BMCR 2010.10.12

Thucydides, Pericles, and the Idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War

, Thucydides, Pericles, and the Idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii, 311. ISBN 9780521765930. $85.00.

This ambitious volume reviews the text of Thucydides in order to argue that Thucydides considered Pericles’ view of the city of Athens problematic. For Taylor, Thucydides’ story of the Peloponnesian War shows that Athens was not only the naval power Pericles and his followers wanted it to be, but was also a product of historical, physical, and social conditions that could not be eliminated through rhetorical redefinition. Moreover, Pericles’ intransigent devotion to his own view of Athens was foundational for the divisions that later appeared at Athens. Taylor’s analysis makes many substantial points, both in general and in detail, and although this reviewer was unable to agree with some of the concluding arguments, her views are challenging enough to the communis opinio on book eight in particular that they will be productive fodder for all scholars of Thucydides’ text.

Taylor’s first chapter begins with a short discussion of the Archaeology. Pausing on 1.10.3, Thucydides’ famous statement that the ruins of Athens and Sparta would mislead future viewers about the power of these cities, she makes a central argument. “Indeed, despite its emphasis here on the impressive “look” of Athens, Thucydides’ History argues that the power of Athens lay, more than for any other city, in the intangible and the invisible—in the character of its men and in their ability to conceptualize and redefine their polis in difficult circumstances” (9). On the following page she argues that this intangible factor was also responsible for Athens’ downfall: noting Thucydides’ argument that civil strife ultimately destroyed Athens (cf. 2.65.12) she argues that “…it was an intangible that destroyed them, according to Thucydides—‘private disagreements.’ Over the course of his text, Thucydides shows that the most important disagreement in Athens was about the definition of the city” (10).

Taylor thus argues that in Thucydides’ view, the Athenians’ ability to redefine themselves and their city accounted for their strength. However, private disagreements about the definition of Athens were also among the chief causes of Athens’ destruction. For Thucydides, therefore, imaginative power both created and ultimately destroyed Athens, functioning constructively whenever the conception of the city was unified, but destructively when it split between factions. Although I’m not entirely convinced of Taylor’s claim for the priority of this argument in Thucydides’ thinking, she is bringing forward a provocative and important question. According to this argument (cf. especially the concluding summary on pages 275-277), Pericles imposed a factional conception of Athens on the whole city.

Taylor’s analysis continues with cogent descriptions of the Spartan Congress and the Pentekontaetia (15-40) in book one of Thucydides, and nicely demonstrates that for Thucydides Athens’ power is located more in her daring and tenacious character than in her material resources. However, Athens’ natural situation was also important; by contrast Pericles radically redefines the city of Athens as “an entity divorced from the houses and land of Attica” (43).

In the following pages Taylor furthers her argument that “Pericles’ immaterial, idealized polis is not grounded in Attica” (67). Instead, for Pericles Athens is the world: Pericles and the Athenians can find no boundaries (e.g. 68-70, 76-78). The Periclean view is risky and unrealistic: “Pericles is encouraging his people in a dangerous, foolish fascination for things distant and insubstantial” (73): the Funeral Oration, from the point of view of Thucydides’ reader, who is here focalized as seeing Pericles from Thucydides’ point of view, is therefore “self-subversive” (73ff.).

Before I describe further sections of the book, an omission (as it seemed to me) from the argument of chapter one should be noted: in spite of the importance of Pericles’ elucidation of Athenian democracy in the Funeral Oration for understanding his view of Athens, this description is dealt with in only a few sentences (65). The definition or idea of Athens Taylor takes to be Periclean is that of Athens as the mistress of the sea. There can be no question that this is an important element of the Periclean view, but particularly given the centrality of Athenian democracy for the argument of Taylor’s final chapters, I missed a focused analysis of Pericles’ description of the Athenian democracy and its benefits.

Chapter 2 argues that Pericles’ successors “take up and use the most expansive vision of the city from his last speech” (e.g. 91, 122, 134). Pericles’ view was catching, in other words, and infected not only Athenians, but became the view of Athens adopted by Athens’ allies and enemies (106). His idea of Athens led the Athenians to Melos (115ff): “…the campaign against Melos is not the result of the new policies of Pericles’ deficient successors, but rather the product of a consistent worldview that locates Athens not in Attica, but on the sea and all it touches” (119, cf. 134), and finally to Sicily (138). Nicias’ suggestions that there was “a limit to Athens’ claims” (139) over the world were bound to fail. Instead, and as Thucydides shows (6.24.3), the Athenians fell in love with the expedition (148). They had “seen the power of the city as Pericles imagined it, and loved it” (150).

The result is the loss of Attica, through the investment of Decelea: the value of Attica and the foolishness of Periclean dicta (cf. esp. 163-164) were made clear to those in Athens through the loss of the Athenian homeland. By ironic contrast, the forces suffering in Sicily had only one desire, namely to return to this now unavailable place; Taylor’s analysis (186-187) of the ironies of Thucydides’ statement that “few out of many returned home” rewards attention.

Taylor’s argument offers many useful insights; moreover, in her last chapters she confronts book eight of Thucydides. Her main argument is fairly straightforward: loosed from its moorings in Attica, the idea of Athens is up for grabs as Athens begins to lose the war: all too easily, she argues, oligarchs take over at Athens (193-223); by contrast, the Samians, and then Athens’ fleet, claim democracy (230-265). The Spartans fail to exploit these divisions (225-229), but stasis at Athens persists. In her view, this stasis is a Periclean inheritance: “Pericles’ protestations of ‘his love for his city,’ after all, like those of Alcibiades, appear in a speech in which he dramatically and unilaterally redefines the city he loves as he alone sees fit…it is devotion to one’s own personal definition and vision of the city that leads to and exacerbates stasis” (276).

Although the overall argument was therefore discernable, individual arguments about book eight were sometimes confusing. An important thesis of these final chapters is that the Athenians let go of democracy much more easily than most scholars will admit (e.g.190), and that when they gave up the democracy they also abandoned their democratic liberty (e.g. 213, or 215: “Thucydides’ narrative of the actual installation of the Four Hundred continues his negative characterization of the Athenians as essentially passive, weak, and unconcerned with preserving their democratic ‘freedoms’.”). However, in Thucydides it was Pericles who defined Athens as a democracy (2.37). Moreover, during the discussion of the Samian counter-revolution, the fact that Pericles was the victor who enforced Athenian ways on the Samians in 441/440 (cf. 1.115-117) is not mentioned. This is, however, not unimportant for her argument. The Samian defense of democracy is actually a defense of a Periclean establishment (ironically enough); conversely, if the Athenians, as she argues, do not defend democracy, they might seem to be abandoning Periclean principles. Since Taylor takes a negative view of Pericles’ influence on Athens, this ought not to be a bad thing, but Taylor condemns their weakness. All in all, some important aspects of her argument about the relation between Pericles, democracy, and the decisions of the demos in 411 remained unclear to me.

These inevitable quibbles notwithstanding, this book makes a solid contribution to Thucydidean scholarship, and bravely attempts an analysis of Thucydides as a whole. It will be important for any scholar embarking on a study of Athens or Pericles in Thucydides.