[Note: the following report was recovered from the hard drive of a computer found in a burnt-out office in the Arts Faculty of the University of Bristol. Earlier, clearly incomplete versions were found on the university’s servers, but this dates from a fortnight later and includes substantial material not found elsewhere. There are some significant gaps in the text, and the data files it refers to are substantially corrupted; whether the report was completed but some passages have been lost, or whether it was still a work in progress, is unclear. The lack of entries on the author’s blog from mid-November suggest an approximate terminus post quem for the completion of this draft. Efforts to contact the main author and other individuals mentioned in the text or associated with the project have so far proved unsuccessful.]
Over the last 25 years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of references to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in numerous different contexts and media; above all in discussions of global politics (focusing, successively, on the expansion of US power, the invasion of Iraq, relations with Iran and the rise of China), and war, including commemoration of the war dead and celebrations of the service of veterans. This echoes earlier periods of Thukydidismus, including his dominance in nineteenth-century debates about the nature of modern historiography, his presence in both British and German propaganda in World War I, and the widespread citation of his ideas on bipolar systems and deterrence in the Cold War era. However, there is evidence that the present phenomenon is more widespread, both in terms of the number of different fields in which Thucydides may now appear (not only international relations and military education but school literature classes and computer games) and in the sheer weight of reference, undoubtedly aided by the development of the internet and other technologies of mass communication.
A special research project was therefore established to investigate this phenomenon, based at Bristol under my leadership. I would not have claimed to be the world’s leading expert in the study of the reception of Thucydides; my initial assumption was that I had received the funding as recognition for, so to speak, academic entrepreneurship, in identifying this under-exploited field of research before anyone else did. I have subsequently wondered whether this was in fact the case, or whether I might have been chosen for other reasons – words like ‘disposability’ and ‘deniability’ come to mind. The public presentation of the project certainly operated on two levels: on the face of it, references to Thucydides’ role in debates about US Neoconservatism and the ‘Thucydides trap’ in contemporary US-Chinese relations were merely rhetorical, a rather trite hook and claim to relevance for a conventional project on reception history, whereas in fact they were the whole point, and the study of Thucydides’ role in earlier centuries was solely geared towards the analysis of the contemporary phenomenon. Were the findings, and their intended users, not subject to a range of strict confidentiality clauses, this project would have one of the strongest claims to Impact ever made by humanities research…
Research Questions and Methods
The project was constructed around two fundamental questions: what is the nature of the phenomenon, and what factors have driven and continue to drive its expansion? The former theme was the focus of the majority of our research efforts in the first few years, not least because of uncertainty over whether we were indeed dealing with a single phenomenon, rather than a number of apparently similar developments; Thucydides appears in radically different forms in different national and disciplinary contexts, and may indeed appear in conjunction with dramatically different views even within the same context (see for example the contradictory interpretations offered within US International Relations theory). Thucydides manifests as historian, political theorist and military strategist; as ancient, modern or post-modern; as scientist, artist, rhetorician or mythmaker; as realist, contructivist and neo-conservative. All these different interpretations have in common is the name of Thucydides and a belief in his absolute authority; but both ‘Thucydides’ and the nature of his authority are understood quite differently.
Members of the team concentrated on charting specific traditions of ‘reception’ (e.g. C17-18 discourses on maritime empire, C19 German historiography, C20 military education), concentrating both on their internal development and on the limited links between them; we also consulted widely with experts from across the globe, especially in the United States, with regular colloquia and workshops on either side of the Atlantic (see Appendix 1 for the complete list of collaborators [fragmentary]).
In general, these traditions appeared to be largely separate from one another with little communication, but we did note the influence of a limited number of individual texts and/or moments of reception (e.g. Hobbes’ translation, the First World War and its aftermath) which transcended a specific context of reception. We were for much of the time baffled by the degree of variation manifested in readings of Thucydides, and above all by the fact that these so often involved very little contact with the actual text; many of the readers we studied were happy to pronounce authoritatively on ‘what Thucydides said’ on the basis of reading a few passages, generally in translations of dubious quality, or even with little sign that they had read Thucydides at all.
We were left with the question of whether there was something in the nature of Thucydides’ text that allowed it to be dismembered and appropriated in this manner, or whether on the contrary it was the separation of the idea of Thucydides from its supposed textual source that enabled his dissemination – and in either case, the explanation for his remarkable popularity and the underlying dynamics of his growing influence remained entirely obscure.
The turning-point in the project came about, as so often happens, more or less by chance: a book picked up at an airport when the prospect of doing nothing but trying to grade papers on the flight seemed too depressing. Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton, 2011) makes two references to Thucydides, both entirely conventional within the genre: first using him as a stick with which to beat contemporary practitioners of IR over the head (Thucydides anticipated the threat of the living dead in his comments on the plague, so why are modern scholars so complacent on the matter? p.13) and then offering a standard reading of the Melian Dialogue as as textbook statement of Realism:
Realists would see no reason to expect an epidemic of zombies to be any different in its effects [from any other plague]. To paraphrase Thucydides, the realpolitik of zombies is that the strong will do what they can, and the weak must suffer devouring by reanimated, ravenous corpses. (p.38)
Oh, not the Melian Dialogue again… The association between the reference and Drezner’s main theme brought to mind the notion of ‘zombie ideas’ (see for example John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics: how dead ideas still walk among us, Princeton 2010), which persist in staggering around making a mess of things despite having been killed years ago; if ever there was a zombie idea, it’s this interpretation of the (mistranslated) line from the Athenians at Melos, understood as (i) the views of Thucydides himself, rather than words put into the mouth of his character) and (ii) a statement about the reality of things, rather than a highly tendentious rhetorical claim in a specific historical context. Of course in this case, as in Quiggin’s critique of various strains of neoclassical economics, the ‘zombie’ thing is clearly a metaphor: other than their refusal to die, ideas are clearly not zombies in any literal sense.
Our situation, I realised, is rather more serious.
Thucydides is not a zombie. Nor is he a vampire, an idea that I played with for half an hour, not least because of the aristocratic and elitist tendencies to be found in many of the claims about his significance.
Thucydides is the virus that turns those infected into zombies. Thus we are faced today with shambling hordes of Realists, staggering murderously towards any issue in global politics that presents itself, groaning ‘Might is right… The strong do what they can… Might is right…’ in mindless concert. In the nineteenth century, the corridors of universities in Berlin and elsewhere were infested by equally shambolic figures, muttering phrases like ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen…’.
This virus is powerful enough to be transmitted not only through a full-blown encounter with the complete text but through even a passing contact with selected extracts; in fact, just a passing reference to Thucydides in an op-ed article on US-China relations may be enough to produce symptoms of belief in the claim to universal authority of a fifth-century BCE Greek, the gateway to a more virulent infection and onwards transmission. Every citation of the Melian Dialogue in foreign policy debates, every quotation from Thucydides at the head of a committee report, every evocation of the Funeral Oration in commemorating veterans and the war dead creates new victims, who set about spreading the virus still further.
From this perspective, we cannot but feel pity for the shambling hordes of IR Realists – well, pity mixed with terror. The fact that their readings of Thucydides are crude and reductive is beside the point; they are undead, with no consciousness of what they are doing and saying, their minds eaten away by the virus. The greater sophistication of constructivist readings is equally irrelevant; it’s the same infection, so comparisons in intellectual terms are the equivalent of making aesthetic judgements on the shape and distribution of smallpox blisters or plague buboes. Daniel Drezner’s elegant evocation of Thucydides as an expert on zombie attacks is just another manifestation of the plague; he too is a zombie, infecting countless others. Thucydides wants to eat your brains.
Refocusing the Project
This conceptual breakthrough necessitated a radical refocusing of the project: it was increasingly clear that ideas of ‘reception’ and other humanities-based approaches were of little use, and we needed to concentrate on ideas drawn from virology. In the first instance, the hypothesis needed to be tested; it was superficially plausible, but there remained the question of whether a single pathogen could generate such diverse symptoms in different contexts. Preliminary results suggest that this is a virus of uncommon virulence and with a high mutation rate; it adapts rapidly to changing circumstances, crossing ecological barriers and disciplinary frameworks with ease.
Our existing data was reanalysed to trace patterns of transmission and infection. Key instances of reception could now be reinterpreted as primary carriers, the Typhoid Marys of Thuckydidismus (not only Hobbes and von Ranke, but also W.H. Auden, whose evocation of Thucydides in 1 September 1939 had provoked hundreds of class discussions, essay topics and internet comments in the US in the decade following 9/11). Key moments needed to be seen as points where either people were more susceptible (times of war, crisis and uncertainty – the religious wars of the sixteenth century, the French Revolution, the First World War – correlated with rising levels of infection) and/or where the virus crossed into new environments (in the inter-war years, it moved both from historiography into political theory and crossed the Atlantic).In some cases, the infection became endemic – IR departments are clearly hazardous environments, with most faculty and students becoming infected almost immediately, in much the same way as hospitals spread MRSA and the like – while at other times only the most susceptible fall victim to the plague. The role of technology, in conjunction with the processes of globalisation, offer clear indications of how in recent years the virus has spread out from the plague reservoirs of the United States into regions that had built up some immunity in earlier outbreaks (much of Europe) or had previously been isolated (Africa, Asia).
The project was now no longer focused on understanding the Thucydides plague as an end in itself; the search was on for a cure, or for a some defence against infection. The traditional means of combatting zombies – decapitation and other serious head trauma, fire – are all fully effective, as was established at a special ‘colloquium’ with IR specialists in early 2013. For the moment, however, this solution remains politically unacceptable (not least because of the prevalence of low-level infection within the US political establishment) and practically difficult (the US military, which would be the main strike force for any such disinfection campaign, is headed by confirmed zombies). Our researches uncovered some early attempts at controlling infection, such as David Welch’s ‘Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides’ (Review of International Studies 29, 2003), but these were clearly and predictably ineffective; attempting to reason with shambling, brain-dead hordes inevitably ends in tears, and another zombie.
Our main efforts were in the field of immunisation, where preliminary results shows some promise. For example, innoculation with a small dose of a mild form of Thucydides (extracts from Book IV battle narratives, for example) did produce in a small but statistically significant sample of patients feelings of boredom and listlessness, that generally served as a barrier to infection by more virulent forms; possible side effects included the development of an aversion to historiography in general, but that may be a small price to pay. However, this appears to work only on subjects with no previous exposure to Thucydides, which covers an ever-shrinking proportion of the global population.
Attempts at treating existing mild infections with homeopathic doses of more sophisticated interpretations of Thucydides, with innoculations of the ‘real’ text-based Thucydides and/or with alternative historians (e.g. Herodotus) proved largely ineffective, and in a number of cases accelerated the rate of brain decay. The historical evidence indicates that the widespread 19th-century infection in historiography was eventually tamed by the emergence of a competing pathogen known as ‘historicism’, and many academic historians (especially in Europe) retain some degree of immunity; however, attempts at innoculating the political science community with the same pathogen revealed that the Thucydides virus (especially variant ThI.22) has already developed powerful defences against it.
Our main hope in this area rests on my collaborator Dr Christine Lee; not so much through her actual research but because, despite clearly being infected by the virus, she has shown remarkable resistance to the normal urge to transmit it to others through multiple publications. We hope to be able to identify and isolate the antibodies that are inhibiting this instinct, so that the spread of the infection may be slowed or even halted even if those infected cannot be cured.
However, this line of research brought us face to face with an uncomfortable question: how far was this project, dedicated to combatting the global threat of Thucydides, in fact contributing unwittingly to the problem? The requirements attached to the funding included production of regular reports; were these spreading the virus? The same was true of the expectation that the public should as far as possible be engaged with research findings; I take full responsibility for the unfortunate ‘success’ of the outreach event in Bristol, while blaming the Impact agenda for everything else. Finally, the career development of the PhD students likewise necessitated regular conference papers and publications, and it was increasingly clear that any mention of Thucydides in association with ideas of authority and timeless wisdom, even those orientated towards denying that he has any such authority or wisdom, could serve as a means of transmission. The need to apply for additional funding to continue research – above all to explore the crucial period of cross-disciplinary infection in the mid-20th century – would stand a chance of success only by infecting those responsible for funding decisions and taking advantage of their credulous belief in Thucydides’ relevance to contemporary issues.
We have taken various steps to limit contamination from our work. Dr Lee has been despatched to a secure location overseas, where she will be rendered incapable of publication on Thucydides even if her current immunity wears off. We have agreed on a ‘firewall’ approach, commissioning essays from as many infected scholars as possible for a putative Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, which will never of course appear, in the hope that this will delay their publication elsewhere and thus delay the spread of the virus. I have not seen either Ben or Andreas, the PhD students, for some weeks, but I have a shotgun and a claw hammer to hand in case they resurface. If I feel myself falling prey to the same delusions of Thucydides’ relevance to contemporary global issues, well, let’s just say that arrangements have been put in place to deal with that too.
Above all we, or I, need more time, and my fear is that the existence of the project, now that it has become public knowledge, will serve as a beacon, drawing the zombies from all corners of the earth. Of course the nuclear option has been considered, attempting to gather all infected scholars, politicians and generals at a World Thucydides Congress, preferably somewhere that no one would miss much like Rockall rather than in Bristol, and then blowing it up – but I fear that the adaptation of the virus to electronic transmission and its consequent dissemination on the internet has rendered that course of action pointless.
In the meantime, I wait; for the confirmation of additional funding to continue this desperately urgent investigation, or for th