BMCR 2009.09.10

Power and Structure in Thucydides Volumes One, Two, and Three

, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume One, The Pre-war Period - The First Year. Supplementi di Lexis 52. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert Editore, 2008. xi, 492 pages. ISBN 9789025612368.
, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume Two. The Second Year - The Sixth Year. Supplementi di Lexis 53. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert Editore, 2008. 540 pages. ISBN 9789025612368.
, Power and Structure in Thucydides: An Analytical Commentary. Volume Three. The Seventh Year - The Tenth Year. Supplementi di Lexis 54. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert Editore, 2009. x, 429 pages. ISBN 9789025612429.

This is an extraordinary project: under review here are the first three volumes (1445 pages) in a one-man ‘analytical commentary’ on Thucydides; in total the work will be in five volumes (2439 pages). The project has its origins in Konishi’s forty-year-old Liverpool thesis on ‘Power in Thucydides’, supervised by the late Frank Walbank. Glimpses of Konishi’s ideas on Thucydides have emerged in a number of articles in the intervening years.1 But a measure of Konishi’s ambition in waiting until now to publish this work can be gained from his explanation of why he decided not to publish the Commentary volume-by-volume: ‘since every part of Thucydides was written in the context of his work as a whole, even the interpretation of the first sentence would require the analytical comprehension of his entire work’ (i. p. vii).2 Here, then, we have the product of forty years’ thought on an author. This review is perhaps hampered by the fact that it can only treat the first three-volumes (the last two have not yet appeared according to the publisher’s website as I write [6 August 2009], though they are included in the table of contents in the first volume), and so my comments are necessarily tentative.

Konishi explains at the start that his intentions are twofold: ‘one is to demonstrate in detail the structural rationale of Thucydides’ composition, and the other to present analytically the theoretical system of the concept of power that determined the contents and the arrangement of Thucydides’ work as a whole’ (i. p. ix). As the work progresses, a good deal of the running commentary is taken up with fulfilling the first intention. What struck me as most interesting, however, are some of Konishi’s thoughts on Thucydides’ concept of power and on the arrangement of the work – though I have reservations about what seems to me an over-reductiveness in his overall interpretation of Thucydides and about his conviction that Thucydides intended to stop his work in 411.

The problem with Konishi’s discussion of the structural rationale of Thucydides’ composition is that it involves a good deal of paraphrase, with many diagrams outlining in detail the events described by Thucydides, often with a breakdown of the structure of Greek sentences and a word-count for each unit. This type of analysis is perhaps most valuable for the speeches, where the structure is often difficult. Applied to the narrative, it makes for hard reading. Konishi’s aim in pursuing this line of approach is at least clear: he consistently wants to argue that Thucydides was imposing balanced structures on sections of his work. Konishi had already made this argument in his 1970 article on the Pausanias/Themistocles episode (see n. 1) – but there at least the point of the balance was clear (comparison and contrast between the Spartan and the Athenian). In the commentary I was less clear what the structural analysis was contributing, and found that Konishi’s analysis threatened to bury some interesting arguments that are not related to his theory of structures. There are, however, some nice points on particular stylistic features (e.g. p. 1147 on the cadence at the end of a turbulent summer).3

Konishi’s view of Thucydides’ theory of power is helpfully set out in the Introduction. He isolates the following aspects: psychological (fear, greed, desire for honour); material (stability, unity, sea power, wealth); philosophical (logos-ergon, koinon-idion, nomos-physis, many-few, freedom-domination); human resources (manpower, courage, and leadership, itself divided into eloquence, vision, patriotism, and incorruptibility). Konishi is going over well-trodden ground here: perhaps his most distinctive contribution is his stress on balance (though the logos-ergon antithesis has of course been much discussed). This stress on balance allows him to make some interesting claims about the structure of some speeches: the supreme balance of the Epitaphios is said, for instance, to contrast with the hypotactic and paratactic structures of the two speeches in the Mytilene debate (pp. 770-1) – and this in turn is Thucydides’ way of instantiating the decline from the balance of Periclean Athens. But I find Konishi’s view of the way Thucydides expresses his theory of power reductive. He finds it in some of the speeches, even arguing that Thucydides’ ta deonta at 1.22 “ultimately means what his theory of power requires” (p. 113 n. 157); in particular he uses the Epitaphios as a key statement for understanding the rest of the History without taking full account of some of the ironies that scholars have found in it. He also tends to line up individuals as representative of ‘logos’ or ‘ergon’ or (in rare cases) a balance between the two, in the process applying the division between Periclean and Cleonian eras rather strongly. His reasoning can become dangerously circular when he invokes ‘theoretical necessity’ to explain apparently odd features in Thucydides’ narrative (e.g. p. 769 on the lack of information about Diodotus; 1091). He is even prepared to argue that Thucydides may adopt an unusually Herodotean story-telling style, or use a poetic word, to distract readers from observing the weaknesses in his theory (pp. 319, 1370; cf. also p. 652 on the Thracian episode)—though that theory is also meant to be the product of inductive reasoning based on long study of his own notes (p. 67).

Another instance of excessive rigidity can be seen in Konishi’s view of the structure of Book 1. Konishi strongly separates the aitiai and diaphorai – which triggered the dissolution of the treaty – from the prophasis – which explains the war. He supports this by advancing an unusual interpretation of 1.23.5, glossing it as follows: “Thucydides’ record on the aitiai and the diaphorai would prevent anyone from looking for the origin of the war in them, because it will clarify that the aitiai and the diaphorai, though they caused the dissolution of the treaty, did not trigger the war” (pp. 128-9). But Konishi’s objections to the usual interpretation – that Thucydides’ “records on the aitiai and the diaphorai sufficiently explain the cause of the war” – seem weak: “it makes Thucydides appear arrogant and dogmatic”, and dismissing the need of future inquiry supposedly “contradicts his own statement in 1.22.4 that his work may be useful in the future for anyone who wants to understand lasting truth” (surely Thucydides thought that his explanation of the war was part of the future utility of the work). Certainly Konishi is right to stress the relevance of the Pentekontaetia for understanding Thucydides’ idea of the prophasis (and he provides much useful analysis of its structure). But he seems to divorce this analysis too strongly from the Corcyra and Potidaea section; indeed, his own good remarks on the far-reaching programmatic status of the account of the initial stasis at Epidamnus (pp. 139-40) and the stress on fear in the Potidaea narrative (p. 179) might tempt one towards a more integrated and complex view of the interrelation between the different sections of Book 1.

This excessive rigidity in Konishi’s analysis of Thucydides is balanced by many acute or at least provocative readings of the narrative. One might cite some of Konishi’s discussions of links between passages (e.g. pp. 384-5 on 2.8 and 6.24, 26; p. 400 on 2.13 and Alcibiades; pp. 559-60, 562-3, 588, 825 on Plataea and Potidaea); or his explanations of the explanatory advantages of Thucydides’ chronology (e.g. pp. 508, 555 n. 42, 610; also the striking p. 707 on how Dorieus’ second Olympic victory suggests a contrast with Sparta’s failure to help before the war) and of Thucydides’ habits in naming individuals (e.g. p. 695); or his acute observations about elements that look ahead to the Sicilian narrative (e.g. pp. 919, 949-50) . Even here, however, Konishi could have engaged more consistently with existing scholarship on Thucydides: at times he acknowledges a debt to it; at times he complains that earlier scholars have missed points owing to their failure to appreciate Thucydides’ theory of power; but there are also many passages where he makes arguments already made by earlier scholars without acknowledgement (e.g. pp. 516-17 on the 2.21/2.59 parallelism; pp. 1168-9 on the 2.27/4.56 repetition). I would also like a firmer explanation of how Konishi thinks Thucydides’ techniques in some of these passages relate to his theory of power rather than to his attempt specifically to explain the course of the Peloponnesian War.

Any review of Konishi’s commentary must take account of his view that Thucydides intended his work to end in 411. This view (first stated by Konishi in 1987, and since then accepted by a number of scholars) is supported by some unorthodox interpretations of Thucydides’ Greek. He argues that what Thucydides means in the opening sentence of the History is that he began to take notes when the war began, not that he wrote (or intended to write) about the whole war; and he also argues that Thucydides means in the second preface that he kept on writing until the destruction of Athens’ walls, not that he intended to carry on his narrative until that point. I find both interpretations deeply implausible. Konishi’s view that Thucydides’ work is complete does allow him to make some interesting points about how earlier parts of the narrative relate to the situation in 411 (e.g. pp. 267-8); it prevents him from remarking how other parts of the narrative interact interestingly with what happened between 411 and 404.

A short review evidently cannot do full justice to all of Konishi’s arguments—and in view of his preface Konishi might well object to having only his first three volumes reviewed together. I look forward to seeing if some of my uncertainties are resolved in the final two volumes. In the meantime, I can say that there is much of interest to be found in these three volumes – even if some readers may wish that Konishi had separated more strongly his lengthy analyses of structural balance from his provocative arguments about other forms of narrative arrangement.


1. e.g. “Thucydides’ Method in the Episodes of Pausanias and Themistocles,” AJP 91 (1970), 52-69; “The Composition of Thucydides’ History,” AJP 101 (1980), 29-41; ‘Thucydides’ History as a Finished Piece’, LCM 12 (1987), 5-7.

2. Confusingly the volumes—which are continuously paginated—use roman numerals for the bibliography and index at the end of each volume; I here supply roman page numbers for the preliminary material in the first volume.

3. Konishi alludes in a footnote to a long discussion of the theory of balanced structures in his 2006 work From Masis to Olympos, which I have not seen.