Monday, July 29, 2019


Johanna Hanink (trans.), Thucydides. How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780691193847. $16.95.

Reviewed by Nicholas D. Cross, Queens College, City University of New York (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume is a recent contribution to Princeton University Press's Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series, which seeks to make the great literature of antiquity more accessible to the general public. After a number of volumes published since 2012 on the works of ancient philosophers (Seneca, Cicero, and Epictetus), this is the first in the series devoted to a historian, and the first by a female translator. This pocket-sized book (4.50 x 6.50 inches) is intended to be an introduction to the complex issues of diplomacy, warfare, and foreign policy over which the classical Athenians debated, as recorded in the speeches of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. This will have a broad appeal to academics in the fields of classics, history, and political science, as well as to professional foreign policy analysts, political thinkers, and military strategists.

With many English translations of Thucydides' History already available, why is there a need for another? Every generation has its own Thucydides who is invoked to elucidate contemporary affairs, whether it be the Cold War, the War on Terrorism, or the geopolitical competition between the United States and China (as recently explored in Graham Allison's Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?).1 Today's debates over the relevance of international alliances, the costs and benefits of foreign interventionism, the redistribution of geopolitical power, as well as the distinct change in how political leaders think and speak about these matters, are all deserving of a fresh examination through the lens of Thucydides. What Johanna Hanink has done in this new volume is to collect the speeches that speak most directly to our contemporary context; translate them, even the notoriously difficult passages, into intelligible and delightful English prose; and distill the most fundamental lessons from the Athenians' experience to serve as a guide in analyzing modern warfare and international relations. As a result, this volume bridges the gaps between the disciplines of history, classics, and political science.

The volume opens with a short Preface and a longer Introduction. The first two sections of the Introduction ("The Rise of the Athenian Empire" and "The Peloponnesian War") chronicle classical Athenian history, from Athens' ascent to power in the first half of the fifth century BCE to the Peloponnesian War in the latter half of the century. The third section ("Thucydides and His History") reviews what is known about Thucydides' life and his literary aims. In light of Thucydides' own admission that the speeches that he recorded are not verbatim – either because he could not recall the exact words or because he learned of the speeches secondhand – Hanink admits that some of the speeches are "vulnerable to charges of 'inauthenticity'" (pp. xlv). Since this is a volume devoted to those speeches, one might have expected a greater appraisal of Thucydides' methodology than just this brief comment. Hanink, however, does suggest other works on this problem in the Further Reading section in the back, and she discusses it at some length, and with much insight, in another publication that appeared in the same week as the volume under review.2

Beyond introducing the relevant speeches, a primary goal of the volume is to contextualize the speeches and to problematize their interpretations. The Athenian approach to relations with other states, as Thucydides presents it in these speeches, is characterized in harsh terms. The final section of the Introduction ("the 'Athenian Thesis'") reviews the notion that it is only natural for states to behave according to self-interest and without considerations for morality and justice. The "Athenian thesis," coined by Leo Strauss in 1964, was the cornerstone of classical realism, the dominant international relations model in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, and, more recently, of Neoconservativism. The reception of the Athenian thesis into American foreign policy is incontrovertible, but Hanink raises doubts about whether Thucydides can be used as categorical support for modern international-relations models, emphasizing that the speeches in the History "offer a complex picture of classical Athenian debates about empire, war, and the city's place in the world" (p. liii). The Introduction raises pertinent questions about the modern reception and interpretations of the speeches and encourages the reader to reconsider the complicated ideological and ethical issues in warfare and foreign policy.

Except for Hanink's brief remarks on the background to each speech, the rest of the volume contains the texts of six curated speeches: "On Justifying a War: Pericles' First War Speech" (Thuc. 1.140-144), "On Dying for Your Country: Pericles' Funeral Oration" (2.34-46), "On Holding the Course: Pericles' Last Speech" (2.60-64), "On Realpolitik: The Mytilenean Debate" (3.37-49), "On Ruthlessness: The Melian Dialogue" (5.85-113), and "On Launching a Foreign Invasion: The Sicilian Debate" (6.8.4-24). In a familiar format to Loeb readers, the original Greek text (from the Loeb) is juxtaposed with Hanink's English translations (based on the OCT edition). She presents the speeches "in a new translation that is faithful to the Greek but which also aims to be fresh and approachable" (p. xviii). Hanink puts familiar yet notoriously difficult passages into a modern English that is uncomplicated and lucid. A few examples of this should suffice. She renders ξυνελών τε λέγω τήν τε πᾶσαν πόλιν τῆς Ἑλλάδος παίδευσιν εἶναι (2.41) as "in sum, what I am saying is that the city as a whole is an instructive model for Greece"; ὡς τυραννίδα γὰρ ἤδη ἔχετε αὐτήν, ἣν λαβεῖν μὲν ἄδικον δοκεῖ εἶναι, ἀφεῖναι δὲ ἐπικίνδυνον (2.63) as "you already wield the equivalent of a tyranny; even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous"; and δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν (5.89) as "those in positions of power do what their power permits, while the weak have no choice but to accept it."

The first three speeches contain the main elements of Pericles' foreign policy at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, and emphasize that a war leader must have a vision and an ability to articulate that vision in a clear and convincing manner. "On Justifying a War: Pericles' First War Speech," delivered in 432 BCE, presents the details of Pericles' war strategy: maintain Athenian naval superiority, abandon the rural areas of Attica, and restrain the impulse to expand the Athenian empire. In "On Dying for Your Country: Pericles' Funeral Oration," Pericles uses the occasion of the war's first epitaphios logos to celebrate Athenian exceptionalism, encourage his audience to imitate the examples of those recently fallen in battle, and convince his countrymen to maintain his vision for the war. "On Holding the Course: Pericles' Last Speech" comes after the plague descended upon Athens and the disgruntled Athenians began to blame Pericles for their misfortunes. In this speech, the Athenian statesman justifies his position and raises the same points from the previous two orations to urge his vacillating audience to continue his policies.

The final three speeches present the ideas of Pericles' successors. In her introductions to each of these speeches, Hanink problematizes further the Athenian thesis. "On Realpolitik: The Mytilenean Debate" relates the deliberations in the Athenian assembly over whether the Athenians should put to death all Mytilenean men or only the ringleaders of the recent revolt of Mytilene. These two positions are framed in terms of their advantage to Athens, but not in terms of justice. Hanink, however, in her attempt to inspire a more nuanced reading than traditional ones often allow, reminds the reader that there were other unrecorded speakers who advocated a more moral response to the revolt (pp. 106-107). The same issues appear in "On Ruthlessness: The Melian Dialogue," in which the Athenian ambassador puts forth the most straightforward articulation of realpolitik (see above for Hanink's translation of Thuc. 5.89). Although realists have seized on this dialogue to defend the notion that states are naturally guided only by concerns for security and power (i.e. the Athenian thesis), Hanink does not accept such reductionist readings. She argues that the juxtaposition of this dialogue and the catastrophic Sicilian Expedition does not indicate Thucydides' uncritical endorsement of the Athenian thesis but rather "serves to foreground the Athenians' drift into both cruelty and folly" (p. 163). Finally, "On Launching a Foreign Invasion: The Sicilian Debate" is a set of competing arguments, offered by the cautious Nicias and the reckless Alcibiades, over the proposed expedition to Sicily. Both arguments are framed by the Athenian thesis, but the frivolous results of the debate — Hanink's text ends with the self-censorship by the opponents of the expedition — and the subsequent disaster on Sicily become another anecdotal critique of that fundamental premise of Athenian foreign policy.

There are no concluding remarks to the speeches, but there is a valuable Further Reading section that offers suggestions for translations and commentaries of Thucydides' History, and for modern scholarship on the topics of the Athenian Empire, Pericles, the Peloponnesian War, and the speeches in Thucydides. While this section also offers the most recent and relevant works on the subject of Thucydides and international relations written by classicists and ancient historians, it could have been enhanced with suggested works on the same topic by political scientists.3 Overall, Hanink has produced a noteworthy resource that introduces the reader to the principal debates in warfare and foreign policy, both ancient and modern. The volume, practically free of any typographical errors or stylistic infelicities, presents accessible translations of the key speeches in Thucydides' History that showcase the main issues in those debates. The volume achieves precisely what its title indicates: it guides the reader in how to think about war.


1.   Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
2.   Johanna Hanink, "The Twists and Turns of Translation Why Classics' Relationship With Translation Is Complicated," Eidolon February 4, 2019, Eidolon.
3.   A fine interdisciplinary introduction to Thucydides and international relations is Christine Lee and Neville Morley (eds.), A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).

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