Sunday, April 28, 2013


Jacqueline de Romilly, The Mind of Thucydides (first published 1956). Cornell studies in classical philology. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 195. ISBN 9780801450631. $35.00. Contributors: Translated by Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings; edited and with an introduction by Hunter R. Rawlings III and Jeffrey Rusten.

Reviewed by Christopher Baron, University of Notre Dame (

Version at BMCR home site

Jacqueline de Romilly (1913–2010) published Histoire et raison chez Thucydide in 1956 to overwhelmingly positive reception, and her book marked a significant juncture in Thucydidean scholarship. As the editors of the English translation explain in their short Introduction, Romilly left behind the dominant approaches of nearly all who came before – either focusing on the "Composition Question" or treating the work as a mine of historical data – and considered Thucydides' text as an object of close reading, "a work of art deserving rhetorical and aesthetic analysis" (xi). Hers was the first sustained attempt to draw out fully the consequences of the notion that the historian shapes his or her work through selection and omission, emphasis, and style, and to illustrate the operation of these factors in detail in Thucydides. Romilly's book, along with that of Hans-Peter Stahl a decade later, helped send Thucydidean studies down the path they still follow.1 Most classical scholars have enough French to make their way through Romilly's original, though perhaps not the time. Nevertheless, except for the truly bilingual, it is easier to digest complex and rigorous arguments in one's native language. Those of us who think primarily in English thus owe a debt of gratitude to Rawlings, Rawlings, and Rusten for translating this seminal work of Thucydidean scholarship. Along with Stahl's 2003 translation of his own earlier work, we now have easy access to two landmark treatments of Thucydides, and two books still worth reading in their own right.2

The English translation presents Romilly's work largely in its original form but with some notable additions. These include section headings (where the French has only Roman numerals) and sub-headings (marked in the original by centered asterisks); a list of Works Cited, useful and necessary given the shorthand nature of Romilly's original citations, of works now more than seventy years old; and a brief Subject Index. The editors decided not to update the bibliography or the notes (viii) – a testament to the fact that Romilly's work still reads fresh. Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings's translation stays close to the original and thus retains some of the occasional vagueness which scholarly French can produce. But she has done an excellent job of adjusting the syntax and idiom to create English which reads smoothly while still reflecting the stylistic flourishes and variation of Romilly's original. This is also accomplished by keeping Romilly's short, one-sentence paragraphs which she often employed to punctuate the beginning and end of her arguments (see, for example, the section on "Intelligibility and Generality," 23–27).

Four chapters, accompanied by a brief introduction and conclusion, cover narrative methods, battle accounts, antithetical speeches, and investigation of the past. In one sense, Romilly proceeds from histoire to raison: from a "simple" battle narrative to a more complex one, including speeches; from there to sets of opposed speeches; and finally to a narrative without reliable facts, constructed solely through reasoning. But this progression is only apparent, since Romilly demonstrates that Thucydides' hand is in firm control throughout his work, repeating specific language to mark (and make) connections in an attempt to reveal with clarity the truth of events. This was, perhaps, her most important achievement: to show that Thucydides' art is on display not only in the speeches, but in the erga sections as well. Her close analysis of Thucydides' selectivity, narrative structure, and use of "guiding threads" (fils conducteurs) in order to emphasize the ideas he wishes to impress upon the reader demolished the notion of "straightforward" historical narrative.

Her opening chapter, with its brilliant exposition of the Athenian attempt to blockade Syracuse and the successful resistance of the latter (6.96–7.9), remains a tour de force. This episode which seems to involve nothing more than factual details of military operations is instead shown to be carefully, even obsessively constructed, with the exact repetition of key phrases and precisely timed interruptions, in order to explain why events turned out the way they did – that is, expressing interpretation through the narrative itself. Thus, while it is true that Thucydides effaces the author from the text, this does not mean that he avoids interpretation and offers only facts, or that he achieves some sort of ideal objectivity; rather, he insists on communicating his judgments to the reader solely by means of the narrative (46). Similar demonstrations follow in chapter 2, revealing the tight connection between speech and action surrounding the Battle of Naupactus (2.86–92); in chapter 3, examining the principles and methods at work in the paired speeches (using Camarina, 6.75–88, as an example); and in chapter 4, where the sometimes awkward and problematic language of the Archaeology (1.3–19) turns out to be a product of Thucydides' complex and narrowly focused reasoning.

Romilly's findings bore crucial consequences for scholars' judgments of Thucydides. As she points out, for example, when other authors (such as Plutarch) give different details surrounding the blockade of Syracuse, we cannot assume that they are wrong or engaging in embellishment; rather, Thucydides has chosen to emphasize one point, they others (11). Overall, her successful demonstration of a unified authorial presence throughout the work laid to rest traditional concerns about the layers of composition scholars had been trying to find for more than a century.

It is, of course, a tricky thing to trace influence. Romilly's book clearly foreshadowed the future of Thucydidean scholarship. But her new approach did not win the field immediately, at least in the English-speaking world. In 1973, Virginia Hunter still could only express her hope that the old guard of positivism had finally fallen (and she looked to Stahl 1966 as the potential fatal blow).3 W.R. Connor, in his 1977 scholarship review, notes that Romilly's method, at least, had "won many American converts in recent years," but he places the emergence of a new Thucydides in the mid- 1960s amidst the crisis of authority connected with the Vietnam War; for Connor, Romilly had offered "a path that seemed likely to lead to the sources of Thucydides' intense power" as an author, without necessarily questioning the notion of objectivity.4 In a remarkable case of trans-Atlantic Zeitgeist, the year after Romilly's book appeared in France, Adam Parry completed his Harvard dissertation on "Logos and Ergon in Thucydides," in which he approached the work not as an objective description of the war, but as "a study of man's attempt to master the world by the intellect."5 At the time of his death in 1973, Parry was under contract with Oxford to expand the dissertation (which treated only the first two books of Thucydides) into a monograph entitled, interestingly enough, "The Mind of Thucydides." Sadly, that book was never written, but Parry had already published three articles dealing with Thucydides' language and the highly "personal" and "tragic" nature of the work.6

The translator and editors do not explain their decision to translate Romilly's title as The Mind of Thucydides. Whatever their reasons – and I assume they had Parry's unwritten book in mind – they chose well. "History and Reason" would not have done it justice. "History and Logic" comes closer to Romilly's intention but sounds far too dry to reflect the richness of her exposition. "The Mind of Thucydides" captures perfectly what Romilly was after: for all its "objectivity," Thucydides' work "is actually one in which the author's intervention is most profound" (3). His history of the Peloponnesian War is not a simple record of what happened. It is the product of his impressive analytical powers, his attempt to grasp and express the essence of why things happened, happen, and will happen in the manner they do.


1.   H.-P. Stahl, Thukydides: Die Stellung des Menschen im geschichtlichen Prozess (Munich, 1966). The work of John H. Finley, Jr. should also be noted here; his 1942 book on Thucydides was still concerned with the composition question, but his attention to style and language provided an important model for Romilly.
2.   H.-P. Stahl, Thucydides: Man's Place in History (Swansea, 2003).
3.   Thucydides: The Artful Reporter (Toronto, 1973), 5–8. As she notes, rumblings of this sort date back to Cornford's Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907). But she may be slightly unfair in lumping A.W. Gomme with the rigid positivists; he actually offers quite a positive review of Romilly's book in Gnomon 30 (1958), 15–19, including praise for her "excellent restatement of the truth . . . of the inevitable subjectivity of all historiography, and of its application to Thucydides" (16). And Romilly herself cites Gomme's Poetry and History (1954) on more than one occasion.
4.   W.R. Connor, "A Post Modernist Thucydides?" Classical Journal 72 (1977), 289–298, quotations at 295 and 290, respectively.
5.   Cited by Donald Kagan in his introduction to Adam Parry, Logos and Ergon in Thucydides (Arno Press, 1981), 2.
6.   Ibid., 3 (book contract), 8 (bibliography for Parry's articles). Kagan says Parry's dissertation was highly influential, but also cites Connor's quip (above, n. 4, 296 n. 23) about it being hard to obtain.

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