Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
9 September 2011
Review by Eugenia C. Kiesling, US Military Academy, West Point
Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Imperialism
By Edith Foster
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010. Pp. x, 243. ISBN 978–0–521–19266–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, Antiquity, Greece, Peloponnesian War Print Version

To understand the Peloponnesian War requires wrestling (above one's weight class) with Thucydides, but Edith Foster (Ashland Univ.) has demonstrated that closely argued analysis of Thucydides's treatment of Athens's war leader need not grapple with the war itself. Few military historians will have the patience to tackle a book better titled Thucydides on Pericles and Periclean Imperialism: A Literary Approach; the absence of literary or epigraphical sources and the narrow focus of the bibliography indicate Foster's concentration on the historian rather than the history. Yet, though her approach suggests literary criticism rather than history, much here will interest the historian.

Foster clearly states her thesis in the first sentence of the introduction: Thucydides is a historian not a ventriloquist, and Pericles is not his mouthpiece but a character in the story. Indeed, he "wrote the History partly in order to show the price of Periclean imperialism" (3). The idea that Thucydides's views did not entirely dovetail with those of Pericles will not surprise Foster's readers, but her book would have profited from an expanded historiographical introduction clarifying how she differs from other Thucydidean scholars and explaining the historical consequences of her analysis.

Foster proceeds by contrasting Thucydides's narrative with the Periclean speeches in the History, following a narratological model developed by Tim Rood.[1] Narratology approaches texts as careful constructions designed to use the details of one specific story to communicate a more general one. Thus, Thucydides crafted his account of the great Peloponnesian War to illuminate timeless issues of human behavior. Rather casually treating the use of narratology as "customary among readers of the ancient historians" (5), Foster contends that Thucydidean narrative, by its heavy stress on material objects, critiques the arguments offered in the speeches.

Her meaning becomes clear in the first chapter, "War Materials and Their Glory in the Archaeology" (8–43). Most historians read Thucydides's Archaeology,[2] "a text rich in narrated materials" (9), as a description of the concurrent growth of Greek material wealth and military power. Foster's Thucydides, however, maintains that the demands of agricultural survival on infertile land stimulate cooperation and harmony, while more acquisitive options—piracy at sea or warfare on land—produce a world "not only unattractive, but inherently unstable and self-destructive" (23). The only positive images in the Archaeology are the Athenian gentry with their golden cicada hairpins and naked Spartans competing in displays of physical excellence (24–26). The contrast between these two happy poleis and the general Greek condition reaches its height with the Trojan War, the biggest and most disastrous event in the early history of Greece (33).

This chapter also introduces the leitmotif word "acme," which appears some fifty times in Foster's text. One can see the word's attraction, for Thucydides begins by observing that the Peloponnesian War commenced with Athens and Sparta ἀκμάζοντες, "in full bloom" (Thuc. 1.1.1), and Foster sees acme as crucial to the structure of his narrative (10). Disconcertingly, the word, used sixteen times in three pages in this chapter, undergoes a semantic shift from "pinnacle," implying a future fall, to the less portentous "flourishing."

Chapter 2, "Arms and Passion" (44–79), "argues that one goal of Thucydides' depiction of this prewar period was to show the size, character, and influence upon events of Athens' acme of wealth and war materials" (44). Material miscalculations led Corcyra into conflict with Corinth, the casus belli being "the dangerous arrogance caused by the possession of wealth and weapons" (51). The Corcyraean ambassadors in the Athenian assembly boast of the power of their fleet, but Thucydides's account of the battle of the Sybota islands denies that naval might is glorious in and of itself—"On the contrary, his description of the battle has emphasized its incompetence, confusion, errors, and crimes" (73) and "the immediate result of the battle between Corinth and Corcyra … is the transformation of Corcyra's naval acme into wrecks and corpses in the water" (78).

The third chapter, "The Athenian Acme in Book One of Thucydides" (80–118), contrasts the Spartans' perception of the Athenian "acme" with Pericles's. Here the word is clearly problematic, for periods of blooming are necessarily ephemeral. Surely, the Spartans feared not that the Athenians were at their peak of power but that their progress in μεγάλους γιγνομένους ("becoming powerful"—Thuc. 1.23.6) had no foreseeable end, a position Foster acknowledges in her translation of Thuc. 1.88: "they feared that the Athenians would grow yet greater in power." She interprets the Spartan king Archidamus's minatory speech about the difficulties of combating Athenian naval power not as urging Sparta to "become more like Athens, since they must obtain a material acme comparable to Athens' acme before they can hope to win the war" (93), but a reminder that "Sparta's tenacious prudence is not part of anyone's acme of wealth and weapons, and is nevertheless a fundamental element of her ability to outlast Athens in the war" (94).

Foster further claims that Thucydides's description of the growth of his city's power during the Pentekontaetia[3] deemphasizes the military basis of Athenian imperialism; nor does she find any glorification of war materials (112). But Pericles, Thucydides implies, mistook the lessons of Athenian successes after the Persian Wars: where the historian perceived "the expansion and defeat of dynamic acmes throughout history," the Athenian strategos came to believe in the invincibility of his city's naval power.

In her fourth chapter, "Pericles in History" (119–50), Foster argues that Thucydides explains Pericles's "ambition, capacity, and imagination" as a consequence of the Athenian acme, best understood here as "accumulation" (121; cf. 96). The Athenian leader's entire career reinforced his belief in Athenian power, and the two direct-discourse Periclean speeches in the History confirm both his confidence in material strength and his personal responsibility for the policies that led Athens to war (150).

Thucydides's disapproval of Pericles's policy is the theme of chapter 5, "Pericles and Athens" (151–82). Thucydides uses the series of unexpected events at Plataea to show that wars' outcomes are not predictable on the basis of material calculation, then describes the optimistic expectations on both sides before recounting Pericles's speech on Athenian resources (Thuc. 2.13). Foster believes Thucydides reports this speech, alone of those attributed to Pericles, in indirect discourse to allow for "frequent narratorial intrusions" that "conduct" the reader through it (163). These interventions include ironic references to Athenian financial resources, underscoring the word still in Pericles's sanguine observation that the treasury still contained 6000 talents, and to Athens's expensive failure to suppress the ongoing rebellion at Potidaea (167). Thucydides sums up by saying "thus he cheered them up with money" (169). Far from praising his planning, Thucydides "uses [his] speech in indirect discourse to display some of the least attractive aspects of Pericles' policy" (175).

Thucydides does not, however, wish not to paint Pericles as a ruthless materialist, which casting his speech in direct discourse would have done, but to demonstrate "that intelligent and dedicated people can make these mistakes and fall into these attitudes" (173).

Chapter 6, "Thucydides and Pericles' Final Speeches" (183–220), addresses the apparent contradiction between Thucydides's implied criticism of Pericles and the explicit approval of his eulogy of the Athenian general (Thuc. 2.65). Foster asserts that Thucydides admired Pericles's qualities and abilities but not his illusions about power or unrealistic assessment of Athens's physical circumstances (188). Ultimately, Athenian efforts to substitute a naval empire for her relatively exiguous terrestrial resources flew in the face of reason (190). To Pericles's praises in his "Funeral Oration" of the "self-sufficient" life of his fellow Athenians, Thucydides counters in his narrative that no one could be self-sufficient against the plague (204). Striking here is Thucydides's observation that Pericles claimed to have been unaffected by the plague; that is, he lacked the compassion the historian himself evinces for his suffering fellow citizens (206–7). Thucydides eulogized Pericles's foresight not because he approved of his expansionist foreign policy but because the mistakes of his political successors validated his advice about the proper execution of that policy. If Pericles led Athens astray, he did so in ways the great historian found completely, if ruefully, comprehensible.

This book is, "acme" notwithstanding, crisply written and attractively presented. The included translations of Greek passages are, of course, invaluable for Greekless readers. Although its argumentation requires close attention, Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Imperialism is a pleasure to read, whether or not one accepts Foster's conclusions.

Some of those conclusions are clearly correct, if not especially novel. Few living historians now detect Periclean hagiography in Thucydides's history. Many, quite apart from Foster's argument for Thucydidean anti-materialism, find in the historian's work a tragic narrative of imperial ambition. Most believe the History rewards close and careful reading, though they may disagree about what such reading reveals. For instance, Thucydides's denigration of the efficacy of weapons raises questions about his own military service. If, from the beginning of the war, he was writing the story of Athens's doomed materialism, why did he seek election as a strategos? While students of Thucydides may wonder how much of Foster's argument is truly new, military historians will ask how it affects our understanding of the war.

His admirers see in Thucydides both an incomparable historian and a precocious inventor of narrative devices, but is there not a risk here of making him too clever for his own good? Would his Athenian readers have appreciated the instances of irony or arguments from silence disclosed by narratological analysis? Given how much work he would be asking of his readers, should he not have offered a clearer indication of his historical method than the notoriously ambiguous words at 1.22?[4] Oddly, Foster never addresses this or any other passage where Thucydides speaks directly (if vaguely) about his methods and intentions.

As this is fundamentally a work of literary criticism, military historians cannot be blamed for giving it a miss. But Foster's book, or one very like it, should be required reading for all "realist" believers who find in The Peloponnesian War only an extended gloss on the phrase "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (Thuc. 5.89). Whatever else she achieves, Foster reminds us of Thucydides's subtle artistry, a lesson that cannot be too often repeated.

[1] See his Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1998).

[2] The traditional term for his concise historical sketch of the "early state of Hellas" from before the Trojan War up to his own day (Thuc. 1.1–19).

[3] The (roughly) "Fifty Year" interval between the end of the Greco-Persian War in 479 BC and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431.

[4] Specifically: "I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation"—Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. R. Warner, rev. ed. (NY: Penguin, 1972).

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