In this extract from the exclusive introduction to the Folio limited edition of The Peloponnesian War, Professor of Classics and Intellectual History, and Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, Katherine Harloe reflects on why ‘in this age of populist politics, plague and war, The Peloponnesian War still offers much material for reflection’.
For the ancient historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who devoted an entire essay to pointing out Thucydides’ faults, he remained the greatest (kratistos) of historians, ‘the canon of historical craft’. The moderns have echoed this verdict: Thomas Hobbes, political theorist of the English Civil War and Thucydides’ first English translator, called him ‘the most politic historiographer that ever writ’, and in the twentieth century he was claimed by both realist and neoconservative theorists of international relations. In the Vietnam War era The Peloponnesian War was a set text in the US Naval War College and at West Point military academy; Thucydides remains one of the most frequently cited ancient authors (second only to Cicero) in speeches by politicians in the United States Congress. Both the Cold War and the rise of China have been theorized through the lens of his account of the clash between Athens and Sparta; in the time of Covid-19, too, political commentators have turned to Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague to reflect on the crises of political legitimacy and strains in the social fabric generated and exacerbated by the pandemic and political response.
Turning to Thucydides’ text itself helps us to appreciate why. For, although Thucydides devotes early sections of his work to arguing that his chosen theme is in fact ‘a greater war than any in previous history’ (1.21), he also warns his readers that pleasing stories of greatness and glory are not his primary concern:
It may be that the lack of a romantic [mythodes—‘mythical’] element in my history will make it less of a pleasure to the ear: but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those who will want to have a clear understanding of what happened—and, such is the human condition, will happen again at some time in the same or a similar pattern. It was composed as a permanent legacy, not a showpiece for a single hearing. (1.22)
As well as offering an explicit characterization of his work, this statement offers an implicit characterization of his readers—and it is a flattering one: I write for you, the wise, the prudent, who wish to know not only what happened during the Peloponnesian War but can also grasp what lessons those events hold for future human action.
This is an edited extract of Katherine Harloe’s introduction for The Folio Society limited edition of The Peloponnesian War.