Matthieu de Bakker
This chapter argues that authorial comments are an important tool of Thucydides’ historiographical strategy. As the comments interrelate with the longer authorial essays, the surrounding narrative parts of the Histories, and the speeches of its actors, they guide the reader in interpreting rich, complex text. Authorial comments are typically found at the opening of episodes or at the introduction of characters, and thus often create a frame for evaluating subsequent passages. When comments are asides, they may concern topics distant from Thucydides’ focus, like divination and early Greek legend. Although pushed to the fringes of his work, these topics display significant relations to contemporary events. Finally, the frequency of authorial comments increases in Book 8, the narrative of which points to a growing fragmentation of the Hellenic world, and needs more authorial guidance to remain understandable.
This chapter reviews the campaign and battle narratives of Thucydides’ History. It discusses the structural role of campaign narratives in the History, and then focusses on the prologues, actions, and speeches of the campaign narratives themselves. It also takes several battle narratives under examination, asking what questions these battle stories answer and how they function in the larger narrative. Finally, the chapter engages with the question of how these stories related to their ancient Athenian audience, which was the very first audience, as far as we know, to be able to read accounts of the military events of a recent war.
Thucydides presents the words and deeds of individuals chiefly in terms of their importance for understanding the war. He characterizes leading actors through their speeches, indications of motivation, authorial comments, and the narrative itself. These techniques allow remarkable nuance, even ambiguity, of interpretation. This chapter examines the representations of Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, Brasidas, and Thucydides himself, highlighting the similar and contrasting traits that unite them. In Thucydides’ narrative, Pericles’ pride in Athens, refusal to yield to Sparta, and brilliant oratory lead Athens into the war. Nicias evaluates the expedition to Sicily with Periclean prudence, but his fear of a change in fortune and of the Athenian assembly lead to the expedition’s defeat. Alcibiades shares Pericles’ aristocratic background and strategic imagination, but his self-centeredness and contempt for customs twice cause the Athenians to lose trust. Through delineating these individual characteristics and behaviors, Thucydides clarifies the war's narrative.
By examining variations in scale and techniques of expansion and contraction in Thucydides’ narrative, the essay identifies a mimetic principle in his writing—that the presentation of an episode in the work should normally be proportionate to its significance. Significance, however, is not measured by purely military factors. In fact, expansion is often an indicator of intense suffering, pathos. Among the techniques of expansion and compression discussed are allusions, superlatives, figures of speech (such as litotes), direct and indirect discourse, day-by-day narrative, enargeia (vividness) and thematic repetition (“reprise”). Many of these techniques, although not all, were also discussed among the ancient rhetoricians, who were alert to their emotional power.
The great number of set speeches in Thucydides’ work reflects the importance of the art of persuasion in his world, but also exhibits an awareness of the limitations of that art. Far from suggesting straightforward explanations, in their multifarious, dynamic relation to their narrative contexts, immediate or remote, Thucydides’ speeches create a dialectical historiography. Their diversity regarding a series of criteria (speakers, audiences, themes, communicative situations, impact, way of introduction, stylistic choices) is sometimes concealed by the uniformity of language and common ideological presuppositions. While indirect discourse allows for more authorial control, direct speeches combine particular points of view with considerations on general matters. The openness and ambiguity of Thucydides’ rhetorically formulated statement on his method of composing his speeches is in alignment with his effort to keep nothing more than is necessary or helpful (for his purposes) from the original speeches.
This essay shows how in Thucydides, and especially in the Archaeology, the mythological periods of Greek history become the subject of argumentation, rather than narrative exposition. It also points out the absence of references to myth and mythological figures from the speeches of the History. By contrast, Thucydides recorded the past and present formation of myths—for instance, the myth of the tyrant slayers Harmodius and Aristogiton—and the social and political effect of such myths. References to mythological figures were therefore restricted to the narrator, who may recall them at moments when he seems to empathize with the sufferings of the war, such when he tells the story of Theseus’ founding of the city of Athens during his account of the Athenian evacuation of Attica in 431 bce.
This chapter shows how Thucydides’ rigorous critical method and literary artistry combine to produce an intellectually penetrating and emotionally gripping account of the past. For Thucydides, the key to accuracy is his interpretation of the facts. But he also wanted his readers to experience events as he perceived them and thereby also experience the validity of his interpretations. In addition to analyzing Thucydides’ goals, the essay also discusses Thucydides’ approach to chronology, the types of evidence and modes of reasoning that he uses, his understanding of human nature, his distinction between true and alleged causes, and his use of literary techniques such as vivid detail, dialogue, and the rhetorical figure of hyperbole.
This chapter introduces three common types of long sentence in Thucydides: the “tree,” in which the main action is presented as an initial fact to be explicated and complicated, the “funnel,” in which the main action is final culmination of a complex of motives or observations, and the “diptych,” in which the main action is a hinge that opens to the reader two tableaux, a “before” and “after,” and displays how they contrast with or mirror each other (the diptych). The chapter explicates the syntactical complexities of Thucydides’ long sentences schematically in order to demonstrate the relations between the numerous clauses; overall, it shows how these sentences serve to reveal Thucydides’ analysis.
Thucydides self-consciously composed his history for an elite audience of reader-listeners who would pay close attention to his work, not simply hear parts of it recited once. On the surface, he organized it tightly according to rigidly heeded principles: strict focus on war and political decision-making; rigorous ordering of time and space by consecutive summers and winters, and by theaters of action. Behind these overt structures Thucydides imposed a number of implicit designs, which lead perceptive readers to see and appreciate recurring patterns in history, particularly in political leaders’ decision making and in the morale of their cities. Structural parallelisms, juxtapositions, and the ordering of the accounts, for instance, are important Thucydidean means of making readers engage with his history and with their own; verbal linkages also provoke readers to note the ironies, paradoxes, and incongruities of the events.