Thucydides nolead ends

nolead begins The Reinvention of History nolead ends

nolead begins By Donald Kagan

Penguin. 272 pp. $26.95 nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by John Timpane


This is an important book, largely right and largely misguided, by one of the most eminent scholars in the field. Kagan, who is Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, is a foremost authority on the Peloponnesian wars (431-404 B.C.), that interminable, swampy, wasteful, and tragic attrition-match between Sparta and Athens, which ended in disaster for Athens and the end of its democracy and empire.

That means he's also a scholar of Thucydides (circa 460-395 B.C.), the historian of those wars. Kagan's utter mastery is on display in this vigorous, elegantly written, provocative book. Thucydides is persuasive about its namesake as a great (if willful and biased) historian, but not in its broader aim: to retell the story of the wars themselves.

Kagan says Thucydides deserves his repute as the founder of modern history, especially political history. But he also argues that Thucydides got it wrong, and revised history in a way with which many contemporaries would have disagreed. Although this double argument is rather awkward, praising on one hand and eviscerating on the another, Kagan argues strongly and well.

Scholarly opinion, however, is not as uncritical of Thucydides as Kagan portrays. To be sure, early 20th-century histories, and a few still, honor Thucydides as lucid and authoritative. But it's widely accepted that he had a big dog in the hunt, picked and chose events (leaving us some maddening holes in his account), and got many things wrong.

Nor was he a fan of the democracy of Athens. Apparently a well-born, wealthy landowner, he chafed at the equality enforced by the Athenian constitution, even as he celebrated the greatness of Athens.

Many a writer has had less reason for a jaundiced eye. Thucydides' position was very like that of the Dante who wrote Inferno or the Milton who began Paradise Lost. The unthinkable had happened: Athens lost its wars with arch-enemy Sparta, forfeited its former greatness. Thucydides himself had been exiled for 20 years for poor generalship, and some of his enemies - the hothead general Cleon, for example - had enjoyed success. Even Pericles, responsible for Athens' acme (in Thucydides' view) had lost public favor and paled in public memory.

What dismays me about this book is its warlike heart. Time and again, those (like Pericles) who promote defensive strategies, or those (like Nicias) who seek to avoid war or favor diplomacy over war, are discounted. True, Pericles' strategy at the very beginning of the wars - to hunker down and wait for Sparta's resolve to weaken - did not work. Pericles underestimated the expense, as well as Sparta's stamina.

But now hear the real reason Kagan dislikes Pericles' strategy: it "ran directly against the grain of Greek tradition, in which willingness to fight, bravery, and steadfastness in battle were essential characteristics of the free man and the citizen." Fight, if ye be men! Only when Athens got good and tough, he writes, did it hold on and "almost" achieve victory.

I don't buy that "almost" at all, which brings up another weak point. The real reason Athens lost everything, the real reason Pericles' strategy didn't work, is that it could never have worked. Nothing could. As Kagan shows, the 1,000 or so independent city-states of the ancient Greek world made up a massive, quivering, unstable network of contrariwise alliances - think the Cold War multiplied by 100. Even at best, Athens and Sparta both were occupied in mopping up rebellions, betrayals, troop requests from faraway cities. It's as if the United States had not one Vietnam but 30.

Pericles died of the plague in 429, two years into the wars. And as Kagan himself writes:

By summer 427, most of the conditions that would make possible an Athenian defeat more than twenty years later were already at hand: Athens was short of money, part of its empire was in revolt, the undefended coastal cities of Asia Minor were ready to rebel, and Persia stood poised to join the war against Athens.

Quite. Athens could never have won, not even "almost," in a world like that, and it didn't, collapsing in 407. Sparta didn't last too much longer, fading from supremacy by 362. These wars sapped both victor and loser.

Most of all, I lament Kagan's too-credulous celebration of the Athenian democracy. Rightly do we value Athens as distant grandparent of our democratic experiment, and Kagan is right: Athens was the boldest, strongest, most inclusive, most successful democracy in early history. Much to be admired.

But much more than 2,400 years separates us from the Athenian voters. As J.W. Mackail once wrote, ancient Greece is "rather a witch-goddess, only half-human, but also half-divine." Athens was both unlike its era and like, combining the heights of human aspiration and plain, flat savagery.

When prisoners arrived from the rebellious island of Miletus in 428, the Athenian voters voted to slaughter all the men (about 10,000) and enslave the women and children. True, next day they repented and voted to slaughter only the ringleaders - but that first decision, made out of "panic and fury," is disturbing. And Kagan hardly even discusses the Athenian massacre of all the men on the resistant island of Melos in 416, and the enslavement of all its women and children - an act that turned much of the world against Athens.

We should admire Athens - but never idealize either the place or its political system. If the end of the Peloponnesian wars tells us anything, it's that democracies can sometimes make very bad decisions. Some have seen Athens as a democracy with a death wish, voting repeatedly for expensive, doomed, disastrous ideas.

I speak, of course, of the expedition to Sicily, one of the dumbest ideas a smart people ever embraced. They sent thousands of men and a huge fleet to a faraway conflict, in which their interest was clear but not compellingly actionable, and when things went poorly, they threw almost as many resources again after it. The result: their fleet destroyed, thousands of lives lost, their democracy and empire gone.

Kagan tries to suggest that it wasn't that bad an idea and could have worked, if things had gone better. He especially wants the general Nicias, who really did mess up in Sicily, and badly, to have prosecuted frontal war immediately and harshly. Alcibiades, who talked the voters into the whole disaster, gets off unaccountably lightly.

Weakest of all is Kagan's portrayal of the voters' decisions, praising them as showing "constancy and determination" in the face of challenges to their prestige, strength and commitment - as puzzling and indefensible a defense as can be imagined. Are we to prefer defense of prestige to wisdom?

Thucydides revised history, and Kagan revises Thucydides. Point taken, to a point: No one should think, and after Kagan no one will again, that Thucydides was always correct or objective. And Kagan cannot be mistaken about the great sweep of the Peloponnesian wars. The problem is what he thinks should have happened.

A democracy with a death wish indeed: With the paranoia imperialism makes necessary, the Athenians came to see a peripheral conflict as first in a line of dominos (familiar?) that threatened all. They paid for this tragic mistake with their way of life.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.