Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: Treason makes the historian

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Curious how many top tier historians of classical antiquity were quislings:

These men probably didn’t see themselves following in Vidkun’s bloody footsteps. They remained loyal to a political community of their birth, just not the flesh and blood political community of their birth. They pledged allegiance to a nation in being that remained moored just over the horizon in the Scapa Flow of their imaginations, waiting for Der Tag of political change.

Donald Kagan has pointed out that the Athenian quisling Thucydides’ terrifying silences and omissions are as important to an informed reading of The History of the Peloponnesian War as what he directly writes about. Though much of Kagan’s most recent distillation of his argument in Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is an indirect refighting of that war in Iraq his boys and daughter-in-law got mixed up in, it makes some valid arguments.

Thucydides went out of his way to frame such subjects like how a series of separate contests were one single war (since Thucydides was in exile for most of its length), how deranged the war policy of the Athenian democracy was (since it had exiled Thucydides), how enlightened the war policy of his fellow aristocrat Pericles had been (since Thucydides admired him), and how clever the Spartan Brasidas was (since he’d been responsible for the defeat that led to Thucydides’ exile). Kagan gathers enough information from other sources about the time and Thucydides himself to plausibly argue Thucydides’ narrative was somewhat skewed to fit his personal agenda.

How human.

There may have been no single “Peloponnesian War”. You could plausibly treat each of the conflicts that Thucydides lumps together as distinct wars that should be studied individually rather than as a group. Or you veer all the way to the other extreme and portray every Athenian-Spartan war between 460 B.C. and 387 B.C. as a single “Hundred Years War”-type conflict. The “Second Peloponnesian War” is a narrative convenience invented by Thucydides for his polemical needs.

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