The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides has been of interest to game theorists since the earliest development of the field; it was discussed on several occasions by John von Neumann, generally accepted founder of this approach, and it appears in the work of a leading game theorist like Thomas Schelling. It’s entirely understandable: the dialogue presents two sides in a high-stakes, zero-sum conflict, pursuing very different strategies with a limited number of possible outcomes, and – if you want to push the boundaries of game theory a bit further, it also offers interesting examples of how each side seeks to anticipate and influence the decision-making of the other, and raises some fundamental questions of rationality. I fully expect to find lots of other examples when I have time to pursue this theme in depth, but for today I want to focus on one case of a game theoretical discussion of the Dialogue, written by the current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (1997; revised version 2014: 262-83). It is in itself an interesting reading of the situation, in relation both to Thucydides and to the normal assumptions of game theory, but there are also some striking implications for the current negotiations between Greece and the EU, especially Germany, which I will consider in the final section. Continue Reading »

I’ve never seen the whole of The Phantom Menace,* only odd five- or ten-minute snatches here and there, generally with the sound turned down, but over the years this has been enough to build up an overall impression of the film. This has tended to confirm the comments of various critics that it’s basically a number of show-piece action sequences interspersed with long discussions of galactic politics and trade embargoes with the Naboo, that could easily have been edited down into something a bit punchier. Some critics have said similar things about Thucydides – though in this case the temptation is to skip the battles and action sequences** to get to the meaty political debates, rather than vice versa. There is also, thankfully, no equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Thucydides doesn’t really do comedy, even if it seriously cuts his margins on the merchandising.

How should one read Thucydides? Or, as I put the question at the end of the last blog post, do you really have to read all of it? Continue Reading »

The next episode of the User’s Guide to Thucydides will be posted by the end of the week, I promise – not least because there may then be a pause as I flee the country for a bit of rest and relaxation before the Classical Association Conference in Bristol after Easter. However, I wanted quickly to jot down a few comments arising from the lecture by Brooke Holmes of Princeton yesterday evening (yes, we’re having a really rich period of intellectual stimulation at the moment, with Liz Irwin a week ago, and coming up on Tuesday is Josephine Crawley Quinn on Carthaginian infant sacrifice).

Brooke’s paper was on the French theorist of the history of science Michel Serres, and his reading of Lucretius’ place in scientific development. In brief, as I understand it, Serres presents Lucretius as having had genuine insights into the true nature of the universe, in a way that we can recognise only today as a result of more recent scientific developments – and at the same time being thoroughly non-modern. Continue Reading »

Plutarch wrote a work On the Malignity of Herodotus, explaining all the ways in which Herodotus did down the noble Greeks and was unacceptably positive about barbarians. To judge from a fascinating seminar paper in Bristol yesterday, Liz Irwin of Columbia University is planning to write On the Malignity of Thucydides, explaining all the ways in which this brilliantly manipulative writer persuades us to accept dubious ideas, not least the idea of his own absolute trustworthiness. She began with Thucydides’ emphasis on the hard work involved in gaining a true knowledge of the past, which most people don’t bother with; this also applies to Thucydides’ own work, which most people take largely at face value as he’s done all the hard work, whereas in fact we need to work incredibly hard to see the reality that lies behind his misleading presentation – otherwise we’re just like hoi polloi (and perhaps specifically hoi polloi of Athens) who’ll accept any old story, now including Thucydides’. She went on to develop a reading of the first two books or so of the work, showing the gaps between Thucydides’ presentation of events and the reality of what really happened – or at least the alternative interpretations that we can derive from other sources or from what seem to be significant absences or tendential claims in Thucydides. Continue Reading »

NIE Wieder

The most interesting aspect of Donald Engels’ 1990 book Roman Corinth: an alternative model for the classical city, and the reason why it’s still worth reading (at least in parts), is not its account of archaeological work at Corinth (very useful then, now outdated), nor its substantive attempt at disproving the ‘consumer city’ model (which, if I recall correctly, included the argument that if the non-producers were in a minority it couldn’t be a consumer city), but his excursus into a historicising intellectual history: Engels sets M.I. Finley’s approach to the economy of antiquity in a wider context of suspicion of modernity and capitalist values, a climate of thought whose most prominent exemplars were Pol Pot and the Sendero Luminoso. Guilt by association, at however many removes; forget the common assertion that all the ideals of communism are irrevocably tainted by the crimes of Stalin’s regime (see recent discussion over on Crooked Timber), in this discourse any deviation whatsoever from the wholehearted celebration of industry and the market leads directly to mass murder. In retrospect, one is simply surprised that he didn’t chuck in the Manson Family and Altamont for good measure.

Continue Reading »

Apologies yet again for the lack of posts, not least the lack of a continuation of the User’s Guide to Thucydides (just start at the beginning, folks, and at some point I’ll get round to telling you when you can begin skipping tedious accounts of maritime manoeuvres to get onto one of the famous set-piece episodes), but I remain horribly busy – and am now wary of writing much here because of the number of people who could legitimate send me annoyed emails, demanding to know why I’m doing this instead of getting on with the chapters I was supposed to have submitted months ago. However, the latest twist in the use of classical analogies in characterising the Eurozone crisis seemed too good to miss: Larry Elliott in this morning’s Grauniad, describing the German attitude in current negotiations as offering Greece a Carthaginian peace. That is: surrender absolutely and without conditions, or we’ll wipe you off the face of the earth anyway. Continue Reading »

The Power of Love

Daniel Drezner (@dandrezner) – professor of International Politics at Tufts and author of the excellent Theories of International Politics and Zombies – has just started a Twitter hashtag #IRvalentines, imagining what different theorists of International Relations might have said to their nearest and dearest. Obviously it’s hard to resist the temptation to extend the range of Thucydides quotes beyond the one he suggested, and so obviously I haven’t – but it is slightly disturbing how quickly a pattern sets in: hard-edged quote about realism, power relations, general nastiness, off-set by the claim that this time with you it’s different. Obviously I’m reacting to the selection of quotes normally adopted by IR people, which do largely involve the most brutal expressions of might is right, but I suddenly had the alarming feeling that Thucydides might as well be writing taglines for 50 Shades of Grey, such is his apparent concern with power and its abuses (and thanks to @apothetae, I cannot now think of this in any terms other than #50ShadesOfThucydides). It’s one of the points where the quotes do seem most unrepresentative of what Thucydides is really about; the effect of his narrative is precisely to undercut the apparently straightforward sentiments of the quotable bits, which generally represent the Athenians or other actors rather than Thucydides himself. If we characterise his underlying attitude, I suspect it’s a world-weary recognition of the way things are in reality – why does love have to be so sad? why do we always hurt the one we love? there’s a thin line between love and hate… – with a dogged optimism that, if only we can learn from our mistakes, there’s still a chance that things could work out next time…


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