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Oh God, not the bashing of the Peloponnesian War again

Thucydides can be abused, but he should still be used

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There is some kind of circadian rhythm to the foreign policy commentariat’s collective judgment on the ancient historian Thucydides. There are moments when his influence waxes. Pundits desperately in search of profundity make vague historical allusions to the Peloponnesian War to advance an argument about the current state of foreign policy.

Then there are moments when his influence wanes. Skeptics raise all the ways in which the 21st century is not like ancient Greece. Cynics express justified weariness that the same ill-suited analogies are trucked out without fail. And true historical geeks will raise questions about whether Thucydides’s history is even accurate.

We can now add Foreign Policy’s James Palmer to the latter list. Last week he wrote a very sharp column arguing that “conflicts between city-states in a backwater Eurasian promontory 2,400 years ago are an unreliable guide to modern geopolitics.” Palmer further managed to write the most acerbic line on this question I have seen in ages: “Thucydides is great. But he doesn’t have to hold the same grip on IR [international relations] scholars that Harry Potter does on millennial readers.” He went on to suggest that beyond the Peloponnesian War there are at least eight Asian conflicts that could proffer more useful lessons for current foreign policy observers.

This prompted a predictable online kerfuffle among international relations scholars about the relative value of Thucydides and other ancient texts. See Paul Poast, Stephen Walt and Michael Colaresi’s Twitter threads for starters.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is of two minds about all of this. On the one hand, Palmer is spot on in raising the issue of studying conflicts beyond Europe to better comprehend all of international relations. A Western-centric approach to IR would likely cause observers to exaggerate the tendency of balancing behavior and underestimate the tendency of bandwagoning behavior, for example. Fortunately, there is already a burgeoning IR literature on this very question.

On the other hand, I wish Palmer was right about the grip that Thucydides had on IR scholars. The truth is far more dismal. International relations experts are decidedly not as attuned to the Peloponnesian War as millennials are to Harry Potter. To continue with this analogy, it would be more accurate to say that most IR scholars are familiar with Thucydides at the same level as those who only consume the Harry Potter canon by looking at YouTube clips of the films.

Palmer is right to bash those who graft the most superficial aspects of Thucydides’s history onto the present day. The reason “History of the Peloponnesian War” merits a close reading, however, is that depending on the time or place, there is always an element of his history that resonates. It’s the Rosetta Stone of tragic narratives in world politics.

Consider the current moment. Did Thucydides have anything to say about plagues or pandemics? You’re damn right he did. He provided a graphic physical description of the disease that spread from Ethiopia to Athens (but not Sparta) and that infected him among many Athenians. It is his description of how the plague affected Athenian society, however, that makes Thucydides a must-read:

The crowding of the people out of the country into the city aggravated the misery; and the newly-arrived suffered most. For, having no houses of their own, but inhabiting in the height of summer stifling huts, the mortality among them was dreadful, and they perished in wild disorder. The dead lay as they had died, one upon another, while others hardly alive wallowed in the streets and crawled about every fountain craving for water. The temples in which they lodged were full of the corpses of those who died in them; for the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine. The customs which had hitherto been observed at funerals were universally violated, and they buried their dead each one as best he could. Many, having no proper appliances, because the deaths in their household had been so numerous already, lost all shame in the burial of the dead. When one man had raised a funeral pile, others would come, and throwing on their dead first, set fire to it; or when some other corpse was already burning, before they could be stopped, would throw their own dead upon it and depart.
There were other and worse forms of lawlessness which the plague introduced at Athens. Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder. For, seeing the sudden change — how the rich died in a moment, and those who had nothing immediately inherited their property — they reflected that life and riches were alike transitory, and they resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure. Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honor when he knew not whether he would ever live to be held in honor? The pleasure of the moment and any sort of thing which conduced to it took the place both of honor and of expediency. No fear of Gods or law of man deterred a criminal. Those who saw all perishing alike, thought that the worship or neglect of the Gods made no difference. For offences against human law no punishment was to be feared; no one would live long enough to be called to account. Already a far heavier sentence had been passed and was hanging over a man’s head; before that fell, why should he not take a little pleasure?

Gosh, that does not resonate at all. And to be clear, I am hardly the only observer to have made the connection between Thucydides’s history and the current moment.

There is a reason for that. Thucydides does not matter because of the import of the war he describes; Palmer is correct that many conflicts in Asia mattered more. Thucydides matters because his dispassionate, layered history contains multitudes. I have taught that book for close to 20 years, and every year, there is a different part of the text that stands out. It is that rich.

In his column, Palmer acknowledged that “Asian history is harder to access in English than Europe’s, and the continent’s military history is shamefully underwritten.” I hope old texts are translated or that more magisterial histories are written in English about the wars he references. The 21st century could use more varieties of Thucydides.