BMCR 2000.02.20

Thucydides on War and National Character

, Thucydides on War and National Character. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999. 232. $55.00.

Luginbill has produced a readable and, for the most part, judicious book on Thucydides. It has two parts. The second part is about Thucydides’ portrayal of national character. The first part is not really about Thucydides on war. It is more about Thucydides on human nature. The book as a whole seeks to explain how Thucydides’ understanding of national character is grounded in his understanding of human nature.

The conclusions of the first part of L.’s study are summarized on p. 70: ‘In Thucydides’ system of psychological motivation … where human nature ( physis) supplies the impetus for action ( orge), the conscious mind ( gnome) reacts to the opportunities and dangers of uncertain circumstances ( tyche) primarily in accordance with its current attitude or disposition, whether that be one of hope or fear.’ Not many surprises there. The chapters that have led to his conclusion deal with the following topics. ‘ Physis : The Biology of War’: L. suggests that Thucydides was influenced by Antiphon’s conception of physis and discusses orge and gnome and imperialism and freedom. ‘The Balance of Power and Necessity’: here we have a summary of the argument of the Archaeology, and a discussion of the subjective element in Thucydides’ conception of the balance of power (one of the best sections in the book). ‘Risk and Reason’: that is, tyche and gnome, ‘Thucydides sees the true importance of tyche (the principle of historical uncertainty) lying in its power to affect human psychological states’ (p. 55: an important point, but not at all the whole story; and L. here does not look at how Thucydides’ statements about tyche are focalized) while warning against overlooking the non-rational features of gnome (p. 56). ‘Hope and Fear’: ‘Hope represents eagerness to fulfill a particular desire … while fear expresses a relative reluctance to act’ (p. 66) — again nothing too startling here; and L. perhaps understresses the importance of what he calls “aggressive” fear’ — that is, fear as a cause of action — in Thucydides’ work.

L. then sets out the main passages where national character is analysed (above all, 1.70 and 8.96.5). Two chapters follow which seek to bear out the claim that ‘Spartan and Athenian behavior as it occurs in the History generally follows the pattern of the respective national characteristics outlined in the preceding chapter’ (p. 105): L.’s technique is a linear analysis of Thucydides’ presentation of both sides’ strategies; here he has good remarks on how Pericles’ strategy runs counter to the Athenian national character.

L. also has a chapter on ‘National Character and Leadership’. Here he attempts to find a compromise position between pessimistic and optimistic portrayals of Thucydides. Planning can work — as in the escape at Plataea: ‘the detailed description of brick counting makes little sense until we understand it as a paradigm for the correct method of calculation’ (p. 196) — rather an overstatement. But it does lead to the language of p. 204: ‘To apply the Plataean paradigm, Archidamus counted his bricks carefully enough to see that the Peloponnesian “ladder” was not yet long enough for the task at hand.’ His main argument is that Thucydides presents the national character of the Spartans and Athenians as reasserting itself in the vacuum of leadership after the deaths of Archidamus and Pericles. His discussion of Archidamus, however, ignores Christopher Pelling’s suggestive analysis (‘Thucydides’ Archidamus and Herodotus’ Artabanus’, in M. Flower and M. Toher, edd., Georgica: Greek Studies in Honour of George Cawkwell [London, 1991] 120-42). (Note also that his claim that Thucydides explicitly ‘lauds Archidamus’ [p. 214 n. 121] at 1.79.2 ignores the word δοκῶν.) And the chapter as a whole misses something of the subtlety of Thucydides’ analysis of the interrelation of the individual with national character (see the excellent chapter on Thucydides in D. Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens [Oxford, 1999]).

How then does L. perceive the relationship between Thucydides’ analysis of human nature and his analysis of national character? ‘The national character of the Athenians and Spartans are essentially the result of attitudes (hope and fear respectively) that have been reinforced and locked in place under the pressure of traumatic events’ (pp. 74-5): the Persian Wars for Athens, wars against the helots for Sparta. L. seeks to strengthen his claim by analysing an example of a national character that does change: the Syracusan character. He argues that the Syracusans change in books 6-7 from caution to daring; and he has good remarks on how Syracuse’s response to the Athenian invasion is parallel to Athens’ response to the Persian invasion (see pp. 178, 183, 188 nn. 73 and 76). I would not, however, put any stress on the aorist participles γενόμενοι at 8.96.5 or γενομένην at 1.90.1 (L. thinks they convey the idea of character formation: pp. 174, 177, 184). L. could further have strengthened his argument here by discussing the presentation of Syracuse in book 8.

Despite L.’s careful treatment, Thucydides’ view of the relation of national character to human nature remains rather unclear. What was it about the Syracusans that enabled them to become like Athens? Does the fact that Syracuse was (or at least is presented as) a democracy have anything to do with it? L. thinks not — rejecting J. H. Finley’s interpretation of 7. 55. 2 (p. 187 n. 69, where for δημοκρατουμένοις, read δημοκρατουμέναις : it is rather disturbing to find this mistake twice in a note which quotes the antecedent clause πόλεσι γὰρ ταύταις μόναις ἤδη O(MOIOTRo/POIS). But Thucydides’ presentation of Syracusan politics in the debate at 6.32-41 — with its many points of contact with the debate at Athens at 6.8-24, and with its Cleonic man, the aptly named demagogue Athenagoras — already develops the theme of the similarity of Athens and Syracuse. And at 7.55.2, the clauses that follow ὁμοιοτρόποις (on Syracuse as a democracy with a large population and a strong navy and cavalry) must affect in some way our view of why the Syracusans were similar in character to the Athenians. (L. could here have discussed the echo of Nikias’ words παρασκευασμέναι … ὁμοιοτρόπως at 6.20.3 — where Nikias’ insight is admittedly only a partial one.) Thucydides did think that the strengths — and weaknesses — of the Athenian and Syracusan characters were in some way connected with democracy (and naval power), just as the strengths — and weaknesses — of the Spartan character were connected with oligarchy (and land power).

A further problem with L.’s book is that it presents a rather unnuanced view of Thucydides’ presentation of national character. L. suggests that the narrative simply bears out the Corinthians’ analysis of national character. He does not observe that the Corinthians exaggerate aspects of Spartan caution. At the start of the war (1.118.2), and again during the fighting in the harbour at Pylos (4.14), the Spartans do have an Athenian eagerness ( prothumia). The problem in both cases is that they are not in a position to act on it. The Spartans also show an Athenian swiftness in the first stages of the fighting on Sphakteria (4.34.1) and in responding to news of a threat to Tegea (5.64.2). Thucydides suggests that the Spartans can act with speed when their interests are attacked. And it is that concern for self-interest that is one of the constants of human nature that, in Thucydides’ presentation, overrides differences of national character.

There are other shortcomings in L.’s book. He does not explore the literary antecedents to Thucydides’ portrayal of national character. When he does discuss Herodotus, he presents a vastly oversimplified picture: ‘Herodotus is primarily looking back at the past to preserve (and, to Thucydides’ mind, to entertain)’ (p. 6: with the astonishing, if all too familiar, claim that 1.22.4 is characterizing the longest prose book written in Greek to that time as a competition-piece for the moment); within the pages of [Thucydides’] History, we see a modern realism that ‘stands in stark contrast to Herodotus’ archaic smile’ (p. 21). L. only discusses 3.46 (the famous laconic reply: ‘the sack needs meal’), where ‘the characteristic Spartan brevity is … merely part of an entertaining anecdote’, and concludes that Herodotus shows no apparent interest in national character as a functional aspect of history. His Histories‘focus on individuals acting from personal motives, and thus he stresses the unity of all Greeks, rather than the differences between them’ (pp. 16-17, with a note citing 8.144 — from a speech). There is more to it than this — as an analysis of, say, the prelude to Plataea could have shown.

L. also fails to discuss how Thucydides’ portrayal of the Athenians compares with their portrayal in oratory (especially funeral orations), in tragedy, and in Aristophanes. L.’s only contribution is to claim that Thucydides’ national characterization is distinctive in three respects: ‘focus upon historically significant characteristics’, ’empiricism’, and its ‘grounding in principles of individual psychology’ (pp. 16-17). Focusing upon elements shared with other treatments could have yielded a sharper analysis of how Thucydides is different and raised questions about how characterization is affected by genre. It could also have raised the question of the relation of this image of the Athenians to reality: how much did a pre-existing polarized picture of the Athenians and Spartans affect Thucydides’ interpretation of events? And comparison with the presentation of national character in rhetoric could have inspired more thought on the use of national character in the rhetoric of Thucydides’ own speech. L. does use Thucydides’ speeches to show the prominence of the theme (pp. 84-5, 95-6) and offers a few remarks on how this moulds the rhetoric (e.g. pp. 213 n. 99 and 214 n. 121). But he does not discuss, for instance, how the Plataeans in their appeal to the Spartan judges (3.53-9) characterize their own performance in the Persian Wars with the same terms that are repeatedly used for the Athenians. That speech in turn raises a question about Thucydides’ technique. Thucydides tends to make points by verbal patterning. But while L. does occasionally note echoes (e.g. 99 n. 2, 162 n. 12), often he does not (e.g. he writes that Thucydides ‘uses this disaster [in Egypt] to foreshadow later events in Sicily’ (p. 136) without noting the echo of the phrase ‘few out of many’ at 1.110.1 and 7.87.5). Nor does L. ask why Thucydides should give so overt a judgment on national character at 8.96.5 — when, as L. notes (p. 83), he offers no such narratorial statements on issues such as imperialism.

The blurb contains an unfortunate misplaced apostrophe (‘Athen’s empire’). Apart from that, the book is well-produced, with few typos (but read ‘the siege of Potidaea’ for the siege of Plataea’ at p. 162 n. 23). My main complaint concerns the endnotes (printed at the end of each chapter). The chapter on ‘Athenian National Character in Action’ has 260 endnotes. But many of these are just references to quotations or allusions in the main body of the text. It would have been more convenient to most users of this book to include these references in the text itself. Some of the other endnotes are a bit repetitive (e.g. pp. 98 n. 16 and 104 nn. 100, 102, and 105, all on the links between 1.70 and 8.96.5; 185 nn. 18 and 19).

Greek text is often cited in the endnotes without much apparent point, and with some mistakes: for ὁλοφυρῶν at p. 211 n. 47, read καὶ ὁλοφυρμῶν. Most disturbing is the misquotation of the Greek of 2.65.11 as πρὸς τοὺ τους οἱ ἐπῇσαν rather than πρὸς οὓς ἐπῇσαν (p. 169 n. 177). L. quotes Thucydides’ phrase in this unpacked form to suit his unorthodox translation: ‘not so much an error to be charged to the commanders who made the attack, but rather the politicians who sent them’ (cf. p. 198: ‘which was not so much a failure of generalship in the field as it was a miscalculation on the part of its supporters’). He should have quoted the original Greek — and not just because his own interpretation seems impossible (the force of the πρὸς and the restriction to the commanders’ rather than the whole force are among the troublesome features). L. speaks of the contextual support of 2.65 for this interpretation (since ‘Thucydides places blame throughout on Pericles’ successors’). But the traditional translation (‘it was not so much a mistake with regard to those whom they were attacking, it was rather that the senders did not take the best measures for those who had gone out’) not only has the advantage of being a possible interpretation of the Greek, it also makes perfect sense. Sending the expedition was a mistake. Subsequent decisions at Athens (above all, the recall of Alcibiades) made the initial mistake so disastrous. Doubtless because of his interpretation of 2.65.11, L. also inverts the sense of 6.31.6, where the same phrase occurs: ‘it became famous no less from wonder at its boldness … than from the scale of the military objective in comparison with the forces sent’ ( στρατιᾶς πρὸς οὓς ἐπῇσαν ὑπερβολῇ), p. 169 n. 177. L.’s interpretation of 2.65.11 and 6.31.6 was first set out in an article he refers to, ‘Thucydides’ Evaluation of the Sicilian Expedition: 2.65.11′, AncW 28 (1997), 127-32. Yet there he translates 6. 31. 6: ‘because of the extravagance lavished on the invasion force relative to the numbers who actually participated’ — which is rather different from his 1999 version. His 1997 article also proposes a radical new interpretation of 6.15.3-4.

Overall, L. offers solid discussions of how Thucydides presents both human nature and national character. But there are questions about Thucydides’ treatment of national character that he does not pose and many of his themes will be very familiar to anyone versed in Thucydidean scholarship. Valuable as his work is, it could have done with some more Athenian innovativeness.