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Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones

Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones by Andrew R. Novo and Jay M. Parker. Cambria Press, 2020, 198 pp.

“Wake any political scientist from a dead sleep with the words, ‘[T]the strong do what they can’ and they will likely finish the sentence, ‘the weak suffer what they must’ ” (p. 119). This quote highlights just one of the many noted fortune cookie-esque sentences from which most individuals have derived their knowledge of Thucydides. Andrew R. Novo and Jay M. Parker, both professors at the National Defense University, find this knowledge problematic. As a result, they seek to bring their varied but reinforcing backgrounds in history, classics, and international relations to bear on this relatively short, efficient introduction to Thucydides.

Their most repeated refrain centers on understanding the context in which Thucydides wrote to challenge the international relations’ (IR) community’s imposition of realism and structuralism onto his work. Thus, while they provide some overview of debates within the IR community about how to interpret Thucydides, most of their approach is historical in nature. They want readers to wrestle with the entirety of the text and seek to place it in historical context, and then they want readers to apply this approach habitually.

This book is especially timely in light of Graham Allison’s oft-cited work Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydidess Trap? The authors have not designed their work specifically to challenge Allison, but readers will certainly be prepared to do so upon completing this book. Their first chapter, entitled “Trap or Talisman?,” provides context on Athens, Sparta, and other relevant Greek city-states as well as on Thucydides himself. The second chapter compellingly challenges systemic thinking that the IR community uses to portray a problematic bipolar world of Sparta and Athens. True to their historical thinking, the authors also resist the idea of an inevitable war between these powers. Rather, war broke out because of the choices made not only by Athens and Sparta—where citizens actively debated the use of force—but also by smaller allied powers. Major powers had to make tough decisions as to whether to provide support to uphold their alliances. In Sparta’s case, this made the notion of Sparta hegemony a “chimera” (p. 46). That is not to say that Sparta was not powerful, but just that it had significant limits placed upon its actions by past decisions. Likewise, Syracuse and Corinth could be considered “major power[s] in their own right” (p. 53). This kind of context is essential to challenge the frequently quoted line about the inevitability of war between Athens and Sparta. Similarly, we should be careful to avoid making faulty parallels between Athens and Sparta then and the US and China today.

The next chapter unpacks the idea that fear pushed Sparta into war with Athens. The authors make a number of interesting observations about fear, such as pointing out the oddity of a city-state known so much for “courage and martial valor” acting out of fear in the first place (p. 90). A bit contradictorily, though, the authors then highlight that the most important Spartan fear may not have been of Athens but of their own helots (p. 91). This theme also reinforces the authors’ continuing insistence that domestic realities and politics made essential contributions to decision-making in Athens and Sparta. They also identify a specific trigger for Spartan fear to keep readers from making simplistic, sweeping conclusions about how fear functions in international relations, noting that fear propelled Spartans into action when Athens “began to encroach upon Sparta’s allies” (p. 92).

They reinforce the complexity of the Peloponnesian War by insisting on the “fragility of power and the fundamental flexibility of alliances” (p. 104), which dramatically emerges when one takes a wider view of the war than Thucydides. Furthermore, states struggle to measure power and, as a result, often make problematic and costly miscalculations (p. 173). This theme emerges strongly in subsequent chapters when the authors challenge the notion that the weak must endure what the strong can dish out. As the authors insist, the strong may do what they want, but they should also recognize the likelihood of painfully suffering from their own decisions (p. 120). This example is important when one considers the longer perspective of ancient Greek history—a perspective Thucydides failed to incorporate fully given his death before the ramifications of conflict had fully played out. For example, a strong Athens brutally destroyed the much weaker city-state of Melos even though Athens did not have to employ brutal force; rather, internal disagreements within the Melos government led some individuals to betray Melos to Athens (p. 133). But, even more importantly in the long term, no one really won in Greece. Athens fell in 404 BCE, yet the devastation continued, with Spartan power later “shattered” in 362 BCE (p. 168). Ultimately, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes all “bid for dominance and failed” (p. 169). In other words, no one really won except later participants who benefited from Greece’s disorder, reinforcing one of the authors’ key points that the “winner is not necessarily better off than before the war began” (p. 174).

While this work never quite makes a case for how it differs entirely from previous works, it is an accessible treatment of Thucydides that provides invaluable perspective for students and professors alike, either before or after reading the ancient historian’s work on the Peloponnesian War. Ultimately, the kind of issues the authors raise throughout help introduce students to complexity and the eschewal of simple answers to complex questions. This book will benefit students beginning a war theory course in professional military education or those more broadly enrolled in IR or history courses.

Heather Venable
Associate Professor, Air Command and Staff College


 

 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
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