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 state of Melos come over to the Athenian side in the war between Athens and Sparta; when the Melians resisted, the two sides debated the issue. The representatives of imperial Athens put forward a terrifying version of “might is right”: justice only existed between equals, they asserted—otherwise, the strong rule the weak and so the power of Athens could always ride roughshod over the aspirations of a small island.

The Melians, honorably but naively, stuck by their own independence. The immediate result was that Athenian forces besieged and captured Melos, killing all the men that they could get their hands on, and enslaving the women and children. Significantly, in the design of Thucydides’ History, the next major event turns out to be the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily—where the idea of “might is right” rebounded on its Athenian exponents and effectively sealed Athens’s defeat by Sparta.

The famous slogan about the strong and the weak comes, obviously, from the Athenian side of the argument, and its current popularity owes much to the nice balance between the powerful doing “what they can” and the weak suffering “what they must”—as well as that iron law of inevitability (or realism, depending on your point of view) that is introduced by the phrase “what they must.” But that is not what Thucydides wrote. As Simon Hornblower (a classicist and historian who has taught at Oxford and London) correctly acknowledges in the third and final volume of his monumental, line-by-line commentary on the whole of Thucydides’ History, a more accurate translation is: “The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply.” Even that exaggerates the idea of compulsion on the weak: to be precise, what Thucydides claimed was only that “the weak comply”—no necessity was introduced at all. And Hornblower’s commentary also raises the question of exactly what the action of the strong was supposed to be; it could equally well be translated from the original Greek as “do” or “exact” or even (as one Renaissance scholar thought) “extort.” “Do what they can” and “extort what they can” conjure up very different pictures of the operation of power.


Whatever the linguistic nuances, the truth is that the “jingle” that we attribute to Thucydides was, in part at least, the work of Richard Crawley, a not very successful nineteenth-century Oxford classicist whose main claim to fame was a few satirical verses in the style of Alexander Pope—apart, that is, from his translation of Thucydides, which was adopted in the early twentieth century by the Everyman Library (for it appeared clear and fluent, as the requirements of that series demanded); now long out of copyright, it has become a favorite version to republish. It is in this guise that “Thucydides” has regularly been plundered for courses in political theory and international relations, and for the slogans that have supported either a neoconservative or realist, or sometimes even left-wing, political agenda.

The obscurity of Thucydides’ Greek amply justifies Hornblower’s project, on which he has worked for more than twenty years, to produce another detailed historical and literary commentary on the whole of his History—to add to a series of such works, stretching back to the Renaissance. We often do not know exactly what Thucydides was trying to say, but as the centuries go by, we do get better at understanding him. And without scholarship such as this, the lies and misquotations perpetrated in the name of Thucydides would go entirely unchecked.

In fact, over his three volumes, Hornblower himself gets better and better at his task—the final part of his trilogy presents a far more sophisticated reading of the text than the scholarly, but more pedestrian, first volume, which appeared in 1991. But incremental as his work is, throughout his more than two thousand pages of commentary (outnumbering the pages of the original Greek text more than tenfold), one consistent element is that Hornblower repeatedly demonstrates that Thucydides did not say what we often imagine that he said.

One of the best examples is a quotation drawn from earlier in Thucydides’ History, which Hornblower discusses in his first volume. This is a favorite of the liberal left, rather than of the realist right, and is often taken as an uncanny precursor of some of George Orwell’s points in 1984. In a reflection on the effects on language (as on so much else) of a brutal civil war in the city of Corcyra (on modern Corfu), Thucydides writes, again according to the much-quoted Crawley: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” As many classicists have proudly observed, this looks very like a Thucydidean version of Orwellian Newspeak, and is a nice example of an ancient writer anticipating what we take to be a modern idea by more that two millennia.

But it is not. The truth is that in translating the original Greek into those particular words, Crawley perhaps did anticipate Orwell, by almost a century; but Thucydides (as Hornblower underlines, following a number of recent studies) certainly did not. His extraordinarily lumpy Greek at this point in his History is hard to decode, but there is no expressing a proto- Orwellian idea. He is making a much less sophisticated point that, in the context of the civil war in Corcyra—between a pro-Athenian democratic faction and a pro-Spartan oligarchic faction—actions that had previously seemed bad were reinterpreted as good. Hornblower translates this passage correctly, and in tune with the style of the original, as: “And they exchanged their usual verbal evaluations of actions for new ones, in the light of what they thought justified.” What this meant, as Thucydides goes on to explain, was that acts of “irrational daring” came to be viewed as acts of “courage and loyalty to one’s party.” However exactly we interpret this, it is not a point about language, but about a change in moral values.

In a long and distinguished academic career (he is now almost eighty), Donald Kagan has devoted even more years than Hornblower to the study of Thucydides and fifth-century history. The first volume of his four-part history of the Peloponnesian War appeared in 1969, the final volume almost twenty years later in 1987. This was followed in 2003 by a popular five-hundred-page abridgement of the whole: The Peloponnesian War: Athens and Sparta in Savage Conflict, 421-404 BC. Increasingly, over the last decade or so, his scholarly work has been interspersed with some decidedly conservative interventions into modern politics: most famously While America Sleeps (2000). Cowritten with his son Frederick, this was a hawkish appeal for a substantial increase in military expenditure—and for the United States to assume “the true burdens of world leadership.” At the same time, it was a tribute to Winston Churchill’s analysis of British passivity in foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, While England Slept (later picked up by John F. Kennedy for his senior thesis at Harvard, Why England Slept).


In Thucydides, Kagan returns to the story of the Peloponnesian War, but now focusing specifically on the quality and reliability of Thucydides’ account. Many of his well-known arguments about the war reappear here, occasionally with a new contemporary resonance. For Kagan, what is usually thought to be the disastrous Athenian attempt to invade distant Sicily was not as misguided as is assumed, or as Thucydides himself suggests. It was not an unwinnable war, in a country about which the Athenians had too little reliable intelligence. The problem lay with the military personnel: if they had replaced the elderly Nicias as commanding officer, then they might have had a chance of securing victory.

In general, Kagan’s position runs against the standard view (derived directly or indirectly from Thucydides) that Athens was brought down by its increasing imperial ambitions and overweening aggression. In tune with his contributions to contemporary political debate, his argument is that Athens was not aggressive enough—and so, for that very reason, suffered its terrible defeat at the hands of the Spartan alliance. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has read Kagan’s other histories: in fact (understandably perhaps) some parts of the narrative of the war in Thucydides are drawn, word for word, from those earlier books.

Basel Museum of Ancient Art

Cup by the Athenian vase painter Onesimos, circa 505–480 BC

What is new in this book is a direct attempt to evaluate Thucydides’ History itself. Kagan is full of praise for its hardheaded analytical methods and for its accuracy. Even the lengthy speeches that throughout the work Thucydides puts into the mouths of the leading characters in the war (and that are often expressed in Greek that is peculiarly contorted even by Thucydides’ standards) are given a relatively clean bill of health. This has been for decades one of the most controversial topics in assessing the reliability of Thucydides’ work. How could he possibly have recorded accurately words that were spoken maybe twenty years before he composed his History? Even if he was himself present and was presciently taking notes, he certainly includes some speeches that he could not possibly have heard—for he was exiled from Athens after less than ten years of the war (a punishment for his responsibility, as an Athenian commander, for a major military defeat). Did he have other, reliable sources; or does his absence mean that some, at least, of the speeches are effectively fictional creations of Thucydides himself?

Some modern readers of Thucydides have embraced the idea of fictional creation without too many qualms, stressing the role of the speeches in the literary construction of the History. Hornblower, who does not himself rule out the possibility that some speeches in Thucydides do roughly represent what was originally said, certainly sees how important they are in other ways. He emphasizes, for example, how often the speeches as reported, however well argued they might seem, fail to convince their audience—as if to expose “the limits to the power of rational debate” (much the same point as Euripides was making, at roughly the same time, in his tragedies).

Others, such as Kagan, see this question of authenticity as a major sticking point. As he wrote more than thirty years ago (and he does not appear to have changed his mind): “We cannot allow the possibility that a speech is invented in any important way without destroying the credibility of Thucydides.” Sure enough, he does not allow it, thus endorsing Thucydides’ credibility. Writing of the leading Athenian politician in the early stages of the war, Kagan insists that “all the speeches of Pericles are here taken to present reliably the ideas of the speaker, not the historian.” And the same goes, more or less, for the speeches that Thucydides puts into the mouths of many others of the leading participants in the conflict.

This whole debate has been clouded rather than clarified by Thucydides’ own comments on the subject in the remarks he makes, at the very beginning of the History, about his own methods. He frankly admits that he did not hear all the speeches he includes in his work, and did not have perfect recall of others. So how did he proceed? Here again it is very hard to understand what Thucydides writes. In taking his optimistic line on the historical accuracy of the speeches, Kagan cites Crawley’s translation of the key passage:

My habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

Kagan relies particularly heavily on the last part of that, whose “clarity of…intent,” he writes, “cannot be ignored.” But the Greek is much trickier and far less clear than Kagan admits. That “of course” is a pure invention by Crawley. And others have argued that “overall intention of what was actually said” would be a much better reflection of Thucydides’ language than “general sense”—and would convey a significantly different message about Thucydides’ own claims for the “accuracy” of the speeches.

Kagan is not, however, a slavish follower of Thucydides. In fact, although defending Thucydides’ historical methods, he also wants to show that in many respects his interpretation of events was incorrect, or at least very partial. In Kagan’s view, Thucydides was a revisionist historian (hence the Reinvention of his subtitle) who was writing to overturn the popular orthodox interpretation of the Peloponnesian War and its strategy. But brilliant though Thucydides was, for the most part, he argues, the popular interpretation was right and Thucydides’ revisionist position wrong. In a sense, for Kagan, Thucydides’ main claim to fame is that he was so scrupulous a historian that we can now use his own narrative against him, to reveal the fundamental weakness of his interpretations: as Kagan writes, “the evidence…for a divergent reading comes from his own account.”

One of the clearest cases where Thucydides takes a revisionist view is his judgment on the quality of the different Athenian war-leaders. He was a tremendous admirer of Pericles, whom he saw as playing a clever waiting game at the start of the war, letting the Spartans invade Athenian territory for a month or so each year and wreak havoc on the countryside, but not engaging them in battle—merely retreating behind the city walls and staying put until the enemy left. It was an unprecedented plan in the history of Greek warfare (for, as Kagan rightly observes, in the Greek tradition “willingness to fight, bravery, and steadfastness in battle were the essential characteristics of the free man and the citizen”). But Thucydides compares the strategy favorably with the rash military decisions of the successors of Pericles, who embarked on all kinds of incautious policies—such as the Sicilian expedition—that led to disaster. In Thucydides’ view, Pericles was right.

But not in Kagan’s. He calculates the financial cost of Pericles’ wait-and-see policy against the total amount of Athens’ monetary reserves, as we know them from Thucydides. His conclusion is that the Athenians could only have afforded to adopt that strategy for three years at the most—and that was certainly not long enough for the Spartans to have become demoralized (which was Pericles’ aim) with their repeated, fruitless, annual invasions. Although it might have made sense on paper, “the plan did not work”; far from being a stroke of cautious genius, as Thucydides thought, it was leading Athens to almost certain defeat.

It was hardly surprising then that before his death, from the great plague, the Athenians had turned against Pericles. In fact, toward the end of his History, Thucydides reports more explicitly than in his earlier books the popular view of the Periclean strategy: “Some thought that Athens could hold out for a year, some for two, but no one for more than three years.” According to Kagan’s economic calculations, popular opinion was right, and Pericles’ apparently cautious policy—so admired by Thucydides and by many modern scholars—was dangerous in the extreme.

The most notorious successor to Pericles in the military leadership of Athens was a man named Cleon, vehemently attacked by Thucydides for his reckless, ill-informed, aggressive schemes, as well as his vulgar, nouveau riche image. Here too Kagan reverses Thucydides’ judgment, showing repeatedly that Cleon’s policy worked, despite Thucydides’ opposition to it—and despite the fact that the only laugh to enter his rather humorless History is reported as a response (in apparent disbelief) to Cleon’s bravado boast, not long after the death of Pericles, that he would capture a large party of Spartan soldiers, marooned on the island of Sphacteria off the western Peloponnese, within just twenty days.

In fact, Cleon did exactly that, as well as initiating a number of other policies either derided or left unmentioned by Thucydides (for example, a major reassessment—upward—of the financial contributions paid to the imperial fighting fund by Athens’ allies). For Kagan, it was these initiatives of Cleon, rather than the cautious policies of Pericles, that nearly won the war for Athens.

It is perhaps a pity that Kagan found no time to reflect on the long history of these questions—especially the relative merits of Pericles and Cleon—in modern discussions of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. These issues erupted with particular intensity in 1850s Britain, when George Grote, an avowed democrat, historian, and banker, attempted to use the history of fifth-century Athens in his campaign for widening the democratic franchise in his own day. In the process, he was, like Kagan, drawn to rehabilitate Cleon—whom, following Thucydides’ account, most classicists saw as a power-hungry demagogue, and clear proof of why democracy and universal franchise might be very dangerous to the political order. In one of the most virulent academic disputes of the nineteenth century, the brilliant but ultraconservative Cambridge classicist Richard Shilleto responded in 1851 to the sixth volume of Grote’s History of Greece with a pamphlet entitled Thucydides or Grote? How could Grote, Shilleto asked, have impugned the impartiality of Thucydides by supporting the likes of Cleon? Is that what extending the franchise meant?

But it is not the shadow of the nineteenth century that hovers most threateningly over Kagan’s Thucydides, but the shadow of very recent scholarship. This book is, for the most part, rooted in the work of the 1960s and 1970s, as is amply reflected in its footnotes (most of the “keen readers” of Thucydides’ text to whom Kagan refers are keen readers of a generation or two ago; most of his “brilliant modern historians” were writing half a century ago). Occasionally he alludes darkly to up-to-the-minute “literary” approaches to the History, those that treat Thucydides as a “purely literary genius, free from the trammels of historical objectivity.” If these allusions refer to the dominant strand of research in Thucydides over the last thirty years or so—studies that stress above all the literary construction of his History, and its links to other genres, such as drama and poetry—then Kagan has hardly appreciated their point at all.

From Virginia Hunter’s ground-breaking Thucydides: The Artful Reporter (1973) through Tim Rood’s Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation (1998) to Emily Greenwood’s Thucydides and the Shaping of History (2006)—none of which is referred to by Kagan—modern students of Thucydides have sought to understand better how he designed his story. Far from being unconcerned with questions of history, or treating Thucydides himself as a literary genius entirely outside a historical setting, they have tried to use modern theories of literary analysis to show (for example) how he constructed an image of historical objectivity within a late-fifth-century setting. They have shown how the question of the function of the speeches in the History is more important, and more answerable, than the old problem about how authentic a record they were. And they have started to ask why—and with what effect—the language of the History is so impenetrable.

Greenwood, for example, stresses that part of the point of Thucydides’ carefully scripted speeches (and his careful description of his method) is to raise questions about the very nature of “truth” in the construction of history—whether that lies with the words spoken on the occasion or with the written words of the historian (however remote they might be from what was really said). She is suggesting that we need to see Thucydides’ History as a reflection about how history is most truthfully told. And that is not far from the aims of Hornblower in the later part of his work. In fact one of the reasons why the two later volumes of his Commentary are more convincing than the first is the clear influence on them of modern theories of literary criticism and narratology.

Kagan is probably affected by these new literary trends more than he would like to admit. But for the most part, his Thucydides is an elegantly written, sometimes trenchant, summation of a long lifetime spent thinking about the Peloponnesian War and its historians. It goes back to many of the key Thucydidean issues of the last century, some of which continue to be relevant today. But it is not a Thucydides for tomorrow.

This Issue

September 30, 2010