Emily Greenwood, Thucydides and the Shaping of History. Classical Literature and Society 1. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. vii + 188. ISBN 0-7156-3283-3. UK£16.99.
Jan P. Stronk
Ancient History, Universiteit van Amsterdam
According to the blurb on the back cover the aim of this book is to consider the shaping of history from three different angles. 'It examines the way in which Thucydides shaped history and how his narrative shapes our experience as readers of the History. In addition, it also examines the relationship between Thucydides' work and contemporary institutions, such as the theatre, which shaped his approach to his subject. Thirdly, this book also explores the role that ancient readers and modern scholars have played in shaping how we perceive the History.'
Greenwood starts her work by emphasizing that she will discuss Thucydides as an individual -- and thereby the History as an individual achievement --, by putting him (and/or his work) in an economic, social, religious, linguistic, artistic, and intellectual context: unfortunately these contexts only show where Thucydides/the History does not fit the context: it underlines that the History is a strikingly unconventional text. Much information we might have expected is omitted; Thucydides' views were probably pretty radical (p. 2). Greenwood suggests Thucydides intellectually created his own context: 'Thucydides' text promotes the view that for the thoughts of the historian to be of value, they should resist, look beyond or transcend the historical and social circumstances of the historian' (p. 3). Fundamentally it is a text for any context, as is suggested by the frequent use of the word aiei ('always') in particular chapters.
Thucydides created, moreover, a distinct vocabulary of his own, which was possibly frequently incomprehensible to his contemporaries especially when used in an unfamiliar context, as already noticed by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (On Thucydides 24). It is therefore even harder to determine what exactly Thucydides' deeper motives may have been for writing his work the way he did. It may be argued, as it has been in the distant and recent past, that his envisaged audience was a future one (pp. 8f.). Nevertheless it is demonstrable that he used techniques and formulas familiar from Athenian law courts and inscriptions: Greenwood however states that his statement in 1.22.4 'observes the pastness of the present, and commits the History to the future' (p. 10).
Like many others Greenwood accepts as a fact that Thucydides has consciously 'shaped' his History, though with an important caveat: 'Although Thucydides did not write his work under the term, let alone the discipline, of 'history', his work is one of the best examples of the ambiguity of this noun, which can signify past events . . . , a discipline . . . , and the textual representation of these events . . . ' (p. 11). Nevertheless, studying Thucydides remains a thoroughly historical enterprise, if only because the text itself is part of the history. The majority of recent studies acknowledge this fact. In the process of shaping, the author should, moreover, (like Thucydides) be aware of the fact that he is likely to be able to present only a partial view of an event or events.
Behind the textualization of history lies the technology of writing: the medium of the written text serves to reflect on the meaning of the words, a bonus absent in listening to an oral delivery: it is, in all accounts, a ktêma es aiei ('perpetual possession'). A gap between Thucydides the writer and his contemporaries acting in the war, deliberately or not, expressly including Thucydides the historical participant. It remains feasible, though, that Thucydides' text was also read aloud, thereby also becoming an oral performance and so closer to his contemporary audience. However, unlike for Herodotus, evidence for such an occurrence for Thucydides is lacking.
In Chapter 2, 'Point of View and Vantage Point' (pp. 19-41), Greenwood starts with the observation that Thucydides' narrative frequently visualizes its subject as an actual 'theatre of war': 'Like the spectator . . . of Greek drama who sees more and knows more than the characters in the drama, the reader of Thucydides views a replay of the war that offers much fuller coverage than the limited perspectives of those involved in the war' (p. 20). Nevertheless, Thucydides vigorously dissociates himself from theatrical affiliations in 1.20-22. Despite this assurance there are convincing links between Thucydides' story and Athenian tragedy and even comedy: more importantly, there was a distinct 'theatrical culture' in Athenian public life which is reflected throughout Thucydides' work. Pivotal in this respect is the use of 'point of view' / 'viewpoint'. Greenwood illustrates her views with an elaborate example focused upon Brasidas (Thuc. 4.124-5.11). Also other military encounters, like at Sphacteria or during the Sicilian expedition emphasize the importance of good sight. Compelling as the examples may seem, Greenwood argues that the real challenge for the reader is to be able to view a 'battle in the context of a much larger vista -- that of the History as a whole' (p. 33). Both elements meet in Thucydides' narrative of the battle at Epipolae (Thuc. 7.42-72): the limited sight of the generals sharply contrasts with the overall view available to the reader.
The reader gets to see not only what different historical actors could or could not see in certain situations but also how their respective assessment of the situation influenced them and their decisions. Another distinctive feature of Thucydides' narrative is (the suggestion of) 'simultaneity', 'the temporal equivalent of a panoramic view' (p. 42). A good example is the description of various events at the beginning of Book 5, all dated to the summer of 422 BC: though probably not all occurring at exactly the same time, Thucydides at least suggests contemporaneity and, perhaps, cohesion. Wherever it is convenient he also manipulates time and tense, among other things, by providing information out of context, be it before the actual fact happened (prolepsis) or after it (analepsis). As a matter of fact, the entire History is informed by hindsight to varying degrees (cf. Thuc. 4.104.4-5). 'To transcend the limiting factor of a present-centred approach to events' (p. 43) is, nevertheless, one of the main objects achieved by Thucydides, as Greenwood demonstrates in her third chapter, if only to achieve his goal (or claim) of timelessness of his work. To be able to create such a 'detached' account, Thucydides distances himself from the alleged limited views, both geographically and as regards time (and therefore its own history: cf. Thuc. 6.54ff.), harboured at Athens, a city reluctant to innovate actively.
In the fourth chapter, 'Speaking the Truth' (pp. 57-82), Greenwood examines various dimensions of truth in the context of the speeches represented in the History. Starting point is Gorgias' treatise Encomium, according to Greenwood 'an apt starting point because it demonstrates the complications involved in squaring verbal arguments . . . -- both oral and written -- with truth' (p. 57). Greenwood admits that it is difficult to connect the two texts historically, though she assumes some awareness (but probably no familiarity) on the part of both authors of each other's work. Key words in the assessment here are alêtheia, logos, kosmos, and kosmeô, of which the various meanings, nuances, and connotations are ingeniously juxtaposed and analysed. However, where Herodotus described his work as a collection of logoi ('stories'), Thucydides emphatically declares that he xunegrapsen ('wrote down') his work, in fact not only creating a more or less artificial, but deeply felt, antithesis between writers of historiai or logoi and the more solid sungrapheus but, more importantly, putting out his work as something to be viewed as the author's personal intellectual property, a work, moreover, whose value has been established. Thucydides explains the method to achieve this status in 1.22.1-4, a key chapter in the discussion on Thucydides.
The chapter displays from a modern point of view a certain ambiguity in the approach of the occurrences described, though it is demonstrably consistent with the literal meaning of alêtheia ('truth'), as 'that which is not (to be) forgotten. As a matter of fact, it is a fiction to believe that even modern technology always provides us with historically reliable accounts: in that respect Thucydides' reconstructions are not necessarily worse, or less true, than those modern technology may offer. A similar ambiguity is presented by Thucydides' use of ta deonta ('what was needed') as tool for the reconstruction of speeches: it remains unclear who was the needy person and what and why he needed 'it' precisely. Greenwood elaborates her views regarding the trustworthiness of Thucydides' account in two 'case-studies', one on Pericles' final speech (Thuc. 2.59.3-2.64.6), one on Nicias' letter (Thuc. 7.8-16).
In Chapter 5, 'New Theatres of War: Book 8 and Sophocles' Philoctetes' (pp. 83-108), Greenwood constructs a dialogue between Thucydides' last book (though for whatever reason not one concluding the war and for some, ancient and modern, therefore rather disappointing) and Sophocles' Philoctetes, two contemporary works (c. 409 BC), focusing on analogies discernable in both works in spite of the fact that neither author influenced the other. Nevertheless, 'the dialogue between these two works reveals a shared conception of the events of 411 BC as being characterized by dissembling, acting and a crisis of trust' (p. 83). In both works the predominant discussions that emerge are the problems what one should consider well-disciplined behaviour and where the best interests of the community lie and how these should be served (in a climate of fear, deception, suspicion, and crisis). Alcibiades is a noteworthy example in this discussion, the more since his appearance dominates Book 8. According to Greenwood Thucydides criticizes Athens, notably in this book, for losing its 'democratic ideology', thereby causing social crisis, creating opportunities for demagogic opportunists and conspirators. It is striking that the Athenian fleet at Samos starts to operate as the democratic polis of Athens as opposed to the Athenian citizens in Athens who, by tolerating the rule of the oligarchic rule of the Four Hundred, have for the time being lost their position: the polis has become a fluid or movable collective, a mobile entity.
The oligarchic revolution returns as a key theme in the Philoctetes, notably as regards ethico-political concerns. One of the play's main plotlines relates to duplicity, especially regarding loyalty. The chorus are the sailors of the fleet, the democratic conscience of the polis, though at that moment insecure about which direction to follow. They witness how a crisis of values, partly accentuated or even caused by failing leadership, has to be solved on stage: 'Philoctetes wrestles with the problem of authority and whether those in power should be obeyed unconditionally' (p. 105). The arguments exchanged between the different characters echo those of the various political groups/leaders represented in Thucydides' Book 8; at the same time it 'parallels the intellectual challenges that confront the reader of Book 8 of Thucydides' History, who has to follow plot and counterplot in a highly charged theatre of war' (p. 107).
It is not easy to plot the reception of Thucydides' work. His terminology, ktêma es aiei, makes it clear that he designated his work to be memorable. As Greenwood demonstrates in Chapter 6, 'Reading Thucydides with Lucian' (pp. 109-129), it certainly was memorable for Lucian of Samosata, who regarded Thucydides' work as a paradigm for how to achieve a successful literary afterlife: he elucidated his views in his How to Write History and the True Stories. Greenwood disagrees with the view that Lucian's knowledge of Thucydides' work was superficial (p. 113). There is, however, a certain ambiguity towards Thucydides noticeable in Lucian's works, hovering between parodying him at the one hand and extolling him at the other. Nevertheless, Thucydides' work fits Lucian's criteria for historical writing best, though more clearly evidenced by the treatise How to Write History than by the intricate play of the True Stories, 'where the narrator teases his audience by flitting between the poles of truth and fiction' (p. 118), both manipulating and challenging his audience intellectually on various levels. In spite of all this, Lucian's works testify to the success of Thucydides' ultimate mission: to write a ktêma es aiei.
After the quite abrupt end of the text proper follows the section of 'Notes' (pp. 130-60). This is not a solution I prefer (I like footnotes, if only for the sake of ease), but that is a personal option. Substantially the notes are clear, sufficient, and, whenever necessary, elucidating. The appendices are straightforward, offering what has been promised: not more, not less. The bibliography (pp. 172-83) is quite impressive and displays Greenwood's familiarity with the subject. A useful index of passages (pp. 184f.) and a concise (in some respects too concise, since the notes have been omitted) general index (pp. 186-88) conclude the book.
Greenwood has written an elegant book, fulfilling the promises exposed in the blurb, though not an easy one. She has selected some items to focus on and does so well: therewith she clarifies not only (some of) the motives underlying Thucydides' work but also the reception his masterpiece enjoyed over the centuries, to this very day. At the same time she underlines the importance sound literary criticism (as displayed in her study) may have for the (correct?) interpretation of a (classical) text. It is, however, neither a book to recommend for a more general public (or even undergraduates) nor as a general introduction to the History, because it requires sufficient foreknowledge (not necessarily always present in those groups) to use it fruitfully: it should, however, undoubtedly be a worthwhile asset in a graduate class, either on Thucydides or on literary criticism. The book itself is well-produced and I did not notice striking typos.