I think I have previously mentioned on here the more or less constant fear that I suffered during my PhD studies, that I’d suddenly discover someone else working on exactly the same topic, or that they’d publish a book or article that pre-empted everything I had to say, and so I’d have to start all over again. (Even worse, of course, would be to discover that they’d done this only when I was in the viva, so that not only would my work be pointless but I’d have even failed to demonstrate adequate knowledge of relevant scholarship…). I worry much less about such things these days, but it’s not a completely unreasonable fear, given the tendency of academic topics to move unpredictably in and out of fashion; I remember how the ancient novel suddenly and mysteriously came into vogue in the early 1990s, which must have been a nasty shock to any number of people who’d thought, quite separately, that they’d come up with a brilliantly obscure topic with which to make their name.
If nothing else, when several accounts of a similar topic appear in a short space of time there is the risk either that one becomes dominant and the others remain unjustly neglected, or – perhaps just as bad? – that two accounts become inseparably linked, and even confused with one another, a bit like campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. I suspect, for example, that I won’t be the only person to review the works of Edith Foster and Martha Taylor* in tandem (although, since I never received any acknowledgement from the journal in question, perhaps my review will not after all be added to that collection), and they have even begun to review one another – all because they separately lighted upon distinct but related themes in the study of Thucydides’ attitudes towards Pericles, Athenian imperialism and the nature of power in international relations. In the absence of a proper Journal of Thucydidean Studies, where the (from a specialist perspective) enormous differences between their respective approaches and conclusions could be adequately discussed, there’s a danger that their contributions will merge in the minds of many, or that they will be reduced to a single, easy-to-remember disagreement.
This all comes to mind because I’ve just had my first glimpse of Klaus Meister’s new book, Thukydides als Vorbild der Historiker (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2013). There goes my chance of a slice of the German market for books on Thucydides and the idea of history; my work on the subject isn’t due to appear for another six months… In fact I knew the book was in preparation, since Prof. Meister and I met a few years ago, and one of the many things I wanted to do while I’m in Berlin at the moment was try to find out the publication date, so the whole thing wasn’t too much of a shock. My first impression is that our approaches really couldn’t be more different in many ways: Klaus goes from antiquity to the present day, including an excursus on Thucydidean reception in political theory and international relations, while I stick more or less firmly to the modern period and to historiography (albeit by claiming Thomas Hobbes for the historiographical tradition); he organises his account in a clear chronological manner, whereas I inevitably go for the random thematic approach; he gives you lots of information about the writers he discusses, whereas I abandon that sort of thing to Wikipedia and focus on giving a polemical account of what I think their ideas mean.
I can’t decide – maybe it will have to wait until I’ve had a chance to read the book properly – whether it would be better to read his as a preliminary to mine, since he actually gives you solid information, or to read them in parallel, each one offering a gloss on the other. I certainly think you need to read both, rather than just one – language allowing. But most of all I can’t wait to see how many reviews treat us together, or at any rate reference one in reviewing the other – and how many promote the careful, stately scholarship of Meister as the proper way to deal with this topic, and how many choose instead the flashy polemics of Morley. Are the two of us representative of different national traditions, or of different generations, or rather of different temperaments that have been locked in dispute since the Renaissance if not earlier? Actually I’m starting to imagine a pitch for an ‘odd couple’ movie on the subject…
*Edith Foster, Thucydides, Pericles and Periclean Imperialism (Cambridge & New York: CUP, 2010); Martha C. Taylor, Thucydides, Pericles and the Idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (Cambridge: CUP, 2010); my review supposedly to appear in Histos (and it would be nice, if anyone from Histos reads this, to have some acknowledgement that you actually received it…)