Top positive review
20 people found this helpful
A Must-Read for Persons in Power!
on 26 March 2010
I first read Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War" in the sixties, when the Cold War was fast simmering towards a boiling point. Reading Thucydides at that moment, which (thankfully) passed into modern history with a whimper rather than a bang, was a revelation. The 5th-century BC historian writes a riveting account of how two major powers--Sparta and Athens--became embroiled in a twenty-seven-year war because of self-interest, mutual distrust, and buildup of arms. He then notes that he is writing his history as a lesson for mankind so that such wars will never occur again. With chilling cynicism, however, he notes that since human nature is essentially rotten, the same wars will break out over and over for exactly the same reasons.
Rex Warner's translation from the Greek is both enlightening and readable. The headings at the top of every other page allow the reader to 'skim' easily to particular topics. I shall note only two passages, which speed by despite their length, as examples: the Plague of 430 BC (Thuc. II. 47-55), and the Corcyrean Revolt of 427 BC (Thuc. III. 69-95; esp. 82-83). The first demonstrates Thucydides' brilliance as what we today would call a journalist. His account of the plague is based on keen observation of the disease, which he both caught and survived. Originating at Athens' harbour, it swept through the confines of the city, partly as a result of Pericles' disastrous policy of moving the population into an already-crowded city (Thucydides does not know about rats and lice, but he does note that all domestic animals and birds of prey, which came into contact with the stricken, died). The historian, whose narrative is considered the first epidemiology, describes the disease from its symptoms, through its crisis, to its devastating end, sometimes in recovery, most often in death. As riveting as his narrative is, Thucydides transcends straight reportage as he describes the psychological toll on the populace, who not only became demoralised, but also sank into committing normally unthinkable acts, such as sneaking out at night and dumping their dead relatives onto someone else's funeral pyre, or allowing the sick to die of neglect.
The other not-to-be-missed passage is Thucydides' narration of the Corcyrean Revolt, which is far more than an account of a mere rebellion. It is an account of propaganda, and how the very language undergoes transmogrifications of meanings during times of stress. For example, what in peacetime might be considered "a thoughtless act of agression," in wartime becomes "courage"; what in peacetime is a consider-all-sides-of-an-issue policy, in wartime, becomes cowardice; Thucydides writes: "Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was a perfectly legitimate self-defence" [Thuc. III. 82]. The passage seems especially relevant in this commercial age of mass media, when language becomes so easily distorted and misinterpreted.
Thucydides' history breaks off in 411 and thus does not cover the end of the war in 404. Even so, its themes are so universal that they convey an immediate ring of truth that bridges the gap of the millennia.