…restraint impresses men most. Not Thucydides but attributed to him e.g. by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but it does, as Tim Rood has pointed out, bear a certain resemblance to Nicias’ claim, in the Sicilian Debate, that it’s better to be feared from a distance for what you might do than to put it into action and be found wanting. This directly contradicts the claim of the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue that if they don’t crush the Melians they will be thought weak by enemies and potentially rebellious subjects, and it’s in that context that I’m thinking about this, as – inevitably – no sooner have I developed a full version of The Melian Dilemma game then I start tinkering with it. Continue Reading »

We Belong?

Everybody so often, a student will come up with something that is simply perfect – they may not do it perfectly, but the idea is just so right. This week, it was the student in my Greek Political Thought class who organised their short presentation for a seminar on citizenship around the UK citizenship test; yes, they could have put more emphasis on the analytical side, comparing and contrasting the assumptions inherent in the questions with the assumptions we see in ancient sources rather than just working through the whole of a practice quiz, but it still raised so many important issues in interesting and accessible ways – as well as, for me, offering an insight into how young people think about such things. The complete incredulity among the students that anyone should need to know about Boudicca to qualify for citizen rights – let alone their reaction when I sketched out the old Tebbit Cricket Test – suggests a radically different conception of Britishness from that which continues to dominate public debates. Continue Reading »

Snow News Day

If you follow me on the Twitter, you might have noticed the little icon that appears when I post a link to this blog, showing a pile of Greek helmets; the same image appears on the cover of Harloe & Morley, eds., Thucydides and the Modern World (2012). It’s part of the Greek section of the Inter-Allied WWI Memorial at Liège, which also features a long quote from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is of course why I first came across it; with its explicit echo of ancient commemorative practices, the pile of empty helmets also evoking a macabre heap of skulls, it’s rather stunning. I’ve not seen it in the snow, so I’m very grateful to Bernard Wilkin, a historian at the Belgian State Archives, who spotted my image and sent over this recent picture…


Of course it’s an untestable, highly speculative hypothesis, if not downright wishful thinking, that the current unspeakable pantomime of stupidity, deranged ideology and blinkered short-term political self-interest that is the Brexit debate in Parliament – no, go on, Nevs, tell us what you really think – might have been slightly less awful if more people had read and reflected upon Thucydides, especially the Melian Dialogue. It’s been quoted, of course, but usually in the utterly reductive form of an isolated line here and there, rather than engaging with the developed arguments on both sides – the (ultimately delusional) self-confidence of the Athenians about their own power and the predictability of future events, the desperate scrabbling of the Melians to find anything – hope, allies, historical precedent, unicorns – to justify their own irrational unswerving commitments. So maybe what was needed was an accessible version, on the YouTube thing that all the young people are watching these days instead of television…

Continue Reading »

They Win Again?

To return to an issue I’ve discussed before: do the Melians have any hope of rescue, if they decide to resist the Athenians? According to the conventional Realist reading, they are simply deluded, grasping at straws (the Spartans will come, the gods will help us, you never know what might happen) rather than accept the reality of their position and the way the world works. Whether Thucydides intended us to believe this – whether here, if not elsewhere, he shares the Athenian respective – is less clear. Certainly the Spartans (let alone the gods) fail to turn up, and there’s no indication in the text that this was even a possibility; we could then assume that T takes this as a given, and wants us to reflect on (among other things) the capacity for the ‘weak’ to start pleading unicorns, or we could assume that he leaves the counterfactual possibility hanging, so we might reflect both on how far the Athenians got lucky (and so were confirmed in their irrational belief in their own omnipotence) and on the question of how much hope is enough to make the Melian gamble worthwhile. Continue Reading »

The Thucydides Paradox is the way that all the authority of a complex, ambiguous author is used to legitimise a simplistic, reductionist account of his work. The high reputation of Thucydides in historical, political and strategic thought was founded on the opinions of people like Thomas Hobbes or Leopold von Ranke who had meditated long and hard on the intricacies of his account and its relevance to the present – but it’s largely used to confer truisms and dubious sound-bites, like “the strong do what they will”, “there is justice only between equals” or “a rising power always threatens an established power”, with an undeserved gravitas. It’s as if the whole weight of David Bowie’s cultural significance was presented in terms of Let’s Dance; yes, it’s part of the oeuvre, and not exactly unrepresentative, but it’s not the central point or the only thing you really need.* Those Thucydides quotes are likewise genuine enough (unlike some), but at best (the last one) they offer a drastic simplification of his understanding of events, and at worst (the other two) they make the basic error of confusing the artist with his characters. Continue Reading »

A brief survey of recent British history as reflected in the changing title of my putative next Thucydides book…

2015: Thucydides and Modern Political Thought

2016: The Human Thing: Thucydides on Politics and its Failings

2017: Faction, Populism and the Politics of Truth; Hope, Danger’s Comforter

2018: It’s the Melian Dialogue, Stupid (And You’re the Melians)

2019: History Repeating: the Self-Inflicted Death of Democracy; The Human Thing: Why People Make Idiotic Decisions; A Possession for All Time (If Anyone Bothered to Pay Attention)

2020: Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You