Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 April 2011
Review by John David Lewis, Duke University
Thucydides: The Reinvention of History
By Donald Kagan
New York: Viking, 2009. Pp. 257. ISBN 978–1–61684–706–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, Antiquity, Peloponnesian War, Strategy Print Version

To uncover the man, Thucydides, by reading his great history of the Peloponnesian War is the assignment undertaken by Donald Kagan, longtime Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale, and there is surely no one more qualified for the task. He is the author of a magisterial four-volume treatment of the war, perhaps the most exhaustive and penetrating writing about ancient history of the past century.[1] The present book is Kagan's most concise and user-friendly statement of how Thucydides positioned himself as a revisionist, as illustrated in his accounts of some of the most important events of the war. If Kagan is correct, Thucydides is even more radical than we might realize and contradicted prevailing opinions in nearly every aspect of his work.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is by design a highly selective engagement with, in Kagan's words, "case studies" of events in Thucydides's history (227). The Athenian historian's challenges to contemporary opinions begin on his opening pages, from his claim that the present war was greater than those fought against Trojans and Persians, his economic explanation for the length of the Trojan War, and his estimation of the general weakness of the early Greeks and the former poverty of Attica in particular, to the building of the first triremes by Corinth and the sweeping conclusion that the Peloponnesian War was not a series of wars but rather one single conflict. It is essential to appreciate how provocative these propositions would have seemed in Thucydides's own time, how much at odds with the views of both his predecessor Herodotus and the Athenian man in the street.

It is not easy to discern Thucydides's own views, let alone draw inferences about those he was arguing against. Kagan begins by identifying critical intellectual influences on the historian, primarily Hippocratic medicine and the sophists. It was his scientific and philosophical reasoning that separated Thucydides from Herodotus and all previous mythologizers:

In contrast with Herodotus, Thucydides seems to have taken a spectacular leap into modernity. He neither accepted nor rationalized myths but ignored them or analyzed them with a cold eye. He did not seek explanations for human behavior in the will of the gods nor, sometimes, even in the will of individuals, but in a general analysis of the behavior of men in society. Thucydides, however, was not a sport who miraculously and inexplicably appeared on the scene. He represented the culmination of a growth of intellectual forces in the fifth century that came to exert an important influence on Greek life and which together are sometimes called "the Greek enlightenment" (9).

Kagan then turns to the causes of the war.[1] In the first case, Corcyra and Corinth clashed over the nondescript town of Epidamnus, a classic example of a crisis in a small town dragging greater powers into conflict. In my reading, Thucydides sees an underlying inevitability here, as each side sought to maintain its position with respect to allies, neutrals, and potential opponents. But Kagan sees Corinth as intent solely on humiliating its former colony Corcyra. This is, admittedly, a possible motive, but one more likely secondary to another consideration—Corcyra's possession of the second largest navy in Greece: a hostile Corcyra could block vital Corinthian sea routes to the west. Kagan maintains that Athens, on the other hand, needed an alliance with Corcyra. Perhaps this was the case, but it is more probabe that both psychological factors and realpolitik motivated each party.

Moving past the immediate causes of the war, Kagan scrutinizes the strategy of Pericles, which he sees Thucydides wholeheartedly endorsing, in contrast to his contemporaries. He is adamant that Periclean strategy was a failure and that Athens could not have maintained it—again, for economic reasons—for even three years. He paints a picture of Thucydides once more resisting popular opinion, this time on the side of Pericles, shielding the statesman from widespread charges that he had led Athens into a war it could not win.

From this point on, Kagan cherry-picks selected topics of interest to him—"Cleon's Lucky Victory at Pylos," "Thucydides and Cleon at Amphipolis," "The Decision for the Sicilian Expedition," and "Who Was Responsible for the Sicilian Disaster?" Throughout, he maintains the theme of revisionism, both his own and that of Thucydides, a tactic that bears abundant fruit in the final chapter, on responsibility for the Sicilian disaster. The omission of the commander Nicias's name from a memorial to the heroes of the war, mentioned by Pausanias (1.11-12), suggests that the Athenians blamed him for the loss. In Kagan's view, Thucydides locates the apparent immediate cause of the disaster in the failings of Nicias, but exonerates him as a man of great virtue victimized by democratic mob rule. Kagan himself places the responsibility squarely on Nicias. Whatever conclusion a reader draws—I myself see Nicias as culpable and Pericles at fault for the entire misguided conflict—Kagan brings into sharp focus a question that requires readers to think long and hard about how best to answer it.

It seems at times here that the search for Thucydides the man has been forgotten, given the prominence of case studies within his work. But, of course, only through the work itself—and whatever we can uncover outside the work, including information implied by Thucydides—may we infer anything about the man: "behind the cool, distant, analytical style there stands a passionate individual, writing about the most important events of his time, about the greatness of his city and its destruction" (225). An individual who suffered exile for the loss of Amphipolis and dared, in his History, to flout prevailing judgments and endure the resultant opprobrium, if the facts so demanded.

Who is the audience for this book? Despite the concise and pleasing writing style, with a mere eleven pages of references (consigned to endnotes) that do not interrupt the narrative flow, the selections Kagan examines do not offer the sort of overview a newcomer to Thucydides needs. One misses, for instance, any discussion of the Melian dialogue and subsequent massacre. The unevenness of the four-page synopsis of the war in the introduction naturally reflects the pervasive topical approach, but the difficulties of writing such an abstract are legion. The book will best serve those already familiar with Thucydides and his war and seeking either a deeper understanding of the basic issues at stake or trenchant challenges to received opinions.

[1] The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, The Archidamian War, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Pr, 1969/1974/1981/1987). For a one-volume distillation, see The Peloponnesian War (NY: Viking, 2003).

[2] He has dealt with the topic of causality more broadly in his On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (NY: Anchor, 1995).

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