Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

  • Published

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan. Viking Press, 2009, 272 pp.

Over the past half century, Thucydides’ writings on the Peloponnesian War have helped strategists relate lessons from ancient Greece to modern conflicts such as the Cold War. While modern scholars typically laud Thucydides’ objectivity in history, Dr. Donald Kagan takes a different tack by suggesting the historian writes with detectable bias.

Kagan, former dean of Yale College and noted historian serving as professor of ancient Greek history at Yale University, writes for both scholarly and popular audiences. His most notable writings include a four-volume scholarly evaluation of the Peloponnesian War, later condensed into a single-volume popular history in 2004. These two works are important both for their contributions to modern understanding of Thucydides and because Kagan borrows extensively from them for this book. While some reviewers scoff at his choice to recycle his own words, he uses the texts for different purposes here. His single-volume history focuses primarily on retelling Thucydides’ history rather than interacting heavily with its motives. His reuse here serves simply to set up his analysis and should not be criticized too heavily. The value of The Reinvention of History is in its analyzing the supposedly unimpeachable objectivity of Thucydides to gain deeper insights into fifth-century Greek history. Kagan suggests Thucydides wrote not only to provide a lasting history of events during his lifetime, but also to change the perceptions of contemporary readers—making him the first revisionist historian.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History begins by joining the chorus of scholars lauding Thucydides as revolutionizing the field of history. Kagan then parts company by suggesting that the historian intended to alter prevailing opinions of the war. In this vein, he focuses on three major areas: Pericles, Cleon, and the Sicilian expedition. Kagan supports his claims by relating several case studies backed with evidence from historical accounts, plays, poetry, and archaeological findings. In chapters 2–5, he focuses on Pericles and three concepts he believes Thucydides sought to affect through his writing. Did Periclean policy cause the war with Sparta? Did Pericles’ defensive strategy bring about ruin for the Delian League? Did Pericles subvert Athenian democracy through demagoguery? Kagan suggests the populace of Athens would answer each of these in the affirmative, while Thucydides paints the opposite picture by turning the blame to the emotions and irrationality of the Athenian democratic process. He presents his best arguments in discussing Pericles. His evidence is sound, and he stays on point to make a very believable case.

The sixth and seventh chapters deal with Cleon. While Thucydides’ contemporary Athenians viewed Cleon as a hero, Kagan sees the historian subverting Cleon’s policies as hawkish in their departure from Periclean strategies seeking peace. Kagan refers to bias in the depiction of Cleon’s activities in the victory at Pylos and events at Amphipolis to make his case. While Kagan shows Thucydides’ bias well, his argument is less effective with Cleon. Considering Cleon’s close involvement in the events that transpired in Thucydides’ banishment from Athens, this case should be the most solid; however, Kagan’s case for bias seems contrived and gets lost in simple historical retelling. Finally, Kagan addresses the Sicilian expedition conducted by Athens and where Thucydides believed the blame should rest. Evidence highlighted suggests Nicias caught the brunt of Athenian blame. Thucydides does not disagree with Nicias’ culpability, but instead finds a more fundamental cause in the underlying post-Periclean democracy which was too easily misled by a single and unqualified “man who was able to turn a mistake into a disaster ” (p. 221). Kagan regains his solid footing here and skillfully makes the case of Thucydides’ influence to change Athenian views. While not perfect, he succeeds in providing a believable case for Thucydides’ bias and paves the way for a better understanding of cause and effect relationships in the Peloponnesian War.

Overall, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is a good analysis of Thucydides, albeit focused narrowly on potential biases of the historian. It should not be the first text for those wanting to begin a study on the Peloponnesian War or Thucydides. Interested readers should at least have a fair understanding of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, even if it is from secondary sources like Kagan’s popular work, The Peloponnesian War. Without this basic understanding, one will be lost in Reinvention. For those with this requisite understanding, Kagan’s work serves two purposes. First, it helps readers to see Thucydides writing from a fresh perspective. Kagan’s voice is one of the few that lightly criticizes Thucydides’ objectivity in his analysis, and he succeeds in opening a more objective view of fifth-century Greek political interaction. This understanding helps modern readers appropriately apply Thucydides’ lessons in modern cases. Second, Kagan’s writing helps others recognize bias in writing on a more general level. As modern journalism turns away from objective reporting to subjective opinion, the ability to discern bias remains crucial. Studying Thucydides in this way helps address this means of critical thought while avoiding modern controversial analogies.

Maj David C. Leaumont, USAF

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

"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."