thucydides book 1 thoughts.

From just the opening emails and thoughts, it’s clear this will be a great group.  Really looking forward to the call Monday night.  Like others, I have been unable to put it down and I’ve read the speeches back through several times.  Thought I’d throw my thoughts on at least one of Andre’s questions, and on the speeches, which I have particularly enjoyed.



Who is his audience circa 400 BCE now that Athens has been conquered and other Greek city states are filling the power vacuum?  Does he expect Athenians, for example, to be excited about reading about a war that they had just lost?  Does he think Spartans will care to read this?  Thebans?  Americans???

I think this is an interesting question that has implications for historical trends today.  For example, how long did it take for German historians to consider Germany’s role in WWII?  How do these historians’ views ebb and flow a half century later (with considerably more complete archives/records/et cetera than Thucydides had at hand)?  I think Thucydides wrote for Athenians in an effort to understand what happened to them and why.  We’ll see how the rest unfolds, but I don’t think he is exploring the “loss” or the “defeat”.  The real question in my mind is about the character of the society.  The “agreement” Athens had with Sparta was clearly seen as complicated by both powerful states for different reasons as the years since the Persian War have passed.  For me, this makes the speeches particularly rich.  I have read and reread the them several times.  Keeping Thucydides conditionals in mind, they are amazingly complex.  I can really see how they can be interpreted in a number of ways depending upon your assumptions about motive and tone.

Notes on Speeches in Book 1:
First thing I noticed is the broad narrative structure: There is an appeal made to Athens, then an appeal made to Sparta.  (Corinth pivots neatly in the narrative because they present in both cases.)  The rhetorical structure of the appeals and the ultimate decisions are made more interesting because, according to the treaty, Sparta and Athens should submit their differences to arbitration as well (and indeed Corinth would then be an arbiter).  They ultimately don’t, but I think putting them each in the role of arbiter is a keen introduction.  I haven’t had time to write up all my thoughts, but I’ve been thinking about the two pleas/decisions in Book 1 in the following ways:

a) What is the structure of the arguments made to the Athenians/Spartans: what is appealed to?  what avoided?  what assumptions are made about the how binding the Athens/Sparta peace treaty really is?
b) How do the Athenians/Spartans discuss the pleas and make their decisions?  Who speaks, who doesn’t, and who carries the day?
c) Is the Athenian/Spartan decision really just in light of their own principals and is it really an obvious affront and one of the small but foreseeable steps that lead to the war?

I have a lot of favorite, quotable passages underlined in the speeches, either for their rhetorical power or the subtlety of their influence on the arbiter.   I can read each of these (at least) two ways: earnestly, with heartfelt appeal, or more cynically, as when a US Senator begins with “My dear friend and colleague…” and it’s clearly an insincere convention meant to be back-handed.

A couple of favorite zingers:
1.69.5 -6 (Corinth to the Spartans)
“And yet you know that on the whole the rock on which the barbarian was wrecked…”  ending with the: “men remonstrate with friends who are in error, accusations they reserve for enemies who have wronged them.”

1.72.2 – 1.73.all (Athenian Envoys to the Spartans)
“The object of our mission was not to argue with your allies.”  […] and ending with: “We need not refer to remote antiquity: there we could appeal to the voice of tradition, but not to the experience of our audience.”  Then, of course, they do recount their supremacy in the Persian War.  J

1.76.all (Athenian Envoys to the Spartans)
“You, at all events, Spartans, have used your supremacy…”

I’m sure you all have others underlined, but you’ll get the point.  Looking forward to our discussion.

02. December 2008 by Arrian
Categories: Commentary, Thucydides | Tags: | Comments Off on thucydides book 1 thoughts.