Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Ernst Heitsch, Geschichte und Personen bei Thukydides: eine Interpretation des achten Buches. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 248. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Pp. x, 180. ISBN 9783110201291. $93.00.
Reviewed by Gauthier Liberman, Université Paris Ouest, (gauthierliberman@free.fr)

Those who will read this interesting but somewhat puzzling book might well wonder to what extent its title1 tallies with its contents, mainly a paraphrasis of Thucydides' book eight, which includes a number of discussions not only or even mainly pertaining to the part played by individuals in history. The general introduction (p. 1-18), an abridged version of a 2003 paper ("Geschichte und Kontingenz. Einleitende Überlegungen für eine Thukydideslektüre"), first discusses, so to speak sub specie aeternitatis, the nature of history as what happens, the factors and actors which make history, the part played in it by contingency, and the nature, aim and utility of history as the writing of what happens. This introduction, which may be called philosophical or epistemological, seems to me to be a clear and clever piece of empirical or analytical thinking, but it raises some issues : one may miss more awareness of the various meanings of the word history and of the relativity and historical dependency of any conception of history both as the framework within which an individual or a group lives and as its transformation into writing. A subsequent section of the book shortly sets the birth of history in the context of Greek culture and thought. It is not original but prudent and says nothing which can arouse controversy. However it raises an issue concerning the whole book : for whom is it meant ? The foreword mentions the "nachdenkliche Leser".

The bulk of the book is a paraphrasis of book eight interspersed not only with translations from the Greek (fortunately produced in italics but unfortunately not always fully indicating the divisions of the text first introduced by E. Fr. Poppo and generally observed after him), but also with Heitsch's short remarks and longer discussions. The explanatory paraphrasis is divided into three parts (8.1-28 : the events of autumn 413 till autumn 412 ; 8.29-60 : the events of winter 412/411 and 8.61-109 : the events of summer 411), each of which is followed by a useful "Rückblick" which however does not avoid mere repetition of elements contained in the preceding analysis. Heitsch's observations are mixed with straightforward paraphrasis in such a way that one must read Thucydides if one wants to be sure what belongs to whom. This may not be misleading for hardcore specialists of Thucydides, who may anyway need no such paraphrasis, but it may prove so for those readers whom Heitsch addresses with information such as the following : "Agathon, (den der Leser vielleicht aus Platons Symposion kennt)" (p. 114), "Sestos (an der Westküste des Hellesponts)" (p. 157). Heitsch seems to justify his explanatory paraphrasis thus (p. 17-18) :

"Thukydides verweist den Leser auf seine Erzählung und damit auf die von ihm rekonstruierte Geschichte, lässt ihn mit ihr allein. Und tatsächlich sind denn auch seine Einblicke in die Natur der Geschichte von uns heute m. E. nur durch eine deskriptive Analyse seiner Erzählung wiederzuerkennen."

I cannot help thinking "Deskriptive Analyse" is somewhat euphemistic. That must not make one blind to the merits of what is not mere paraphrasis but elucidation of what (no small amount !) is implicit and unclear in Thucydides' text. Scholars will be especially grateful to Heitsch for the longer discussions embedded in the paraphrasis, but they may well regret that this embedding prevented the author from thoroughly discussing the issues and exposing and refuting contrary views. The generally light footnotes are neither uninteresting nor unimportant but they are no compensation. The use of secondary literature is limited, and readers who are neither hardcore specialists nor uninterested in these matters will too rarely be spared the effort to check if Heitsch is exposing an original view or one that has already been stated (compare p. 93, on the tautology of 8.58.2, with Andrewes 1981, p. 1402 and see below on the second and third Spartan-Persian treaties). Though one may not be fully happy with Heitsch's use of the paraphrasis, this reviewer, after reading Thucydides' Greek, was somewhat relieved to read Heitsch's almost always clearer German. But it must be acknowledged that only the original text can provide the intellectual enjoyment and excitement that is traditionally associated with Thucydides at his best. Thus Heitsch's analysis of 8.65-66, which focuses on the missing information in Thucydides' report, does not make it look like what Andrewes 1981 (p. 164) thinks it is, "one of Thucydides' most powerful pieces of political description".

Heitsch provides stimulating views or discussions which may be useful even if they are sometimes problematic : thus (p. 58 n. 55) on the Daric stater (surprisingly little money, as is acknowledged) Tissaphernes gives for each prisoner of Iasos (8.28.4). Heitsch rebukes the view that Thucydides intends his (Greek) readers to understand that Tissaphernes dupes the Spartans. In that case, he argues, Thucydides would have indicated the amount in Greek currency (twenty silver Attic drachmai). The objection seems to me to be futile, because Thucydides probably expected his readers to know the worth of the στατὴρ Δαρεικός, abridged Δαρεικός, a phrase and word well enough attested in Greek literature and inscriptions (Hultsch, Metrologie, p. 485 ; Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, IV.1, p. 75 n. 2 ; see also M. Alram, Encyclopaedia Iranica online, s. v. Daric, with more recent bibliography). Heitsch's second objection is better : the low price results from "an arrangement with Tisaphernes about the booty, out of which the Spartans had in other respects done very well" (Andrewes 1981, p. 69).

He further argues (p. 63-64) that, since we cannot think Thucydides was unaware that the second Spartan-Persian treaty (8.37) was less advantageous to the Spartans than the first (18), something must be wrong with 8.36-37 as they stand, for the second treaty (8.37) is, Heitsch argues, supposed by Thucydides (8.36.2) to be more advantageous to the Spartans.3 But Thucydides only says that the Spartans, considering the first treaty not to be advantageous enough, wanted another one. This does not imply that he thought the second treaty was more advantageous to the Spartans than the first (the second treaty is, I believe, actually more advantageous to the Spartans, but that is not my point). Heitsch builds on this premise the view (inter alia) that 8.37 may be due to the posthumous editor of book eight. He holds (p. 91-92 n. 101, cf. 95-96) the same view on the third treaty, 8.58, with which, he argues, neither 8.57 nor 8.59 tally. He helpfully stresses that this treaty does not explicitly say the fleet will come, but does it follow from this being only implied that 8.58 doesn't tally with 8.57 and 8.59 ? Heitsch's views on 8.37 and 8.58 are to be found (differently and forcibly but, I believe, hardly more successfully argued) in Schwartz 1919, p. 72-75, which neither Heitsch nor Hornblower 2008 mention.

I venture to doubt Heitsch's postulate of Thucydides' awareness (p. 64) : even if one could consider book eight as an opus limatum, one could not expect of any ancient historian, even Thucydides, what is expected of modern historians. His standards of political and strategical thinking were or may have been as different from ours as his standards of accuracy. Furthermore Heitsch seems to be inconsistent, for he himself more than once notes or hints that Thucydides' analysis may be insufficient. Thus, like Andrewes 1981 (p. 95, attributing the idea to D. Lewis, who retracted it), he thinks (pp. 74 ff) that Alcibiades was never threatened with death by the Peloponnesians, contrary to what Thucydides explicitly says (8.45.1). Heitsch thinks this threat is Alcibiades' invention and he quite ingeniously speculates on his strategy. But if Thucydides was so easily misled by Alcibiades or his circle, what are we to think of his critical faculty, and how can we be sure he was aware that the second Spartan-Persian treaty was (if it was) less advantageous to the Spartans than the first ? Another case (if one follows Heitsch's analysis) is the well-known chapter (8.87) in which Thucydides exposes various explanations, including his own, of why Tissaphernes did not bring the Phoenician fleet to the Peloponnesians. Heitsch (p. 95) accepts the view originally broached in Lewis 1958 that the fleet was kept in store for an upheaval in Egypt. He then proceeds to explain why Tissaphernes did not tell the real reason for not bringing the fleet (the satrap, Heitsch suggests, did not want to display the weakness of the kingdom). After Herbse 1989 (here not quoted by Heitsch), Hornblower 2008, p. 1004-1005, effectively challenges Lewis' hypothesis and thinks one has to conclude that Thucydides' view is both pondered and correct. Should we go further than Thucydides himself and hold him to be right when he himself is not sure ? It might be no bad thing if modern scholars gave more thought to their notion of Thucydides' reliability and excellence as an historian and to the way they use it to corroborate their own views on what he does, would or should have said.

Other challenging, if speculative, discussions (outside those pertaining to Alcibiades) are, for instance, p. 80-82, on how Thucydides' judgement in 8.46.5, which tallies with the complaint he attributes to the Peloponnesian soldiers at Miletus (8.78), may have been influenced by a source favourable to Alcibiades or Alcibiades himself ; p. 103-108 on 8.65-66 as being "der angemessene Ersatz für das, was der Leser hier eigentlich erwartet" and one of the many signs that book eight is unfinished ; p. 141 on Thucydides' failure to state what the Four Hundred's embassies were empowered to grant to the Spartans ; p. 152-154 on Theramenes' future attitude to Antiphon and what Thucydides would have said about it (a characteristically speculative but entertaining piece of writing). However stimulating Heitsch's discussions may be, they raise methodological issues. He says in the foreword that he is not primarily interested in the question of the extent to which book eight is unfinished (contrast p. 148 n. 186, "dass das 8. Buch nicht überall jene Form hat, in der Thukydides selbst es hätte veröffentlichen wollen, davon bin ich mit Andrewes und anderen überzeugt" ; p. 132 n. 150 ; p. 172 n. 221), but this question proves essential to many of his discussions. His attitude towards this problem does not seem to me consistent, for he occasionally (p. V-VI, 173) considers facts which he might have attributed to the book's unfinished state as due to other factors, e. g. Thucydides' strategy towards his reader or his unavoidable failure to "impose upon events a logical pattern which they did not possess" (Adcock 1963, quoted p. VI), a failure which is supposed to account for the dullness of 7-44. This case illustrates a recurrent problem in the understanding and interpretation of book eight, since the same facts may be viewed quite differently according as one considers the book partly a posthumous editor's juxtaposition of more or less finished passages (for such a case, see Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica book eight with the notes of my edition) or as an in fieri whole entirely operated by the author himself (I do not imply that these alternative views are always mutually exclusive). Another methodological issue, already pointed to above, is what the word history means when one asks such a question as "welche Möglichkeiten hätte die Geschichte noch bereit gehalten, wenn beide, die Oligarchen in Athen und Alkibiades als Stratege der Flotte auf Samos, in wohlverstandenem Interesse Athens auf dem Boden einer Realpolitik rechtzeitig zueinander gefunden hätten ?" (p. 141-142). Heitsch often speaks of the part played by chance and opportunity, especially missed opportunities, in history. This seems to be one of the keys of Heitsch's book, as one is aware when one reaches its very end and conclusion : "Was man von der Minute ausgeschlagen, gibt keine Ewigkeit zurück" (p. 174, see also p. 107). These words illustrate a personal aspect of the book written by a veteran scholar (born 1928), whose attitude to history seems to be somewhat disenchanted and pessimistic. This feeling, which Heitsch thinks was also Thucydides', may well have influenced the way the former views the part played by individuals in history and especially Alcibiades' part.4

The reader who expects a thorough study of the part played by individuals in history as far as book eight is concerned will be disappointed, though Heitsch has something to say about Agis, Antiphon, Theramenes, Tissaphernes and a lot about Alcibiades, which is dispersed and might better have been gathered in a monograph or paper on this much discussed personality (Heitsch's references to the literature on the subject are too few). The following passages illustrate his attitude to this fascinating but controversial man : "so einfach wie genial" (p. 79, about Alcibiades' argumentation, such as stated in 8.46 ; "genial" p. 169 about the man himself), "der wechselnden Interessenlage des ungewöhnlichen Mannes" (p. 76 n. 76), "gibt Thukydides ein ungeschminktes Bild von der egozentrischen Haltung dieses aussergewöhnlichen Mannes" (p. 127), "egozentrisch" (p. 169, about the man himself). Alcibiades is one "den sein Ingenium aber auch befähigte, Situationen realistisch einzuschätzen, Konzeptionen zu entwickeln, entschlossen zu handeln und gegebenenfalls auch sein eigenes Leben mutig einzusetzen" (p. 173). But history was not favourable to what may seem to be in Heitsch's somewhat romantic view a kind of unfortunate great man. It is (almost unavoidably) not always clear what in Heitsch's portraiture of Alcibiades belongs to reality, what to Thucydides and his informants, what to Heitsch himself. He may well show a bias towards Alcibiades when he challenges (p. 135) Thucydides' view (8.88) that, when he promised the Athenians at Samos to spare no effort to avoid Tissaphernes' bringing the Phoenician fleet to the Peloponnesians, Alcibiades had known ὡς εἰκός for some time (ἐκ πλέονος, "seit längerem" Heitsch) Tissaphernes' intention not to bring the fleet. Thucydides' view is in keeping with 8.46.1, where Alcibiades is said to advise Tissaphernes to maintain a kind of balance between the two sides through not bringing the fleet and other resources to the Peloponnesians. Thucydides' view in 8.88 is very logical if one remembers 8.46.1, so that I am inclined to take ὡς εἰκός (on which Heitsch doesn't comment) as meaning as was natural (so Westlake 1969), as is logical, almost as expected, rather than as was probable (so Andrewes 1981, p. 293, 456 ; Hornblower 2008, p. 1007, comparing 8.46.5, but there we have at least as far as can be conjectured from his actions and the passage is about Tissaphernes, which makes no small difference, for Thucydides could be informed of Alcibiades' thoughts more easily than of Tissaphernes'). On the other hand one could argue that, if 8.46.1 and 8.88 belong to different strata of composition, we are not entitled to interpret the latter in the light of the former. Certainly, Alcibiades emerges as a much more cynical figure if we follow Thucydides in 8.88, but we should resist idealization. If we do, we may be more prepared to understand why history, to speak like Heitsch, was not there when the unreliable and cynical man knocked at the door and we may avoid exaggerating the responsibility of chance, history or those who were not able to seize the opportunity Alcibiades supposedly might have offered them.

The translations from the Greek are accurate, except seemingly in 8.58.6 (p. 92), where textual criticism and accuracy in translation have a bearing on historical analysis (see Hornblower 2008, p. 930-931) : ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς (the transmitted and commonly accepted text, which I suppose Heitsch translates) cannot mean auf eigene Kosten. Weil 1972 conjectures ἀφ' ἑαυτῶν, which he translates "à leurs propres frais", but, unless I am mistaken, ἐφ' ἑαυτῶν would be better Thucydidean Greek (cf. 8.8.1, translated "par leurs propres moyens" by Weil himself !, and 8.63.4). Heitsch, who refers his reader to no edition, rarely quotes and more rarely discusses the Greek ; where he does (p. 42 n. 39 ; p. 83 n. 87 ; p. 85 n. 92 ; p. 107 n. 110 ; p. 121 n. 138), his notes are far from being always satisfactory. The confusing note on p. 42 about 8.23.5 is (I believe) both wildly speculative and wide off the mark : "die Unsicherheit des Textes könnte irgendwie mit der Tatsache zusammenhängen, dass Thukydides hier nicht voll informiert ist und -- vermutlich -- eine endgültige Darstellung auf später verschob". On p. 146 n. 183 Heitsch notes that Thucydides in 8.96.5 summarizes what he says at greater length in 1.70, but, if one carefully examines the structure of the sentence in 8.96.5, it appears problematic enough for one to consider Krüger 1861's view that part of it is interpolated. Of course one may argue that the problematic construction betrays the unfinished state of book eight. On p. 157 Heitsch speaks of Mindaros' 86 ships (8.103.1) and, after others, rightly remarks that they should be 87 : "73 + 16 - 2 (die nach 103,2 bei der Verfolgung verloren gingen)". There would be no problem if 3 instead of 2 were read in 8.103.2. Now 3 is the number indicated by Diodorus 13.39.1, whose testimony is generally discarded because "it would be unwise to take this as based on different and better evidence than that available to Thucydides" (Hornblower 2008, p. 1047, referring to Busolt ; 88 is a mistake for 86 in Hornblower's note). But does the transmitted text offer us the evidence available to Thucydides ? I am not sure it is wise to discard Diodorus' testimony here and/or the change of 2 into 3 proposed by Stahl 1883, who suggests, as a less plausible alternative, that the ship may have disappeared in the tempest mentioned in 8.99. In his foreword Heitsch might have warned his reader of the textual uncertainties with which book eight teems.

Those who are not scholars may read Heitsch's book with enjoyment or profit. Specialists might miss a more scholarly approach than the descriptive analysis or explanatory paraphrasis offered by the author. His approach raises other issues, mentioned above. However this book can be commended to scholars for the stimulating remarks and discussions embedded in the paraphrasis. One constantly feels its author is conversant with Thucydides' work, manner and thought. The personal aspect of the book, which in a way expresses the disenchanted view of a veteran scholar on history (with a few hints at contemporary history, p. 82 5, p. 105 ; p. 112 n. 117), commands respect. There is a short bibliography and an index personarum. The book is not free from misprints, but they are harmless.


1. Cf. E. Heitsch, Geschichte und Situationen bei Thukydides, Stuttgart/Leipzig, 1996.

2. Full references of works quoted in this review are available in previous standard commentaries and/or in S. Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides. Volume III : Books 5.25-8.109, Oxford, 2008.

3. Cf. E. Heitsch, Der Vertrag des Therimenes. Von den Schwierigkeiten einer Thukydides-Interpretation, Hermes, 134, 2006, p. 26-43.

4. "Ich denke, es war auch in den Augen des Historikers ein Unglück, dass zwischen ihm [Alcibiades] und den Oligarchen eine Verständigung, für die es in einem bestimmten Augenblick politische Möglichkeiten wohl gegeben hätte, nicht zustandegekommen, offenbar gar nicht versucht worden ist" (p. 173-174).

5. "Dass die Masse es hinterher besser weiss, ist eine bekannte Erscheinung".

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