BMCR 2021.03.12

Tucidide in Europa: storici e storiografia greca nell’età dello storicismo

, , Tucidide in Europa: storici e storiografia greca nell'età dello storicismo. Classici contro, 9. Sesto San Giovanni: Mimesis, 2019. Pp. 180. ISBN 9788857550602 €18,00 (pb).

In this slender but dense volume, Dino Piovan discusses the reception of Thucydides during the age of historicism, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century and became one of the defining intellectual movements of the nineteenth century. Emphasizing the unique diversity of historical contexts, historicists maintain that that all knowledge and cognition are historically conditioned and stress the importance of developing specific methods and theories appropriate to each unique historical context. In four substantial essays (three previously-published, one new), Piovan discusses the role Thucydides played in the movement, especially in Germany and Italy. In the introduction, he gives examples of how Thucydidean analysis is deemed relevant and illuminating even in our century; the volume also has a postfazione by Ugo Fantasia.

In his introduction (pp. 7-20), Piovan quotes a passage from G. Galasso’s Storia della storiografia italiana (Roma & Bari, 2017) which to my mind beautifully captures his approach to his subject, and which I shall therefore render in full—in my own English translation. Piovan says that in the four essays/ chapters he has discussed four Italian intellectuals who in their own way embody

the Italian call, tenaciously upheld, although expressed in various ways, to avoid seeing historiography as a dialogue, as an exchange just between historians and the learned. Historiography should also, and perhaps predominantly, be perceived as historians’ and intellectuals’ answer to what in contemporary social and civic, in moral and cultural life become urgent problems for the people confronting them (Galasso p. 234-35).

The protagonists of Piovan’s essays do just that, according to him. Their reading of Thucydides is informed by the social, civic, moral, and cultural questions of their day, and in The Peloponnesian War they find inspiration to confront these questions.

The chapter “Tucidide in Germania: tra storicismo e filologia” (pp. 23-47) maintains that the ‘rediscovery’ of Thucydides in Germany was closely bound to the historicist movement. The nineteenth century saw what was almost a cult of the Greek historian, even if the marked philological approach of many German scholars would somehow point the attention in a different direction. According to Piovan, the most important students of Thucydides in this context are Ranke, Ullrich, Meyer and Schwarz. When, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) discussed human progress, he said that the world (his part at least) experienced a material wealth inconceivable in the ancient world, but the situation was not parallel in the moral or cultural sphere: Thucydides, for instance, had never been surpassed, just as it was only with him that the highest standard of historiography was established. He explained matters “wie sie sind”. Piovan points out how it is almost paradoxical that Ranke, who initiated the cult of Thucydides in Germany, was also instrumental in creating methodological advances that would eventually make the contribution of Thucydides seem less unique. In contrast, Franz Wolfgang Ullrich (1795-1880) was the first to pose the ‘Thucydidean question’: when did Thucydides actually start to write, at the beginning of the whole 27-years long war or only in 421, after the peace of Nicias? Ulrich was thus an early representative of a strictly philological (a term used by Piovan in a very restricted sense) approach to ancient historiography. Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), a follower of Ranke, reacted to the “philological dissection” of Thucydides, maintaining that regardless of the date of composition, the entire Peloponnesian War was written to defend the wisdom of Pericles’s leadership. To Meyer the speeches in the work are not mere accounts of what was said on various occasions; they represent the absolute pinnacle of the ars historiae, of any epoch, and constitute an ideal reality that makes it possible for the reader to understand the unfolding of history. After these very different approaches, Eduard Schwarz (1858-1940) offers a kind of reconciliation. He stresses the importance of combining philological analysis with historical reasoning. For Schwarz, history is not just an account of events, but research into the effect these events had on human beings.

The second essay in the book, “Gaetano de Sanctis o Tucidide critico dell’impero” (pp. 29-75) contains first an intellectual biography of de Sanctis (1870-1957) together with a presentation of his most important pupils. Piovan points out how de Sanctis’ early enthousiasm regarding Italian unity led to a nationalistic outlook that made him favour even Italy’s colonial policy, an outlook that was strangely at odds with his otherwise antifascist views. It was these views that informed de Sanctis’ analysis of ancient Greek history: while he repeatedly deplored the lack of national unity in ancient Greece, he saw Athenian democracy and the ethical values it supposedly represented as an “eternal gift” to mankind. With regard to Thucydides, de Sanctis saw the Melian debate and the entire description of the Sicilian expedition as a criticism of Athenian imperialism. However, when it became clear that Spartan imperialism was just as brutal, Thucydides made the beginning of his work into a praise of Periclean policies. Piovan quotes Muhlack (n. 98) who said that “ancient historiography functioned, at least to some degree, as a kind of midwife of modern historical science.”

In “Un moderno interprete tucidideo: Aldo Ferrabino” (pp. 77-97) Piovan again discusses modern reactions to the Athenian empire as described by Thucydides. Here he credits Aldo Ferrabino (1892-1972) with introducing Thucydides in the historical debates taking place in Italy during the 20s and 30s of the last century. Ferrabino’s L’Impero atheniese (1927) concentrates on the last period of the empire with the Peloponnesian War as it most important source. Though Ferrabino also uses literary texts like Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes to shed light on the ethics of the growing Athenian power, his interpretation of the Athenian society is surprisingly anachronistic, and he uses modern terms like ‘class’ and ‘capitalism’ to describe it. In spite of his admiration for many aspects of ancient Greek culture, Ferrabino criticized the Greeks for not being able to choose between liberty and power, for always giving in to civic egoism; the right balance between individuality and and universality was only achieved by the Romans who founded that Italian nation. As has been pointed out, Ferrabinoo’s perception of the ancient world bears the imprint of his own political views which were not far from those of the fascists.

In the last of the four essays, “Tucidide, Momigliano e lo storicismo” (pp. 99-130), Piovan discusses the work of one of the most brilliant twentieth-century historians of the ancient world and the latter’s life-long preoccupation with Thucydides, beginning with Momigliano’s (Arnaldo Momigliano, 1908-1987) precocious MA thesis, La composizione della storia di Tucidide, published in 1930. As the title says, Momigliano here returned to the ‘Thucydidean question’ (see above) which had by then occupied generations of scholars since Franz Wolfgang Ullrich first posed it in the preceding century. Momigliano proposed to “transform the ancient problem of the composition of Thucydides’ History into the problem of the development of his thought”, stating that to understand Thucydides it would be necessary first to address thoroughly the problem of the Sophistic. We here see one of the hallmarks of Momigliano’s scholarship, the insistence on historical context.

At the time he worked on his thesis, Momigliano also participated in a discussion about the nature of Greek political freedom. Comparing Demosthenes and Philip II of Macedonia, he described the first as the defender of civic freedom, while the second was the great unifier. However, he also concluded that the freedom Demosthenes defended had the characteristics of Greek political freedom; it was egoistic and first and foremost it was the liberty to prevail upon others that is intrinsic to imperialism (cp. Filippo il Macedone, 1934). This interpretation of the historical roles of the two figures of course echoes Momiglian0’s reading of Thucydides. Philip, furthermore, was at the beginning of a mentality that would put an end to the insufficiencies of the egoistic liberty of the Greek, as happend again in republican Rome, and again when Christianity brought about the conditions for the development of a altruistic and humane liberty. Momigliano’s analysis was a reaction to contemporary (Italian) historiography which found the highest value in national unity, subscribing to the Hegelian idea that the historical function of the Roman Empire was to be an intermediary between Hellenism and Christianity.

Though Jewish, Momigliano joined the fascist party in the 1930s. He became Professor of Roman History at the University of Turin in 1936, but lost his position due to the anti-Jewish Racial Laws enacted by the Fascist regime in 1938. He then moved to England and eventually occupied the chair of ancient history from 1951 to 1975 at University College London. Momigliano remained a prolific writer, but after the war, his work does not contain his earlier optimism with regard to historical progress.

After the three previously published essays, Piovan has added short updates in which he discusses the most recent bibliography. He thus ensures that the volume is indeed up-to-date, but in spite of this, and in spite of the excellent introduction, it is difficult not to feel that his book is not entirely coherent; the reader is still conscious of being confronted with four essays that were not conceived together, although they have a common theme. And unfortunately this theme is not what the title of the volume promises, Tucidide in Europa—Thucydides in Europe, as Piovan limits himself to discussing the work of some German and Italian students of Thucydides. This, however, he does excellently, and—with Thucydides as a prism—shows how intellectuals’ response to contemporary political, moral and cultural issues may inform their interpretation of ancient history, and vice versa.