BMCR 2004.12.36

Thucydides: Man’s Place in History

, Thucydides : man's place in history. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2003. vii, 248 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0954384520. $59.50.

Hans-Peter Stahl’s Thukydides: Die Stellung des Menschen im geschichtlichen Prozess was originally published in 1966. It was a pioneering and polemical work, written in opposition to a commonly-held belief (prevalent in Germany especially but not exclusively, at the time) that Thucydides had written his history as a manual for future politicians and generals which would enable them to understand exactly the wellsprings of human action, and, more than that, to predict confidently what would happen in the future. It was this latter predictive value to which Stahl particularly took exception. He argued that, on the contrary, a close reading of Thucydides’ text demonstrated exactly the opposite, namely that events could not be predicted, either by the actors themselves at the time or by later generations of readers. Events had no “necessity” about them, and throughout the Peloponnesian War (and by extension in human history as a whole) the unforeseen, the incalculable, the irrational, and chance played important, sometimes dominant, roles. The book was enormously influential, and together with the work of W. R. Connor, Colin Macleod, and Adam Parry (to name but a few), was part of a significant re-evaluation of Thucydides’ history in the sixties and seventies.1

In preparing an English translation of the work, Stahl decided not to make any major revisions in the work, nor to update its bibliography. Since the strength of the book lies in its close readings of Thucydides’ text, the decision does not have major consequences for the utility of the English edition, although at times his polemic seems somewhat dated, since, thanks largely to Stahl’s own work, few people today hold the views he attacks. Stahl has, however, added two chapters to the original work, both on the Sicilian expedition (the German edition ended with a consideration of the Melian Dialogue in Book 5); both have been published before, but they are right at home here and add to the value of the volume.2 Although Stahl’s book has been well known to Thucydidean scholars and its conclusions and methods have been well assimilated over the decades, it is nonetheless a pleasure to welcome an English edition, since this will make the work more accessible to a greater number of people, including undergraduates and (should such beings still exist) the interested general reader. In producing this handsome volume, Dr. Anton Powell and his Classical Press of Wales have put us yet further in their debt.

Although it would be counterproductive to simplify Stahl’s enormously complex and nuanced reading of Thucydides, one can nevertheless point to a few methodological constants of the work. Stahl focuses on what he calls the “hinge-points” of the narrative, those places where events begin to develop independently, i.e., beyond the planning of the human actors. These hinge-points can be found throughout the history, and they are often recognizable by the greater narrative detail in their telling. Stahl also believes that one must pay attention to larger narrative units (sometimes called “event complexes”), because the meaning of events can only be seen in their end-point and in the particular way in which they unfold. Related to this is the assumption that speech and action are interdependent and must be examined together. One cannot (for example) extrapolate remarks made in speeches and then elevate such remarks to the status of truths; instead, one must look at how remarks made in speeches actually play out in the events that follow, so that these events serve as a comment on the beliefs and opinions espoused in individual speeches. Even when events turn out “successfully” for the participants, they almost never do so in exactly the way that had been predicted.

Chapter 1 begins by looking at the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton in Book 6, and asks why Thucydides places this digression here. Putting aside the notion that the historian wished simply to correct common opinion, Stahl analyzes the story for what it tells us of human plan, action and outcome. The plan itself originates from a false perception of the actual situation (Aristogeiton’s fear that Hipparchus would use force against him), and the conspirators then are guided by irrationality, passion and (as it turns out) the empty hope of spontaneous help from the citizens. Both the conception and the execution are done from fear and erotic excitement, but the conspirators’ private action spills over into the public arena, for the tyrant’s behavior now changes: whereas the Peisistratids, according to Thucydides, ruled according to the laws before, now in the aftermath of the assassination of Hipparchus, Hippias becomes harsher. So the conspirators, having initially conceived their plan as a way to avoid the putative violence of Hipparchus, wind up making Athens the victim of Hippias’ violence. Thucydides in this incident shows “misconception as a direct cause of action” (8),3 and action once taken is no longer under rational control but has its own dynamic, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen by the historical actors. The chapters that follow consider whether this type of sequence is the exception or the rule in Thucydides’ history.

In Chapter 2, Stahl reviews the bibliography in order to contest the idea that Thucydides’ notion of usefulness entails “practical applicability” (15), that Thucydides saw human nature as a “constant whose actions are generally predictable” (ibid.), and that Thucydides sought to train the statesman-reader in the ability to prognosticate and perhaps even improve human nature. He is especially critical of the labor spent on the “Thucydidean question,” and his answer to the analysts is that there is a continuity of viewpoint in the work provided that we abandon the approach that looks only at a narrow political formulation in Thucydides’ work (23). Thucydides’ work must be viewed in its totality: “what is human” ( to anthropinon) includes not only human nature but also “the external circumstances affecting human existence, so that we should translate to anthropinon precisely by ‘that which pertains to man’.” (29). As to the speeches he cautions against interpreting any particular speech as the viewpoint of Thucydides himself, and suggests, as noted above, that the way to judge speeches is to look at the outcome of actions, which illuminate the speeches retrospectively. To those familiar with the trends of the last thirty years of Thucydidean scholarship, this chapter will seem the most dated, but, again, that is thanks largely to the influence of Stahl and others.

Chapter 3 looks at Book 1 and gives a close analysis of the lead-up to the war, paying particular attention to the speeches of the Corinthians at Athens, of the Athenians at Sparta, and of Archidamus to his fellow Spartans. Here Thucydides is concerned not with the question of Kriegsschuld but rather with showing how each side justified going to war and how they calculated the events that might follow. Whereas the Athenians use the unpredictability of war to warn the Spartans (1.78.2), the Corinthians use this as grounds for optimism (1.122.1). At the same time, the reasoned calculations of Archidamus are overcome by the passion of Sthenelaidas, a pattern that recurs throughout the history: “emotion (or the side of human nature which is inaccessible to reason) has been recognized as an objective, operative factor in political and historical events” (60). Far from trying to educate future politicians in a system that would ignore incalculable factors, Thucydides was instead greatly interested in those very factors that defied rational interpretation.

Chapter 4 takes the opening incident of the war, the attack on Plataea, and gives a detailed analysis of the actions of the participants and of the calculations made by the participants that justified their actions at any point. Thucydides’ narrative detail allows the reader to visualize the paradoxical μεταβολή that befell each side, and concentrates on three points: the desperate situation of the Theban attackers when they themselves come under attack; the late arrival of the Theban relief force; and the late arrival of the messenger from Athens whose announcement could have saved the prisoners (an action that will have severe consequences later for the Plataeans when their city is finally captured by the Spartans). The significance of the episode at Plataea, according to Stahl, lies in its exemplarity, for Thucydides here in small compass could “hint at the broad variation and complexity of the courses of events” (72).

Chapter 5 looks at the contrast drawn by Thucydides between plan (the speeches and calculations of Book 1) and reality. Here events begin to have their own existence, not bound in any way by the wishes or expectations of the participants. With the war finally under way, “Thucydides forces the reader to compare plan with execution, to measure the perspectives of planning against those of the course of events” (80); there is an “increasing ‘independence’ of occurrences” as “the war takes on its own face by emerging gradually from behind the plans of the people involved and revealing itself as an independent entity” (95). Several kinds of action are spotlighted in this chapter. There is, first of all, the plague, a reminder of the unforeseen in human life; it destroys Athenian resolve, showing immediately how plan is altered by unforeseen circumstances. There is the genuinely tragic plight of the Plataeans, denied a free choice in the war and without the option to be neutral since their women and children are in Athens. The Plataeans must lose, no matter whose side they take. Thucydides also considers missed opportunities: he mentions the Spartan proposal to attack the Piraeus and the hesitancy of Archidamus on his first invasion of Attica. As the historian looks deeper into occurrences, “the more the potential turns of events in a situation leap out at him” (93).

Chapter 6 turns to Book 3, where the darker side of the war now emerges. The situation at Mytilene is again shown to be the result of a series of misunderstandings and false inferences. By Book 3 it is becoming clear that the participants in the war “can no longer expect to put their own overarching plans into action unimpaired” but rather “can at most hope to make adjustments” in light of the events that are taking place (111). The civil war at Corcyra is a further incident in the “author’s pedagogically progressive technique” (ibid.); this is an exemplary passage not in the sense that it offers a “repeatable schema” (112) but because it is representative of the same or similar actions that occurred elsewhere. The three theatres of the action in Book 3 (Mytilene, Plataea and Corcyra) are not great places in themselves, but rather incidental casualties of the conflicts between the great powers. Thucydides has expanded the scope of his work, such that it is no longer bound to the political realm or Athenian imperialism but instead includes all parties and individuals.

Chapter 7 continues with the story to the end of the Archidamian War. Here Stahl begins by examining two incidents in which commanders act outside of their original intention or orders. In summer 426 Demosthenes allows himself to be persuaded to attack the Aetolians, and he does so out of personal ambition. The result is moderate success followed by tremendous failure. In the same summer the Aetolians manage to persuade the Spartans to attack Naupactus, and again a similar type of failure results. Even though Demosthenes later makes up for his loss by a victory, Thucydides concentrates on the tragedy of the events, on the way the pathos of the situation is inseparably joined to the events themselves: “the tragic outcome is part and parcel of the facts themselves” (136). So too in considering the slaughter at Mykalessos, Thucydides’ horror is for the “senselessness of the pathos, which is a general characteristic of the war” (138). The historian portrays a series of events beyond Demosthenes’ control, and a series of μεταβολαί unforeseen by the participants. As at Epidamnus, an unimportant place (in this case, Pylos) suddenly becomes the center of the whole issue of war and peace. And these events set in motion an entire series of consequences: the Spartan offer of peace, which is denied by the Athenians, and then the actions of Brasidas, which bring about another μεταβολή in Athenian fortunes, so that the Athenians now also desire peace. And when peace is finally made, it is on the basis of the status quo. The entire history of the Archidamian war has been one of suffering. Thucydides writes here not so much the tragedy of Athens as the tragedy of humanity itself, since people blindly place their trust in “the supposed availability of factors whose effects are beyond their reach (and control)” (152).

Chapter 8 looks at the Melian Dialogue. Avoiding the usual interpretation of the dialogue as a contest between might and right, Stahl looks instead at what happens in the Dialogue itself, i.e., how it progresses as a narrative. The Athenians, having recognized the unequal position of the negotiators, make the right of the stronger the perimeter within which the debate will take place (161-2). Whereas the Athenians maintain a consistent position throughout the Dialogue, the Melians turn to unreality, and grasp at hope and chance, and so the thing which is by definition incalculable (hope) becomes the guarantee of the Melians’ wish fulfillment (164). “In the Melian Dialogue we have a view of humanity, not in terms of its values, but rather primarily in terms of its (in)capacity to grasp the reality of a given situation….The point is not to defend or attack the attitudes represented on either side but to present them as historically significant discoveries, that is, in the final analysis, as constitutive elements of the general human way of existence” (168, 170).4

Chapter 9 lacks the detailed method of the previous chapters and gives instead a general overview of the Sicilian expedition, paying careful attention to the relationship between speech and action. Stahl looks in particular at the speeches of Nicias and Alcibiades that open Book 6. Thucydides characterizes the Athenians’ thoughts about Sicily as based on irrational hope and ignorance, and, as in other parts of the work, the unreal is going to become real “because people are going to act out their hopes and desires” and the facts will be disregarded (183). At the same time, Stahl notes the absence of moralizing in Thucydides, even at the end when destruction overtakes the Athenians. Thucydides is not so simple as to believe that the wicked must be punished or the ignorant be taught; instead, he portays the Athenians sympathetically because their blindness is not an isolated phenomenon but is “a universal (if regrettable) fact about the human condition” (186)

With only one aspect of the treatment here do I take exception, namely Stahl’s belief that from subsequent events one can see that Thucydides himself favored the view of Nicias about Sicily, since Nicias was right to be concerned about money, supplies and cavalry. Given that Stahl had originally said that one cannot assume any speech of Thucydides to be evidence of the historian’s own view, the bald claim that subsequent events revealed Nicias to be right and that this is what Thucydides intended seems problematic. The complexity of events in Sicily as Thucydides narrates them in Books 6 and 7, and the fact that the Athenians came very close indeed to taking Syracuse show rather that even Nicias’ speech is but a partial view of the situation in Sicily, as much conditioned by his own fears (for his own reputation, among other things), partial knowledge, and desire to affect the Athenian assembly.

Chapter 10 returns to the detailed treatment practiced elsewhere in the book, and asks the question whether the “hinges” of history as examined in the previous chapters are also true for Books 6 and 7. Stahl focuses on a variety of scenes here, but the bulk of the chapter analyzes two narratives in detail: the seizure of Epipolai by the Athenians in July of 413, and the narrative of Gylippus’ attempt to bring help to Syracuse.5 By looking at the hinge-events, Stahl discovers the same kind of probing treatment that he had found in earlier narratives. He returns to his original question of whether Thucydides advocated a degree of probability, predictability or even “steerability” in historical or political processes (216), and he notes again that Thucydides is always interested in the place where things could have gone either way and with the way in which events develop independently from their previous direction and independently from the original planning of both sides (217-8).

Thucydides’ work, he concludes, is not a textbook for manipulation of the world. Instead, it provides insight into the human condition and the workings of history. Rather than try to use Thucydides’ history to predict the future, “the work would fulfill the author’s intention if today’s readers, when being acquainted with the events and vicissitudes of Greek history as detailed by him, could likewise, in an act of recognition, gain clarity about the constitutive elements of the history of their own time — elements which, though recurring with inescapable constancy, nevertheless, since being variables, cannot be concretely calculated beforehand” (219).

Stahl’s book, then, is an enormously useful detailed reading of some key incidents in Thucydides’ work, while at the same time being a profound meditation on history and the role of human beings in the historical process. If some of his insights will seem familiar to readers, that is (again) the result of the influence the book has had over the years. Yet, given the continued belief that human actions can be predicted and that the calculations of war can be easily assessed beforehand — one can hardly help thinking of current events — it is clear that the lessons imparted both by Thucydides and Stahl need to be learned again and again. It is yet further proof, if such were needed, that Thucydides’ work really is a “possession for all time.”


1. Some of that trend is splendidly analyzed by W. R. Connor, “A Post-Modern Thucydides?,” CJ 72 (1977) 289-98. For other changes to the evaluation of Thucydides over the last forty years see J. Marincola, Greek Historians (Oxford 2001) 61-104.

2. Chapter 9 is a slightly altered version of “Speeches and Course of Events in Books Six and Seven of Thucydides,” originally published in Philip Stadter, ed., The Speeches in Thucydides (Chapel Hill 1973); Chapter 10 appeared originally as ” Literarisches Detail und historischer Krisenpunkt im Geschichtswerk des Thukydides: die Sizilische Expedition,” Rh. Mus. 145 (2002) 68-107.

3. Stahl uses italics liberally throughout the book, especially where he is trying to make a point. I have not reproduced his italics, believing that in brief quotations they will only distract the reader.

4. In this chapter in particular, Stahl’s criticisms of previous scholars seem particularly outdated. He remarks (171 n. 19) that the last attack against Thucydides’ credibility was that of Max Treu in 1953/4 and Raubitschek in 1963, but recently Virginia Hunter and E. Badian have provided much more detailed and sophisticated analyses: for more see my Greek Historians (above, n. 1) 98-103.

5. In this chapter, unlike the previous ones, there is a great deal of topographical information and there are some maps and plates illustrating the various sites. Stahl is much more conscious of the Realien of Thucydides’ description here, but while such additional information is useful, it is hardly necessary to his treatment or interpretation.