Tuesday, April 3, 2018


Hans Kopp, Das Meer als Versprechen: Bedeutung und Funktion von Seeherrschaft bei Thukydides. Thoukydideia, 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017. Pp. 303. ISBN 9783525253243. €90.00.

Reviewed by Tobias Joho, Institut für Klassische Philologie, Universität Bern (tobias.joho@kps.unibe.ch)

Version at BMCR home site


In this book, Hans Kopp investigates the theme of naval power in Thucydides. Scholars have often thought that Thucydides believed in naval power as the key to invincible political domination. Their belief assumes that Thucydides identified with Pericles' various pronouncements about the unassailability of Athenian naval power and its capacity to guarantee political and military supremacy. Kopp argues that, instead of expressing Thucydides' own doctrine about the desirability of naval domination, the various references in Thucydides' work to the theme of maritime power fulfil a rhetorical function: in their speeches, Athenian politicians and military leaders repeatedly make recourse to this idea in order to persuade their audience to adopt a specific policy. Kopp argues that these claims are often in tension with the evidence provided by Thucydides' narrative: various episodes throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War make clear that maritime power is considerably more unstable and fraught with problems than some, most notably Pericles, make it sound.

Kopp has taken on an important topic that should appeal to anyone interested in coming to grips with Thucydides' enigmatic work. He has evidently thought hard and seriously about Thucydides, knows the text very well, and possesses an excellent command of the international scholarly literature. While I cannot follow all of Kopp's conclusions, I have found his book illuminating and worthy of careful reflection.

After a first, somewhat too expansive, introductory chapter, the second chapter turns toward the Archaeology. This section is of obvious importance to Kopp's project, given that many have taken the Archaeology to offer Thucydides' model for the rise of imperial power based on the presence of three interrelated factors: ships, walls, and financial resources. As Kopp shows, the Archaeology, in tracing the succession of maritime powers that dominated the Greek world since Minos of Crete, not only depicts the accruement of wealth, stability, and general flourishing, but also exhibits the dark underside of this development: the driving force behind each Greek naval empire is the piratical urge, rooted in human nature, to exploit weaker cities for the sake of acquiring wealth and power. Kopp demonstrates that naval power repeatedly leads to mutual hostility within the Greek world and, since it is incapable of achieving lasting stability, passes through recurring cycles of rise and fall.

The third chapter (entitled "Leitworte") investigates the terms signifying maritime power in Thucydides. According to Kopp, most of these phrases express simply the superiority of one side over another at a specific moment (for instance, in a naval battle), but one specific combination is evidently used with the goal of describing naval power as a substantive, lasting, and systematically organized category: the phrase is τὸ τῆς θαλάσσης κράτος, which occurs three times in Thucydides' work, namely in Pericles' first speech (1.143.4) and then twice in speeches rendered in indirect discourse in Book 8 (8.46.1, 76.4). Kopp points out that Pericles' dictum μέγα γὰρ τὸ τῆς θαλάσσης κράτος represents a foundational premise on which Pericles' entire war strategy is built and whose paramount strategic value is, in Pericles' presentation, an objective given, requiring no further proof. However, according to Kopp, the two subsequent references to the phrase in Book 8 cast doubt on the notion that naval power is a supple instrument and secure possession held by the Athenians: according to the speakers on both occasions, naval power has been fragmented among various players in the Greek world. In light of the swift revival of Athenian naval power traced by Thucydides over the course of Book 8, one wonders whether the speakers' assessment, which Kopp is inclined to accept, is really accurate. At any event, referring to the naval battle at Sybota (1.54.2) and the secession of Samos (1.116-117.2), Kopp observes that both events challenge, even before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the faith in firmly established and unassailable Athenian naval supremacy. All in all, the chapter is insightful and thought-provoking.

Continuing the analysis provided in the third chapter, the fourth chapter, entitled "Logoi und erga", likewise contrasts Pericles' promotion of Athenian naval power in the speeches with evidence drawn from the narrative. However, in so doing, it concentrates on a specific aspect of Pericles' advocacy of naval power, namely on Pericles' claim that the Athenians have acquired all-encompassing rule over the sea, which amounts to the entirety of one of two realms of the world (2.62.2).1 Kopp shows that this idea is challenged by various themes and episodes: first, the recurring theme of the endangered Athenian harbor; second, several episodes demonstrating the Athenians' inability to plug holes in their net of maritime control; and, third, the Athenian disaster at Sicily. While the sections in which Kopp expounds the first two challenges to Athenian superiority at sea are highpoints of the book, the material on Sicily is more problematic, and I will therefore engage with the arguments relevant to Sicily in greater detail.

Kopp draws attention to the Athenians' excessive frustration after their defeat in the fourth naval encounter with the Syracusans, which predates the decisive fifth naval battle in the Great Harbor. He argues that the Athenians' exuberant confidence, which was ultimately inspired by Pericles, in their naval power, had a problematic side effect: it left them without the mental resources necessary to respond vigorously to naval setbacks because they considered defeat at sea practically impossible. For Kopp, their alleged inability to deal with this disappointment becomes the key to explaining the defeat at Sicily. I see two problems with this interpretation. The first is that it does not pay sufficient attention to other factors that are at least as important for understanding the Sicilian disaster. One such factor is the puzzling indecision, which is strangely out of character, that repeatedly befalls, not just Nicias, but also the Athenians generally as soon as they arrive at Sicily and long before they have suffered any naval setbacks. Another persistent problem is the inferiority of the Athenians to the Syracusan cavalry (6.70.3, 71.2, 74.2; 7.5.6, 6.3, 11.2, 13.2, 44.8, 78.6, 81.2, 84.2). Yet another is the circumstance that the Athenians are not only demoralized by their naval defeats, but also by their setbacks on land, above all by the defeat in the nocturnal battle at Epipolae (7.47.1). In light of these various factors, which have nothing to do with naval matters, Kopp's conclusion that the defeat at Sicily signifies the "dissolution" ("Auflösung", p. 207) of Pericles' strategy of naval rule does not seem warranted. The second problem with this interpretation is that Athenian naval power is not permanently damaged in consequence of the Sicilian defeat. In Book 8, the Athenians experience a staggering comeback, as indicated above all by the victory at Cynossema (8.106.2-5), in terms of naval power. Kopp mentions this event, but nevertheless the Athenian resurgence in Book 8 does not figure prominently in his account.

In the fifth chapter, Kopp confronts the central challenge to his interpretation: if it is true that the narrative is meant to expose Pericles' claim about the Athenians' comprehensive power at sea as hyperbolic, then the problem arises how this interpretation can be squared with the so-called valedictory passage on Pericles (2.65), in which Thucydides expresses his extremely high regard for Pericles' statesmanship and war strategy. According to Kopp, there is no real contradiction, because Thucydides' praise for Pericles' foresight refers merely to what Athenian naval resources were able to achieve during the war, and not to the specific issue of unlimited Athenian rule over the sea (p. 216). These considerations notwithstanding, I think the valedictory passage implies Thucydides' approval of Pericles' assessment concerning the significance of Athenian naval power. In his summary of the Periclean achievement, Thucydides says that Pericles "evidently made a correct prediction about the [city's] power in this also [i.e., in respect to the war]" (ὁ δὲ φαίνεται καὶ ἐν τούτῳ προγνοὺς τὴν δύναμιν; 2.65.5). Thucydides' work does not provide any other means of access to Pericles' aptitude for intellectual anticipation than the speeches: it is only through these speeches that his military strategy is articulated and explained. In his third speech, which immediately precedes the valedictory passage, Pericles makes a point of describing Athens' war strength in terms of unlimited military clout at sea. I find it hard to believe that Thucydides should want to suggest simultaneously both that Pericles made an accurate assessment concerning the city's power (2.65.5, 6-7, 13), and that the same Pericles exaggerated this power greatly in the most prominent passage in which he expounds his doctrine of the unique potential inherent in Athenian naval dominion.

In a further step, Kopp goes on to argue that, in any case, Thucydides' interest lies rather in the rhetorical function of the theme of naval power than in its merits as a substantive doctrine. Hence, according to Kopp, Thucydides need not, when giving a positive estimate of Pericles' political achievement, also make a commitment concerning the accuracy of the positions taken by Pericles in the speeches. On this view, the Thucydidean Pericles advocates the bold notion of unlimited Athenian naval power because this claim is an effective rhetorical tool to boost Athenian morale and to get the assembly to do what is necessary. Having established this position, Kopp then examines the rhetorical employment of the naval theme by subsequent speakers, namely Nicias, Alcibiades, and the orators before the Athenian assembly at Samos, and finds that they use the theme of naval power for similar rhetorical purposes.

In the final analysis, I have some reservations about applying this decidedly rhetorical interpretation to the figure of Pericles. For one thing, due to a widespread striving after an objective ethos modelled on the precedent of Homeric epic, Greek authors of grand narrative works generally tended to avoid expressing higher order insights in their own voice. Rather, they put them into the mouths of a prominent character endowed with a particularly high degree of discernment and authority. Notable examples are Achilles' remarks to Priam about the lot of humankind in the twenty-fourth book of the Iliad and Solon's account of human happiness in Herodotus. Given what Thucydides says about Pericles in the valedictory passage, Pericles is likely to fulfil this type of authoritative function. The rhetorical approach undoubtedly suits many other speeches in Thucydides' work, for instance those of Nicias and Alcibiades. These speeches, however, have a different status from Pericles' speeches, simply because none of the other speakers receives anything approximating, both in terms of detail and unequivocalness, the homage that Thucydides pays to Pericles.

The sixth and final chapter considers the connection between Thucydides' engagement with the theme of naval power and the wider fifth-century debate about this topic, which interacts with the rise of what Christian Meier called the Athenians' "Könnens-Bewußtsein." By way of conclusion, Kopp defends the idea of Thucydidean realism, which he takes to consist in an awareness of the humanly possible and in a mistrust vis-à-vis the grandiose projections of political rhetoric.

As far as the manner of presentation is concerned, the book contains some redundancies, with several sections featuring too extensive discussions of secondary literature. Sections often begin with a summary of previous scholarship that contributes little to promoting the book's argument. Much of this material would have been better placed in footnotes. These traits go back to the book's origin as a doctoral dissertation, but they are somewhat out of place in a scholarly monograph.

The value of Kopp's interpretation lies in his exposition of a whole range of destabilizing factors that are inherently tied up with maritime supremacy and cannot be done away with by even the most formidable naval power on record by Thucydides' time. Kopp is right to think that Thucydides, by including these factors in his narrative, challenges the reader to weigh their significance for Pericles' war strategy. While I have, for reasons stated above, reservations about the proposed solution for these tensions, I acknowledge that Kopp's line of interpretation can invoke the venerable ancestry of several first-rate interpreters of Thucydides. My own attempt at solving the conundrum would move in the direction of trying to distinguish between what total control may have meant for Thucydides and what connotations this term carries for us. The mastery enabled by modern science over natural phenomena has accustomed us to the expectation that vast natural forces can be subjected to a reliable, nearly perfect human control. In Thucydides, Pericles undoubtedly postulates seamless Athenian control over the sea. The question is whether, given the conceptual and experiential differences between classical Greece and modernity, the assumption is warranted that Pericles has the type of absolute mastery in mind that moderns, who are habituated to science-based power over nature, instinctively associate with his words.


1.   A typographical error has occurred in the citations of this passage on pages 118, 120, 124, 172, 181, and 222: Thucydides' original phrase δύο μερῶν τῶν ἐς χρῆσιν φανερῶν, γῆς καὶ θαλάσσης, τοῦ ἑτέρου ὑμᾶς παντὸς κυριωτάτους ὄντας ("[I declare that] of the two parts of the world lying open to people's use, the land and the sea, you are the absolute masters of all of one;" 2.62.2) has been compressed into θαλάσσης παντὸς κυριώτατοι, which produces an ungrammatical combination of the feminine noun θαλάσσης with the neuter adjective παντός.

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