Welcome to the world of Thucydides! It’s a world that is broad, deep, rich and complex, bringing together the ancient Greek past and the global present with the claim that understanding the former can help make sense of the latter. It’s not to everyone’s taste – indeed, Thucydides makes a big thing of the fact that many readers will be unimpressed with his work and will fail to grasp what he’s doing – but if this does turn out to be your sort of thing, then there is a lifetime’s worth of ideas to be uncovered here.
It’s fair to say that Thucydides’ work doesn’t go out of its way to be accessible. It’s not just that it loudly advertises itself as Difficult and Challenging, disdaining popularity so long as it attracts a few of the Right Sort of readers; it’s the feeling of trepidation when you actually try and lift a copy (or, if you’ve found an edition that’s less than an inch and a half thick, when you look at the size of the print they’ve had to use to make it that compact). That’s a lot of words – plenty of which are thoroughly obscure unless you already know a lot about ancient Greek history, and large chunks of which are actually rather…boring. Yes, I said it, and I’m a Thucydides nerd: until you are fully immersed in the world of Thucydides, there are substantial sections of his book that seem to go out of their way to discourage you from immersing yourself. As I said, he’s not interested in attracting lots of readers if that requires him to water down his vision. He’s not going to make it easy for you.
That’s where this series of blog posts comes in: a Rough Guide to the most important and interesting bits of Thucydides for first-time visitors, with lots of advice on how to get around, understanding the language and culture, how to avoid getting fleeced in the bazaars of interpretation and so forth. Yes, it would be better with some illustrations (if any cartoonists want to get in touch, I’m sure we can reach a mutually satisfactory deal for when we sell the film rights). The great advantage of the blog form, of course, is that you can engage with what I have to say in the comments – and because it’s open-ended, I can always take up questions and new ideas in later posts.
There is one unique, remarkable Thucydides, who puts all his imitators and most of his successors in the shade. There are many Thucydideses, and that’s your first problem. To stick with the Rough Guide analogy for a moment: Niger or Nigeria? North Korea or South Korea? They look pretty similar… Why isn’t there just one straightforward version?
The reason is that Thucydides wrote in ancient Greek, so has to be translated for most of us to read him (yes, there’s an argument that you have to read him in the original to get a full understanding, but unless you want to get involved in serious academic scholarship that really applies only to a few key points in his text, which I’ll be talking about later in this series; for almost all our purposes, a decent translation is fine). All translation involves the translator’s interpretation of the original, in the light of their own assumptions and understanding, so you can always translate a text differently. Finally, Thucydides’ Greek is striking and unique (or one could say weird and idiosyncratic) – he invents words, uses old words in new ways and has some of the most convoluted sentences known to humanity – so there is room for extensive disagreement about what exactly he meant.
Hence there are lots of different attempts at offering a version of Thucydides’ work in English. They take different approaches and adopt different styles, and a lot of the time it’s just a matter of taste – but there are better and worse ones, and ones which have particular issues. To start with the versions you can find on the internet: Thomas Hobbes’ 1629 translation (the first proper one into English; a 1550 edition was translated from the French translation of the Latin translation, by someone whose French was a bit dodgy) is really good in lots of ways – but it effectively has to be translated out of seventeenth-century English, and so is not ideal. Benjamin Jowett’s 1881 translation (found for example on the Perseus database of Greek and Roman texts) shows its age by being flowery and rather stilted. Richard Crawley’s 1874 edition is much more readable, and is the source of many of the best-known Thucydides quotations still cited today (for example, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”). However, it is extremely loose, not to say imaginative; most of the best lines are Crawley’s inventions, rather than actually being in Thucydides. It’s a losing battle, but I’d still like to warn everyone off this one. It’s also the basis for the popular Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler, which is a shame as the maps and historical information provided in that volume are great, and without them Crawley might finally be sinking into obscurity…
Which brings us to published versions. The Loeb edition gives you the Greek text on one side and the English on the other, which looks very nice and might impress your friends – but, even if you do read Greek (in which case I wonder why you’re reading this blog, unless it’s to fire off angry letters of complaint about how I’m dumbing things down) it dates from 1923 so the Greek text isn’t brilliant, and the translation is very dull. Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics edition is the one I grew up on, so I tend to gravitate back to it even though I know it’s not always 100% reliable – but it is closer to the original Greek than some Penguin Classics volumes, while still being very readable, and the introduction by the great ancient historian M.I. Finley is very good. Steven Lattimore’s 1998 translation is generally close to the Greek and very clear (but a commentator below has suggested that there are some problems with phrases or sentences being left out and so changing the meaning – I haven’t had a chance to check this); Martin Hammond’s 2009 Oxford World Classics version is very good, with helpful notes; Jeremy Mynott’s new (2013) translation for a Cambridge University Press series of texts in the history of political thought takes an interesting approach in trying to catch the feel of Thucydides’ style – sometimes at the expense of accessibility. Apparently there are at least another two translations in preparation.
I regularly use Mynott, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to everyone; any of Warner, Lattimore or Hammond would do you very well, and if you held a gun to my head I’d probably go for Hammond.
Do you have to read the whole thing from cover to cover? I’m going to develop this section over the next few days when I have some time, but the simple answer for the moment is: no. But it does make sense to start at the beginning…