Kagan (Classics and History/Yale Univ.; The Peloponnesian War, 2003, etc.) presents a tidy, timeless distillation of Thucydides’s thought and work.
Although there were numerous historical chronicles preceding The History of the Peloponnesian War, such as the work of Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus, they were often filled with mythological feats and not deemed terribly accurate or objective. In contrast, Thucydides—who lived at the time the war broke out in mid-fifth-century BCE Athens and even served as a general before being exiled for failing to guard the Athenian base at Amphipolis—restrained his personal opinions in describing the events of the war and, writes Kagan, “seems to have taken a spectacular leap into modernity.” In pared-down, limpid prose, the author makes a brilliant case for the relevance of this ancient historian’s work, which grew out of the naturalistic approach of the Greek enlightenment. Kagan takes the reader through Thucydides’s History in terms of his method: to establish the facts, then formulate interpretation, often through the selection of speeches. Thucydides established rather boldly that the war between Sparta and Athens that brought the Athenian empire to an end was more worthy of study than even Homer’s Trojan War. He presents its causes and shows how the great general Pericles convinced the Athenians to pursue a defensive course that proved ultimately disastrous. He also looks at the outbreak of the plague that further eroded Athenian strength and morale, and the dangerous expedition to Sicily engineered by Alcibiades, which ended in a rout. Thucydides has been in and out of fashion throughout history, and while he is not considered the first historian, Kagan rightly calls him the “father of political history,” whose study of war still imparts lessons for today.
A fresh, thorough reassessment of the enduring significance of Thucydides.