Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Donald Kagan, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. New York: Viking, 2009. Pp. 257. ISBN 9780670021291. $26.95.
Reviewed by Tim Rood, St Hugh's College, Oxford

The blurb to Kagan's new book is highly tempting: "In Thucydides Kagan turns his attention from the Peloponnesian War itself to the author who so magnificently first chronicles it: Thucydides, the first truly modern historian." Few scholars have thought longer and harder than Kagan about the Peloponnesian War and the historian who invented it,1 and he does here succeed in offering a concise and approachable presentation of the problems that he sees in Thucydides' account. As such, this book may be useful to those who want a quick overview of Kagan's considered ideas on this subject. All the same--and I do not like to have to say this about the work of a distinguished senior historian generally courteous in his references to other scholars--it should not have been published as it stands. Large portions of the book are taken verbatim (or with the slightest of verbal changes) from Kagan's earlier books, including both his four-volume re-telling of the war and his one-volume condensation (also a trade-book published by Viking).2 Yet while Kagan graciously acknowledges that quotations from Nietzsche or Secretary of State Marshall are drawn from other scholars, and at one point explicitly cites a phrase from a 1988 magazine article of his (pp. 226, 1. 20), he does not give the slightest indication that he has recycled his earlier works so lavishly. It is one thing to draw with acknowledgement on material from articles. It is quite another thing to reproduce without acknowledgement vast passages from earlier books--and the practice is particularly lamentable in a work aimed at general readers who may be lured on false pretences into spending money. Nor is this the first time Kagan has adopted this practice: in one case (on the 30-Years Peace), this is the fifth book in which Kagan's analysis has appeared in almost the same words.3 But none of Kagan's previous books has been a cut-and-paste job in quite the way this one is. There are also several signs of carelessness,4 and the book is further marred by very poor editing: portions of the Introduction (pp. 7, 19) are repeated almost word-for-word in the Conclusion (pp. 229, 224), and the book's final paragraph is repeated verbatim from ten pages earlier (and is itself identical with the last sentences of Outbreak).

The danger of recycling old material appears in particularly acute form in Kagan's "Introduction" and "Conclusion". His attempt to characterize Thucydides' intellectual environment ("It is not too much to say that the new approach substituted rational, even scientific thought for myth as a means of understanding and explaining the world and the universe", pp. 5-6) blithely ignores more nuanced recent approaches to the development of Greek thought. He also offers a shallow contrast between Thucydides and Herodotus. Herodotus' interests are more or less confined to "the commemoration of great deeds and men and events" (p. 227): "With his meandering style full of discursive side trips into the customs and habits of various peoples, and his serious consideration of the causal role of the gods in human affairs, he entertained his listeners, but he did not become the model for what was considered to be the best historical writing in the ancient world" (p. 229--repeated almost verbatim from p. 7). Thucydides, by contrast, "seems to have taken a spectacular leap into modernity" (p. 9--though we later find that he "does not write as a modern historian would" (p. 228)). Most of this hackneyed material is taken straight from Kagan's chapter on Thucydides in his 1965 book on Greek political thought.

Kagan's self-borrowing in the rest of the book is so extensive because he is not in fact attempting what the publisher promises--a shift of focus from the Peloponnesian War to Thucydides himself. It is hardly possible to distinguish so neatly between the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides' account of it, and a passage from the book's "Conclusion" (pp. 224-5) shows that Kagan himself is well aware of this difficulty:

Any satisfactory understanding of the historian, however, demands a critical look at Thucydides, the man himself in the world of action, not merely of thought. . . . More than any historian in antiquity he put the highest value on accuracy and objectivity, but we must not forget he was a human being with human feelings and foibles. The very fact that he was a participant, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that demand evaluation. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be like accepting without question Winston Churchill's histories of his own time and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so critical a role.

This section is repeated almost word-for-word from the "Introduction" to PW (p. xxiv)--but there the first sentence of the passage reads "any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself". To change this to "any satisfactory understanding of the historian . . . demands a critical look at Thucydides" would seem to be replacing the obvious with the tautologous--except that Kagan's real stress is on what follows, "the man himself in the world of action".

It is attention to the human Thucydides that Kagan claims as his contribution in this book. But in pressing his claim he seems to overstate strongly the novelty of his approach. When he objects that "studies of Thucydides' mind or thought, his purposes, intentions, or methods have tended to treat him as a disembodied mind, not as a living human being" (p. 224), he may be thinking of the use made of Thucydides in International Relations or of some literary approaches. Yet on the very next page he contradicts himself by writing that "recent scholarship has emphasized what careful readers of Thucydides have always known--that behind that cool, distant, analytical style there stands a passionate individual, writing about the most important events of his own time, about the greatness of his city and its destruction". That sentence on "recent scholarship" is itself lifted from an article written in 1988. Arguably that analysis was already a distortion of "recent scholarship" then--and it is even more of a distortion now. A glance through the final volume of Simon Hornblower's commentary on Thucydides, with its wonderfully rich citation of what recent scholars have actually written, suggests that one strong strain in recent criticism is questioning whether Thucydides' style deserves to be characterized as "cool, distant, analytical". Indeed, Kagan himself shows a begrudging awareness of this trend when he writes on p. 223 (in apparent contradiction of his statement two pages later) that Thucydides "was certainly not the purely literary genius, free from the trammels of historical objectivity, that too many recent scholars have claimed him to be".

Kagan's human Thucydides is himself a familiar figure from earlier scholarship. His key claim (adumbrated in his 1988 article) is that Thucydides was a "revisionist", formulating his history in response to popular views over issues such as the causes of the war and culpability for the Sicilian disaster. Kagan himself cites Wade-Gery's classic Oxford Classical Dictionary article on Thucydides, which presents a similar picture of the historian's attachment to Pericles. And in Outbreak he engaged with German scholars such as Schwartz and Meyer who also read Thucydides' account of the causes of the war as a response to later controversy.

What is particularly distinctive about Kagan's approach is his opinion that Thucydides was not simply challenging popular opinion on a number of important point, but also profoundly wrong to do so. Thucydides, in Kagan's view, was misguided in his view that the war was inevitable; in his assessment of the strength of Pericles' strategy; in his claim that Athens under Pericles was not a real democracy; in his dismissal of Cleon's Pylos strategy; and in his account of the initial scale of Athenian ambitions in Sicily. He was also writing to defend the reputations of the generals responsible for the Sicilian disaster and the loss of Amphipolis--namely Nicias and Thucydides himself. While many scholars in the past have challenged Thucydides' judgement on some of these issues and insisted that his narrative is shaped by personal motives, it is rare and refreshing to find so large a charge-sheet produced against Thucydides' authority.

It is scarcely possible in a single review to assess in detail Kagan's arguments. That would require broader engagement with the arguments Kagan sets out in greater detail in his four-volume history--and occasionally one can criticise this book for taking that earlier work for granted: one needs to turn, for instance, to Peace of Nicias, p. 321, to find out why Kagan's paraphrase on p. 210 misrepresents Thucydides 7.49, thereby loading the evidence in his own favour. I am also sceptical that Thucydides' interpretation can be separated from and refuted by his narrative in the way Kagan would like: in particular, I think that Kagan misunderstands Thucydides' statement on the causes of the war at 1.23.6 and that he does not grasp how speech and narrative combine towards the start of Book 6 to present a thoroughly consistent (though certainly questionable) image of Athenian ambitions in Sicily.5 But Kagan's views are still always worth engaging with: while the arguments over Thucydides' portrayal of Cleon and of his own performance at Amphipolis are familiar enough, he does here provide a useful summary of some of the most interesting conclusions of his earlier work (on the shortcomings of Pericles' strategy, for instance).

What of the central claim of Kagan's book--that Thucydides was the "first revisionist historian"? As Kagan makes clear, he first made that suggestion in the short magazine article from 1988 mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, this book does not take the arguments outlined in that article much further forward. The chapter entitled "Thucydides the Revisionist" is largely a paraphrase of Thucydides 1.1-23 and 5.26. Kagan does rightly repeat his 1988 claim that "in a sense all historians are revisionists"--after all, the revisionist label could also be applied to Herodotus, who is as concerned as Thucydides to revise opinions about myth and who also takes an overtly revisionist stance over responsibility for the salvation of Greece (7.139). Perhaps, then, applying the label of "first revisionist historian" is less important than developing a better idea of the context for Thucydides' revisionism--and it is here that Kagan's new treatment proves disappointing. Some of the evidence Kagan himself goes on to cite for perceptions of Pericles and Cleon suggests that this context was less straightforward than his model (Thucydides vs. popular opinion) allows; in the case of Pericles, the links between the way Thucydides portrays him and the way he was represented in comedy are particularly complex.6 The way Kagan sees Thucydides' revisionism working in the text itself is also problematic. He seems to believe (with Dover) that Thucydides' narrative clearly convicts Nicias of responsibility for the disaster in Sicily--yet a final sentence of eulogy (7.86.5) which does not even touch on Nicias' military prowess has supposedly been enough to leave readers with a positive impression. Thucydides' account of Nicias is throughout more rich and subtle than that.

Kagan's attitude to Thucydides is paradoxical. He thinks that Thucydides got the most important points of the Peloponnesian War wrong--and yet admires him greatly as "the father of political history" (p. 232) and shares his (supposed) belief in the practical wisdom to be derived from studying history. If correct, Kagan's arguments seem to detract considerably from Thucydides' modernity--and from his respectability. As it is, Kagan's vision of Thucydides is ultimately reassuring. Thucydides marks the first leap into modernity. We can also learn political wisdom from him ("Thucydides may have been a man like the rest of us . . . but he was also a great man", p. 227), even if the nature of that wisdom is somewhat undefined. He got some things wrong, but we can correct him--thanks not least to his own assiduous fact-collection. In the process we leave the Athenian demos looking considerably more moderate than Thucydides' warped presentation would have us believe. And we excuse that warped presentation on the grounds of Thucydides' human foibles, thereby dulling the political thrust of his supposed distortions (itself a topic of great concern for the many recent scholars who have been concerned with Thucydides' engagement with Athenian ideology).

What about the political thrust of Kagan's own (revisionist) reading of Thucydides? The publisher promises "the remarkable opportunity to experience one great historian engaging another across the centuries"--but Kagan's book fails to capture the personal and political aspect of that engagement. Kagan could have helpfully explained the political wisdom that he thinks can be derived from reading Thucydides. Oswyn Murray complained in 1991 that Kagan's Pericles "tells us more about modern America than about ancient Athens":7 I would not have minded if Kagan had revealed more directly how Thucydidean wisdom has shaped his own role as an important American public intellectual who has offered (together with his two equally prominent sons Robert and Frederick) comment and advice on recent American strategy. As it is, Kagan's book (often literally) repeats what he has been writing for decades.


1.   I allude in abbreviated form to the following works in this review: The Great Dialogue: A History of Greek Political Thought from Homer to Polybius (New York, 1965); Outbreak = The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, 1969); Archidamian = The Archidamian War (Ithaca, 1974); Peace of Nicias ~ The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (Ithaca, 1981); "Revisionist" = "The First Revisionist Historian", Commentary 85 (1988), 43-9; Pericles = Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (London, 1990); Origins = On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (London, 1995); PW = The Peloponnesian War: Athens and Sparta in Savage Conflict 431-404 BC (London, 2005).
2.   Here is a (probably incomplete) list of passages of self-borrowing (either verbatim or with the occasional superficial change of wording) that I have spotted (altogether getting on for almost half of the text): Thucydides 9-16 ("In contrast . . . (2.60.5)") ~ Great Dialogue, 98-105; Thucydides 23 ("In a sense . . . matter") ~ "Revisionist" 43; Thucydides 36-7 ("Pericles . . . crisis") ~ Pericles 219-20; Thucydides 38-9 ("Pericles' political . . . prevalent one") ~ Outbreak 194-5; Thucydides 41-4 ("From the first . . . 103.4)") ~ Origins 27-30; Thucydides 45-50 ("peace treaties . . . unexpected problems"), 58-9 ("Why . . . suspicion") ~ PW18-24, 32-3; Thucydides 61-5 ("The most clear-cut . . . the case") ~ Origins 48-52 (cf. also PW 37); Thucydides 65-6 ("The Corinthians . . . 1.78.5)") , 71-2 ("Pericles . . . status quo"), 82 ("The Greeks . . . Peloponnesus") ~ PW 43, 49-50, 79-80; Thucydides 102-3 ("The scandal . . . pretensions"), 104-5 ("In 438 . . . entire city"), 105-6 ("The sculptor . . . trial"),108-12 ("The gravest questions . . . suits") ~ Pericles 192-4, 194-5, 196-7, 57-61; Thucydides 123-4 ("in his entire . . . motion") ~ Archidamian 222-3; Thucydides 126-7 ("an Athenian . . . amenable"), 134 ("Cleon's pledge . . . 425"), 146-7 ("an exile . . . considerations") ~ PW 143-5, 150, 176-7; Thucydides 151-60 ("Although he was . . . countrymen did"), 160-1 ("Thucydides' final . . . led by Nicias") ~ Archidamian 318-30, 331-3 (cf. also PW 184-5); Thucydides 170-4 ("Epigraphic . . . at all."), 174-6 ("offered an assessment . . . generation") ~ Peace of Nicias 169-73, 175-9; Thucydides 190 ("Athenians attacked . . . action"), 191-3 ("positioned . . . carry it out"), 194 ("the Camarinans . . . Alcibiades"), 198-203 ("about this time . . . gone"), 203-7 ("By the end . . . a victory"), 208 ("with characteristic . . . fort"), 210-11 ("Demosthenes . . . harbor"), 213-17 ("The first destination . . . over"), 224-5 ("more than . . . a role")~ PW 274, 277-9, 280-1, 286-92, 294-7, 306-7, 310-11, 317-22, xxiv; Thucydides 225-6 ("Recent scholarship . . . ruled by them") ~ "Revisionist" 49; Thucydides 224, 234 ("The purpose . . . for ever") ~ Outbreak 374. Cf. also from some long endnotes: Thucydides 237 n. 12, 244 nn. 5, 13 ~ Outbreak 363 n. 21, Peace of Nicias, 168, 191 n. 105. These borrowings embrace general background on Thucydides; paraphrase of Thucydides' narrative; detailed analysis; and discussion of Athens' political institutions. Other sections of the narrative follow the sequence of Kagan's earlier expositions without the same degree of verbal overlap, but still closely enough to count as plagiarism (in most universities' codes) had they been written by someone else. Note also that at one point (p. 12 with n. 11) Kagan refers to Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History, 26, in an endnote, without indicating through quotation marks in the main text that he has directly taken three sentences from that work, with slight re-ordering (the Cochrane passage is indented as a quotation at Great Dialogue, p. 101). At another point (p. 211), the omission of a paragraph from PW renders the narrative incomprehensible, as Kagan moves straight from the Athenian decision to stay in Syracuse (7.49) to the eclipse without revealing Nicias' change of mind.
3.   Compare Outbreak, 128-9; Pericles, 129-30; On the Origins, 31-2; PW, 18-19; Thucydides, 45-6, all discussing in the same words the ends of the Third Punic and Franco-Prussian wars, the Peace of Westphalia, and the Congress of Vienna.
4.   Some of the references to Thucydides' text are garbled (36: for "1.59.2", read "2.59.2"; 87: for "1.21.3", read "1.121.3"; 89: for "3.1.5-7", read "3.13.5-7" and for "" read "3.15.2"). Slightly different translations of the same passage are offered at different points in the book, with no apparent reason for the variation: e.g. translations of 1.22.4 on pages 7 and 18; of 1.23.6 on pages 39 and 44; of 2.63.2 on pages 119 ("already you hold the empire as a tyranny") and 179 ("by now the empire you hold is a tyranny")--in both cases missing the important ὡς, and so in the former case making the statement more similar to 3.37.2. Some examples of carelessness: the claims that Plutarch charged Herodotus in his De Malignitate with "a prejudice in favor of Athens" (p. 7)--a misrepresentation of Plutarch's argument (which is that Herodotus traduces Athens except at 7.139, where he rightly praises Athens as a way of casting aspersions on other Greek states) already found in Great Dialogue, p. 70; that "400" Spartans surrendered at Pylos (p. 4: contradicted on p. 137, where the right figure of 292 is given); that Aristophanes in Acharnians wrote of "the countertheft . . . of three prostitutes" from Aspasia's house (p. 36, taken over directly from Outbreak, p. 255, though in Pericles, p. 219, Kagan corrected that to "the countertheft of two prostitutes"); or that the reaction of the Athenian assembly is the "only recorded laughter" in Thucydides (see Hornblower on 3.83.1, citing Lateiner: even discounting 3.83.1 itself, 6.35 is pertinent, as part of Thucydides' portrayal of the Athens/Syracuse parallel). Something has gone awry on p. 241 n. 18: "Simon Hornblower is more sympathetic with some of her [Kallet's] views, but I agree with Konishi's judgment in Classical Review . . ."; the CR review cited is in fact by Hornblower. Finally, when Kagan writes on p. 20 that "For almost two decades I have worked on the project of establishing . . . how Thucydides' account and explanation of the course of the Peloponnesian War compare with those offered or accepted by his contemporaries", he seems to be back in 1988 (cf. "Revisionist", pp. 44-5: "My own work for the past two decades has largely been to recover these forgotten and obscured contemporary opinions and to compare them with Thucydides' own interpretations").
5.   On Kagan's reading of Book 1, I agree with the acute remarks in E. Gruen's review of Outbreak in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1 (1971), 327-37.
6.   Note also Kagan's own vividly mythistorical reading of Pericles in Pericles ch. 13 ('Hero')--where Thucydides 2.65.9 (dismissed in the book under review as revisionist and wrong) is cited in support of Kagan's Knoxian parallelisms between Pericles and Sophocles' Oedipus.
7.   Times Literary Supplement, 12 April 1991, p. 7; quoted by V. D. Hanson, Journal of Military History 56 (1992), 119-22, a notably balanced review of Kagan's Peloponnesian War tetralogy--though Hanson does not quote Murray's mischievous, if prescient, follow-up: "what new imperialism is currently being prepared in the playing fields of Yale?".

1 comment:

  1. Thucydides did not "Invent" the Peloponesian War any more than Al Gore invented the internet. Some things are facts even before intellectuals comment on them.