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Book Review: Thucydides:The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan 

Donald Kagan, who has been a professor of history and classics at Yale University almost as long as I have been alive has written a provocative book about Thucydides that challenges both conventional scholarly wisdom regarding the man who shares the title of “The Father of History” and the purpose of the book Thucydides meant to be “a possession forever”, The Peloponnesian War. In Kagan’s interpretation, Thucydides is the father of historical revisionism whose careful methodology furthered a political agenda: to defend the record of the Periclean state in Athens, where democracy was moderated by the wise statesmanship of the old aristocratic elite; and lay the blame for the downfall of Athens at Spartan hands on the vulgar hubris of radical democracy of mob and demagogue.

Thucydides is tightly focused argument about Thucydidean omissions, juxtapositions and treatment of sources and bias in his analytical rendering of military events and debates in the Assembly, not a comprehensive examination of  The Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the treatment of Pericles and Nicias (whom Kagan argues Thucydides favors and whom Kagan blames for failures of strategy and execution, especially the latter) vs. that he meted out to Cleon, Alcibiades and Demosthenes. Kagan criticizes Thucydides for the deliberate omission of speeches of Periclean opponents in debates where he  had been present and purporting to know the thoughts of actors where definitely had been absent, in exile; of faulty military analysis of the situation of the Spartan garrison besieged on Sphacteria due to personal enmity with Cleon and of the original expedition to Syracuse, because of favortism toward Nicias.

On Nicias in particular, a fellow aristocrat in favor of strategic restraint whom Kagan ascribes blame for the disaster in Sicily, did Thucydides seek a radical revision of the contemporary Athenian opinion. It was Thucydides belief that the post-Periclean democracy was a reckless, superstitious and greedy mob that led him, Kagan argues, to craft his narrative as an apologia for the inept statesmanship and incompetent generalship of Nicias that brought Athens to utter ruin in Sicily. Kagan’s accusations of bias on Thucydides part are more persuasive than his contention that the original expedition to Syracuse of sixty ships was a justifiable and sensible endeavor.

Kagan’s charges against Thucydides indirectly raise the larger question of politics in postwar Athens. A democracy shorn of it’s empire, long walls and fleet, defeated in external war but triumphant in brutal civil strife over it’s internal oligarchic enemies, was in all likelihood a dangerous place. Xenophon felt as a follower of Socrates, who had been associated with the reviled Alcibiades and Critias, that it was politic to leave Athens for his march upcountry under the banner of Cyrus. Socrates was unjustly put to death by the democratic faction. Writing from retirement in the luxury of a distant estate was a wiser option for a man of Thucydides’ opinions in that era than a return to the political fray in Athens and in part, would explain his supposed “revisionism”.

Strongly recommended.

6 Responses to “Book Review: Thucydides:The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:

    The first phase of the Sicilian campaign became an island too far because Nicias, even with Thucydides’ generosity, was not the leader/co-leader for such a tryst. Riskier campaigns worked out when the right men met the right moment: Scipio’s capture of Cartagena in 209 BC, Heraclius’ landing at Issus in 622, the whole first Crusade, Cortes’ conquest of the Triple Alliance in 1519-1520, the Sea Beggars’ capture of Brill in 1572, Willem III’s conquest of England in 1689, Churchill’s descent on Blenheim. Demotheneses or Alciabiades might have captured Syracuse if they’d been in Nicias’ place. Nicias himself came closer to victory than he had any right to. Instead their Sicilian adventure was doomed to become a fable of hubris agreed upon even when, as Kagan argues here, there was nothing particularly hubristic, fabulous, or agreeable about it.

  2. Duncan Kinder Says:

    The problem is that, apart from Thucydides, just about the only source of information we have about the Peloponnesian Wars is the Lysistrata.  So if we depart from him, what may actually have happened is anybody’s guess. 

  3. szr Says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with Kagan’s book, and indeed, his entire work on the Peloponnesian War.  While I think most people would agree with the argument that Thucydides’ account is biased toward his own political beliefs, the exact same problem applies to Kagan’s own arguments.
    Kagan barely hides his contempt for Nicias, for whom we lays essentially the entire blame for the downfall of Athens – and not just because of the Sicilian disaster, but indeed for the whole peace of Nicias.  In short, Kagan argues that Cleon and the Athenian hawks were right, and doves like Nicias were wrong, and it is only because of the biased writing of Thucydides that this opinion is not embraced.
    To me, Kagan’s argument is unpersuasive for three main reasons:
    (1) Thucydides undoubtedly knew more about Cleon and Nicias than Kagan does.  And while there isn’t enough historical evidence to say what other relevant factors went into Thucydides’ judgement, I am more likely to believe the person who knew more about the situation than less.
    (2) The nature of Athenian democracy was chaotic, especially as it applied to an aggressive foreign policy. Remember, this was the same polis that sent orders to execute everyone at Mytilene, only to change their minds the very next day and send a second ship to halt the previous day’s order.  In such an environment, the risks of doing something are always greater than the risks of doing nothing. 
    (3) Most importantly, and Kagan knows this while Thucydides did not – The insane Spartan practice of eugenics meant they were only a few generations from social collapse.  Less than 30 years after defeating Athens, Sparta was done as a major power.  And the collapse would have happened no matter how aggressive or passive Athens was in pursuing war.  In short, time was on Athens’ side, and anything that kept them at peace with Sparta (like, say, the peace of Nicias) helped them.  Obviously the Athenians would have no way of knowing that, but we do.
    In other words, it seems to be the balance of evidence strongly points toward Nicias (And Thucydides) as having essentially the better plan and foreign policy.  Not perfect, by any means, but better than the path offered by Cleon and the hawks.
    So how does such a brilliant man like Kagan get it so wrong?  I’m no mind reader, but I can’t help but feel his reading of those ancient events is at least partially influenced by his own extremely hawkish views on foreign policy.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi szr
    Very sound countercritique of Kagan’s approach to Thucydides. My comments in no particular order.
    I think you are correct that Kagan is definitely is influenced by (unavoidable) and to sometimes selectively interprets (avoidable) the past in light of the events of his own era and his worldview. All historians do this to some extent, some are far more egregiously “activist” about it. Arthur Schlesinger, jr. for example, was usually shilling hard about something else in addition to his ostensible subject. At the best of times, this kind of lens will bring out some new angle on a topic we have never considered. At worst it turns history into a caricature. So you are right to call Kagan out on his presentism.
    Thucydides did know more about Cleon etc. than Kagan does. Unfortunately, Thucydides refrained from sharing more than he did, which was Kagan’s point. 
    You have done an excellent job of rescuing the statesmanship of Nicias from Kagan’s blistering attack. No one can rescue his generalship in Sicily, as LC Rees indicated above. Whether Nicias was paralyzed with fear of making a mistake and being punished by the Assembly, or was sick and demoralized, playing a political doublegame in hopes of a diplomatic coup he remains a key figure with responsibility for the disaster that befell Athens. 
    We are crippled by the lack of comparative sources. My friend, Dave Schuler, of the Glittering Eye blog, likes to point out how fragmentary the ancient record is and how many of the “ancient sources” are dependent upon copies of copies made by Romans, Christian monks and Muslim scholars circa 300 -900 AD. Kagan, from what I have seen of his lectures, will surmise fairly boldly from the context of his evidence and say “probably x” where a more cautious academic would say “we don’t know”.

  5. szr Says:

    You will get no disagreement from me regarding Nicias as a military commander. 
    And yes, it is true that history is not merely a spectator sport.  We can’t help but identify with those whose actions and decisions we find in accordance with our own views.  After all, I find ancient Athens fascinating precisely because it was remarkably “modern” in its politics.  Reading about the discussions concerning, e.g., extending Athenian citizenship to residents who served in the navy (and eventually, even slaves who served), or decisions about whether to allow foreigners to construct temples to their gods in the Piraeus, feels so amazingly modern.
    And I also don’t want to make it seem like I don’t like Kagan’s work.  I think his books on the subject are incredibly lucid and bold (in a good way).  I just wish extended his usually brilliant logical inference to the subject of Thucydides.  Hence the Love/Hate comment.
    Great blog, BTW, I’ve been a long time reader and really enjoy it.

  6. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy Says:

    […] while back, I had an interesting discussion in the comment section with “SZR” , Duncan Kinder and LC Rees over Donald Kagan’s interpretation of the […]

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