Thucydides: The Reinvention of History
By Donald Kagan
Viking, 272 pages, $26.95
The Peloponnesian War is renowned, and notorious, as the most momentous and destructive conflict of the classical Greek world, surpassing the Trojan War memorialized in the works of Homer and the great tragedians, and the war between the Greeks and the Persians celebrated in Herodotus’ History.The principal combatants were the city-states of Athens and Sparta, and their clients, colonies, and friends in the Athenian Empire and the Spartan Alliance.
Athens and Sparta represented polar opposites in political structure and civic temperament. Athens was the world’s first great democracy, with every free, native-born Athenian male accorded full citizenship and the right to vote in the assembly, which met at least 40 times a year to propose, debate, and decide political questions, including every crucial wartime matter. Athenians took pride in the liberal tolerance with which they treated each other, and in the bold address with which they dominated everyone else they could. When people speak of classical Greek civilization as a pinnacle of human excellence, they usually mean Athenian politics and culture first and foremost.
They generally do not mean Sparta. Sparta could not have been a more different place from Athens, though with its own sort of excellence, which does not enjoy widespread esteem in the civilized world today. Although its regime had monarchical and democratic elements, it was essentially an oligarchy, the rule of the few. What the Spartans excelled at—really the only thing they took a serious interest in—was war. The Spartan elite, however, did not readily go to war, mostly because its members knew how the peasants who grew the city-state’s food hated them, and they feared an uprising in the absence of their army. Still, when war came, they made a formidable enemy—and an attractive ally to many Greek cities, for they offered their fellow Hellenes freedom from Athenian empire.
The fighting erupted throughout Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Sicily. Lasting from 432 to 404 b.c.e., and eventually won by Sparta, the war sowed desolation everywhere it touched. Men who might have remained decent in peacetime performed atrocities on an unexampled scale. Ultimately the war was fought to no good end. Sparta’s victory brought it the briefest joy and no real peace. Ten years after its own triumph over Athens, Sparta was implored by the Greeks of Asia to free them from Persian domination, only to suffer defeat in the Corinthian War (395-387) against an alliance of Persia, Athens, and other powerful Greek cities. No sooner had that war ended than Athens revived its own imperial ambitions, and Persia, now in alliance with Sparta, peremptorily slapped it down. Persia might well have come out the true winner of the Peloponnesian War.
The greatest historian of the war—perhaps the greatest historian of any war—was Thucydides, a wealthy Athenian aristocrat born between 460 and 455. He lived through the entire war, dying not long after Athens’ defeat and leaving his history incomplete, having taken it up to the year 411. In 424 his fellow citizens elected him one of their 10 generals for that year—that is, made him one of the leading public men in Athens. But his botching of a critical naval command contributed to Athenian defeat at the battle of Amphipolis, and his enraged countrymen declared him guilty of treason and sent him into exile for the duration of the war. Failure as a general helped lead to success as a historian, for exile made him familiar with the war from the Peloponnesian point of view and provided him with the leisure necessary for thinking of the highest order.
In our own time and place, the foremost historian of the Peloponnesian War is Donald Kagan, who has led rather a less tumultuous life than Thucydides and who has used the leisure that a secure academic post affords to think at a high level about the very matters that occupied his tempest-tossed predecessor. Now in his mid-70s, Kagan has been a professor of history and classics at Yale since 1969; department chairmanships, four professorial chairs in succession, positions as master of Timothy Dwight College and dean of Yale College, even a year’s service as acting director of athletics have constituted the public duties that an outstanding modern historian endures instead of the trials of generalship and banishment.
But scholarship of superb distinction has been Kagan’s leading achievement: books on Greek political thought, war and peace down the ages, American unpreparedness, Western civilization, world civilization, a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War for dedicated academics, a one-volume history of the war for the general reader. And now comes the culmination of his life’s work: a concise and thrilling study of Thucydides’ history.
Kagan acknowledges Thucydides as his tutelary spirit, and indeed as the master and guide for all political historians. To recover the classical Greek understanding of politics as the controlling force in the destinies of men and nations is Kagan’s intention. Thucydides wrote of war and diplomacy between cities and factional competition within cities, and his work became the model for Roman historians such as Livy and Tacitus. It prompted his 17th-century translator Thomas Hobbes to call him “the most politic historiographer that ever writ,” influenced the German historians of the 19th century, and extended his intellectual dominion into the Cold War era.
He was also, Kagan makes clear, the original revisionist historian; to be sure, there was no other historian writing of the war before him, so what he was revising were the predominant popular assumptions of the time. Perhaps Thucydides’ principal excellence lies in his penetrating understanding of the relations between leading men and the populace. But while Kagan reveres Thucydides, he questions that excellence, finding the master mistaken and sometimes deliberately misleading in his treatment of key political figures and their effect on the course of the war. In this sense, Kagan’s Thucydides is an extraordinary effort, 2,400 years after the fact, to correct the historical record—and, in particular, to defend Athenian democracy against Thucydides’ assault upon it.
Kagan attributes Thucydides’ going wrong to his decided lack of the supreme objectivity with which he is almost universally credited: “His work was surely meant to be a possession forever but also an apologia pro vita sua.” Quite understandably, the distinguished professor in the 21st century finds it easier to be disinterested than the soldier-historian trying to rationalize his disgrace at the hands of the Athenian democracy. To that end, Kagan presents case studies of four Athenian military and political eminences—Pericles, Cleon, Alcibiades, and Nicias—and demonstrates that the popular assumptions about them were largely correct and that Thucydides was in error in attempting to refute those assumptions.
At the heart of Kagan’s book is Pericles, the Athenian leader in the war’s early going and Thucydides’ particular hero. It was chiefly Thucydides’ portrait of him that established Pericles’ reputation down the millennia as Athens’ nonpareil political man. Yet contemporary opinion blamed Pericles for bringing on the vastly ruinous war, and faulted him, too, for prosecuting the war in dilatory and even cowardly fashion.
Thucydides for his part deftly smudges the truth about the war’s origins, suggesting that the war was inevitable despite Pericles’ best efforts to prevent it, and the historian endorses Pericles’ wartime leadership as the height of prudence and courage. He permits his hero to speak at length to his best advantage and excludes the speeches of Pericles’ opponents that might have convinced the reader of a contrary point of view. Thucydides also famously declares that Athens in Pericles’ day, “though in name a democracy, gradually became in fact a government ruled by its foremost citizen.” And never did Athens have it so sweet, in Thucydides’ view, as under Pericles’ wise and iron command.
But Kagan shows that Athens really never ceased being a democracy under Pericles: the assembly still met to determine every important decision regarding war and peace. Thucydides is nothing if not thoroughgoing, Kagan shows, in making his antidemocratic case, and Kagan is just as thorough in exploding that case.
In Thucydides’ telling, after Pericles died of the plague, the Athenian democracy went completely off the rails and produced such disasters as Thucydides’ banishment; the ascendancy of the demagogue Cleon; the trumped-up charges of sacrilege against Alcibiades, which drove the best soldier in Athens, whatever his flaws, into the arms of the Spartans at a critical moment; and the self-destructive Sicilian expedition under the incapable Nicias, a pious and decent man who was nevertheless not the hero the occasion required. The only such hero for Thucydides is Pericles.
Kagan sees things differently. He is the ideal reader who not only understands Thucydides as he understood himself but who also understands Thucydides better than he wished to be understood. After reading Kagan’s new book, no one will assume that the sublime Thucydides—in Nietzsche’s words, “the grand summation, the last manifestation of that strong, stern, hard matter-of-factness instinctive to the older Hellenes”—was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Still, the book is a celebration of Thucydides’ achievement and a lamentation for the way in which his historical method is now passing from the scene. “In much of the American academy,” Kagan writes, “ ‘extra-political history’ has all but supplanted political history. The most famous and influential of the social historians, Ferdinand Braudel, dismissed the elements of politics, diplomacy, and war as mere evenements, transient and trivial in comparison with the greater and longer-lasting issues posed by geography, demography, and social and economic developments over long periods of time.”
Kagan does not doubt the significance of these extra-political factors, but he insists that serious historians connect them to “the specific facts, decisions, and events made in the public arena, that is, in the world of politics.” Politics plain and simple is Kagan’s concern in this book, as it was his subject’s, and until politics once again occupies the pride of place in the telling of history, the field to which Thucydides helped give birth more than two millennia ago is in danger of trivialization beyond repair.