BMCR 1998.03.03

A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. A Companion to Rex Warner’s Penguin Translation

, , A historical commentary on Thucydides : a companion to Rex Warner's Penguin translation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. xii, 320 pages : maps. ISBN 9780472106950. $19.95.

This is an extremely successful book. In his preface, Cartwright (hereafter, C.) writes that his book “is designed, first, for those coming to Thucydides for the first time, to help them find their way around his complex narrative, and second, to offer at least a starting point for students who wish to pursue in greater depth issues raised in his work.” C. accomplishes both of these goals admirably in his 304 pages of commentary.

The commentary is for the Greekless reader and is based on the Penguin translation of Rex Warner. C. begins with an eight page Introduction and proceeds with 8 chapters—one for each book of Thucydides—which are of varying lengths depending on the complexity of the book covered. Chapter 1, for example, is eighty-two pages long, while chapter 4 is only twenty-eight, despite the fact that books 1 and 4 in Rex Warner’s translation are the same length. The quality of C.’s reading in the commentary is so high, I would have welcomed a longer Introduction, but given the constraints of space he does a good job with his sections: The Life of Thucydides, The Intellectual Background of Thucydides, and The Aims and Methods of Thucydides. My only quibble is that at times he seems to assume too much of his reader. In discussing Thucydides’ claim that he was “of an age to understand what was happening,” C. asks (p. 1), “How old do these words suggest he might have been in 431?” In the first paragraph of an introduction to a commentary for the Greekless reader coming to Thucydides for the first time, I think it would have been wise to note that the war began in 431. So, too, on p. 3 he seems to assume that his reader has heard of the Sophists, whom he describes as “those men of ideas who made Athens the intellectual center of Greece.” And when he writes (p. 5) of rhetoric that it was “the natural concomitant of the development of radical democracy,” I think he assumes his reader knows something of the workings of that democracy. All of these points will, however, become clear in the commentary. C. gives precise discussions of the date of the beginning of the war and local dating systems (p. 92), and Thucydides’ practice of dating by summers and winters (p. 91). He discusses the Greek propensity for antitheses (pp. 28-9), relates it to the Sophists (who get a slightly longer description) and suggests some further reading on rhetoric and Sophists. Finally, at appropriate points throughout the commentary he discusses the elements and working of the Athenian democracy.

C. takes a critical approach to Warner’s text, noting places where he thinks the translation poor (e.g., p. 24: “the translation ‘piece of writing’ is feeble; the Gk. means ‘showpiece’ or ‘prize composition'”), where he thinks Warner has made an error in translation (e.g., p. 35: “on the day after the battle: a translator’s error; the Gk. says ‘on the previous day'”), and where sections of the Greek text have been placed incorrectly in the translation (e.g., p. 67: “The chapter number 108 is misplaced in the Penguin translation: it should immediately precede the paragraph beginning, ‘the battle was fought at Tanagra'”) He thus provides a useful check on Warner’s translation impossible for the Greekless reader.

The chapters of the commentary are broken up into sections which follow but sometimes subdivide those of Warner’s translation. These sections often begin with useful discussions or overviews of the passages. For example, C. begins his commentary on II.2-6, “The Theban Attack on Plataea”, with almost a page of background on Plataea and discussion of how this section fits into the work as a whole. I do not share his surprise that Thucydides opens his account of the war with this story, despite the fact that, as C. points out, it “is of less significance for our understanding of the outbreak of war than the first Peloponnesian invasion of Attica that follows it.” But C. is well aware of what probably led Thucydides to choose to begin here. He points out that the episode both raises a number of issues of great interest to Thucydides, including the consequences of stasis, the unprecedented suffering of the war, and the role of the unpredictable in the war, and also foreshadows later atrocities. C. takes care at the end of his introduction to the passage to give references to the later siege and capture of Plataea. In those passages, especially in the commentary on the fruitless speech of the Plataeans, C. makes frequent reference to the Melian dialogue and the Mytilenean debate. His commentary therefore helps the reader to consider the story of Plataea in light of the fates of those other towns (as Thucydides surely desired) and invites the reader to compare the besiegers, Sparta and Athens, as well.

Indeed, the numerous cross-references in the work are its greatest strength. C. takes pains to note the echoes between speeches and episodes. He has also isolated a number of themes and, with his cross-references, helps the reader to follow them throughout the book. He is particularly interested in luck and the role of chance, the extreme suffering caused by the war, and the antitheses of logos and ergon, passion and reason, and nomos and physis. At times he will question Thucydides’ narrative in ways that help the reader to be properly critical. For example, at V.6-13, “Cleon and Brasidas at Amphipolis,” C. notes that “Brasidas is depicted as the superior tactician in these chapters and as the master of his opponent. The reader must be cautious: is this depiction entirely fair?” C. then gives a cross-reference to an earlier discussion of Thucydides’ extreme dislike of Cleon and asks the reader to assess Thucydides’ objectivity.

C. gives some, but not much, reference to sources and scholarship. He most frequently cites Fornara’s Translated Documents of Greece and Rome but also regularly notes Aristophanes, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Plutarch, etc. when they have bearing on our understanding of the text or events discussed. He gives far fewer references to secondary sources. Thirty-seven secondary works are noted in the abbreviations at the beginning of the book, but they are not cited very often. For example, he gives no reference to any scholarship on the question of how faithful Thucydides was to the originals in his presentation of speeches. There are numerous other examples of huge questions for which C. gives no particular citation. He includes in his bibliography a number of general Thucydidean studies, however, and a reader interested in such questions could certainly find a starting point for answering them there. I am not sure what criteria led C. to choose to include or exclude reference to secondary material for a given passage; I do, however, approve the amount he has chosen to include. He gives enough to allow the ambitious reader to pursue what he wishes but not so much as to alienate the less ambitious or to take away from the large amount of space needed to give even a basic commentary on a text so rich and so complex.

C.’s commentary provides a wealth of information for the reader. It includes definitions of numerous difficult terms—e.g., thetes, cleruchs, ostracism, phalanx—which my students, at least, are too often willing simply to skate over without even asking what they mean. C. gives a description of how a trireme’s crew worked (p. 17), why triremes were prone to leak if not well-maintained (p. 129), explains the need for and building of the long walls (p. 66), explains how a hoplite’s armor worked and why an army would gain such an advantage if it could outflank its opponent (p. 217), etc. C. also takes care to give some help at places where readers might misconstrue Warner’s English. He notes, for example, (p. 42) that the Corinthians’ reference to ‘those who have been enslaved by Athens’ is “not to be taken literally,” and glosses “siege engines” as “battering rams.” Numerous gems such as these help this difficult text make sense to a reader coming to this world for the first time.

The only real deficiency I find in the book is its maps. There are five maps: Attica, the Peloponnese, Pylos and Sphacteria, The Siege of Syracuse, and the Eastern Aegean. They are simple line drawings with only the bare minimum of cities marked. One doesn’t want to overcrowd a map, of course, but it would have been helpful to, for example, note the location of Pylos and Sphacteria on the map of the Peloponnese so that a reader looking at the large scale map of these locations could put them in context. So too it is unfortunate that Attica is on a map separate from the Peloponnese. Those of us familiar with this corner of the world can easily “join” maps together in our heads, as it were, but I wonder how accomplished C.’s target readers will be at that task. A large map of all of mainland Greece was needed. In that case poor Thebes might have appeared. A large map showing the relation of mainland Greece to the Eastern Aegean was also required; in that case poor Melos might have appeared. Most egregious, however, is the absence of maps of Sicily, South Italy, and all of northern Greece, Macedonia and Thrace. C. gives a detailed description of the location of, e.g., Epidamnus (p. 26): “It was located on the eastern side of the approach to the Ionic Gulf about 150 miles to the north of Corcyra, modern Corfu.” But the reader will not find it on any map. Thus the new reader of Thucydides will not appreciate at the beginning of the book, as he is surely meant to, how far away from both Athens and Sparta this colony is, and how clearly what follows will be, for Greece, a “world war.” Just a few more maps, covering the whole of the territory over which the war raged would have greatly improved the reader’s comprehension.

This is, however, my only real criticism. C. has provided a valuable resource for the Greekless reader of Thucydides. Every library, Classics department, History department, and Political Science department should own a copy as a reference. It would certainly be an excellent choice as a companion to Warner for students in classes, if students’ budgets allow. Even if they don’t, some judicious (legal) xeroxing, especially of C.’s introductory notes to important passages, would lead to much better student comprehension. If at all possible students should have Cartwright in hand. Everyone who approaches Thucydides through Warner’s translation should now not only have C. at his side, he should be sure to read every word for it will immeasurably enhance his understanding and enjoyment of the text.