Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Vasileios Liotsakis, Redeeming Thucydides' Book VIII: Narrative Artistry in the Account of the Ionian War. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 48. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. Pp. x, 201. ISBN 9783110532074. $126.99.

Reviewed by Nicholas D. Cross, Queens College, City University of New York (ncross@qc.cuny.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


How should the final book of Thucydides's History, with material seemingly so dissimilar in its nature and shape to that in the other books, be regarded in relation to the whole work? Is Book VIII an unfinished appendage without any design, or does it, in its extant form, have an underlying narrative plan that corresponds with the rest of the History? Questions such as these have perplexed scholars of Thucydides for the past two centuries. Vasileios Liotsakis's Redeeming Thucydides' Book VIII: Narrative artistry in the account of the Ionian War, a revised version of his 2015 dissertation at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, revisits these problems and makes the case that the final book's thematic and narrative structures follow an artful blueprint that is consistent with the entire oeuvre. The volume is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue.

The Introduction reviews previous attempts to resolve the problems in Thucydides's Book VIII. The older approach of scholars such as Ulrich Wilamowitz and Antony Andrewes drew attention to the digressions and absence of speeches, which were seen as evidence that the book is incoherent and in a draft condition.1 Against this separatist view, the more recent unitarian position concentrates on the book's literary qualities and its structural similarities to the rest of the History. Robert Connor, Harmut Erbse, Timothy Rood, Carolyn Dewald, and Simon Hornblower have each contributed to the view that the book, although it ends abruptly, stands in a fully formulated condition and that the alleged imperfections emphasized by the traditional approach are rather conscious narrative choices on the part of Thucydides. 2 Liotsakis builds on the work of scholars in the latter school and steers clear of the older concerns of the Thukydidesfrage. But he goes further than his predecessors by arguing that Thucydides arranges the material of Book VIII around the type-narratives of revolt and military recovery, and that a recognition of these formulaic elements, which also appear throughout the History, allows the reader to appreciate the overall narrative plan.

Chapter 1, "The revolt type-narratives and the account of Chios (8.1-24)," explores the first type-narrative. This chapter builds on earlier scholars' observations of how Thucydides routinely makes associative comparisons between similar narratives.3 Out of the account of the attempted revolt of Chios from Athens after the Sicilian disaster, Liotsakis elucidates certain motifs (the regional importance of key cities, fear as an emotion that motivates revolts, secret negotiations, and the atmosphere of urgency) that Thucydides highlights in this and other revolt type-narratives throughout the History. He also analyzes certain linguistic, thematic, and structural similarities within Book VIII that provide internal coherence for the Chian account and the various surrounding episodes in 8.1-24. This chapter ends with conjecture: if there is parallelism in the revolt type-narratives, then, on the basis of the conclusions to earlier accounts, one might reconstruct what Thucydides envisioned for the rest of Book VIII had he completed it (pp. 59-62). This is an attractive hypothesis but, fortunately, Liotsakis does not prolong his speculation and impose upon the reader groundless inferences.

Chapter 2, "The loss of prestige and recovery I: The echoes of Phrynichus' admonitions (8.25-107)," looks at the second type-narrative. Although Thucydides returns to events on Chios after 8.24, Liotsakis views the rest of the book as a new sub-section. This chapter proposes that, after the rapid pace of the account of the Chian revolt, Thucydides decelerates the action and defers the expected end to the war. Liotsakis suspects that the historian signals this in 8.27 with Phrynichus's caution for his Athenian countrymen not to run the risk of another major defeat so soon after the Sicilian disaster. The rest of the chapter follows the same strategy as the previous one, with comparisons made between battle narratives in 8.25-107 and in other books. For example, the unit that includes the Spartan defeat at Sphacteria in Book IV and its reversal at Mantinea in Book V resembles the unit containing the Athenian defeat at Syracuse in Book VII and its reversal at Cynos Sema in Book VIII. The presentation of each unit includes a military disaster for a great power and the postponement of that power's recovery. Liotsakis, however, is particularly interested in how Thucydides uses these common storylines to slow the pace of his account, the narrative equivalent to Phrynichus's admonitions, and to heighten the reader's sense of anticipation of what is to come. Indeed, having assimilated this same literary technique of his subject, Liotsakis extends, for twenty pages (pp. 64-84), his exploration of parallel structures in earlier books before returning to Book VIII and its six confirming anecdotes ("echoes") in which the Athenians succeed or fail on the basis of whether they followed Phrynichus's warning. The chapter concludes that this combination of words (Phrynichus's advice) and confirming deeds (the echoes) is the major narrative thread through which the book achieves coherence.

Chapter 3, "The loss of prestige and recovery II: The retardation before the battle of Cynos Sema (8.25-107)," continues the investigation of Book VIII's second sub-section but with a greater focus on another narrative thread, the technique of delay ("retardation"). This technique slows the pace of action in the narrative and prepares the reader for the climactic end, the naval battle of Cynos Sema, in which Athens recovers its military dominance after the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition. As expected by now, the chapter surveys the presence and function of this technique in earlier units, such as the lengthy account in Book V of Sparta's military recovery at the battle of Mantinea. For the reader of Thucydides, the recurrent delays intensify the dramatic resolution of the war. Returning to 8.25-107, Liotsakis enumerates the twelve cancellations of the decisive encounter between Athens and Sparta at the naval battle of Cynos Sema (pp. 111-138). Recognizing the function of the delaying technique, Liotsakis argues, sheds light on the digressions in this section (e.g., 8.45-54, 63-77). Instead of serving as evidence for the draft theory of Book VIII, the digressions – "products of the narrator's conscious effort to create suspense and tension for the reader" (pp. 138) – offer further validation for the volume's main argument that Thucydides, from the beginning of his composition of the final book, had an overall plan for the arrangement of his material.

Chapter 4, "The battles of Miletus and of Cynos Sema," turns from the delay technique to the battle narratives. Once again, Liotsakis stresses the parallelism of these and other narrative units. For example, the description of the battle of Cynos Sema – in which the Athenians win, even though they are unable to exploit their superior naval techniques, because the Peloponnesians are overconfident – resembles the report of the circumstances for the battle of Naupactus in Book II. This brief chapter shows how Thucydides uses allusions to earlier narratives (and the delay technique) to prepare the reader for the dramatic revival of Athenian power at Cynos Sema, the last complete episode in the History. The conclusion to the chapter reinforces the thesis that, even though Cynos Sema was not where Thucydides intended to finish his record of the war, a recognition of the literary techniques exhibited in the final book and elsewhere illuminates the intentions which Thucydides had for his organization of the events in Book VIII.

The Epilogue summarizes the volume's main points and reiterates that the material in the final book, although at times appearing unorganized on the surface, follows a pattern familiar from that in other books. It is the presence of similar narrative techniques, Liotsakis concludes, that provides a cohesive organization internally and with the rest of the History. In a brief return to Chapter 1's hypothetical reconstruction of a completed History (pp. 165-167), Liotsakis suggests that since the outcome of Cynos Sema restored Athenian power, Thucydides would probably have adjusted his compositional techniques to suit the new conditions but he would not have significantly altered the book's fundamental narrative structure. In the Epilogue, however, there is no attempt to resolve the problem of the abrupt ending to the History, as one might expect in a volume devoted to Book VIII. Finally, the Epilogue offers some further thoughts on the absence of speeches, one of the primary hang-ups for the separatist approach. Liotsakis is firm in his conviction that Thucydides' inclusion of certain narrative techniques (e.g., confirmation, retardation) for the Ionian War episodes precludes the inclusion of speeches. That is, speeches would interrupt the rapid momentum of the Chian revolt narrative but also introduce an inordinate amount of delay to the progression of the second sub-section. The book as it comes down to us, therefore, fulfills Thucydides's original intentions for it. Had he more time, Thucydides might have made corrections to the text but none that would have radically transformed the arrangement of the material. "Thucydides," Liotsakis writes in his final sentence of the volume, "had an overall and fully consolidated view of the years of the Ionian War he narrated" (pp. 172). There are a few useful figures in the Epilogue that illustrate the narrative relationships between Book VIII and the rest of the History. The back matter also contains a complete bibliography, an adequate index locorum, and a modest index nominum et rerum.

Unfortunately, throughout the text there are conspicuous typographical errors, too numerous to list here, that could have been corrected with adequate copyediting. (The absence of a period at the end of the final sentence of the volume is almost apropos of a work devoted to the incomplete History.) That aside, even though Liotsakis is writing for the specialist and not the general reader, his prose is straightforward and accessible. He makes his points clearly and regularly revisits them. Overall, this volume is an important contribution to the unitarian view of Book VIII and offers a successful challenge to those who regard the final book as an incomplete draft in need of revision. Anyone interested in the composition of the History or in narratology in general will find this to be a valuable resource.


1.   Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, "Thukydides VIII," Hermes 43 (1908), 578-618; Arnold Wycombe Gomme, Antony Andrewes, and Kenneth James Dover, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. Vol. 5: Book VIII (Oxford University Press, 1981), 369-375.
2.   W. Robert Connor, Thucydides (Princeton University Press, 1984), 210-230; Hartmut Erbse, Thukydides-Interpretationen (Walter de Gruyter, 1989), 1-82; Simon Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides. Vol. 3. Books 5.25-8.109 (Oxford University Press, 2008), 1-4.
3.   Hunter R. Rawlings III, The Structure of Thucydides' "History" (Princeton University Press, 1981), 176-215; Timothy Rood, Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation (Clarendon Press, 1998), 251-284; Carolyn Dewald, Thucydides' War Narrative: A Structural Study (University of California Press, 2006), 144-154.

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