Book 4 Reading Guide
Andre has gone ahead and prepared a reading guide with questions for Book 4 of Thucydides.
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Thucydides Book 4
Monday, July 10 8pm New York Time
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P.S. Over the weekend I spent 7.5 hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – in the ancient Greek galleries – preparing for our in-person get together Friday, August 18th! It’s going to be cool 😉
Thucydides – Book 4
Three main efforts, a pivotally symbolic triptych
1. Pylos – The narration of this event is a marked change of Thucydides’ style compared to previously related campaigns. W. Robert Connor in his assessment Thucydides (Princeton UP, 1985) comments on the paradoxical nature of the Pylos campaign: “Paradox and surprise are emphasized and elaborated at every turn: ‘Luck had turned about to this extent – Athenians from land, indeed from Laconian [Spartan] land, were repelling Spartans who were attacking from the sea. And the Spartans from ships were attempting to make a landing against Athenians on their own land which came into enemy hands. This caused a great sensation at that time for they were very much a continental power and very strong in infantry while the Athenians were a sea power and preeminent in their navy’ (4.12.3). Paradox has an important role in the account, and a fully appropriate one. The Pylos operation marks a major turning point in the Histories. It is the first sign of the grand reversal in which the war culminates – the Athenians, at the outset Greece’s major naval power, ultimately lose their fleet; the Spartans, traditionally a land power, acquire an empire and develop the navy to control it. Pylos is our first glimpse of the larger pattern” (Connor, 111).
What do you think of Connor’s assessment? The description of the Pylos campaign takes up a good portion of the first half of Book 4. Why has Thucydides focused more on the telling of the battle and not as much on the negotiations and politics around the battle? Why do the “rational” Athenians reject an offer of peace from the Spartans? Why do the “belligerent” Spartans offer such rational peace terms?
2. Hermocrates’ speech at Gela – an attempt at unifying ‘Sicilians’ against the influence of the Athenians. Hermocrates’ logic is a recognition that aggressive “preventative measures” are the best form of defense in the RealPolitik world of the Greek Mediterranean. Connor argues that this speech may hearken back to Thucydides’ earlier statement on the cause of the Peloponnesian War in the first place. Thucydides’ original words are: “The truest reason, although the least evident in the discussion, was, in my opinion, that the Athenians by growing great caused fear in the Lacedaemonians and drove them into war” (1.23.6). This may be the repetition of a key theme for Thucydides about the ‘balance of power’ situation in the Mediterranean. It reminds me of the gathering storm before World War I, when only a spark was needed to set off Europe due to factors anticipated long before. Connor remarks that the placement of Hermocrates’ speech in the middle of Book 4 foreshadows the significance of the location later in the war: “Hermocrates’ speech marks a pivotal moment in Athenian affairs, just after the success at Pylos and just before the reverses inflicted by Brasidas. But it has a wider application as well, for by calling attention to Sicily, it invites the reader to anticipate the great invasion of that island and its awesome implications for Athens and for the understanding of power” (Connor, 126).
Once again, as with the Spartan delegation to Athens earlier in Book 4, Hermocrates’ speech is not balanced with an “antilogy” or counterpart speech as we saw Thucydides do earlier in Books 1-3. Why do you suppose Thucydides does this? Is he commenting on the lack of debate among people & governments? Is it a comment on the state of war at this time? Have the courtesies of war slowly been dispensed with after so many years of destruction?
3. Brasidas’ operations in Northern Greece – Sparta sends out a military commander with some diplomatic skills. The interesting characteristics of Brasidas are not only his ability to combine military effectiveness with politics in the Northern Greek regions, but his ability to promote the mantra of Sparta’s willingness to ‘liberate Greeks from Athenian imperialism.’ In addition, examples of Brasidas’ clemency shows a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of one’s typical image of a Spartan, which helps to promote Sparta’s image. Meanwhile, “liberated city-states” continue to install pro-Spartan oligarchies in various cities won over by Brasidas’ charisma. The contrast between Brasidas and Cleon from earlier in Book 4 is inevitable: Cleon the politician-turned-commander meets Brasidas the commander-turned-diplomat at Amphipolis. Both are killed as a result of the battle, but both have made their mark on the war. Neither of them was favorable towards a peace settlement, but with both out of the way, Book 5 opens with a temporary peace that, alas, will not last. The pawns in their game, the city-states of the North, find themselves desperate to ally with a winner who can end this war. Unfortunately, the war’s changing fortunes only lead to reprisals from Athens and more bloodshed.
What about the ideal of Greek city-state independence? Can it ever exist again? Did it really ever exist prior to this? Which side, Sparta or Athens, are the real “liberators” (if any)? What part did Thucydides himself play in the battle of Amphipolis? Why did he suffer banishment as a result? Could these personal reversals affect his telling of the History? Why does Thucydides focus so much on the personalities of Cleon and Brasidas? Does this method adequately signify larger political and social trends for each of the superpowers? Does this method forecast events for the rest of the war and the post-bellum period for Greece?