BMCR 2006.04.25

Thucydides’ War Narrative: A Structural Study

, Thucydides' war narrative : a structural study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (1 volume). ISBN 9780520930971 $49.95.

Thucydidean scholars have long been waiting for the publication of Carolyn Dewald’s 1975 Berkeley dissertation, Taxis: The Organization of Thucydides’ History, Books ii-viii. The book D. has now published has a different title from the dissertation — which was once, the story goes, classified in library catalogues under ‘Transportation’. But the book is still, D. writes, ‘a product of its original time and place’ and ‘essentially now more than a quarter century old’. It is a great tribute to the quality of the work that it has stood the test of time so well: it now takes its place as the most detailed and sensitive investigation of the narrative units through which Thucydides structured his history.

In the first half of her book, D. analyses the narrative structure of Thucydides’ account of the Archidamian War. She starts with a useful preliminary overview of what she calls the paratactic structure of the Archidamian narrative, focusing in particular on the narrative of year 6. She sees the account as ‘a series of independent, discrete short narratives’, with ‘the structural integrity and topical distinctiveness’ (p. 26) of each narrative unit marked by the formulaic opening sentence: ‘Initially each new unit demands to be understood on its own terms as a discrete entry; only in retrospect does it begin to take its place as part of the larger ongoing narrative’ (p. 33).

In Chapter 2, D. looks at the formulaic elements in the introductory sentences that define each narrative unit and so enable units to be linked together in patterned sequences. By a stylometric analysis of the treatment of the subject, the verb, and the spatial and temporal setting, D. is able to show that Thucydides uses certain regular patterns but also that some changes begin to appear — individuals as well as collective subjects that are not Athenian or Peloponnesian, for instance, become more common as subjects of introductory verbs in the later stages of the Archidamian narrative; and there are changes too in the distribution of verb types (initiatory, deliberative, summary). The results of this chapter (which are further elaborated in a detailed Appendix) become even more interesting in the light of D.’s analysis of the changes that occur in the later sections of the History.

D. proceeds in Chapter 3 to examine the internal structure of the units. She defines five types of structure (‘simple picture units’, ‘developed picture units’, ‘list units’, ‘extended narrative units’, and ‘complex units’), and again she is able to show interesting developments in the course of the Archidamian narrative: there is an increase, for instance, in the later stages of the Archidamian narrative in both ‘simple picture units’ (short narrative passages seven lines long or less that contain a brief description of a single activity) and the more elaborate narrative forms she terms ‘extended narrative units’. While D. is aware that she is analysing classifications that she has herself introduced and that in a few cases there may be scope for argument as to which category a narrative unit belongs in, her terms do prove to be a fruitful way of isolating changes in Thucydides’ technique.

In Chapter 4 D. broadens her study to examine the patterns formed by the units in combination. Her discussion starts at the local level with four types of ‘significant juxtaposition’ (‘loose narrative continuity’, ‘a-b-a formations’, ‘causal connection’, ‘thematic continuity’) and goes on to treat more elaborate types of clustering (combination of units within single years and then the patterns formed from one year to another). D.’s close analysis is able to show how the patterns in years one and ten mirror each other: in year one Thucydides creates an opening pattern that then complicates itself, while in year ten a simplifying movement prepares for the false closure of the peace. As for the year-by-year study of the shape of the Archidamian narrative with which this part of the work closes, it has the same virtues D. shows in the thematic reading of Herodotus supplied by her introduction and detailed notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Herodotus.1 It is not quite clear, however, how D. delimits the precise interpretative significance that can be drawn solely from the interaction between narrative units: she explains in a note that her analysis ‘does not consider unity of thought and political philosophy . . . or the cohesiveness that comes from the continuing interest through the work in certain themes, like the impact of character . . . or the development of political goals or deployment of military strategy on the part of various states’ (p.212 n.1), but inevitably she introduces broader thematic notions into her readings, though she only pursues these themes as far as they can be illuminated by juxtaposition of and interaction between units.

One problem does emerge, however, from the very persuasiveness of D.’s analysis. She has earlier spoken of the separate narrative units as independent and discrete, and this description works very well for some sections of the narrative. The various Athenian actions after the withdrawal of the Peloponnesians in the first year of the war, for instance, at first seem separate, but, as D. notes, they can be seen in retrospect as a cluster giving an impression of ‘a flexible, confident, and very far-reaching sea power putting Pericles’ strategy into action’ (p. 105).2 At other times, however, the introductory sentences in D.’s units do draw connections with the earlier narrative (by means of genitive absolutes or subordinate clauses, for instance, or even an opening gar at iii.70.1). At times, too, the close of an earlier unit has sown the seed for the later resumption of a narrative strand (e.g. through the use of an imperfect tense to leave events suspended, sometimes in combination with the particle men).3 In these cases the effect is not quite the paratactic series of independent narrative units that D. at times claims, though more detailed and rigorous linguistic and discourse analysis would be required to define the types of relation established more precisely.

One interesting case that D. considers is the opening of a new unit (the aborted Peloponnesian attack on the Piraeus) at ii.93.1: ‘before dispersing the fleet that had withdrawn to Corinth and the Crisaean gulf Cnemus and Brasidas and the other leaders of the Peloponnesians at the beginning of winter wanted . . .’. Here D. well shows how Thucydides’ structuring (the loose narrative connection created by placing this unit rather than the simultaneous Sitalces narrative at the start of the winter) brings out the sudden change in Peloponnesian morale caused by the arrival of Brasidas (p. 88). She does not discuss, however, the way in which the seasonal opening ‘at the beginning of winter’ is displaced from its regular opening position by a phrase similar to a presentation by negation: ‘before dispersing . . .’ ( prin . . . dialusai), i.e. ‘they did not disperse the fleet (as we expect), but plan an attack . . .’. The units D. analyses would seem much more discrete if their opening sentences more consistently started with an indication of temporal setting.4 Here the opening phrase integrates the new unit from the start with the preceding narrative (and note too that prin . . . dialusai is itself later picked up by epeide . . . dieluthe at 2.102.1, the opening of another new unit), while both the quasi-negative prin . . . dialusai and the postponed seasonal marker increase the sense of surprise. At the same time, the comments D. makes on this episode illustrate one danger in her subtle method of structural analysis: juxtaposition with the preceding episode brings out well the sense of a sudden change of morale, but so would the other possible arrangement, an a-b-a structure. Indeed, returning to the Peloponnesian fleet after an intervening section on Sitalces might have made the attack seem even more surprising.

D.’s general analysis of the narrative units of the Archidamian narrative is still persuasive, and she does in any case acknowledge that her division of the narrative into units is not the only sort of analysis possible. It also helps that her criteria for unit-division are clearly expressed. Twice, however, it seemed to me that her divisions obscured important aspects of narrative articulation. In his account of the first Peloponnesian invasion of Attica, Thucydides consistently brings out (often through genitive absolutes) the temporal relation between Peloponnesian actions and Athenian responses, but while D.’s division (ii.10-12, 13-17, 18-23) recognizes this it does not follow it through consistently: the genitive absolute, the change of subject, and the formal mention of the Athenian generals at ii.23.2 (the Athenians’ dispatch of 100 ships) perhaps make this section worth analysing as a ‘simple picture unit’ in itself. And while D. reads iv.124-32 as a unit showing Brasidas’ excellent generalship and his ability to inspire troops (p. 89), I would prefer to start a new unit at iv.129.1: the subject changes to Brasidas as he learns of the loss of Torone (de Jongian narratologists would call this a ‘find-passage’), and an analeptic explanation of the loss follows. Dividing this unit into two would highlight the problems faced by the Spartans at this stage through their enforced reliance on Perdiccas.

In Part Two D. moves on from the Archidamian narrative to analyse the rest of the work. The most important section is the analysis in Chapter 5 of the swift and compact narrative of the years of the uneasy peace. Reviewing in a single chapter the elements already analysed for the Archidamian narrative (introductory sentences, unit arrangement, connections between units), D. convincingly shows that a paratactic arrangement is now more strongly used to emphasize a unit’s place in a single developing story. The units themselves are less sharply separated and less likely to be introduced with the same plenitude (there are fewer time phrases in introductory sentences). At the same time disparate elements are organized around the central Mantineia narrative, while the Melian dialogue itself provides a commentary on the self-defeating ambitions displayed by the various parties during the peace (a refreshing change from readings that see the Melian dialogue only as part of the ongoing story of Athenian imperialism). This chapter — which also contains excellent remarks on the lack of speeches in the greater part of book v — forms an important defence of the narrative of the uneasy peace, though the gap between the original conception of her ideas and their publication in book form means that they seem less innovative now than they would have in 1975.5 The one generalization that seems a bit forced is the claim that the rapid years of the peace narrative coalesce into a swiftly moving whole that imitates contemporary experience of the years of the peace (p. 137). Elsewhere, too, D. argues that Thucydides’ arrangement of his narrative reflects contemporary experience, but the argument is applied to much more restricted contexts. It seems less convincing to offer so broad a generalization about the experience of the peace.

D. devotes just one rather short chapter to the remaining part of Thucydides’ narrative (vi.8-viii.109). She argues that the arrangement of the narrative has become hypotactic rather than paratactic: that is, the narrative is now more integrated, and it is treating a war ‘all of whose parts are meaningful with relation to the whole’. This change is reflected in the fact that she now analyses the narrative in terms of ‘scenes’ rather than ‘units’. She also shows that it is no longer easy to separate off discrete units: an analysis of modifications in the opening sentences of sections reveals that opening sentences are now more likely to lack any temporal indication and that when temporal indications are found they tend to be more precise, tying the narrative more closely to what has preceded (p.222 n.7; see also Appendix C).

Perhaps the most striking part of D.’s argument in this chapter is her linking of book viii with books vi-vii. More commonly book viii has been thought much less satisfactory than the highly polished Sicilian books, but D. argues that they resemble one another in their organization of material and that book viii has only been thought weak because it breaks off before its narrative strand reaches a coherent close. As in her treatment of the narrative of the uneasy peace, D.’s sympathetic treatment of book viii was ahead of its time when first conceived. Owing to its brevity, however, the treatment is less well developed than the discussion of book v. D. analyses the transitional sentences in far less detail than she devoted to opening sentences in the earlier narrative, though the greater geographical complexity of the Ionian War narrative in book viii would probably throw up some interesting differences, especially in the treatment of the geographical setting. Further analysis could even support her point that the narrative divisions are now much weaker: no one could deny that viii.1.1 (where the news of the Athenian defeat in Sicily reaches Athens) should be the start of a new scene, but the sentence does not even define what was announced. D. could also have analysed in more detail the problems posed by the notorious parallel narratives starting at viii.45 and viii.63. These sections do seem to show a different technique from anything found in books vi-vii, but this does not in itself undermine the overall argument that books vi-vii and book viii share some important organizational features not found earlier in the work.

How convincing is D.’s general argument for a development in Thucydides’ technique? Her meticulous and cautious analysis does identify some important changes with a new clarity, above all the development from a more dispersed paratactic style to the more hypotactic style employed later in the work to give a sense of a single war. My remarks on the Archidamian narrative do suggest, however, that D. slightly exaggerates the development. The technique of the ‘find-passage’ and explanatory analepsis found at iv.129.1, for instance, is also used to introduce a new ‘scene’ at vi.53.1; similarly the technique of the transitional message found often in book viii is already used at iii.32.2 (exceptional among the opening sentences in the Archidamian narrative in that ‘neither time nor the subject of the sentence is one of the first two elements’, p.182). While some of the organizational techniques D. discusses for books vi-viii are found earlier, the ‘unit’ technique of books i-v also reappears at times in books vi-viii. In discussing the general unity of plot found in the Sicilian books, D. notes that there are five ‘scenes’ that do not relate to Sicily (two at vi.95, vi.105, vii.9, vii.34), and calls them all ‘very brief’ (p.225 n.15). These ‘scenes’ do, however, read very much like the discrete ‘units’ D. analyses in the Archidamian narrative. And while three of them could be analysed as ‘simple picture units’, vi.105 and vii.34 are not that brief (19 and 38 lines), and vii.34 in particular calls for analysis of its relation to the ensuing Sicilian narrative.

The overall strength and interest of D.’s account does not lie just in her subtle fine-tuning of our understanding of Thucydides’ narrative structure. She also discusses three developments since the time when she wrote her dissertation that are of more far-reaching interest. She writes that the most important issue for her when she was writing the dissertation was Thucydides’ development as a historian, and her stylometric approach might lead one to expect that this would be her dominant interest. As she notes, however, the compositional question has become much less prominent since the mid-1970s (pp. 4-5), and in line with that trend she stresses that her results do not allow us to determine when different sections were written (e.g. pp. 76, 203 n. 5). Indeed, the convincing readings she offers of the changes in techniques could easily be thought to militate against any compositional arguments. She is, however, prepared to speculate about changes in Thucydides’ style over time: she speaks of ‘a journal-like format adopted by Thucydides for recording the early years of the war, severely modified as he took a more integrated, hypotactic approach to his subject in the years of the Peace, and abandoned altogether as he wrote up the Sicilian narrative and book viii, in favor of a more flexible, integrated, and ongoing narrative that emphasized links among superficially disparate movements’ (p.159, cf. e.g. p. 64, 84). This tempting reconstruction does, however, leave open one issue that I would have been interested to see D. address: the literary milieu in which Thucydides first developed his structuring techniques. How does Thucydides’ development of the unit structure relate to the techniques found in Homer and Herodotus?

The second issue that D. raises is the relation of her own work to narratology. While she calls her own work ‘decidedly formalist’, she says that it lacks ‘the theoretical underpinnings of narratology that would have provided a simpler (or at least a more systematic) language for many of my conclusions’ (p. 2). D. — who has herself written an illuminating article on Thucydidean focalization6 — is right to say that her own interests overlap with those of narratology: there are also some brief comments on perceptions that relate to focalization, but the clearest overlap is with the study of time.7 D.’s pre-narratological stance does not prove to be a problem: while the more systematic narratologist might provide a bit more detail on the temporal organization of, say, the final chapters of book iii than D. does on p. 91, her terminology does succeed in bringing out the key points well. Her analysis of the internal structure of the units of action bears on a different aspect of narratology — the analysis of plot and story. But narratological analysis of these issues is complex and controversial, and many readers may appreciate the clarity and simplicity of D.’s typology. The third issue raised by D. is of even more general interest. In her introduction, newly written for this book, D. sets her study of Thucydides in the context of political disputes at Berkeley over the Vietnam War. She goes on to look in more detail at the intellectual context in which she was writing her dissertation and to trace developments in the study of historical narrative since then. She argues that the results of the linguistic and cultural turns offer a more satisfactory framework for making sense of the results of her investigations into Thucydides’ narrative than were available to her at the time: ‘issues of narrative structure, put in a more contemporary critical context, suggest some insights into history’s distinctive capacities as a narrative genre that were much harder to articulate a generation ago’ (p. 3). This introduction is a fascinating discussion of shifting interpretations of historical narrative, with helpful reviews of the work of theorists such as Louis Mink and Hayden White. Particularly interesting for the student of Thucydides is the final section, where D. applies Bakhtinian dialogism to Thucydides’ presentation of history (and also discusses why Bakhtin himself neglected the study of historical texts). D. here provides one of the most sympathetic accounts known to me of the relationship between the perspectives of Thucydides, the characters within his text, and his readers: ‘the emphasis [the History ] puts on the decisions and actions of the actors within the account also links their rational behavior, as people whose actions are under narration, to the corresponding rationality of the narrating historian’; that is to say, a ‘metanarrative parallelism’ informs ‘the way actors in events, Thucydides the historian, and finally we his readers process an awareness of relevant data’ (pp. 15, 17).

D. returns briefly to Bakhtin at the end of her book, but I would have been intrigued to see her develop at more length both in the main body of her book and in her conclusion the ideas expressed in the introduction. She does return to some of the issues: at. p. 108, for instance, she writes that ‘Thucydides’ apparent sensitivity, struggling to record both the precise shapes of individual events and the momentum underlying their increasing complexity, goes a long way toward giving the narrative its persuasive power’ (p. 108); while elsewhere she speaks in slightly different terms of how Thucydides’ ‘imperious deployment of structure’ achieves ‘immediate interpretative ends of his own’ (p. 90). D.’s own readers are left to ponder the challenges posed by her analysis to traditional ideas of historical emplotment.

D.’s writing is admirably clear throughout, and the book itself is beautifully produced (I spotted only a few minor typos in the Greek). The results of her statistical analysis — which are presented lucidly both in the text itself and in three Appendixes (including a complete listing of all the narrative units and scenes) — reliably describe the various types of narrative organization that Thucydides adopts and form the groundwork for some intelligent interpretations. This book will be essential reading for all Thucydidean scholars, and the larger issues D. raises should be of broader interest to students of ancient narrative.


1. ‘Introduction’ and ‘Explanatory Notes’, in R. Waterfield (trans.), Herodotus: The Histories (Oxford, 1998), pp. ix-xli, 594-735.

2. It seems better to define the cluster as ii.24-32 rather than ii.24-33, as D. does: the Corinthians at ii.33 are not as unsuccessful as D. implies; and note the way ii.32 closes the summer : ‘this happened in this summer after the withdrawal of the Peloponnesians from Attica’ — a seasonal closure unique in the work in that it does not cover the whole summer.

3. Note that D. does pay some attention to the use of men-de particles in closing sentences (see p.96 and also the salutary warning at p. 207 n. 6 on the danger of textual corruption).

4. Note, for instance, how within the cluster at ii.24-32 the unit starting at ii.26 opens with a temporal phrase ( hupo de ton auton chronon touton Athenaioi triakonta naus exepempsan), while the ordering of the introductory sentence in the following unit (2.27.1: anestesan de kai Aiginetas toi autoi therei toutoi ex Aigines Athenaioi), with verb first and the temporal phrase in third place, seems to give a stronger sense of continuity.

5. W. R. Connor acknowledged D.’s treatment in his own important discussion of book v in his 1984 book Thucydides (Princeton), p. 144 n. 11.

6. ‘The Figured Stage: Focalizing the Initial Narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides’, in T. M. Falkner, N. Felson, and D. Konstan (eds.), Contextualizing Classics: Ideology, Performance, Dialogue: Essays in Honor of John J. Peradotto (Lanham, MD, 1999), 221-52.

7. The opening pages (with their rather dense footnotes) of Chapter 5 of my book Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation (Oxford, 1998) engage narratologically with some of the problems D. addresses.