Friday, January 27, 2012


Mabel Lang, Thucydidean Narrative and Discourse. Ann Arbor: Michigan Classical Press, 2011. Pp. xxiii, 219. ISBN 9780979971341. $65.00. Contributors: Edited by Jeffrey S. Rusten and Richard Hamilton.

Reviewed by Timothy Doran, University of California at Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents appears at the end of the review.]

Mabel Lang died in 2010 after 53 years of publishing a dozen books and over four dozen articles on Greek history, archaeology, epigraphy, and literature on topics varying from the Greek abacus to Homeric prayers. At Bryn Mawr she was Paul Shorey Professor of Greek, receiving this title in 1971 after Richmond Lattimore. This edition of her works on Thucydides, collected and edited by Rusten and Hamilton, contains a brief foreword by Mary Patterson McPherson giving the reader an impression of Lang's character and personal style; an essay by Rusten; Lang's essays themselves, which number fifteen, most previously published; an absorbing biographical sketch by her student Eleanor Dickey explaining Lang's cult status at Bryn Mawr and manifest gifts as teacher and scholar; a list of Lang's publications; and a bibliography. Rusten's essay describes Lang's modes of analysis, explains how the volume is organized, and discusses each essay within, alerting readers to others' works which have picked up where Lang left off, or have productively disagreed with Lang's views.

This volume overall contributes to the growing body of studies of Thucydidean narratology and to many historical events and issues in Thucydides' text. It will thus not alienate those scholars to whom some narratological analysis may seem overly contrived. Its essays can be profitably read alongside Hornblower's three-volume Commentary on Thucydides and particularly his 1994 essay "Narratology and Thucydides," Rood's Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation, even very historical and non-narratological works on Thucydides like Gomme, Andrewes, and Dover Historical Commentary on Thucydides, as well as more speech-focused recent works such as Carolyn Dewald's Thucydides' War Narrative: a Structural Study, Paula Debnar's Speaking the Same Language: Speech and Audience in Thucydides' Spartan Debates, Jeffrey Rusten (ed.), Thucydides (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies), and many essays in the recent Brill's Companion to Thucydides, especially those by Rood, Morrison, Stahl, and Bakker. Although focused on form and structure, Lang neither blocks out the exterior world of other types of evidence and authors, nor radically reconceptualizes Thucydides' work as a sort of Hartogian or Fehlingesque "Thucydidean imaginary." All the same, her primary criterion for her judgment of Thucydides in most essays here is his authorial effectiveness, not his accuracy as might be controlled from other evidence. This balance works very well, with some exceptions. Rather than skimming too briefly over each essay in this book, many of which, again, have been published already, I here explore those I consider particularly relevant or representative.

The essays published as Chapters 2 through 9, all previously published from 1948 to 1996, focus more on historical events than on Thucydides' text. "A Note on Ithome," originally published in 1967, discusses Thucydides' account of the Spartan promise to the Thasians to invade Attike in order to prevent the Athenians from taking Thasos. Lang's interpretation does not entirely convince. Most see the Spartans' failure to invade Attike as resulting from Sparta's horrific earthquake of the 460s. Lang instead sees the Spartans summoning the Athenians into the Peloponnese in order to divert them from taking Thasos, thus keeping their promise to the Thasians, and then dismissing them since upon Thasos' capture there was no point in diverting the Athenians any longer. Yet de Ste. Croix' explanation for the Spartan dismissal of the Athenian forces meshes better with Thucydides' own: namely, that the Spartans were afraid that the Athenians might have sympathy for the helots, and distrusted the Athenians on ethno-racial grounds.1 And if the earthquake was even a small fraction as damaging as is suggested by the tradition preserved in Diodorus Siculus 11.63.4 and Plutarch's Kimon 16, perhaps Sparta was too pressed by Spartiate deaths and massive joint helot-perioikic revolt to engage in subtle diplomacy of the kind Lang reconstructs.

"Scapegoat Pausanias," also originally published in 1967 and presented here as chapter 4, questions Thucydides' narration of the Spartan regent Pausanias' degeneration in the Hellespont after the Persian Wars and Sparta's subsequent punishment of him (Thuc. 1.128-134). Many details in Thucydides' account indeed seem implausible, such as how precisely the letter from Pausanias to Xerxes could have been discovered (Thuc. 1.128.6). But as Lang notes, many cruces in the passage have been used by different scholars both to support and to undermine Thucydides' historical accuracy, such as the Persian locutions in Xerxes' letter in 1.129.3; these can support its accuracy or tell against it since they might seem planted. Moreover, some of Lang's suspicions may not convince all readers. She distrusts Thucydides' account of Sparta's failure to protest Pausanias' demotion and eviction from Byzantion. However, this might instead evidence a rather panhellenist Spartan horror at Pausanias' stylistic Medism, as Thucydides described in 1.130—that is, at Pausanias' going native like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Lang argues that the Spartan government authorized Pausanias' Persian parleys and, upon these being made public, branded him a rogue agent. Her reconstruction is ingenious, but highly hypothetical—as she herself admits.

Analysis of patterns in Thucydides' writing predominates in the essays published as chapters 1 and 10—15; these all date from the 1990s and later. "Participial Motivation in Thucydides," first published in 1995 and printed here as chapter 1, analyzes how Thucydides attributes motivation to his individuals with participles conveying knowing, perceiving, thinking, willing, expecting, or trusting. Lang notes that most of the individuals whose motivations Thucydides describes, such as Cleon, were probably not among his circle of informants: this implies, naturally, that he took liberties in assessing motivation. The essay ends with two appendices: one listing men by name and the participles used to motivate their actions, and another organized by participle with the names of the persons upon whom they were used and their connected actions. This should prove a fine tool for further analysis of persons in Thucydides.

Chapter 11, "Thucydides as Speech-Writer," reconstructed from Lang's notes by Hamilton and Rusten, compares two speeches from Thucydides 4: that by Brasidas to the Akanthians, and that by Hermocrates to the Sicilians. Lang plausibly argues that Thucydides never heard these, but had to invent them along his usual lines. These speeches both feature ring composition and unity of theme expressed through recurring catchphrases. Here Lang argues that the repetitiveness of Brasidas' notorious invocations of freedom alongside his threats may display Thucydides' delight in the curt, reusable effectiveness of his own rhetorical creation. Lang convincingly argues that the formulaic nature of these speeches differs from speeches Thucydides gives to the two men elsewhere because these speeches perforce involved less reportage and more creative effort on Thucydides' part. A similar difference in rhetorical texture appears in a speech Alcibiades gave to the Spartans at 6.89-92, which differs from Thucydides' other speech of Alcibiades at 6.16-18: Lang argues from this fact and from the speech's circularity that it nicely represents the Thucydidean τὰ δέοντα.

"Thucydides, First Person," also never published, appears as Chapter 12. It first foregrounds the difference between the Herodotean historei and the Thucydidean sungraphei—to Lang, these are respectively acts of compiling versus interpretation. This distinction helps to inform the other ways by which Thucydides separates himself from Herodotus. This leads to a brilliant, hilarious reinterpretation of Thucydides' opening words in which the anxiety of (Herodotean) influence lies behind almost every phrase, then a careful listing of distinctions among the patterns of Thucydides' usages of first-person pronouns and verbs, finding some usages to be interpretive or explanatory and others to be argumentative. Chapter 15, "Necessary for whom? Direct vs. Indirect Speeches in Thucydides," another previously unpublished essay, is the longest and most involved piece in the volume. In it Lang argues that Thucydides uses direct discourse to interpret and explain, and indirect discourse to show motivation and the creation of incentives for desired behavior. She then builds on this to create an increasingly complex series of distinctions. For example, in structured pairs of direct and indirect speeches, direct speeches occur when the speaker needs to make a more difficult argument so that rhetorical flourishes may help it, whereas indirect speeches suffice for more obvious arguments. Her detection of these elaborate, hidden structures of paired and tripled speeches—some chiastic, some in the order of thesis- antithesis-synthesis—in many places in Thucydides' account enables her to argue (unsurprisingly) that the structure and function of some sets of speeches in his text is too contrived to represent an unembellished account of the actual proceedings (e.g. the Plataian-Theban debate in Thucydides Book 3) and concludes that Thucydides has resorted to writing "τὰ δέοντα with a vengeance" (p. 173). This will not be very surprising to most readers in the 21st century. The essay ends with a chart over nine pages long compiled by Lang and Rusten which codes each speech in Thucydides 2-5.25, 6, and 7 according to whether it is written in direct or indirect discourse, what its type is (proposal, interchange, advice, excuse, command, anecdote, etc.), and its response (negative, no response, or positive). This sort of tabular format, with its abbreviations, looks intimidating and may leave chartophobic classicists cold, but that is beside the point; it is a real feat of analysis allowing us to see how Thucydides used words, and can enable scholars to discover further patterns. Admittedly Lang's discovery of such highly elaborated speech patterns may strike some readers as an overly imaginative, overly schematic quasi- numerology at first. And not everyone will be convinced that these structures exist, or carry the meanings she sees. One is reminded of Gordon Shrimpton's caveat in his review of her methodologically similar 1984 work Herodotean Narrative and Discourse: "is so varied a 'pattern' really one at all, and not a mere reflection of the multiformity of reality?"2 Even if not everyone is entirely convinced, many will find Lang's schema helpful for teaching and reading Thucydides at an advanced level; and the lengths she has gone to support her schema exhibit the rigorous analysis for which she was famous.

The editors deserve credit for their publication of this coda to a great scholar's life. While it is true that many of these essays can be obtained (for those affiliated with subscribing institutions) through JSTOR, the new material in the book (74 pages of unpublished material from Lang, 25 pages from other scholars in the personal essays and such, and a complete bibliography) justifies its modest expense. I am unconvinced by some of Lang's arguments, but they are ingenious and well-wrought nevertheless, and I may be on the skeptical end of the spectrum of these sorts of things. Aside from this, overall this collection of Lang's writings should complement any bookshelf devoted to Thucydides or to narratological approaches to ancient literature.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements (Jeffrey Rusten and Richard Hamilton) ix
Foreword (Mary Patterson McPherson) xi
Mabel Lang on Thucydides (Jeffrey Rusten) xiii
Part One: Narrative
1 Participial Motivation in Thucydides (1995) 1
Narrative Inconsistencies Internal and External: 17
2 A Note on Ithome (1967) 19
3 Kylonian Conspiracy (1967) 27
4 Scapegoat Pausanias (1967) 37
5 The Murder of Hipparchus (1955) 49
6 Alcibiades vs. Phrynicus (1996) 63
Narrative Structure and Historical Interpretation: 71
7 Thucydides and the Epidamnian Affair (1968) 73
8 The Revolution of the 400 (1948) 79
9 Revolution of the 400: Chronology and Constitutions (1967) 97
Part Two: Discourse
Thucydidean Thought-Patterns 111
10 Thucydidean Thought (2002) 113
11 Thucydides as Speech-Writer (previously unpublished) 117
Herodotean Inheritances and Adaptations 127
12 Thucydides, First Person (previously unpublished) 129
13 The Thucydidean Tetralogy (1.67-88) (1999) 139
14 The Paired Speeches of the Corinthians (1.120-24) and Pericles (1.140-44) and the Stories They Enclose (previously unpublished) 145
15 Necessary for Whom? Direct vs. Indirect Speeches in Thucydides 151
Biographical Sketch (Eleanor Dickey) 197
Publications by Mabel Lang 209
Bibliography 213


1.   De Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972), 179-80.
2.   Shrimpton, Gordon S. Review of Herodotean Narrative and Discourse by Mabel Lang (Cambridge and London, 1984). Phoenix vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 1985, 80-83.

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