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? The conventional answer, especially from a classicist, is of course ‘yes’: start at the beginning, read it all the way through, then go back and read it several more times, and you might start to appreciate what’s going on. (We’ll worry about the question of whether you can really appreciate this without reading it in the original Greek some other time). It’s not just the usual fetishisation of classical texts (we’ve lost so much from antiquity that we become obsessive about everything that has survived), and it’s not just the historian’s sense that all events are potentially important and interesting. Rather, the argument is that Thucydides’ work operates as a whole, with every part relating in some way to every other part, so that skipping over some bits means that you’ll miss a significant chunk of the point.
This is true – but it isn’t the whole truth. Classicists get enormously irritated by those who read a small number of selected bits of Thucydides and then draw far-reaching conclusions about Thucydides’ work and ideas from this, and they are (certainly in their own terms) not wrong; but that does emphasise that there are other sorts of readers of Thucydides, who have other ways of reading him, and it is not obvious – unless you’re a classicist – that these ways of reading are illegitimate. You end up with a different Thucydides, of course, perhaps with a different meaning or significance, perhaps useful for different things or interesting for different reasons. There may be a problem if you then claim that this is the Thucydides, or the true essence of Thucydides, to be preferred to all the other versions; but it is certainly a Thucydides, part of a complex and disputed whole.
One of the underlying assumptions of this series of posts is that you, dear reader, are interested in that complex, multi-faceted Thucydides, rather than in just one of his facets; but even so, it can be useful to start by following a single strand of interpretation, rather than trying to take it all in at once. I’m going to sketch some different approaches to reading the work below; you could follow each of these in turn, seeing how the work as a whole appears from this perspective, or you could take a more conventional linear approach, keeping in mind how different episodes play a role in these different traditions of reading.
Thucydides and Power This is not just about International Relations and Realism, but that’s the dominant tradition of reading Thucydides in this way. It’s worth starting with his methodological statements at 1.22, which (allegedly) make it clear what he is trying to do, namely identify the underlying universal laws of global politics and the causes of war. Then Melos (5.84-116), the ultimate statement of power and rational calculation as the foundation of inter-state relations; the speech of the Corinthians (1.120-4), revealing the driving motivations of states and peoples, namely interest, honour and fear; the Mytilene Debate (3.36-49), precursor to Melos, where Athenians consider the relative strategic merits of a show of mercy and a show of strength. Perhaps you could then go on to look at Pericles’ Funeral Oration (2.34-46) as an expression of the power of Athens, and the debate about plans for an expedition to Sicily (6.8-26) – power gone to the Athenians’ heads, or a reasonable gamble?
Thucydides and Politics Here we find a different perspective on political issues, concentrating on internal debates and political relations within Athens, on democratic deliberation and its limits, and the sources of social conflict. One key theme is Pericles as leader, both his three speeches (1.140-4, 2.34-46 and 2.60-4) and Thucydides’ judgements on him at 2.65 (with the debate about whether this is a work driven by the wish to exculpate Pericles, or a subtle critique; the plague at Athens (2.47-54) and the civil war (stasis) at Corcyra (3.80-6), as paired visions of social breakdown; the Mytilene debate (3.36-49), especially for what Cleon has to say about rhetoric and persuasion in democracy; the debate about whether to send an expedition to Sicily (6.8-26), for a picture of the failures of deliberation and rational argument; finally, the course of the oligarchic coup at Athens (8.48-54, 8.65-77, 8.89-97).
Thucydides and Rhetoric We might possibly begin by looking at Thucydides’ statement at 1.22 about the dubious reliability of his account of different speeches, but mostly that’s beside the point; this tradition of reading, which was especially important in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, isn’t especially interested in the historical veracity of the speeches (that’s an obsession of the historians, who find it hard to reconcile belief in Thucydides as the ultimate historiographical model with his penchant for, arguably, just making stuff up). Rather, they are read above all as models of rhetoric, examples of the highest art of writing and speaking. Some collections concentrate just on the really great moments (Funeral Oration 2.34-46, Pericles’ final speech 2.60-4, Mytilene debate 3.36-49, Melian dialogue 5.84-116, Sicilian Debate 6.8-26, speeches at Syracuse 6.34-41, Alcibiades at Sparta 6.89-92, Nicias’ last speeches 7.61-4 and 7.77), some focus on the short speeches before battles (e.g. 2.87, 2.89, 4.10, 4.92, 4.95, 5.9, 6.68, 7.61-4, 7.66-8, 7.77) and some just work through the whole lot in order: 1.32-6, 1.37-43, 1.68-71, 1.73-8, 1.80-6, 1.120-4, 1.140-4, 2.34-46, 2.60-4, 2.87, 2.89, 3.9-14, 3.36-49, 3.53-67, 4.10, 4.17-20, 4.59-64, 4.85-7, 4.92, 4.95, 5.9, 5.84-116, 6.8-26, 6.34-41, 6.68, 6.76-80, 6.89-92, 7.61-4, 7.66-8, 7.77.
Thucydides and War It might seem that this is tantamount to reading the entire book, and indeed it’s worth noting that the US Naval War College, which pioneered the use of Thucydides as a text in military education from the early 1970s, insisted on its students reading the whole thing without any preconceptions. However, the great advantage of military discipline is that you can tell people to do this without needing to offer any justification and without them answering back – and of course the growing reputation of Thucydides as a result of its use in the college means that it no longer works as a text to be read without prior expectations… Anyway, one could easily draw up a more limited reading list for those most interested in the military side; the two sections that deal with grand strategic ideas (the speech of the Corinthians at 1.120-4 and the Melian Dialogue 5.84-116), the speech of Pericles on strategy and resources at 1.140-4, and then the set-piece battles: Pylos and Sphacteria (4.1-41), Brasidas’ campaigns in Thrace (4.78-116) and the battle of Amphipolis 5.1-11), and the Sicilian expedition (6.42-52, 6.62-71, 6.94-105, 7.1-18, 7.31-87).
Thucydides and Historiography The idea of Thucydides as a model for historiography rests largely on his practice, read through the surprisingly limited number of comments he makes about his methodology and values at 1.20-2. Best to start at the very beginning and read through his attempts at reconstructing early Greek history in the Archaeology (1.2-19), which depending on the critic is either a triumph of rational criticism or a doomed attempt at extracting history from myth and poetry, or even a sort of sociological theory; other than that, consider his comments on Pericles at 2.65, his eye-witness account of the plague at 2.47-54, his third-person account of his own military actions in Thrace (4.104-8), and his brief comments on the Athenian oligarchy (8.97).
Thucydides’ Greatest Hits What’s the absolute bare minimum to claim a decent knowledge of Thucydides? To judge from the way he is sometimes discussed, and depending on what sort of things you want to know about, it might be sufficient just to read Pericles’ Funeral Oration at 2.34-46 (democratic values and the virtues of dying for one’s country) or the Melian Dialogue at 5.84-116 (power and the harsh realities of existence). But most people would extend the list to include the Archaeology and the methodology section (1.1-22), the Plague (2.47-54), the Mytilene Debate (3.46-9). the civil war at Corcyra (3.80-6) and the final debacle at Sicily (7.31-87).
Reading Thucydides Fast and Slow The obvious alternative to these partial, perspectival strategies is to read the whole thing in order, but not necessarily all of it with the same attention: don’t skip straight from set piece to set piece without any sense of what’s in between, but don’t linger over every phrase or detail in complex naval battles (unless that’s your thing). For the moment, what you’re looking for is a broad sense of events, year by year, framing the major episodes – perhaps with a sense of how different traditions of reading intersect at key points. Possibly I need some system of symbols or colour coding, so that when we come to discuss individual episodes it’s clear how they fit into this wider picture – the Melian Dialogue, representing a confluence of Power, Politics, Rhetoric and Greatest Hits, should be a nice rainbow pattern…
*It seems fair to say that I was never going to be the ideal audience for this film, as someone who did quite enjoy the first two, loathed the Ewoks, objected greatly to the addition of digital images into the original Star Wars and gets extremely cross about the ludicrous ecology of Hoth***, not to mention that stupid asteroid monster…
**Okay, just battles. Unless we claim the ship carrying the message of clemency racing to catch up with the ship carrying the orders for a massacre at Mitylene (3.49) as a prototype pod race…
***But it’s still not as bad as the ecology of the ice moon in the rebooted Star Trek film, where not only is there still nothing around to sustain the populations of herbivores that presumably support a small number of large carnivores, but one of the latter would surely lose heat at a life-threatening rate through its bare skin…