Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jeffrey S. Rusten (ed.), Thucydides. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 519. ISBN 9780199206193. $65.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Martha C. Taylor, Loyola University Maryland


This is a terrific book for students. The aim of the "Oxford Readings in Classical Studies" series is to provide "a representative selection of the best and most influential" articles on a given topic. The series defines the audience as "students and scholars," but in his preface, Jeffrey Rusten more fully describes the first group as "those reading Thucydides seriously (whether in English or Greek) for the first time" (v). The "scholars" addressed are, for Rusten, those who have found these influential articles difficult to access (because six of them were, before the translation here, available only in French, German, or Italian, or because they were published in hard-to-find Festschrifts.) Most scholars, of course, manage to get their hands even on Festschrifts, and regularly struggle through articles in the major European languages. Nevertheless, to have articles by Strasburger, Vogt, Manuwald, Loraux, de Romilly and Nicolai translated into English for the first time is a real boon--especially for students--and to have these articles collected in one place is a convenience, but I wonder how many scholars will pony up the money to put this volume on their shelves (rather than spending it on a new monograph on Thucydides). The real audience for this book, then, are the new readers of Thucydides, whom it aims to "accompany, instruct and stimulate." For them, this volume is an exciting, informative companion. It provides a full and interesting overview of Thucydidean scholarship and the major Thucydidean issues over the past fifty or so years, and thus allows students who have read it to then place new issues and new articles in context. It seems a very useful volume for anyone coming to the study of Thucydides at this point in time, and I expect it (or portions of it) will be assigned to most undergraduate and graduate seminars on Thucydides.

Perhaps the best part of the book is Rusten's 28-page introductory essay "Thucydides and his Readers." In it he gives a brief chronological summary of historical turning points in the reading of Thucydides. He then turns to "readings by themes and oppositions," which includes a discussion of "completeness," "speeches," "historiography (accuracy, bias, storytelling)," "political leadership and international relations," and "today: narratology, intertextuality, reception." Finally, Rusten discusses the "seemingly unimaginative" but also "most difficult and honest" reading--"book-by-book" (15), which mostly addresses the commentaries of Gomme-Andrewes-Dover and Hornblower and the sequential reading of Connor. He finishes with an overview of each of the essays in the volume and a brief (2.5 page) bibliography of a "chronology of Thucydidean readings" from Plato in the early fourth century to Hornblower in 2008. Students who read this essay will have a good sense of the trends and issues of interest to Thucydidean scholars in the second half of the twentieth century. It is an excellent overview for new readers and is especially clear and interesting on families of scholars (e.g. 7-8), something that it can take students years to figure out on their own.

After this introductory essay, Rusten offers an article or book section each by his three representatives of the "book-by-book" reading (Connor, Dover, and Hornblower) and then a series of (usually two) chapters grouped under the separate books of Thucydides. Book one gets four articles but none of them really focuses on book one itself, and one (Rood's excellent "Thucydides' Persian Wars") perhaps fits better in the (single) section for books six and seven. The most glaring lack is the absence of any articles on books four and eight. Although Rusten notes the absence and gives an explanation for book four (19, n. 52), he says nothing about book eight. It is true that this section of Thucydides' work has generally been ignored for anything but the compositional question. As Donald Lateiner notes, "Analyst critics cheerfully washed their hands of its literary issues after pointing out the compositional problems (early, late, finished, unrevised??)."1 But surely something could have been found to avoid continuing the shunning. Andrewes' documentation of the many peculiarities that have led scholars to argue that book eight is unpolished and unfinished2 might have been paired effectively with a portion of Erbse for whom book eight is a "masterpiece"3 or with Gribble who argues that "the greater fragmentation of book 8 and the increased use of the narratorial voice to mediate between focalisations on relatively unimportant points seems to me more likely to represent a conscious decision for a different type of narrative than evidence of a first draft."4 There has been a real change in the treatment of book eight in the past fifty years, and that ought to have been represented here.

The book-by-book articles are followed by three on "Reception (Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary)." For all the articles, Rusten often adds an "editor's postscript" that discusses subsequent work on the topic at hand, and authors who either relate to, build on, or react against the position in the article. In these "postscripts" (and, where applicable, in the notes to all articles) Rusten refers to authors by the number assigned them in the "Select Bibliography" included in the text. This bibliography is another element that makes this volume especially useful to students (and teachers). It groups its 435 (mostly recent, mostly English) entries under 36 main headings, including "Intellectual milieu and relation to other authors (General, Herodotus, Medicine, Tragedy, Others)," "Archaeological and documentary evidence," "Categories of Speeches"; the one main heading "book by book" encompasses 62 sub-headings (examples: "2.1-6 [Theban raid on Plataea]," "5.6-12 [Amphipolis]"). This bibliography will be of invaluable assistance to students wishing to study further the various issues this excellent volume raises.

Space does not allow me to discuss each of the articles in the volume, so I will confine myself to discussing those sections in which the articles seem especially well-chosen or where a different choice might have been more effective. This should give a sense of the whole.

The volume begins with Connor's "A Post-Modernist Thucydides," which sets out the idea that each generation has (and will) read Thucydides in its own way, based on the obsessions of its own time. This is a perfect choice for a first article because it urges the student-reader to wonder "What is particular (and potentially wrong-headed and blinkered) about the reading of my generation?" Dover's 1983 article on "Thucydides 'as History' and 'as Literature'" focuses on the (still) key question of how much Thucydides can and should be read as "literature," and objects to any attempt to "deal with Thucydides solely as a powerful and interesting writer" (47). This article contrasts interestingly with the narratological approach of Dewald in "The Figured Stage: Focalizing the Initial Narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides" and with Edmunds' claim in "Thucydides in the Act of Writing" that "Thucydides the historian thus becomes less important than Thucydides the writer" (113). This interplay demonstrates how Rusten has carefully chosen the articles for his volume to illuminate the different readings he explains in his introduction.

The articles chosen for book one are all good, but (as noted above) none of them really focuses on book one itself. Edmunds discusses how Thucydides understood what he was doing in "writing up the war." Dewald contrasts the introductory narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides to show how in Thucydides "his own voice rather dominates and defines the terms through which we will measure all the others who figure as actors within his account" (142). The focus is as much on Herodotus as on Thucydides and, in Thucydides, only on the introductory Corcyran affair. Tim Rood's wonderful "Thucydides' Persian Wars," succinctly and elegantly argues that Thucydides' complex intertextuality with Herodotus "invites" his readers "to conceive the Peloponnesian War. . . in terms of the Persian Wars" (150) and as a "perversion" of the Persian wars (157). Rood, however, spends much of his time on the Sicilian expedition, where this trend is most clear, and so this article might have fit better in the section on books six and seven. Finally, Christopher Pelling's "Thucydides' Speeches" provides, as Rusten notes (20), an "exceptionally clear account" of the vexing question of what Thucydides says and means in his expressed methodology on speeches (1.22) and is an excellent introduction to this question for students. But it, too, focuses on book one only in that he uses the speeches of the Athenians and Corinthians at Sparta as cases to test his understanding of this passage. Excellent as these articles are, I found myself wishing in addition for something that had a larger viewpoint on book one--that discussed its structure and architecture or its relation to the work as a whole.

The section on "Book Two and Pericles" contains two articles, both newly translated from German, Strasburger's "Thucydides and the Political Self-Portrait of the Athenians" and Vogt's "The Portrait of Pericles in Thucydides." These articles engage in an interesting dialogue with each other. Strasburger contrasts the presentation of self and empire by Athenians in Thucydides with the presentation of the same in the Attic orators and funeral orations and concludes that Thucydides "doesn't make his speakers say so much what they must have said in fact, as what they ought in his view to have said, if they had revealed the hidden considerations that pulled the strings in the puppet show of political cant" (208). This is a very interesting statement for students to read because it forces them to judge Strasburger's conclusions against Pelling's discussion of the limits of the flexibility of the methodology paragraph. Even more interesting is Strasburger's direct comment on the article by Vogt. Vogt points out many negatives in Thucydides' portrait of Pericles and yet claims that he is "full of admiration for the man" (222). Strasburger, in contrast, argues that while Vogt's picture of Pericles is "superbly accurate," his judgment of Thucydides is utterly wrong and Vogt should not "keep on being astonished (rightly!) why Thucydides so 'uncritically admires and truly idealizes' this man and his politics" (218). For Strasburger, Thucydides endorses neither Pericles, his policy, nor Athenian imperialism. Here, in an "editor's postscript" Rusten notes that Strasburger's conclusion was disputed by De Ste. Croix5 but is "increasingly considered plausible today" (219), and directs readers to two articles, one of which, Ober on "Realist Theory and the Challenge of History" is the last article in this volume. But Ober's article does not really follow Strasburger's conclusion, nor is it really focused on Pericles. Perhaps Monoson and Loriaux's article6, the other piece Rusten mentions in his postscript, might have been a better choice to include next to Strasburger and Vogt in the section on book two.

I also think that the hundred pages given in the volume to reception might have been better spent. More articles devoted to Thucydides himself would probably have been more useful than a discussion of how later readers interpreted his claim to be a "possession for all time" or how Hobbes and Harrington made use of him. Students need to study and understand Thucydides himself first.

In sum, I think this volume will help them to do so. The collection here works very well as an overview and an introduction to Thucydidean studies.


1.   D. Lateiner, review of S. Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides Vol. II: Books IV-V.24. Histos 2 (1998) (online journal).
2.   A. Andrewes in A.W. Gomme, A. Andrewes and K. J. Dover, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. Vol. V. Book VIII. (Oxford, 1981), 369ff.
3.   H. Erbse, Thukydides-Interpretationen. (Berlin, 1989), 66.
4.   D. Gribble, "Narrator Interventions in Thucydides," JHS 118 (1998): 41-67, at 66.
5.   G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. (London, 1972).
6.   S. Monoson and M. Loriaux, "The Illusion of Power and the Disruption of Moral Norms: Thucydides' Critique of Periclean Policy," American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 285-297.

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