BMCR 2002.01.16

Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation

, Thucydides : narrative and explanation. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xi, 339 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0198152566 $85.00.

The reviewer apologizes to author and audience for the lateness of this review.

Tim Rood’s stimulating and important book is an attempt to use the tools of narratological analysis to illuminate the ways in which Thucydides constructs a narrative that simultaneously expounds and explains the Peloponnesian War. Working carefully with individual episodes (sometimes even individual remarks), he nonetheless has illuminated Thucydides’ technique on the large scale as well as the small. By building on the works of Schwartz, de Romilly, Stahl, Macleod, Connor and Hornblower (debts that he scrupulously acknowledges throughout), Rood has much to say that is new and exciting. He has brought to the task wide reading and a great sensitivity to his author, and he has applied the techniques of narratology to Thucydides’ text (dare I say, to any ancient historical text) more expertly than anyone before. And in so doing, he has produced the most important book on Thucydides since Connor’s work of nearly two decades ago.

The first chapter (“Introduction: History and Literature”) introduces the subject matter and the author’s approach to Thucydides. Rood believes that an examination of the construction of the narrative, of individual events, and of the links between events will increase our understanding of the story. He gives a brief and clear overview of narratology’s goals, noting that he will concentrate above all on time and focalization. (He explains the choice of the latter term in an appendix, “Focalization and Its (Dis)contents,” pp. 294-6.) He hopes thereby “to bring out through close analysis important aspects both of Thucydides’ technique and of his broader meaning” (15).

Chapter 2, “The Analysis of Narrative: Pylos,” takes on this much-studied event with the goal of showing that the role that has been assigned to luck ( tyche) in this incident is exaggerated and fails both to understand the narrative’s “expositional gaps” (25) and its relation to the rest of Thucydides’ text. Rood shows that the Athenian decision to fortify Pylos, as portrayed by Thucydides, is not casual, but much in accord with the Athenian character of constant activity and (just as importantly) with the inversion of leaders to led (for it is the soldiers who get the idea of fortifying the place) that is characteristic of post-Periclean Athens. When the Spartans surrender, Thucydides emphasizes the reaction of others, who are shocked by this uncharacteristic Spartan action. Pylos is thus a tale of the unexpected and it is “that surrender, not the intervention of fortune, that the earlier narrative looks ahead to and suggests as the true significance of Pylos” (39).

Rood then looks at the speech of the Spartans at Athens as they seek peace. Following Hornblower (who in turn was influenced by Colin Macleod), Rood sees Thucydides’ speeches as “dramatic re-enactments of attempts at persuasion, not vehicles for expressing personal opinion” (40). We should not assume that the availability of sources determined Thucydides’ procedure here. Like the narrative, the speeches are structured to emphasize certain themes, and many source-hypotheses “fall prey to the circularity of first defining a textual feature and then characterizing Thucydides’ sources solely on the basis of that definition” (51). Likewise, the compositional problem and the detection of “late” and “early” passages are less important issues than the overarching internal coherence of Thucydides’ narrative.

Chapter 3 (“Perceptions: Towards Peace”) takes the narrative from Pylos to the peace of 421, concentrating on “the functions of perceptions, the dialogue between the perspectives of reader and participants” (62), for Rood believes that the importance of perceptions in this section is paramount. The Athenian and Spartan struggle over Megara is the arena in which perceptions are shown to be all-important. The Spartan commander Brasidas is the paradeigmatic figure of this period, a man who understands the importance of appearances and molds his behavior in awareness of the public gaze: the question of focalization, of “who evaluates?,” is here at its most important. When peace is discussed, it is within a context of fear on either side, rather than arising from any positive advantages to be won: the Spartans (on whom the focus largely rests) especially do not want war with Argos and Athens simultaneously. It is Thucydides’ emphasis on these perceptions that helps to explain events: fear leading to action that often brings about the very thing feared.

The fourth chapter, “Misreadings: Book V,” focuses on one of Thucydides’ most problematic books, and one that has come in for its share of criticism. Rood, however, sees the unusual features of Book V as a positive contribution by Thucydides, showing how once again perceptions matter and how a peace in name was really a state of war. The narrative is disjointed and plotless, and the lack of speeches “points to a pattern of repeated failure: talk was plentiful and unproductive” (91). Even the documents, which some earlier scholars have seen as indications of unfinished composition, Rood sees as positive contributions, since “they articulate the important phases in the approach to peace, and in the period of the uneasy peace” (92), and the inclusion of abandoned treaties is important since “knowledge of their terms enables us to appreciate the importance of their abandonment” (93).

The subject of Chapter 5 is “Temporal Manipulation,” especially chronological displacement and what that reveals about Thucydides’ understanding of history. Since structuring principles always involve interpretation, a look at how Thucydides manages the movement of his narrative is of fundamental importance. The two forms of displacement are analepsis, the moving back in time to narrate something that occurred earlier than the current narrative time, and prolepsis, the anticipation of an event before its time in the narrative. Rood looks at a series of events here, from the civil war in Corcyra to the Spartan invasions of Attica. He also examines interwoven and interrupted narratives, which help to convey the unfolding of history as the participants themselves experienced it. Finally he turns to III. 17 and II. 65, both anachronic authorial comments. The latter is the “most important” (128) anachrony in the History, where Thucydides integrates proleptic references to the Sicilian expedition and the end of the war into his evaluation of Pericles, his successors, and the Athenians themselves. Here Rood shows that a whole nexus of proleptic and analeptic references surround the Sicilian expedition (not surprising in view of its importance in Thucydides), and he sees these displacements as suggesting various perspectives and posing interpretative problems for readers: “By inviting us to form links between past and present, Thucydides encourages us to perceive human similarities” (130), and this is closely connected with his evaluation of his work as a possession for all time, useful for the clear picture of the past and of the same or similar things that will again happen in the future.

In Chapter 6, Rood takes up the issue of Athenian politics that II. 65 presupposes. Thucydides has often been criticized for his failure to treat Athenian internal politics fully, but Rood points out that it is not easy to define and judge omissions, and the way in which we detect them — i.e., the use of other sources — is often problematic. As he perceptively notes, even an account of omissions is itself selective. The paradeigmatic figure here is Pericles, the latter-day Themistocles, who exemplifies the contrast between reason and passion, but whose strategy for victory in the war will require the Athenians to give up their natural character, the one the Corinthians had sketched of them (I. 70.2-9) as relentlessly advancing and always intent upon having more.

In Chapter 7, “Athens and Sicily,” Rood comes to the longest and most impressive of all narratives in Thucydides. He sees Thucydides’ attitude to Athens’ defeat as complex but consistent. The defeat comes about from the combination at the outset of Nicias (who by his exaggerations foments the Athenians’ passion but lacks Pericles’ ability to shock the people to fear) and Alcibiades (who understands the Periclean legacy but is reckless in his application of it). When the Athenians finally arrive in Sicily, their strategy is chaotic. Meanwhile, the Athenians back home are opening a fatal breach, and their behavior during the affair of the Herms and the Mysteries shows that they are taking on the characteristics of a tyranny. Rood argues based on verbal echoes that the recall of Alcibiades was what Thucydides referred to in II. 65 when he spoke of the Athenians not taking “the best measures for those who had gone out, but because of their personal quarrels over the leadership of the demos they weakened the army in the field.” He thus argues that there is no contradiction between II. 65 and the narrative of Books VI and VII.

Chapter 8, “Nicias and Athens,” narrows the focus on the complex interplay of personal and civic forces that are revealed in the character of Nicias. When he conceals his true thoughts while addressing the Athenians before the expedition, his “disingenuousness is damaging” (188), while his refusal to leave Sicily because of his fear of prosecution at Athens is “emblematic of the decline in Athens’ leaders, of their inability to control the changeableness of the demos” (ibid.). That in turn suggests a link between Athenian success and destruction: Nicias cannot control the people at home or reverse the decline of the army in Sicily. In his pathetic pleas before the crucial battles, he reveals not an inferior intellect or strategy but rather the desperateness of the Athenian position. The Sicilian narrative is framed around reversals (Nicias’ personal tragedy is a part of this), and Thucydides portrays “a tragic pattern” in which “the Athenians’ success is implicated in their defeat” (201).

Chapter 9 takes on the issues of selectivity and omission. In a discussion of aitiai and prophasis, Rood suggests that the reason for the great length of the narratives of the Corcyra and Potidaea episodes at the outset of Book I is that both include Corinthian involvement (something that is not true for the issues surrounding the Megarian Decree and Aegina’s autonomy). It is the Corinthian desire for revenge that is most important in Thucydides, and the articulation of the Corcyra narrative reveals the “truest cause” (213). Rood then turns to the Pentekontaetia, the longest explanatory analepsis in the whole work, and suggests that it is placed at the point where there is a switch in Corinth’s attitude. (Likewise, Thucydides ends the Pentekontaetia after the revolt of Samos, because Samos marked a change in Corinth’s attitude.) The analysis of the Pentekontaetia continues in the next chapter (10), where Rood looks at variations in temporal and focalizing techniques. The excursus, he suggests, looks to the end, i.e., the Spartan decision to go to war, and the Peloponnesian perspective is “the central topic of the excursus” (229). What the Spartans see everywhere is Athenian dynamism, an inheritance from the Persian Wars. This portrait of the Athenians looks forward to the war it is meant to explain, as Thucydides constructs for the reader a “path from Salamis to Syracuse” (247).

Chapter 11 (“Continuity: Book VIII”) focuses on the problematic last book of the History. Since the polarities of the land/sea power struggle were ended with the destruction of the Athenian fleet in Sicily, Book VIII both portrays a new starting over (Rood adduces several verbal parallels between Books VIII and I). The swift transitions of place that characterize Book VIII show the continual suspension of plans: this new war at sea lacks resolution, and changes of fortune become ever more common. Nothing is ever static or settled, and Book VIII is “a narrative of the deferment of expected resolution” (262). The style of Book VIII is thus an attempt to mirror the disordered world after Sicily, probing constantly the limits of human foresight and understanding, and of humans’ inability to predict what will happen.

Rood concludes by drawing together the threads of his analysis, and relating them to the larger question of the explanatory nature of historical narrative. He notes that we cannot disprove Thucydides’ story; we can only “tell different stories” (288). Yet when we do that (as later ancient writers did, and as modern scholars still do when they “rewrite” Thucydides’ history of the war), we reveal different assumptions, expectations, and interpretations. To change the narrative is to change the explanation.

The summary above will give, I hope, some sense of the wealth of important and interesting observations and interpretations to be found in this book. The treatment is subtle, dense, and sometimes elliptical. Because Rood treats nearly every major passage in Thucydides and because he has so much ground to cover, his analysis of individual passages was sometimes not as detailled as I would have liked. Yet Rood has shown very well how narratology can make important contributions to our understanding of the structure of historiographical texts and how that structure itself can have explanatory force. Narratology, however, like all tools, has its limitations, and if I have one criticism of Rood’s work (and it is the only one I have), it is that he sometimes claims too much for what narratology and his own particular analysis accomplish. He often makes his starting point the negative comments of an earlier scholar on the passage to be examined and then attempts to show that Thucydides’ text is perfectly coherent as it is written. Yet occasionally his approach is unnecessarily exclusionary, and his analysis runs in parallel with, rather than against, the interpretations of earlier scholars. His fine treatment of Pylos begins by trying to refute those scholars who see in the narrative an excessive reliance on tyche. Yet after reading Rood’s analysis I see no reason to choose his interpretation over or in place of others’. To say, as he does, that the narrative is constructed so as to look forward to the (shocking) surrender of the Spartans (39) does not seem to me to necessitate the elimination of the importance of tyche. It may weaken a particular interpretation that some scholars have put on the appearance of tyche — for example, that the narrative is meant to denigrate Cleon — but that is a separate matter. In fact, the repeated appearance of tyche here at this most important event of the early years of the war validates the warnings that the Athenians had given the Spartans about the unpredictability of war (I. 78.1-2) and connects with the later importance of chance and the unpredictable at Sicily.

As a sensitive and intelligent reader of Thucydides, Rood tries always to make sense of the text as we have it, but a danger of this is that one can wind up being little more than an apologist for one’s author. In the treatment of Book V, for example, Rood wishes to show that the narrative helps explain a peace that was one only in name and that the style and content of Book V are appropriate to the story Thucydides wishes to tell of this period. With much of this I agree. Yet certain questions remain. To explain the absence of formal speeches in V, Rood states that “talk was plentiful and unproductive; expansion would tell us little” (91). In the next section on documents, however, Rood defends Thucydides’ inclusion of treaties that were not permanent by stating that “knowledge of their terms enables us to appreciate the importance of their abandonment” (93). But it is not clear to me why failed treaties are any more valuable than failed speeches, and surely one could argue that it would have been very valuable to include speeches, or (conversely) that telling us of treaties that did not stay in force was Thucydides’ way of avoiding talk that “was plentiful and unproductive.” In a similar vein, Rood argues that the disjointed time sequence of Book VIII is meant to mirror the disorder of the post-Sicily world. Yet as Thucydides shows in his narratives of the plague (II. 47.3-54) and of the stasis in Corcyra (III. 82-4), the breakdown of order and society need not be represented by a parallel “breakdown” in narrative manner. It is, of course, true that the constant shifts of locale in Book VIII were difficult to narrate, but even in the early Books of the History there are consistent changes of scene without the same kind of dislocation of the narrative: one thinks particularly of the “chopped-up” narrative of the siege and fall of Plataea (II. 2-6, 70-78, III. 20-24, 52-68).

Very occasionally, Rood’s analysis with narratological tools fails to satisfy because he is interested in questions that I think simply cannot be answered by narratology. Examining Thucydides’ treatment of Athenian politicians, for example, Rood wonders why the historian does not mention the suicide of the general Paches. After he proposes three possibilities (none of which he seems to endorse strongly), he remarks that “Thucydides’ silence explains why it cannot be explained” (143). This verges dangerously close to tautology. Surely here we are at the limits of narratological analysis, for narratology is the study of the text we have (as Rood himself often argues and exploits to wonderful purpose), not of other possible texts. Neither narratology nor any other single tool can answer all of the questions we have about Thucydides’ work. Rood deserves great credit for trying to solve major problems in Thucydides’ work, but I feel that some of the problems persist, and the study of Thucydides’ narrative and thematic structure cannot (or cannot by itself, at any rate) solve them.

My disagreements on these few points are not meant in any way to detract from the excellence of this book. On the contrary, because it is such a rich and sensitive reading of Thucydides, the book forces us to think about these issues anew, and it is a tribute to Rood’s efforts that his book will stimulate thinking not only on Thucydides, but also on the narratives of other ancient historians, and on the tools of literary analysis now used to explicate historiographical texts. For scholars interested in the structure and arrangement of Thucydides’ work, Rood’s book will now be the fundamental starting point for future analyses. More than that, because Rood has shown so well how narrative has explanatory power, one may predict that the fruits of his insights will now be applied to other ancient historiographical texts. One can only hope that these other ancient historians will have readers of Rood’s sophistication and insight.