Saturday, March 10, 2012


Robert D. Luginbill, Author of Illusions: Thucydides' Rewriting of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. Pp. x, 277. ISBN 9781443826495. $59.99.

Reviewed by Edith Foster, Ashland University (

Version at BMCR home site

Robert Luginbill's main thesis is that Thucydides' History was conceived and executed with the aim of exculpating the Athenian general Pericles of any blame for Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War. In his view, Thucydides' book leads us inexorably to the conclusion that "Pericles had been completely right and vindicated by events…" (21). Moreover, he argues that Thucydides' aim is to trick us into agreement with these views. "By assuming an objective stance, and leaving it to the reader to draw the indicated conclusions, Thucydides as good as guaranteed that those conclusions would not be seen as intrinsically his truth. Fascination with and concentration on his logoi would allow his true purpose, his true logos, to escape notice, even as it was being embraced" (23).

The logoi to which Luginbill refers are Thucydides' analyses of human nature, reason and emotion, freedom and the desire to rule, chance and necessity, hope and fear, and national character (24-35). These logoi have the deeper purpose of supporting the logos that Pericles was "the model leader with the perfect plan for victory in a contest that could not be avoided" (38). Thucydides had framed them as the background of an "encomiastic history" (38), but when Athens lost the war he retooled them as the framework for "a historical tragedy and an exculpatory tour de force" (38).

In Luginbill's view, not only Thucydides' analyses of behavioral and historical forces, but also his story of the events of the Peloponnesian War had as its main aim to justify Pericles. For one thing, Thucydides suppressed Pericles' role in the events that preceded the war and made the war look inevitable. In Thucydides, both Athens and Sparta were impelled by a "witch's brew of forces" (43) to make war upon each other, so that "Thucydides has effectively absolved Pericles of all responsibility" (55). It seems necessary to mention at this point that Luginbill does not discuss 1.114- 117, which contain Thucydides' descriptions of Pericles' subordination of Euboia and Samos. Without including some consideration of these chapters, it seems to me impossible to assess Thucydides' representation of Pericles' pre-war activities.

Luginbill also argues that Thucydides endowed Pericles with the perfect plan for winning the war. Here, Thucydides is at his most duplicitous. In Luginbill's view, the plan Thucydides attributed to Pericles was defensive (77-78). This plan is "a myth created by Thucydides" (95), and was created by Thucydides to justify Pericles. In reality, Pericles had instigated "a deliberately aggressive and unnecessary war, designed to humble Sparta" (79). Thucydides therefore changed the facts to defend a bad person: "…the circumstances were effectively manipulated and presented in such a way so as to fit Thucydides' revisionist tale, a tale whose purpose is to defend an unnecessary, aggressive, and ill- conceived war" (80).

Once we have swallowed the idea that "Pericles'" plan was perfect, Thucydides need only remind us of the fact that subsequent leaders were inferior, and also abandoned the master plan, in order to convince us that it was these inferior leaders and their deviations from the plan that lost the war for Athens. The fact that Athens lost the war would therefore never touch Pericles' reputation, however responsible he may in fact have been. On the contrary, in Thucydides "the horrendous defeat Athens eventually suffered stands both as proof of Pericles' foresight and a monument to his glory" (93).

Thucydides' readers therefore draw a conclusion that is entirely contrary to the truth: Pericles' real strategy was a flawed five-pronged plan, which Luginbill lays out at length over pages 109-141 (discussed below). Pericles' foresight, such as it was, was only for himself. Pericles chose to go to war in order to preserve his political power when he was under fire at Athens (175-77), and "once hostilities commenced, Pericles seems to have found preventing a peace even easier than starting a war" (177). He was therefore responsible for the misconceived war, the continuation of the war, and losing the war: in fact, Pericles doomed Athens (256). Pericles was therefore hardly the devoted leader Thucydides made him out to be. On the contrary, "Pericles' patriotism was as self-serving as that of his nephew Alcibiades" (178).

Thucydides would not allow this truth to emerge, but rather his entire book is a surreptitious apology (183) for Pericles in which "every victory must highlight Pericles' wisdom, and every defeat must be attributable to the failure to follow his plan" (183). When events did not prove that all leaders, Athenian or Spartan, were inferior to Pericles, this was not a problem, because Thucydides was talented enough to distract us from these realities. "When outright omission was impossible, Thucydides solves this problem by drowning out discordant notes with resounding chorales that sweep away our attention and militate against uncomfortable conclusions. This is the sort of sleight of hand essential to any magician's act, the misdirection of the audience's attention by emphatically over-emphasizing the trivial to distract from the critical" (92). Thucydides' devices for distracting us are many. First, there are the speeches, which appeal to our better feelings, particularly in Pericles' case, in order to distract us from the real events (144). Pericles' speeches stand unopposed; "Thucydides places them within a set of circumstances which are themselves often interpreted by him and by the History's other actors, and in Pericles' case, this never fails to produce confirmation of his foresight" (145-146). Many other distractions from the events of the war also lull the reader's mind: for Luginbill, the excursus on Pausanias and Themistocles (192-193), the plague narrative (196-202), the Plataean narrative (208-212), or the Mytilenean debate (217) are, whatever other purposes they serve, all distractions from more important events of the war.

The manner of Luginbill's argumentation is by now clear: if these narratives cannot be considered to offer context for Pericles, none can be. Only Thucydides' motivation for so strenuously, and duplicitously, defending the man who doomed Athens needs now be argued, and this Luginbill accomplishes in the final pages of his book, asserting that the defense of Pericles was necessary for the defense of Thucydides' own reputation: if the Athenians had abided by the policy Thucydides ascribes to Pericles, they would have reinforced Thucydides as he was defending Amphipolis instead of conducting imperial adventures in Boeotia, and thus prevented his defeat by Brasidas (234-235, 260). In other words, Thucydides dreamed up a policy that would have saved his own career and attributed this policy to Pericles in his History.

I am an admirer of Luginbill's previous book,1 and I am sorry to say that I find this argument more emotional than reasonable. It seems to me that Luginbill's extreme dislike of both Thucydides and Pericles has led him astray.

I can argue only a few brief points of opposition. First, while Luginbill states his awareness that parts of his argument appear in previous literature (x), he does not discuss these previous arguments, their bases, and their methods in his exposition, preferring to form the argument anew. This is a problem because of his severe criticisms of other scholars and readers of Thucydides; on which, see below.2 Moreover, he seems entirely unaware that much of his argument was formulated by Wolfgang Will in a book called Thukydides und Perikles: Der Historiker und sein Held, published in 2003.3

Second, Luginbill speculates for long sections of the text. He invents Pericles' "real" strategy for the war from whole cloth, since his idea about this strategy is based on his conjectures about the conclusions Pericles must have drawn from Athens' experience in the "First Peloponnesian War." However, the First Peloponnesian War is a modern invention, and not anything from which Pericles could have drawn consolidated conclusions. Thus, statements such as "Pericles sought to fight the first war [i.e. first Peloponnesian War] over again, repeating its successes, while avoiding its mistakes…" (109) make little sense. Luginbill himself admits that this war is a modern construction of a period about which we know little (96).4

This is one example of Luginbill's speculative method; as we have seen, many of his speculations are personal. Beyond his claims that Pericles drove Athens into the war for personal reasons, or that Thucydides defended him for equally personal reasons, Luginbill for instance offers repeated unproven (because unprovable) assertions (2, 5, 6, 7) that Thucydides was a member of Pericles' party from early on. (He should have read Will, who would have provided evidence for this if he could possibly have found it.) Such license is vastly facilitated by Luginbill's abuse of the text. He shows a shocking tendency to heap up unanalyzed quotations, piling together character and narrator texts from widely disparate speakers and areas of the text. Thus, for example, pages 99-101 contain seven unanalyzed, decontextualized quotations in a row, and seven more such quotations follow on pages 103-104. In addition, Luginbill repeats individual quotations that seem to him to prove his contentions. For instance, his translation of 2.65.10-11 is quoted in full 8 times (8, 67, 91, 139, 179, 220, 242, 247), and also referenced elsewhere. It seems to me, at least, that any argument can be made on the basis of decontextualized quotations, and that an argument made in this way reveals the arguer, not the text under examination. Nor do I think that repetition can enforce the importance of a passage. This is particularly the case when balancing passages, such as Thucydides' descriptions of Pericles' subordination of Euboia and Samos, receive no attention.

This lack of rigor made me even less willing to accept Luginbill's characterization of virtually all other readers. In his preface he announces that Thucydides "lulls even the most critical reader into a trance of egoistic agreement" (x). In Luginbill's view, our vanity has not been able to resist Thucydides' "seductive music" (x). He concludes: "Once initiated into the "mysteries" of history, readers would be eminently likely to accept the apology [i.e. the apology for Pericles] as well, for otherwise they would have to discount the wonderful and exciting new secrets to which they had been made privy" (261).

For Luginbill not only Thucydides and Pericles, therefore, but also Thucydides' readers are bound into a network of defensive vanity. It's a sad world, to be sure, but perhaps not quite as far gone as Luginbill here suggests. For instance, a number of readers, myself included, have expressed doubts that Thucydides' support for Pericles was entirely intransigent.5 These readers would seem somehow to have at least partly escaped the web of Thucydides' deceptions. If Luginbill would engage with these readers, perhaps, and himself offer a closer reading of the text, limiting speculative criticism, I believe that he would find both the text and its audience more attractive.


1.   Thucydides on War and National Character (Boulder, CO), 1999.
2.   It goes without saying that Luginbill provides the standard academic footnotes to a variety of sources. He mentions, for instance, Schwarz, E. (1929), Das Geschichtswerk des Thukydides (Bonn); de Romilly (1963), Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism, trans. P. Thody (Oxford), and Badian, E. (1993), "Thucydides and the Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. A Historian's Brief" in From Plataea to Potideia: Studies in the History and Historiography of the Pentecontaetia 125-162 (Baltimore). An explanation of where these and other authors upon whom he depends went wrong or did not go far enough, in Luginbill's view, would have been most useful.
3.   Will, W. (2003), Thukydides und Perikles: Der Historiker und sein Held (Bonn).
4.   A basic description of what we know about this conflict can be won, for instance, from the 2011 edition of Simon Hornblower's The Greek World 479-323 BC (London and New York), 24-36. On the label itself, and the modern construction of the events of c. 460-446 BC by analogy to the "Peloponnesian War," cf. e.g. D. M. Lewis in "The Origins of the First Peloponnesian War," Classical Contributions: Studies in Honour of Malcolm Francis MacGregor, edited by D. J. McCargar and G. Shrimpton (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1981), 72: "I have been totally unable to determine who it was who invented the phrase 'The First Peloponnesian War.' It is not ancient, and I do not think it goes far back into the last century. The trouble is that, once established, it may have played a part in creating an expectation that the actual war was a prefiguration of the Peloponnesian War and that Sparta was an important part of it."
5.   Strasburger, H. (2009) "Thucydides and the Political Self-Portrait of the Athenians" (German orig. 1958), translated and reprinted in the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series: Thucydides, Jeffrey Rusten ed. (Oxford); Flashar, H. (1989), "Der Epitaphios des Perikles: Seine Funktion im Geschichtswerk des Thukydides" in Eidola: Ausgewählte Kleine Schriften, ed. Manfred Kraus, 435-481 (Amsterdam); Orwin, C. (1994), The Humanity of Thucydides (Princeton), Stahl, H.-P. (2003),Thucydides: Man's Place in History, (Swansea); Taylor, M. (2010), Thucydides, Pericles, and the Idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (New York), Foster, E. (2010), Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Imperialism (New York)

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