It would be absurd to imply that a field as embryonic as the study of Thucydidean reception has anything resembling ‘usual suspects’, but one of the key aims of the conference was to bring together not only established scholars who’ve previously written important things on Thucydides but also up-and-coming scholars whose work has yet to become widely known (or, in some cases, to be published or even finished yet). One of the great things about having a project website that features the words ‘Thucydides’ and ‘reception’ in metaphorically large and friendly letters has been to hear from people scattered around the world who’d stumbled across it and who’d previously been working more or less in isolation, and this conference gave an opportunity to bring them over to Bristol – while some others came under their own steam. The heart of the first day was four papers from such people, all linked by the themes of history and how knowledge of Thucydides has been disseminated.
First up was Jeremy Mynott, a new face in the sense that he worked for CUP for years, rising to be chief executive, before pursuing his interest in Thucydides in retirement, working on a new translation for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series (due next year, and apparently just one of three new translations likely to appear in the next few years; Clifford Orwin and Ryan Balot at Toronto are working on one, and Jeff Rusten at Cornell on another). Jeremy offered a fascinating insight into the problems of translating Thucydides’ notoriously difficult Greek, not least for a series that insists on the need to avoid importing any anachronistic concepts (a thoroughly quixotic mission statement if ever I saw one); does the translator have a responsibility to reproduce complex and convoluted Greek – which is, arguably, deliberately complex and convoluted to make a point – into equally difficult English, or rather to make Thucydides’ ideas intelligible and accessible? Examples of the strategies employed by other translations, from the free approach of Warner’s Penguin to the ever freer (not to say highly imaginative) techniques of the ubiquitous Crawley highlight the problems without necessarily offering solutions. The headline idea, that every subsequent speaker had to wrestle with and come up with some sort of solution? The work isn’t called The Peloponnesian War. Oh, and the division into books and chapters is a later introduction as well…
Oliver Schelske from Tuebingen [anyone know how to do umlauts on WordPress?] discussed the place of Thucydides in school curricula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contrasting Germany and England, both through the difference between ‘Bildungstext’ and ‘educational text’, and through two possibly representative figures, the sociologist Max Weber and the politician and writer Winston Churchill. The detailed records of the Prussian school system show the level of engagement with Greek (6 hours per week over 6 years) and with Thucydides (Books I-II in the second to last year of Gymnasium, two more in the Prima) that someone like Weber would have experienced; Thucydides was presented, in a Rankean manner, as a modern and pragmatic writer who shows the proper task of the historian and how to understand the causes of events – Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism could be understood as an attempt at understanding the greatest kinesis of his own time in a Thucydidean manner. Churchill, meanwhile, had a disastrous experience of school education, but nevertheless encountered Thucydides and drew on his words in the preface to his history of the Second World War (and it would be interesting to read his account in the light of Thucydides’ presentation of the beginning of a war), not least in the emphasis on his authority as someone who participated rather than merely observed. The issue of identification between Churchill and Thucydides was even more lively in the context of the First World War, after Churchill resigned from the government and was heading for the Western Front, when a whole series of people (including Lloyd George) presented him with small, portable copies of Thucydides – because he was going into war, or exile?
Claudia Rammelt, from Yale but currently researching in Florence, focused on late medieval and early modern Florentine readings of Thucydides, and his influence on Florentine historiography. Study of the archives shows a particular interest in Thucydides in Florence (9 out of 25 Greek manuscripts have a Florentine link, and 11 copies of Valla’s Latin translation), and writers like Bruni and Machiavelli made selective use of him. Bruni appears as an avid reader but reluctant appropriator – there is little obvious influence at the textual level – but Machiavelli fully assimilated his ideas, above all in his history of Florence, where the four Medici leaders echo the leading Athenian politicians from Pericles onwards, not least in their contribution to the fall of the community. This led to an extensive discussion of why Machiavelli doesn’t refer to Thucydides more often and more directly, and how far we were expected by him to spot Thucydides echoes.
Finally, Ben Earley, one of the research students on the Thucydides project at Bristol, brought us forward to 18th- and early 19th-century France. ‘Decline and fall’ was one of the pervasive models of historical interpretation in this period, and various writers sought to apply it to Greece – but then ran into any number of problems, not least in their use of Thucydides, in seeking to chart the course of decline and identify its causes. The Abbe de Mably interpreted Thucydides through Sallust, seeing him as the historian of the fall of Greece through the corrupting effects of wealth and the consequent constant warfare; Pierre Levesque, rather more plausibly at least as far as readings of Thucydides are concerned, blamed democracy and the emergence of faction, and sought to balance his belief that Thucydides described obsolete political forms with the conviction – founded, perhaps, on his profession as a classicist – in the continued relevance of the work. Crucial questions from discussion, which are relevant to pretty well all other modern readings: how far does Thucydides push back on these interpretations, and at what point, if at all, is he bent so much that he snaps..?