Thursday, January 20, 2011


Edith Foster, Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Imperialism. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 243. ISBN 9780521192668. $85.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Baron, University of Notre Dame (

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It is a testament to the richness and complexity of Thucydides' work that scholars continue to produce fruitful new readings of it. Edith Foster's book is an important contribution to this scholarship. She offers a close and careful reading of Books 1 and 2 (up to chapter 65), focusing on one strand of Thucydides' presentation, "warfare and war materials." Through an examination of this theme, Foster argues that Thucydides, despite his admiration for Pericles' political skills, did not share his views on imperialism, and that he communicates this difference by surrounding the speeches of Pericles and other actors in the work "with contrasting narrative illustrations." In fact, Foster argues, part of Thucydides' motive in writing his history was "to show the price of Periclean materialism and imperialism" (3). Foster has a keen eye for the details that show Thucydides at work as an historian, and she presents strong arguments in favor of drawing a distinction between him and Pericles. Her book will be a profitable investment for any reader of Thucydides and any student of Greek historiography.

Part of Foster's reason for focusing on the initial portion of the work is to combat the view that Thucydides' attitude toward imperialism changes after 2.65. As she says, no one would argue against the idea that "the Athenians succumbed to the temptations of imperialism for the sake of profit when they attacked Sicily." Her goal is to show that Thucydides portrays Pericles as "the exemplar of this human weakness" (5). She sees 1.1–2.65 as a tightly and deliberately constructed section of the work where both the narrative and the speeches support a central theme: the acquisition of war materials leads to the development of great powers, but these "acmes" (as Foster designates them) serve only to destabilize and destroy both the great power and its allies and enemies. Thucydides as narrator understands this, but most of the speakers and actors in his work do not—including Pericles. In fact, they are seduced by the size and apparent power of the war materials amassed by Athens, and Pericles in particular espouses a policy that ignores the usual fate such accumulations of weapons bring upon their owners. For Foster, one of the purposes of Book 1 is not to justify Pericles' policies that led to the war, but rather the opposite: "in showing how his ambition, capacity, and imagination respond to the acme of power available to him, Thucydides makes him symbolic for the tragedy of Athens and his age" (121). In Book 2, Foster argues, Thucydides constructs his narrative in a way which consistently undercuts the "simultaneously idealized and evasive" view of Athenian imperial power depicted by Pericles in his speeches (183). Foster thus follows Hans-Peter Stahl's views on Thucydides and Pericles (and notes her debt to him throughout), against those of Jacqueline de Romilly and others; but she openly addresses the strengths and weaknesses of each position and makes excellent use of previous scholarship.1

The chapters proceed through Thucydides' text, analyzing in detail the passages and sections most important to Foster's theme: the Archaeology (chapter 1); the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth (2); the Spartan war congress and the Pentekontaetia ("the Athenian acme," chapter 3); the Corinthians' last speech and Pericles' first (4); the Theban attack on Plataea, Pericles' indirect speech, and the evacuation of Attica (5); and the Funeral Oration, plague description, and Pericles' final speech (6). At the start she introduces two theoretical concepts—a brief mention of narratology, and a four-part categorization of the function of war materials in Thucydides—but in fact the book benefits from not applying these constructs too forcefully. In any case, at the heart of Foster's approach is "the relation between speech and narrative" (4), and her handling of this relationship proves to be the real strength of her work. There are times when her analysis seems to put the war materials framework aside (e.g. 66 and 73), but it is never far away, and her readings are insightful and thought-provoking.

Foster's first three chapters show how Thucydides lays out the evidence, as it were, for the development of war-material acmes and their eventual demise. This occurs not just in the Archaeology, but through his account of the Battle of Sybota and in the Pentekontaetia. The speeches which Thucydides chooses to juxtapose with these narratives reveal how the historical actors misinterpret the accumulation of massive war-related resources: Spartan and Corinthian fear, and Corcyraean and Athenian overconfidence, are all misplaced and ignore the lessons which Thucydides provides for the reader through his narrative. Chapter 1 is particularly engaging: Foster demonstrates that while a superficial reading of the Archaeology produces the impression of continually increasing wealth and power, Thucydides actually undercuts this perception of progress by pointing out how aggressive acquisition (whether on the part of migrants seeking rich land, pirates, or Agamemnon) destabilizes any prosperity that is achieved, creating a cycle of growth and destruction through warfare. Thus rather than glorifying imperialism and war materials, as Pericles does later, Thucydides at the opening of his work "shows that each successive phase of Greek history wrecks itself on warfare" (43).

The final three chapters serve three purposes: to show how Thucydides distinguishes his own views from those of Pericles; to demonstrate that Pericles is painted as an exemplar of the seductive power of a war-material acme; and to explain why Thucydides nevertheless praises Pericles. In her analysis of Pericles' speech at 2.13, Foster combines attention to narrative context with philological detail to produce a stellar reading of the passage (162–74). She elucidates how Thucydides' choice of indirect discourse, rather than marking an overly-technical or informational passage, actually "allows for a variety of rhetorical strategies" (162): narrational intrusions and corrections of the speaker, a narrator-constructed framework, and strategic placement of verbs of speaking. The connection between Athens' money and power outlined here belongs not to Thucydides, but to Pericles, who uses it for rhetorical effect but does so "at the expense of a realistic assessment of Athens' situation" (165–66). Thucydides' interruptions and framing of Pericles' words highlight the inconsistency, drawing the reader's attention to it (in a way which was unavailable to the real-time audience of the speech, and which a typical direct-speech format would also preclude). Foster goes on to show how the juxtaposition of "this confident list of everything Pericles could take from Athens to fund the war" with the evacuation of the Attic countryside (2.14–17) creates an effect similar to that of the Funeral Oration with the plague: both reveal how Pericles' policy destabilized Athenian culture and society. The precision with which Thucydides describes Attica and relates aspects of its religious history "contrasts sharply to the exaggerations of Athenian imperial greatness that will become so prominent in Pericles' last two speeches" and thus separates Thucydides from Pericles' views (181).

The great benefit of Foster's argument is that it takes into account—and thus helps to explain—almost everything in this portion of Thucydides' text: narrative, speeches, and "digressions."2 As Jeffrey Rusten has recently noted, to tackle Thucydides' work in the order in which he presents it is "the most difficult and honest" procedure, and Foster does so with great skill.3 She has an excellent grasp of the historical and historiographical context in which Thucydides operated; references to Herodotus appear throughout (cf. 183), and she notes the similarity in Thucydides' notion of the rise and fall of war-material acmes with Herodotus' cycle of great and small cities and human happiness.

Two questions naturally arise in response to Foster's argument. First, how does Pericles' passion for imperialistic gain fit in with his wartime policy of not taking on any new ventures? Foster believes that "Thucydides shows Pericles' superior skills, intelligence, and political capacities, and also that these did not secure him against delusions of power" (188); these are dual elements of Pericles' complex character, not a mistake on Thucydides' part. The second and, I think, more difficult question for her is how to explain the positive assessment of Pericles with which Thucydides leaves the reader at 2.65. After arguing that 2.65.5 represents the demos' view (not Thucydides') of the correctness of Pericles' policies, she proposes that the "post-mortem" judgment which follows proves Thucydides' point about war-material acmes: subsequent Athenian leaders, less capable, squandered the resources Pericles had so carefully enumerated, even though these proved sufficient for an even longer and greater war than he had envisioned. Finally, she claims (on the basis of other occurrences of the adverb) that "very easily" in 2.65.13 is meant to stress Pericles' overconfidence (213–17). All this may be true, but one still has the sense after reading the passage that Thucydides believes things could have turned out differently if Pericles had lived longer. Nevertheless, separating the historian from his supposed "hero," as Foster does, gives greater clarity and coherence to Thucydides' text. As someone who studies Hellenistic historiography, I find this possibility intriguing for an additional reason: if true, it would mean that the anti-Periclean tradition reported by Plutarch, going back at least to Ephorus, may not represent so different a strain of thought from Thucydides after all.

Other than an editorial hiccup on pages 38–39, I found only a handful of minor errors, including these technical ones: p. 109, Ἡλληνοταμίαι should read Ἑλληνοταμίαι; p. 122 at end of section, Archidamus' speech "at Athens" should be "at Sparta"; p. 206 near bottom, for 1.61.2 read 2.61.2; and read Hagmaier 2008 (not 2009), p. 97 n. 32 and in bibliography.


1.   The idea goes back to Hermann Strasburger's 1958 article, now conveniently available in an English translation by Jeffrey S. Rusten ("Thucydides and the Self-Portrait of the Athenians," Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Thucydides [2009], 191–219). Josiah Ober, "Thucydides Theôrêtikos/Thucydides Histor: Realist Theory and the Challenge of History" (reprinted by Rusten, 434–78; originally 2001), reaches a similar conclusion about Thucydides and Pericles, but by a very different route, and he still sees two different "authors," with a split at 2.65.
2.   The only section Foster skips over is 2.18–33, which includes what is "probably the most unusual digression in Thucydides" (Lattimore), his denial of any connection between Tereus and Teres (2.29).
3.   Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Thucydides (2009), 15.

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