Centered on the figure and political influence of Pericles, the second book of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War has a particularly high density of purple passages, from Pericles’ funeral oration to the description of the plague in Athens, to Thucydides’ assessment of Pericles’ leadership and of the developments between his death and the end of the war. Readers interested in the interpretation of such passages, and in broader questions to do with Thucydides’ political views and historical aims, have just acquired one new, powerful instrument for their toolkit. The book under review consists of an introductory essay (pp. 21-59), critical text, with a modicum of apparatus, and translation of book II, and an expansive commentary (pp. 221-605). Quite appropriately for book II, the introductory essay deals mostly with Thucydides’ attitude to Pericles and to the Athenian democracy, including informative excursuses on such topics as the oligarchic turn of 411 or the Melian dialogue. Every translation is to some extent an interpretation of the text, and this is particularly true when the text being translated is Thucydides. Fantasia’s (henceforth F.) translation is clearly intended to leave the reader in no doubt as to how he understands any given passage, even at the price of lengthening significantly the sentences so that nothing should remain implicit — something for which especially non-native speakers of Italian will be grateful. However, the real strength of F.’s work is in the commentary, the most detailed and comprehensive available on this book of Thucydides. It is first and foremost a historical commentary of a rather traditional sort, whose main goal is the reconstruction of events and the elucidation of their interpretation by Thucydides. Issues of language and grammar are dealt with fairly often, but not often enough for a reader whose Greek is not very advanced to rely solely on F., especially given that the Greek quoted in the commentary is not translated. Generally speaking, rhetoric and style are not F.s preferred cup of tea. On the other hand, problems of historical interpretation are discussed in painstaking detail, with admirable clarity, soundness of judgment, and full use of all the relevant scholarship, regardless of the language. Key parts of the book are introduced in the commentary by overall discussions (the introduction to the funeral speech runs to around 10 pages). Unless the present reader has overlooked something, F. does not seem especially interested in archaeological evidence which might be brought to bear on Thucydides’ narrative (e.g. no notice is taken of the very recent finding of the
In order to give the reader a clearer sense of what to expect from this commentary, attention will now focus on two different portions of the text: first the description of the preparation for war at Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, a passage where factual information is extremely dense, and then Pericles’ last speech.
After the Theban attack on Plataea, Thucydides describes in three very dense chapters (2.7-9) how Athenians and Spartans prepared for the war that was now imminent. Both look for new allies, sending embassies to the Persians and to other non-Greeks as well as to those Greek poleis which had not yet joined one of the two fields. The Spartans enjoin their allies in Sicily and Southern Italy to prepare a fleet and wait for further instructions, the Athenians approached various islands and regions around immediately outside the Gulf of Corinth. After mentioning that many young men in Athens and Sparta had no previous experience of war and were all the more ready to jump into one, Thucydides mentions oracles and omens, such as an earthquake that hit the island of Delos, and the reaction to such events among the Greeks. Sympathies went mostly to the Spartans, seen as the liberators of Greece from the hated Athenian oppressor. Then comes the list of allies on either side. The commentary on these two pages of Greek runs from page 239 to page 257. F. lists the attempts by Athenians and Spartans to approach non-Greeks, offering the relevant cross-references to Thucydides. The early contacts between Sparta and Persia are mentioned again in the commentary to 67.1, the capture of the Spartan envoys mentioned also by Herodotus (7.137.2-3, cross-referenced by F.). Most of the space however goes to the relations between Athens and Persia. F. refers to the possible renewal of the peace of Callias in 423 or thereabouts (with sources and bibliography), and then states that the wording of Thuc. 2.7.1 does not necessarily imply that Athens contacted the Great King as early as 431 BCE, and in any case, the Athenians could only have done so in order to dissuade the Persians from supporting Sparta, for conflict of interest in Ionia made an alliance between Athens and Persia impossible. While F. may well be right, it remains interesting that Thucydides seems to suggest otherwise; but why he should do so is not the kind of question F. is interested in. The comment on 2.7.2 includes a very clear discussion of textual problems, conducted in part with reference to Diodorus, whose main source, Ephorus of Cumae, seems to have followed Thucydides on the points at stake. The Athenian initiatives in Western Greece are commented on with cross-references to their later developments and their antecedents during the pentecontaetia. There is an extensive discussion of oracles, and collection of them, appended to 2.8.2. The notice of the earthquake on Delos (2.8.3) is contrasted with Herodotus (6.98.1-3), who affirmed that the earthquake around 490 BCE was the first and last to have affected Delos. F. observes that Thucydides was probably correcting his predecessor, who in his turn seems to have been aware of, but to have rejected, rumors of a more recent earthquake. The issue of the unpopularity of the Athenian Empire is delayed to the commentary on 2.64.5, where it gets a full discussion (pp. 479-482) with references to the debate in the late sixties of the last century. The list of allies in 2.9.2-5 has a general introduction, where F. refers briefly to literary precedents all the way back to the Homeric Catalogue of Ships, and then an itemized commentary city by city (pp. 249-256).
The commentary of Pericles’ last speech (2.60-64) is opened by an introduction in which F. summarizes the speech, points to the recurrence of themes that had appeared already in previous speeches attributed to Pericles by Thucydides, and questions the notion—introduced with extensive references to the works that formulate it—that this speech, because of its immediate connection with the funeral speech of Pericles in 2.65 (which must have been revised, if not written from scratch, after the end of the war), belongs to a late phase in Thucydides’ activity. On the contrary, F. underlines the relevance and appropriateness of the speech for the historical context of 430 BCE. The commentary proper takes up some 22 pages. Most of the space is devoted to clarifying the meaning of the text. There is an extensive discussion of
As the examples discussed above make clear, F.’s approach is very comprehensive, and he constantly engages in discussions even of views he ultimately rejects, so that his commentary, on top of helping the reader to make sense of the text, is also a very reliable and exhaustive guide to the relevant scholarship — by far the most reliable and exhaustive guide available to date. In general, as shown by a comparison between the length of the commentary to 2.7-9 and to 2.60-64, F. focuses on events and facts more than on genuinely historiographical aspects. F. envisions as his primary audience university students and scholars; it may be doubted that many students outside of Italy will be making use of this book, but for anybody teaching courses that include passages from Thuc. II F. will be an invaluable resource. Scholars engaged in research on any aspect of the events of the first three years of the Peloponnesian War and of Thucydides’ views of them will do well to make use of F.’s commentary.