Top positive review
Flawed package, but an invaluable guide to war, its causes, and its consequences
on 12 September 2017
For all the problems Thucydides’s work poses for the contemporary reader – the dryness of the prose, the author’s own admission that the speeches are unlikely to be accurate reporting, his inability to transcend the particular for the universal – it is beyond churlish to criticise the man who may be seen as the first real historian, the first to consider history as a product of human agency, not as something predetermined by the whims of the gods.
By his own admission, Thucydides’s account is short on literary merit. There are occasional references to human emotions, especially fear and panic, but in general the history presents us with little but a litany of events on a grand scale, free of any descriptions of the actions of individuals. Early on there are instances where the speeches in particular offer the potential for learning, but these are implicit rather than explicit. It has been left to his successors to generalise the lessons.
But what lessons! The greatest, of course, is that succumbing to the apparent need to wage war on a challenger or incumbent has enormous and often unforeseen consequences. When Sparta and Athens allowed themselves to be sucked into conflict with each other they were both great nations. By the end of the war they were depleted almost to the point of no return, leaving a power vacuum for others to exploit. In the 20th Century, the parallels include Great Britain, Germany and the United States in that respect.
On another level, there is the sheer brutality of the way war is waged. Even with individual suffering overlooked, it is difficult not to be horrified by the merciless and summary killings that take place, of soldiers and civilians alike; the calamities that befall both sides due to overreach, miscalculation, hubris, treachery, caprice, forces of nature such as earthquakes, plagues, volcanoes, storms and the tides, and sometimes pure stupidity; and the way in which some people, through no fault of their own, are caught in the middle with no viable means of escape. I lost count of the number of times one side or the other lay waste a region.
This Penguin edition, it has to be said, has a few faults of its own. MI Finley’s Introduction is scholarly and informative but in a 1970s kind of way. (I found Graham Allison’s overview in Destined for War, which I have also reviewed, a useful, though by no means complete, supplement.) Rex Warner’s translation dates back to the 1950s, and it shows, and could at least do with an up-to-date commentary. There are numerous typos, problems with the tiny typeface, a number of examples of poor proofreading, including a few times where infinitives have “to” preceding them twice due to a line change, and at least one sentence which, no matter how many times I read it, made no sense at all. Additionally, having read about a quarter of the book wishing there were maps I found them, at the back. But they’re useless, not only committing all the cardinal sins of maps but also giving the appearance of having been printed on blotting paper.
It’s impossible, however, to give Thucydides anything less than five stars, no matter how he’s packaged.