Correction to This Article
This review of Donald Kagan's book "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History" misspelled the name of Clio, the muse of history.

Book review of Thucydides by Donald Kagan

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By Tracy Lee Simmons
Sunday, December 27, 2009

THUCYDIDES

The Reinvention of History

By Donald Kagan

Viking. 257 pp. $26.95

"The whole earth is the sepulcher of famous men," the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, and we moderns will always be ready to wake them from the slumber of their fame. One of the most eminently and, now, predictably quotable figures of the classical world, Thucydides assuredly deserves his press. Few so well understood the machinations of the human heart and mind when facing the extremities of the human predicament -- plague, betrayal, defeat and abject humiliation in war -- and fewer still could distill the hard-won wisdom of experience into tight, shimmering phrases and radiant, lapidary passages, which is why so many generations of students have had to read him. He is the favorite of Cleo, the muse of history, "to whom we turn when we have lost control," as W. H. Auden put it. It was he who described disasters "such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same." We have gone to him more for lessons than for facts.

If Herodotus retains his proper title as the "father of history," Thucydides, his younger contemporary and author of the "History of the Peloponnesian War," an elaborate account of that bloody 30-year internecine spat between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century, B.C., might be called the father of all those historians who aspire to comprehend the past coolly, objectively, dispassionately, scientifically and without a brief for any partisan cause. He was the first sociologist. Or so we have blithely tended to believe.

After spending an entire career sitting studiously at the feet of Thucydides, Donald Kagan, professor of classics and history at Yale and author of his own four-volume study of the Peloponnesian War, has drawn a bead on his most famous progenitor. The portrait that emerges, while both suitably erudite and freshly provocative, will fail to please most of those who have learned more to revere the great historian than to view him as a human being and political operator beset with all the flaws to which flesh is heir. But that is the man Kagan chooses to examine -- "the man himself in the world of action, not merely of thought." The result is less about the actual events of the past and more about how they get written up and embalmed for posterity.

Kagan reminds us most saliently that, contrary to prevailing notions that Thucydides penned his work from a distant, Olympian remove, he was actually a participant -- an accomplice, really -- in the war he so eloquently and painstakingly depicted; his was a partisan's point of view. A general high in the Athenian command earlier in the war, he was forced into exile after he lost Amphipolis to the enemy in 422. Years later, he wrote his account to defend his actions and indeed those of his class. Democracy was, he believed, ever prone to dangle before citizens the deceptive promises and baubles of demagogues like Alcibiades, at whose door he placed blame for the Sicilian debacle. And so it was Athenian democracy itself that caused Athens's eventual defeat, not her more enlightened generals like Nicias and himself. The "History," according to Kagan, represented as much as anything else Thucydides' apologia, not a detached rationalist's tale of simple cause and effect.

Absent from this brief but well-argued book, then, is the Thucydides some of us venerate, the one whose warnings against the less tangible depredations of war echo down the centuries -- of how, for example, language itself can suffer when the battle is joined. "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them," he wrote. "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness." It's his wisdom we recall and value now, not the correctness or even the identity of his political or military alliances, however legitimately critical those may be for pinning down his historical self.

We ought not to conclude, though, that Kagan's is a work of perfervid revisionism, at least not revisionism of the pejorative kind. All historical writing is an act of revision, an exercise in re-seeing figures and events of former times in the light of new or neglected evidence. The task Kagan set himself has been to reveal the motives of the man behind the maxims, not to chip away at this monolith that remains a landmark for students of the past.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin" and director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.


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