BMCR 2006.02.53

Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader

, Thucydides : an introduction for the common reader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xiii, 190 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691123519. $24.95.

Perez Zagorin (hereafter Z.), emeritus professor of history at the University of Rochester, has written distinguished books in the field of early modern Britain and Europe.1 His long avocational interest in ancient history has borne fruit in a masterfully crisp and balanced general introduction to the best of classical historians.

The “common reader” of Z.’s title is now, sadly, a fond figment of the bookish imagination. Even those few who commonly read do not commonly read Thucydides. Still one knows what he means. This book will in fact be most useful to an audience of undergraduates and other “intellectually curious people,” to whom its enthusiastic tone is well suited: “[Thucydides’] book . . . is one of the supreme classic works of Greek and Western civilization that continues to speak to us across the vast gulf of the past” (p. 1).

In his “Introduction” (1-6), Z. describes the iconic status of Thucydides as a historian, traces his own fascination with him back to student days, and states the modest intent of his book — “to increase the number of [Thucydides’] readers and to provide them with some insight into his work.” He makes no claims to be exhaustive, noting the existence of more thorough histories of the Peloponnesian War2 and the huge output of specialized studies by philologists, textual critics, and historians in the past two centuries.

In Chapter 1, “The History and Its Background” (7-22), Z. surveys the evolution of the polis system in the archaic era, the significance of the Persian Wars, and the development of the Peloponnesian League and the Athenian Empire in the Pentecontaetia. He also identifies the distinctive traits of Thucydides as a historian, in part by contrasting him with Herodotus: “Not only was his History much more integrated, but he was also more rigorous, had much stricter standards of evidence, and was far more concerned with truth and accuracy”(18), mentioning in this regard the decisive influence of Hippocratic medicine and the sophistic enlightenment. Fair enough.

Chapter 2, “The Subject, Method, and Structure of Thucydides’ History” (23-39), addresses the thorny issue of reliability in the reporting of both speeches and events and again comes to generally reassuring conclusions: “no historian ancient or modern ever attached a higher importance than did Thucydides to the necessity of truth and accuracy or exactness in the writing of history” (31). To the specialist reader, this may seem a touch overconfident, even nave, especially the words “or modern.” Finally, Z. alludes to, without bogging down in, questions about the date and order of composition of the History.

Chapter 3, “Thucydides on the Causes of the War” (40-56), begins, naturally, with Thucydides’ distinction between long- and short-fuse causes, while reviewing scholarly opinion on the semantics of aitia, diaphorai, and ( alethestate) prophasis. Z. asserts that “Thucydides’ own loose and imprecise language makes it difficult to decide between … differing interpretations,” then concludes unobjectionably that “unwilling to be satisfied with an explanation of the war derived from the parties’ own publicly alleged reasons, grievances, and justifications, [Thucydides] places in the foreground as the war’s true but little mentioned or unavowed cause, operative over a lengthy period of time, Athenian imperialism and Spartan rivalry and fear of Athens’s [sic] aggrandizement” (43-44). The remainder of the chapter gives more detail on the expansion of Athenian power in the fifth century and the affairs of Corcyra, Potidaea, and Megara, ending with an analysis of the crucial speeches at Sparta and Athens in the immediate lead-up to hostilities.

Chapter 4, “Thucydides and Pericles” (57-74), takes up Thucydides’ skill in characterization, his deft ability to “endow [individuals] with a compelling reality” (59). Z. touches on Pausanias, Themistocles, Archidamus, Nicias, Cleon, Brasidas, and, of course, Alcibiades, before turning to the “unique and unequalled place” occupied by Pericles in the History. A sketch of biographical particulars precedes a more detailed examination of Pericles’ speeches, including the Epitaphios. The stirring patriotic tenor of the latter is duly noted with the astute proviso that the speech is “similar in spirit to the claims to be the carriers of a higher civilization that the Western imperialist powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries converted into an ideology to justify and rationalize their acquisition and rule over their colonial empires in Asia and Africa” (69). The chapter concludes with a clear summary of Pericles’ “mainly defensive war strategy,” Thucydides’ concurrence with it, and some modern scholars’ reservations about it.

The next three chapters briskly describe events and persons of special prominence in Thucydides’ account of the war. In Chapter 5, “Scenes from the Archidamian War: Mytilene [3.3-18, 25-50], Plataea [3.52-68], Corcyra [3.70-83], Pylos [4.3-23, 26-40]” (75-99), the careful attention to the debate at Plataea is especially welcome because unusual in a general book on Thucydides. In Chapter 6, “Dialogue at Melos [5.84-113] and the Sicilian Expedition [6-7]” (100-124), the handling of the latter is a minor triumph of concision, with sensible conclusions about the reasons for the Athenians’ defeat, specifically their failures of leadership as against improving tactics and growing initiative on the Syracusan side. In Chapter 7, “Endings” (125-138), Z. grants that “after the enthralling experience of books 6 and 7, readers are apt to find the eighth book of the History something of an anticlimax” (126), noticing the lack of dramatic coherence and direct reproduction of speeches. He then identifies the book’s “major strands or factors whose interplay shaped [the] final stage of the Peloponnesian War” (127): Persia’s entry on the Spartan side, widespread rebellion among Athens’ subject allies, the machinations of Alcibiades, and, in rather greater detail, the outbreak and course of stasis at Athens. Z. also sketches the last nine years of the war from the accounts of Xenophon and the “Oxyrhynchus historian.”

Chapter 8, “Thucydides as a Philosophical Historian” (139-161), may be the best thing in the book. Z. asks the big questions: “How shall we explain the enduring greatness of [Thucydides’] account of the Peloponnesian War? What are the qualities of mind he put into it that give it its distinction as a classic history …?” (139). He answers them by accentuating three habits of thought, under the rubrics “Realism,” “Naturalism,” and “Thinking about History.” Realism, singled out, as Z. observes, by Hobbes and Nietzsche as a characteristically Thucydidean trait, “signifies … his disposition to see men, human affairs, and the world as they are … with no attempt to disguise the harsh truth of things …” (143-144). This is, admittedly, an unremarkable definition; much more interesting is Z.’s reflection that “Thucydides’ realism … did not lead him to form a conception of the presence of evil as an active force in history” (145). He contrasts Thucydides’ account of the heinous Thracian massacre of the people of Mycalessus (7.29-30) with a modern historian’s reaction to the memorial site of the German death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.3

By naturalism, Z. means Thucydides’ tendency “to regard events, men’s actions, and the physical world itself as all part of the natural order and subject to some extent to its regularities and natural laws” (146) and his consequent skepticism regarding divine interventions or oracular pronouncements in the course of human events. He stresses the likely influence of natural philosophy (Anaxagoras, Democritus) and the Hippocratic writings.

Finally, Z. offers perceptive comments on the vexed principle of objectivity in the writing of history. Unlike those (e.g. W.R. Connor) who treat the principle as “a rhetorical ploy of the historian in addressing the reader” (154), he maintains that, though lacking a word for objectivity, Thucydides nonetheless strove to achieve it, “as we can infer from his insistence on the centrality of accuracy ( akribeia) and truth ( aletheia); his criticism of superstition, popular credulity, and the fables of poets and romancers; and his correction of historical errors” (155). Z. also argues that Thucydides in fact created a work that would benefit future readers wishing to understand the forces of historical causation, one that brilliantly gauged the potentials and limitations of the human intellect, impelled by fear, ambition, and self-interest in the face of chance, irrationality, and necessity.

In my own undergraduate days, the best general introduction to the great Athenian historian was John Finley’s Thucydides, a book now out of print but still valuable for its lucid prose and incisive rehearsal of the ancient narrative. Since its publication in 1942 (then often reprinted), much first-rate scholarly work has appeared, including the indispensable multi-volume commentaries of Gomme-Andrewes-Dover and Hornblower and the new edition of CAH.4 Besides these reference tools, scores of monographs and hundreds of articles have also seen the light. While there are one-volume introductions that draw on this immense body of work, Z. succeeds better than most in gently and expertly acquainting his readers with the best of this rich vein of scholarship.

Z. is to be congratulated for his well-informed,5 evenhanded, readable, and eupeptic presentation of a formidable ancient historian. If his tone sometimes verges on the over-exuberant, that is forgivable — even advisable — given the (precious) common reader he envisages.


1. E.g., A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London 1954) and Rebels and Rulers, 1500-1660, 2 vols. (Cambridge 1982).

2. Most notably Donald Kagan’s four-volume history (Ithaca 1969/1974/1981/1987) and his more recent one-volume (500-page) condensation: The Peloponnesian War (New York 2003).

3. Konnilyn G. Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness (New York 1981), 337: “I felt an overwhelming sense of evil — not horror, as in the Auschwitz warehouses, but evil. . . I stood with my eyes wide and my mouth open, speechless. I had no idea what it was, but I felt evil, and that moment, that time, has never left me.”

4. A.W. Gomme, A. Andrewes, and K.J. Dover, edd., A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, 5 vols. (Oxford 1945-1981), S. Hornblower, ed., A Commentary on Thucydides, 2 vols. [of a projected three] (Oxford 1997/2005), and The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5: The Fifth Century B.C., ed. David M. Lewis et al. (Cambridge 1992).

5. The extent of the scholarship Z. controls may be estimated from his endnote references, not the few books listed under “Further Reading.”