Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.46

Antonis Tsakmakis, Mélina Tamiolaki (ed.), Thucydides between History and Literature. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 17.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2013.  Pp. xv, 531.  ISBN 9783110297683.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Vasileios Liotsakis, University of Thessaloniki (


In 1985 the Municipality of Alimos, Thucydides’ demos, organized, for the first time, the National Symposium on Thucydides, which has been thereon consolidated as a permanent scientific tradition (1997, 2006 and 2010). This volume includes the Proceedings of the last meeting, the one that took place in 2010. The quality, though, of the papers, as well as their great thematic extent and novelty, make this volume something more than a mere publication of Proceedings.

The editors divide the book into five sections. In the first, Ideas of History, the authors examine the ideological assumptions that underlie the work and the ways in which these determine its narrative organization. Kurt Raaflaub (3- 21) detects certain patterns in Thucydides’ narrative. The historian organizes the multiple historical phenomena based on typical motives of human behavior. Thucydides excludes the unimportant events and stresses the most central ones. Thereby, the author transforms his work into a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί.

Mathieu de Bakker (23-40) elaborates on the authorial comments on characters. He maintains that Thucydides explicitly characterizes only those individuals who play an important role in politics and thereby emphasizes the crucial turning points of the war. Bakker focuses especially on the eighth book and concludes that Thucydides’ interest in the protagonists of the στάσις of 411 BC reflects his effort to represent the political disorder of that period. Although other critics have also interpreted Thucydides’ narrative choices in Book 8 as a conscious representation of the collapse of the balance which had prevailed up to that point, this theory is unsatisfactory, specifically with regard to Thucydides’ comments on the oligarchs of 411 BC. Bakker should also consider the fact that Thucydides, by praising those politicians, merely explains why the Athenian δῆμος accepted such a radical constitutional change (VIII 68, 4: ὥστε ἀπ’ ἀνδρῶν πολλῶν καὶ ξυνετῶν πραχθὲν τὸ ἔργον οὐκ ἀπεικότως καίπερ μέγα προυχώρησεν).

Melina Tamiolaki (41-72) re-examines the old topic of Thucydides’ handling of motivation. She gives us a new approach of the narrative means which Thucydides exploits in order to present motives. Comparing Herodotus and Thucydides, Tamiolaki maintains that Thucydides offers us a more complex and penetrating presentation of motives than that of his predecessor and shows how motives within the speeches are connected to the main narrative. She concludes that Thucydides saw motives as part of the general historical process.

In the last paper of this section, Paul Demont, basing himself on ancient medical treatises and other texts, maintains that Thucydides adapts the traditional views of his age concerning the plague, especially those referring to its provenance and its transmission. Moreover, according to Demont, Thucydides shapes his narrative so as to absolve Pericles from any responsibility for the plague.

In the second section Representations of Time and Space, Jonas Grethlein’s interest lies in the modus narrandi of Ἱστορίαι, specifically in time and space. Through the examination of two episodes (Phormion’s naval victories and the case of Mytilene) and the comparison with Plutarch, Grethlein examines certain narrative techniques (graphic description, tense, internal focalization, speeches, composition, sideshadowing and indirect evaluation) through which Thucydides leads the reader to experience the past as if it was present.

The representation of the past is also the subject of three more papers, those of Tim Rood, Marek Węcowski and Roberto Nicolai. Rood shows how Thucydides presents Cylon’s conspiracy as an episode of the distant past, in order to criticize the Spartans for the specious character of their complaints against the Athenians just before the war.

Węcowski also focuses on an event before the Peloponnesian War, the Samian revolt during the Πεντηκονταετία. Rejecting the well-known complaints of some researchers that Thucydides purposely omits some serious events, he rightly observes that Thucydides was justified in closing the narrative of the Πεντηκονταετία with the case of Samos, as it is the event which is the most closely connected to the main theme of the digression, namely Athenian power.

Roberto Nicolai’s paper also discusses the first book. He concludes that Thucydides shaped the narrative of the Ἀρχαιολογία by following the narrative tradition stemming from the Homeric catalogues and Herodotus.

Vassiliki Pothou’s paper is the only one on space. She categorizes the places which feature in Thucydides’ narrative and describes how the protagonists interact with their environment, how they change it, as well as how nature can define the outcome of military operations. However, I feel that she could have done much more than she actually does to interpret critically the texts she collects.

The third section Thucydides and Politics deals with the political life of Athens. While Sarah Brown Ferrario focuses on the opinion about Athenian political life held by the enemies of Athens , Susanne Saїd addresses once again the topic of Thucydides’ judgment about democracy and masses. By comparing the vocabulary of the Thucydidean orators and that of the author himself on masses, she concludes that the more democrats care for the common good, the more Thucydides accepts them. Romilly’s conclusions are echoed in Panos Christodoulou’s much more elaborated and stimulating presentation of how Thucydides tries to restore Pericles’ reputation, mainly by responding to attacks in comedy.

In the five articles of the next section Aspects of the Narrative, the interest lies again on certain narrative figures in Thucydides. June Allison argues that the first book provides a permanent contrast between Athens and Sparta. Paula Debnar elaborates on the usefulness of texts in indirect speech for us to discern historical seeds within the fictional narrative. In the next paper, Anna Lamari develops Rengakos’ theory of cross-references (Fernbeziehungen)1 in Thucydides even more. Examining texts from the Sicilian narrative, she suggests that there are three kinds of cross-references (a. progressive, b. providing diverse focalization and c. encirclement cross- references), through which Thucydides creates narrative coherence and helps the reader to see the aetiological relation between events, even insignificant ones.

In his paper, Stahl elaborates on the episodic nature of the Ἱστορίαι and analyzes the authorial comments in the epilogues of narrative units. In his opinion, these epilogues give a pessimistic tone in the Ἱστορίαι, as they mostly concern the defeated.

In the last paper of this section, Nikos Miltsios offers us a comparative study between Thucydides and Polybius. He compares the first book of each work and by detecting verbal, thematic and structural similarities between the two books, concludes that Polybius, at least in this part of his work, took into account the first book of the Peloponnesian War.

Linguistics, language and style are the methodological core of the last section The Language of Thucydides. Pierre Pontier examines litotes not only as a stylistic feature but as a narrative device. Thucydides, Pontier cleverly shows, uses this element in order to comment on wrong decisions, to distinguish a person or a cause as the most crucial, or to remain neutral. In the next paper, Allan bases on tenses, proverbs and other linguistic elements to distinguish four narrative modes, which, in his opinion, create four different types of narrators.

All the remaining studies focus on speeches. The article by Antonis Tsakmakis, Charalambos Themistocleous, as well as that by Daniel Tompkins, both focus on stylistic differentiation in speeches and how this element establishes the character of the speaker. Maria Pavlou discusses the authorial introductions and epilogues before and after a speech and explains that Thucydides connects his speeches with their context in such a way, as “to approach a logos from a specific point of view, and draws his attention to a particular aspect thereof” (p. 414). Finally, Jonathan Price suggests that syntactically or stylistically deformed pieces are purposely exploited by Thucydides in his effort to bring the speaker’s uncomfortable emotional situation before our eyes.

In view of the publication of the Brill’s Companion in 2006 and that of Jeffrey Rusten’s Oxford Readings in Thucydides in 2009,2 one might justifiably wonder what another collective volume can offer. The answer lies in its novelty. The contributors’ purpose has not been just to reassess the pre-occupations of Thucydidean scholarship. Certainly, they discuss well-known problems such as the usefulness of the Ἱστόριαι, the reliability of Thucydides on such questions as human motivation or the portrait of Pericles, the degree to which the plague description is indebted to medical writings, the speeches and his political ideology. Nevertheless, the authors soberly stand apart from the view of many critics of the old school that the stylistic and narrative qualities of the Thucydidean text is a proof of its subjectivity and unreliability.

The contributors of this volume have fortunately not expended their efforts on such extremities. They do not use the narrative techniques of the work as a cause to refute the author’s historical judgment, but rather as a means to comprehend it, giving us a fillip not to forget that we are in a new – more mature – research phase. Tamiolaki rejects Hunter’s extreme and therefore obsolete skepticism concerning motivation in Thucydides,3 while Christodoulou shows that it is possible to examine the portrait of Pericles without being led to Foster and Luginbill’s accusations.4 Moreover, topics such as die Thukydideische Frage are not even mentioned, and even the eighth book is faced with a more reconciliatory mood (Bakker). At the same time, many of the already existing theories are developing. Tamiolaki’s theory can be a useful interpretative tool for many ostensibly suspicious texts. Wękowski and Price’s approaches are equally beneficial. Pothou goes over the unexplored issue of places in Thucydides, and Ferrario refreshes the discussion on the political dimension of the work, by offering new perspectives. Concerning narratology, Lamari and Allan evolve already existing theories by clarifying and substantiating certain elements, based on which these theories are constructed. In fact, the narrative or narratological approaches are the most fertile ones in the volume. The sections, contrariwise, on politics and the speeches are the weak part of it, for the contributors could but describe already known aspects of prose.

As for deficiencies: readers might reasonably expect a more instructive editorial introduction (perhaps on the model of Grethlein’s paper), discussing the theories and the trends by which the scholars of the volume are influenced (narratology, linguistics etc.),. Moreover, whereas Thucydides’ relationship with his predecessor Herodotus and Homer is often alluded to, Christodoulou’s study barely suffices for a comprehensive picture of the reception of Thucydides.

In conclusion, after the reissue of the most influential articles in Rusten’s Oxford Readings and the refreshing reassessment of well-known topics in Rengakos and Tsakmakis’ Brill’s Companion, the present volume is another important collective volume on Thucydides: it is a good introduction to new trends in Thucydidean scholarship and a proof of their interpretative fertility.


1.   Rengakos, A., “Fernbeziehungen zwischen den thukydideischen Reden”, Hermes 124 1996, 396-417.
2.   Rengakos, A. and Tsakmakis, A. (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Thucydides, Leiden 2006; Rusten, J.S., Thucydides, Oxford Readings in Classical Studies, Oxford 2009.
3.   Hunter, V., Thucydides, The Artful Reporter, Toronto 1973.
4.   Foster, E., Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Imperialism, New York; Cambridge 2010; Luginbill, R., Author of Illusions: Thucydides' Rewriting of the History of the Peloponnesian War, Newcastle 2011.

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