Reviewed by Emily Greenwood, Yale University (

It is difficult to tell whether Thucydides would have smiled or sweated had he anticipated the prolonged, rigorous scrutiny that his History of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War would receive at the hands of Simon Hornblower; perhaps it is hard to imagine Thucydides smiling at all.1 At any rate, the historian who made a point of criticizing his contemporaries for accepting oral traditions about past events without cross-examining them thoroughly (1.20.1-2), would not have been able to accuse Hornblower of scholarship that is abasanistos in regard to his own work.

Thucydidean Themes collects seventeen of Simon Hornblower’s essays on Thucydides, spanning the period from 1982 to the present (titles of individual chapters are listed at the end of this review). The last chapter in the book (Chapter 17), entitled ‘Thucydides and Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion’ is forthcoming in a Festschrift for Oswyn Murray.2 In addition, the volume is prefaced by an Introduction in which the author offers a retrospective on the development of his thought on Thucydides and on larger trends in Thucydidean scholarship in the same period (pp. 1-20). This introduction is followed by a helpful Annex listing twenty-one ‘Thucydidean or Thucydides- Related Reviews’ written by Hornblower (pp. 21-22). The introduction itself speaks both to the present volume and to Hornblower’s three-volume commentary on Thucydides,3 to which it acts as a meta-commentary by giving readers an insight into the commentator’s view of Thucydides. Insofar as the introduction advances a statement about what Hornblower believes ‘to be distinctive, and distinctively admirable about [Thucydides]’ (v), it is reminiscent of the chapter ‘Thucydides’ Virtues Illustrated’, the conclusion to Hornblower’s widely read and highly regarded monograph on Thucydides.4

I would have liked to read more about the shifts that have occurred in Hornblower’s conception of Thucydides’ History. Since all scholarship on classical antiquity reflects the way in which an expert community of readers makes sense of and responds to a culture and its texts and artefacts, and therefore constitutes a mode of classical reception, the more influential the scholar, the more important it is to consider his or her work as an instance of the reception of classical antiquity.5 Hornblower’s influence on Thucydidean scholarship has been and continues to be such that it would be useful to have a clearer sense of what went into the making of Hornblower as a reader of Thucydides. Specifically, it would have been informative to hear more about his early encounters with Thucydides in the schoolroom and the logistics of his scholarship on Thucydides. How was the Commentary written: which works did Hornblower characteristically surround himself with as he worked on the Commentary? What role have translations of Thucydides played in his work? Here I am thinking of an analogy that Hornblower draws in the context of the Earl of Clarendon’s use of Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides, even though he knew Greek, ‘just as proficient classicists today nevertheless use Loeb editions with their facing translations, Clarendon read Thucydides in the translation by Hobbes’ (p. 359).

This volume would have been the perfect opportunity to write a new chapter on the practice / praxis of Thucydidean scholarship. From the Commentary and from the articles and chapters collected in this volume, it is clear that the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names is never far away when Hornblower is at work on Thucydides. Hornblower’s ‘Personal Names and the Study of the Ancient Greek Historians’ appears as Chapter 4 of this volume, and makes a compelling case for the use of names as ‘a control on the accuracy and authenticity of a historiographical text’ (p. 102). Chapter 11 ‘LICAS KALOS SAMIOS’ (orig. 2002), also demonstrates the fresh use of prosopographical research.6

Hornblower is generous in citing the works of other scholars and conversations about Thucydides that he has had with friends and colleagues. There are several instances of ‘as x points out to me’, and ‘as x suggests to me’. Conversations with the late David Lewis echo through this book, as do insights gleaned from conversation with the late George Forrest. While one might expect these conversations with Oxford teachers and colleagues, the work and opinions of other scholars are generously cited throughout.

As a result of a career spent examining Thucydides and the complexities of his historical narrative, Hornblower is scrupulous about accounting for his interpretation of Thucydides. Unlike Thucydides, who only admits uncertainty in carefully controlled circumstances, Hornblower cites opposing views and debates potential weaknesses in his interpretation. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with a particular argument, one feels fairly treated as a reader. Hornblower makes frequent use of the qualifying phrases such as ‘perhaps’, ‘is possible’, and ‘might be argued that’ and is careful to point out the limitations in any interpretation that he puts forward.

All of the chapters that I had read before repaid re-reading and were even more thought-provoking than I remembered. And those that I was reading for the first time (2, 5, 8, 9), I will read again. What is more, I found that the experience of reading these several studies back to back was an excellent protreptic for thinking anew about Thucydides. However, I suspect that few readers will read this book cover to cover, but instead will dip into favourites, or use the volume to consult chapters that deal with topics with which they are not familiar. With a little work the volume could have had greater coherence across the different chapters, conceivably through the use of short interlinking essays to help orientate the reader through the different chapters. The first two subheadings ‘Part I: General’, and ‘Part II: More Specific—Arranged by Main Relevant Thucydidean Book’ are of minimal descriptive value. An alternative arrangement of the chapters could have brought together those chapters that focus on the ethnography and geo-politics of different Greek states within the History (chapters 2, 5, 6, 9, and 13), with a brief introductory discussion of Thucydidean ethnographies and how local histories function in the History and disrupt or modify the ‘lop-sided preoccupation with just two states, Athens and Sparta’ (pp. 139-40).

By contrast, Part III, on ‘Reception’ coheres very neatly. This section contains four chapters on the following topics: the question of the mutual influence of Herodotus and Thucydides on each other’s work (Chapter 14), the fourth century and Hellenistic reception of Thucydides (Chapter 15), the Old Oligarch and Thucydides (Chapter 16), and the influence of Thucydides on the Earl of Clarendon’s history of the English Civil War, History of the Rebellion published in 1704 (Chapter 17). For all that these four chapters examine very different material, they converge on a similar question: how in the field of Thucydidean reception can one be sure that a later writer is reading Thucydides rather than simply reading the past? In the case of Chapters 15 and 16, this question is complicated by the fact that the proof of direct, Thucydidean influence would have a significant bearing on our understanding of the dating of these works. In addition, all four chapters grapple with what we might call the ‘loop’ of Thucydidean reception: for a Greek writer of the fourth century BCE, there can be no neat distinction between reading the past and reading Thucydides, since whether or not a writer responds to Thucydides directly, the fourth-century conception of the fifth-century past is inextricably tied up with the influence of Thucydides’ History on the intellectual imagination.

This question applies to synchronic influence as well, and Hornblower has a compelling discussion of the challenges involved in trying to identify Thucydidean influence on Herodotus (see especially p. 285). Hornblower concludes by saying that he finds it hard to shake the impression that the Peloponnesian War as conceived by Thucydides ‘left its mark’ on Herodotus’ Histories, and that this makes Herodotus ‘part of the reception of Thucydides’, albeit an unconventional model of reception (ibid.). Perhaps it seems less unconventional if we insert ourselves into the loop of reception as modern readers and interpreters of Herodotus and Thucydides, who cannot help reading history in reverse and understanding the Peloponnesian War in Herodotus’ Histories in terms of Thucydides’ treatment of this war. As Hornblower comments on p. 53, ‘without [Thucydides] we would hardly have a Peloponnesian War at all.’ While evoking the modern reader does not solve the complexities of the relationship between Herodotus and Thucydides as readers of each other’s works, it is part of the puzzle.

With the final Chapter on Clarendon’s History, the picture is clearer. Here Hornblower lays out a helpful framework for determining the extent of Thucydidean influence, which posits a descending scale of influence that encompasses direct quotation, ‘non-attributed allusion’, ‘shared / borrowed, presentational and narrative technique’, and ‘a common theory of causation’ (p. 351). Hornblower also gives us the neat shorthand ‘Buried Thucydides’, to describe the phenomenon where Clarendon’s language shows close verbal resemblance to Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides (p. 359, see also p. 358). Both individually and in concert these four chapters on the reception of Thucydides raise important questions about what constitutes Thucydidean reception and should be read by anyone who is grappling with the reception of Thucydides.

In conclusion, all libraries in institutions where Thucydides is taught will want a copy of this work, and Thucydidean scholars will profit from owning their own copy, although they might be tempted to wait for a more affordable paperback edition. It is not an exaggeration to say that our contemporary Thucydides is in large measure Hornblower’s Thucydides, and this volume reveals Hornblower’s Thucydides to be an author who is still very much open to debate. Aside from the wealth of insight and cogent interpretation that this volume contains, readers will find Hornblower on Thucydides a paragon of clear and elegant prose.

LIST OF CHAPTERS (dates of original publication are given in brackets)

1. ‘The Religious Dimension to the Peloponnesian War, Or, What Thucydides Does Not Tell Us’ (1992)
2. ‘Thucydides and the Delphic Amphiktiony’ (2007)
3. ‘Narratology and Narrative Techniques in Thucydides’ (1994)
4. ‘Personal Names and the Study of the Ancient Greek Historians’ (2000)
5. ‘Thucydides in Boiotia and Boiotians’ (1995)
6. ‘Thucydides and the Argives’ (2006)
7. ‘Thucydides and Plataian Perjury’ (2007)
8. ‘Thucydides, the Panionian Festival, and the Ephesia (3.104)’ (1982)
9. ‘Thucydides and “Chalkidic Torone” (4.110.1)’ (1997)
10. ‘Thucydides, Xenophon, and Lichas: Were the Spartans Excluded from the Olympic Games from 420 to 400 BC?’ (2000)
12. ‘“This Was Decided” (ἔδοξε ταῦτα): The Army as polis in Xenophon’s Anabasis—and Elsewhere’ (2004)
13. ‘Sticks, Stones, and Spartans: The Sociology of Spartan Violence’ (2000)
14. ‘Thucydides’ Awareness of Herodotus, Or Herodotus’ Awareness of Thucydides?’ (2010)
15. ‘The Fourth-Century and Hellenistic Reception of Thucydides’ (1995)
16. ‘The Old Oligarch (Pseudo-Xenophon’s Athenaion Politeia) and Thucydides: A Fourth- Century Date for the Old Oligarch?’ (2000)
17. ‘Thucydides and Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion’ (forthcoming)


1.   Hornblower’s Thucydides ‘has a heart as well as head’ (p.15), but he does not argue for a Thucydidean sense of humour. There is, however, plenty of humour in Hornblower’s own authorial voice. See, e.g., n. 2 on p. 251.
2.   Al Moreno (ed.) (forthcoming) Epitedeumata. Festschrift for Oswyn Murray.
3.   Simon Hornblower (1991-2008) A Commentary on Thucydides. Oxford University Press.
4.   Thucydides. Duckworth, London, 1987, reprinted with additions 1994, pp. 191-205.
5.   In treating scholarship as reception I am thinking particularly of Stanley Fish’s work on the institutional production of interpretative communities (Is There A Text in This Class: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980); although it is important to add that scholars’ approaches to reading are shaped as much outside of the academy as within it.
6.   Important bibliography is missing from this article on p. 223 (n.24). Hornblower cites A Study of Greek Love- names by D. M. Robinson and H. Fluck (Baltimore, 1937). A more recent discussion with a consideration of the kalos-patronymic inscriptions in their iconographic context is Alan Shapiro’s ‘Kalos Inscriptions with Patronymic’, ZPE 68 (1987) 107-18.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 22:52:00, Tuesday, 13 September 2011