BMCR 2024.04.33

Style and necessity in Thucydides

, Style and necessity in Thucydides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 368. ISBN 9780198812043.



Modern scholarship has repeatedly elaborated on Thucydides’ interest in highlighting both the regularity with which history unfolds and, on the other hand, the unpredictable nature of war (for bibliography, see Tobias Joho’s overview on pp. 17–24). It is within the framework of this interpretative dipole that Joho invites us to contextualize his monograph on the minutiae of the style Thucydides employs to foreground the impersonal forces which necessitate human behavior and the coexistence of these forces with the elements of unpredictability and contingency. Despite the objections I will express in what follows both in terms of interpretation and methodology, Joho’s study is a welcome contribution to the study of Thucydidean style and thought.

The book is divided into an introduction, eight chapters, Conclusion, bibliography and three useful indexes (of passages, subjects, and Greek terms). In the introduction, stepping on Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ complaints about the vagueness of the abstract nominal phrases used by Thucydides in the so-called Pathology of War, Joho claims that this kind of style frees discourse from personal agency and rather lays emphasis on the events and the impersonal forces that pull history’s strings. After defining certain types of such impersonal nominal phrases, Joho contextualizes his thoughts within the framework of the aforementioned scholarly dipole of interest in regularity/necessity and contingency.

Already in the introduction, one may discern the methodological risk Joho is taking by basing, at least partly, the logic of his study on Dionysius’ subjective view of Thucydides’ abstract style. To begin with, the use of persons (instead of abstract notions) as subjects of verbs, infinitives and participles was definitely not the only way in antiquity to highlight human agency. Even more importantly, abstract style may indeed stress the diachronic qualities and behaviors of men, but it does not necessarily undermine the involvement of individuals in historical developments, as Joho seems erroneously to take for granted throughout his book.

In Chapter 1, Joho juxtaposes the Pathology’s abstract nominal syntax with the “plain”, as he describes it, style of the main narrative about the Corcyrian civil strife in the chapters preceding the Pathology. Through this comparison, Joho offers a meticulous analysis of the syntactical structuring of the abstract style and its basic ingredients (abstract nouns, articular infinitives, substantivized adjectives and substantivized participles) and of the way in which they are combined with each other. Following Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Joho explains how Thucydides could have stressed human agency by means of different syntax. In the rest of the chapter, he focuses on the use of abstract nouns in the Corcyrean account and aptly concludes that, contrary to their counterparts in the Pathology, the abstract nouns of the account do not denote impersonal forces of human behavior but are merely “standard noun(s) from the military, political or economic sphere” (p. 40).

In Chapter 2, Joho penetrates more systematically the details of Thucydides’ abstract style in the Pathology. Although Joho is right to note that the Pathology unfolds, in large part, on the basis of abstract phrases, these are not the only means by which Thucydides touches upon the nature of war. Thucydides also employs another compositional means, which is oriented more towards the macro-structure of the Pathology, in order to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the situation delineated in these chapters emerged not only from impersonal factors (as Joho claims) but also from the activities and personal interests of certain individuals. This scheme is the ring composition through which Thucydides frames the more impersonal analysis: in both the opening (3.82.1) and the closing (3.82.8) paragraphs of the unit the historian uses sentences which have persons as subjects. Joho does not use the aforementioned passages to contextualize the parts of the Pathology he analyzes, which is why he overlooks the fact that Thucydides, with all the emphasis he lays on the diachronic factors behind historical developments, demonstrates an equally intense interest in the agency and responsibility of certain individuals or, at least, categories of individuals.

Joho seems guilty of similar oversights in Chapter 3. The chapter begins with a fine analysis of the abstract style with which Thucydides foregrounds in the Archaeology some impersonal forces (naval power, money, immigration) which helped Greece evolve and which would also play a significant role in the unfolding of the Peloponnesian War itself. Following this, the greatest part of Chapter 3 constitutes a reading of the Pentecontaetia through the filter of the Athenians’ speech in the congress at Sparta, in which the Peloponnesians declared war against Athens. Joho first skillfully analyzes the wording through which the Athenians attribute their expansionism to diachronic impulses of human nature. He then supports the idea that the Pentecontaetia aims to prove this very message of the Athenians, i.e. that their hegemony was generated by stable, distinctive features of human nature and that the Athenians are presented as passively being governed by these factors.

The Pentecontaetia is admittedly marked by a paratactic, fast pace, which is why I agree with Joho’s line of thought that this unit cannot by itself reveal much about Thucydides’ goal in composing it, and that it should better be read through the prism of other passages from the History, especially from Book 1. However, I am not convinced that the Athenians’ speech is the appropriate filter through which to read the Pentecontaetia. As Joho himself admits (p. 92), the Athenians’ emphasis on the diachronic factors which “forced” them to rule the coastline of Greece is offered by Thucydides as a rhetorical trick, the exaggerated one-sidedness of which Thucydides could hardly have agreed with. Thucydides may have believed that the Athenian hegemony reflected certain permanent features of human nature, but I disagree with Joho’s view that Thucydides wished to undervalue the Athenians’ responsibility and to present them instead as being passively swayed by their passions. Joho is led to his reading of the Pentecontaetia because he once again focuses on the Athenians’ style rather than contextualizing their words. For the Athenians’ speech is framed by three further speeches, those of the Corinthians, Archidamus and Sthenelaidas, the two of which (the Corinthians’ and Sthenelaidas’) highlight not the passiveness with which the Athenians were governed by their desires but their responsibility and their energetic temperament. In particular, the Corinthians, through an antithesis between the slow Spartans and the energetic Athenians which colors the entire History, attribute their wish to go to war to the inexhaustible drive and alacrity of the Athenians. It is through the prism of the Corinthians’ portrait of the energetic Athenians that the Pentecontaetia, and the swift pace with which it presents the Athenians as building, step by step, their hegemony, can better be read.[1]

In chapter 4, Joho gathers conceptual and verbal echoes of the Athenian ambassadors’ speech in other speeches, mainly of Athenian speakers. In these speeches too, Thucydides stresses impersonal factors, such as men’s desire to rule, the desire of the weak to yield to the strong, people’s tendency to compete with those they take as equals, etc. Diodotus’ speech, resembling in many respects the Pathology, foregrounds hubris, hope, eros and luck as the principal forces of human history. These notions, Joho interestingly notes, are occasionally addressed by Thucydides with discourse which resembles current Hippocratic typological style. The most interesting part of this chapter, and perhaps one of the most original in the entire book, offers some very apt parallelisms between what Thucydides describes as the human nature and Euripides’ and Herodotus’ divine. The role divine interference plays in human affairs in Euripides and Herodotus is taken over by human nature in the History.

In Chapter 5, Joho elaborates on how Thucydides leads the reader to the conclusion that the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war was necessitated by the passive way in which states succumb to certain permanent passions of human nature. Joho argues that Thucydides, in stating that the Athenians forced the Spartans to go to war (1.23.6), means that they also forced themselves as well. However, this implausible interpretation, I believe, emerges again from inadequate contextualization of the passage. Instead of connecting it with 1.144.3, in which Pericles claims that “it must be known that war is inevitable” (Lattimore’s transl.: εἰδέναι … χρὴ ὅτι ἀνάγκη πολεμεῖν), we should rather read this passage alongside 1.118.2 (Λακεδαιμόνοι … οὔτε ἐκώλυον … ἡσύχαζόν τε … ὄντες … μὴ ταχεῖς ἰέναι ἐς τοὺς πολέμους, ἢν μὴ ἀναγκάζωνται), which clearly shows that the Spartans were forced to go to war. We may augment ἐς τὸν πόλεμον in 1.23.6 with the infinitive ἰέναι of 1.118.2 and thereby have the phrase Ἀθηναίους ἀναγκάσαι Λακεδαιμονίους ἐς τὸν πόλεμον ἰέναι. In the rest of Chapter 5, Joho enriches his methodology and successfully demonstrates the ways in which the Spartans’ warnings to the Athenians after the latter’s success at Sphacteria foreshadow the ensuing plot development: the Athenians are helplessly swayed by their greed and are led to their defeat at Sicily.

The last three chapters analyze the levels on which, according to Joho, the emphasis on necessity coexists with an interest in factors enabling men to surpass the limits of their abilities, which are defined by their nature. Each chapter focuses on one specific level on which necessity and freedom of human agency are narratively intermingled. In Chapter 6, Joho elaborates on the Sicilian case and concludes that in Books 6–7 Thucydides weaves together two distinguishable elements that define the historical developments. On the one hand, the Athenians, on a collective level, are presented as being governed by elements that have already been analyzed in the previous chapters, such as lust for power and inability to resist eros, hope and greed. On the other hand, the main protagonist of the Sicilian affair, Alcibiades, is sketched as not only representing, as an individual, those collective qualities of the Athenians, but also as demonstrating some special, personal features, which differentiate him from his fellow citizens. These personal features of Alcibiades are meant by Thucydides, Joho argues, to show that impersonal forces can be counterbalanced by exceptional individuals who often have a great impact upon history. This balance between extra-human factors and human responsibility is also foregrounded by Herodotus in many cases, with a striking example being the story of Croesus.

In Chapter 7, Joho compares the Thucydidean account, the Odyssey and Herodotus, and concludes that in all three cases impersonal factors are presented as necessitating not every single detail of a state of affairs but merely the key events of it. The gaps between these pivotal benchmarks of a case are filled by human agency and the special qualities of individual personalities. Chapter 8 and the General Conclusions can be read together. In Chapter 8, Joho analyzes Pericles’ speeches and supports the idea that Pericles foregrounds the following aspects of the historical development: first, men’s inability to control their fear and rage. Second, contrary to the Athenians, who cannot resist their passions, Pericles is presented as a special leader, who manages to free his judgment from his passions and is thereby in a position to define history with his strategic plans. Third, however, Pericles recognizes that cities, with all their successful policies, are doomed not to avoid their inevitable fall.

The book is well written and with very few typos. Although Joho proceeds with a skillful, technical reading of Thucydides’ style, he succeeds in expressing his views in a way congenial to non-specialized readers as well. Whenever he moves beyond the stylistic details of the History and explores the whole picture of its narrative arrangement and of Thucydides’ goals latent in it, he manages to reach some – not particularly original but at least decent—refreshing conclusions.



[1] For the bibliography on the introductory role of the speeches of Book 1 and on the cross-referencing through which they interact, see Liotsakis’ 2017 (Redeeming Thucydides. Narrative Artistry in the Account of the Ionian War, Berlin/Boston), 61 n. 112.