Sunday, November 23, 2014


Geoffrey Hawthorn, Thucydides On Politics: Back to the Present. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 274. ISBN 9781107612006. $29.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Edith Foster, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies (

Version at BMCR home site

Readers should beware of this book, which is an ambitious analysis of all of Thucydides (including especially Book Eight) disguised as a relatively slim paperback volume. It is more substantial reading than they might expect, and although it is very clearly written and the author invests much energy in describing Thucydides' narrative and speeches, it will best suit readers who have already thought about Thucydides quite a lot. For these, and for brave beginners, the book offers a fresh and independent minded analysis.

Classicists who study Thucydides will quickly notice that Hawthorn is immune to the authority of famous passages and scholarly consensus. For instance, he is impressed neither by the first sentence of the History: "[Thucydides] would have been prescient indeed if he foresaw a great war at the faltering start . . ." (3), nor by the eulogy for Pericles at 2.65 . . . "an incomplete assessment of Pericles and wrong about most of the other [leaders]" (65); ". . . As historical judgments, they do not do him justice and one can regret that he set them down" (67). By contrast, against an array of scholars contending the opposite he argues that book eight is a kind of masterpiece. "He writes of [the politics of those years] with his best dispassionate passion" (2) or "with brilliance" (203).

This, then, is a book that rethinks from the beginning and challenges its readers to do the same. The writing can be correspondingly intricate. For example, in Chapter Three Hawthorn begins to examine Thucydides' presentation of the causes of the war. "Thucydides remarks that Sparta's fear, which he believes to be the 'truest cause' of the war, was 'the one least openly stated' at the time (1.23.6). . . He leaves it to the reader to see how in the years before the start of open hostilities between Sparta and Athens, it was to be exaggerated arguments advanced by an ally of Sparta's in response to events which need not in themselves have been decisive that for a different and deeper reason caused Sparta to move to war, and that for reasons of its own, the leadership in Athens let it do so" (28).

Whether or not one agrees with every clause of this summary, it offers a condensed analysis of substantial sections of book one, and provokes the reader to refine his or her own ideas. Were the Corinthians' arguments exaggerated and the quarrels over Epidamnus and Potideia not decisive? Did the leadership in Athens simply not stop the Spartans from taking the decision to go to war? And what was the Spartans' "different and deeper reason" for doing so? In Hawthorn's view it was that Spartan pre-eminence had become a "necessary identity." "If they were to concede [Athenian pre-eminence], they would no longer be seen by anyone, including themselves, to be the people they thought they were and had devoted so much, indeed everything, to remaining" (49-50). Readers might initially find Hawthorn's terminology superfluous: wouldn't we normally call this "necessary identity" "honour"? Maybe, but Hawthorn's "necessary identity" might be a useful clarification of the term "honour", which is sometimes used so broadly as to be useless for thinking with. By contrast, here we have a carefully defined idea.

Other arguments are deceptively simple. For instance, Hawthorn argues that Thucydides represents the Archidamian War as lasting so long because neither side could figure out what to do. "[T]he Spartans could not see how otherwise [i.e. otherwise than by wasting Attica] to take the war to the Athenians, and the Athenians could not see how to take the war to the Spartans at all" (68). In the absence of a plan for winning "Each [side] could only harness the resources it had and try to acquire more, take what opportunities it had to disadvantage the other, and otherwise try to maintain its position…[I]mprovisation, haste, hesitation, and accident" (71) were thus characteristic of the war, as Thucydides tells it. Again, one must test Hawthorn's description against one's own views. Personally, I thought his argument was quite convincing, and I particularly appreciated Hawthorn's emphasis on how the great powers' aporia made them vulnerable to the persuasions of third parties (76, 79, 81).

In Hawthorn's view, this planless war of attrition ends in 413, after Athens's defeat in Sicily, when the two great powers finally discover clear strategic aims (202), if not clear strategies (e.g. 205, 221). Together with this change, Thucydides finally hits his stride as a political writer, and begins anew, just as does the war itself. Hawthorn devotes the central section of this chapter to a fine retelling of book eight, "Thucydides' most sustained and compelling exposition of practical politics" (226). His chapter reminded me that book eight is poorly understood, and called to mind how little serious work compares, contrasts, or argues with Hawthorn's description; Rood (1998) remains the main analysis.1

If we see Thucydides as Hawthorn does, the text really has two parts: books one through seven, and book eight, which begins a new kind of narrative. This division of Thucydides entails some reliance on the idea that the historian progressed towards the abilities he displays in book eight. This idea is not new, as Hawthorn explains, citing, for instance Macleod and Dewald. 2 What is new, at least to me, is the contention that in book eight Thucydides exposes new skill as a political writer (203). Overall, of course, Hawthorn gives the political character of Thucydides' writing more attention than classicists are used to. For instance, he gives the relation of speech and narrative an explicitly political character: "Political rhetoric was an art in which Thucydides took great interest and no doubt much pleasure, but for him to place it as he did, and thus expose it was itself a political act" (235). By this argument, the text of Thucydides is organized politically, in that it consistently exposes political speech to the fire of corrective fact, and is also in itself a political statement, equivalent to a warning: "Speeches… were an essential part of politics; but they were no more to be trusted on events in the present and what might follow for the future than were poems and chronicles on the past" (233). One must conclude that the History is therefore addressed to a political audience, i.e. one for whom this organization would be productive.

Fortunately, Hawthorn has a generously broad view of the political. He is not, it seems to me, trying to claim Thucydides for a single discipline, and this also shows in his bibliography, which includes as many classicists as social scientists as philosophers. He relies on the excellent new translation of Jeremy Mynott,3 quotations from which support both the accessibility and intelligibility of his argument. Moreover, although he sees Thucydides' "utility" for us today in political terms, these terms are such as to free us, in fact, from the jargon of the social sciences. "Politics remain," he observes, despite the growth of organizational institutions, "and…if we describe these in ways that do no more than mirror general aspirations and formal manifestations, or in the languages of the twentieth century as forces of a 'structural' kind, the exercise of 'rational choice' or the expression of a 'culture', they can be occluded. We need to be able to see them as politics, and in the clarity of an almost incomparably more elemental context, this is what Thucydides allows us to do – incomparably well" (238).

To sum up, those who have read Thucydides closely will both get the most benefit from the arguments made here and also find the most to disagree with. Compare Hawthorn to David Gribble (1998) on 2.65: by contrast to Hawthorn, Gribble makes a strong argument for seeing the culmination of central Thucydidean themes in this chapter.4 I found it difficult to accept some of Hawthorn's other ideas, such as his suggestion that "one can read him [Thucydides] to incline to a non-separability thesis on motive, intention and action and a non-isolability thesis on motive, intention and action and their context" (149, cf. 232). I cling to arguments made e.g. in Schneider (1974) or Baragwanath (2008):5 it seems to me that Thucydides worked hard to separate out those four factors for the reader, although he may indeed have exposed the fact that our deepest motivations are hidden from ourselves. But disagreement on or questions about such points is small potatoes compared to reconsidering the issues. Whether readers agree or not with particular arguments, this is a book to which they will be able to turn for an honest and intelligent interpretation of the whole.


1.   Rood, T. 1998. Narrative and Explanation. Oxford.
2.   Dewald, C. 2005. Thucydides' War Narrative: A Structural Study. Berkeley; and Macleod, C. 1983. Collected Essays. Oxford.
3.   Mynott, J. 2013. The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians. Cambridge.
4.   Gribble, D. 1998. "Narrator Interventions in Thucydides". JHS 118: 41-67. For remarks on 2.65, see particularly pages 52-55.
5.   Schneider, C. 1974. Information und Absicht bei Thukydides. Goettingen; Baragwanath, E. 2008. Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus. Oxford.

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