Which Thucydides Can You Trust?

National Museum of Archaeology, Naples/AISA/Everett Collection

Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in almost impossibly difficult Greek. Maybe the contorted language has something to do with the novelty of his enterprise. Writing at the end of the fifth century BC, he was attempting something never done before: an aggressively rational, apparently impersonal analysis of the history of his own times, utterly free from religious modes of explanation. In Thucydides’ view, the Peloponnesian War, fought on and off for thirty years between the two leading Greek cities of Sparta and Athens, had to be understood with respect to human politics and power struggles, not—as Homer had earlier seen the Trojan War, or as Herodotus had explained the Greek wars against the Persians—by referring to quarrels among the gods on Mount Olympus. This was revolutionary.

But however we choose to excuse Thucydides, the fact remains that his History is sometimes made almost incomprehensible by neologisms, awkward abstractions, and linguistic idiosyncrasies of all kinds. These are not only a problem for the modern reader. They infuriated some ancient readers too. In the first century BC, in a long essay devoted to Thucydides’ work, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic and historian himself, complained—with ample supporting quotations—of the “forced expressions,” “non sequiturs,” “artificialities,” and “riddling obscurity.” “If people actually spoke like this,” he wrote, “not even their mothers or their fathers would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of it; in fact they would need translators, as if they were listening to a foreign language.”

In his Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, Donald Kagan is kinder, but even he concedes that “his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is necessarily an interpretation.” There are big implications here for our modern admiration of Thucydides as a historian. First, the “good” translations of his History (those that are fluent and easy to read) give a very bad idea of the linguistic character of the original Greek. The “better” they are, the less likely they are to reflect the flavor of what Thucydides wrote—rather like Finnegans Wake rewritten in the clear idiom of Jane Austen. Second, many of our favorite “quotations” from Thucydides, those slogans that are taken to reveal his distinctive approach to history, bear a tenuous relationship to his original text. As a general rule, the catchier the slogans sound, the more likely they are to be largely the product of the translator rather than of Thucydides himself. He simply did not write many of the bons mots attributed to him.

Take, for example, perhaps the most favorite of all Thucydidean catchphrases, repeated in international relations courses the world over, and a founding text of “realist” political analysis: “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” It is taken from the famous debate that Thucydides evokes between the Athenians and the people of the island of Melos. The Athenians had demanded that the neutral …

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