Reasons and Pretexts

You might want to check out Robert Kaplan’s interesting essay on Thucydides, Hobbes, and the distinction between the pretexts for war and its reasons especially as it applies to the tense situation in the Far East.

It also presents me with an opportunity for returning to a subject I’ve commented on before here. There is no single, authoritative manuscript for Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War and, importantly, no contemporaneous one. What we have has been pieced together from fragments, most of low quality in completeness, accuracy, and integrity over the period of more than a millennium by a variety of unknown editors. We have very little idea of what the original work was actually like.

It is wrong to think of The Peloponnesian War as history. It’s a group essay.

10 comments… add one
  • sam

    Dave, can you point me to some sources for that? I don’t recall anyone I’ve read on Thucydides, for instance, Josiah Ober, M.I. Finley, Leo Strauss, saying of the text that is was not authoritative.

  • For a start google Thucydides manuscript tradition and check out the various entries you find. Here’s what you’ll see.

    There is no one complete contemporaneous text. There are a number of variant fragmentary texts, some dating from the 10th century AD or later. The most important are from the Codex Parisinus, the Codex Vaticanus, and the Codex Laurentianus.

    Some of the texts contain grammatical forms not believed to have been in use when the work was supposed to have been written. Those fragmentary texts have been edited into a complete text. How do we know that the fragments that have survived constitute a complete text? We don’t.

    I’m highly skeptical of history prior to, say, the invention of the printing press. Very little stands up to serious scrutiny. Much is based on single sources and those sources may be corrupt for all we know. Remember, a 10th century manuscript about events that took place in the 5th century BC is more than a millennium newer than its subject matter.

    Then there’s the fact that Thucydides doesn’t name his own sources. IMO it’s best thought of as literature rather than as history.

    In anything older than a millennium you’ve really got to take the manuscript tradition into account.

  • sam

    “Then there’s the fact that Thucydides doesn’t name his own sources. IMO it’s best thought of as literature rather than as history.”

    Oh, I can agree with that, whatever the provenance of the book. There’s the famous, or infamous, creation of the speeches: “I’m not going to put down the exact words of the speech, but what I think the speaker would have most appropriately said given the circumstances.” Really??

  • John W.

    There is ‘no one complete contemporaneous text’ for any ancient work of literature, but that doesn’t mean they’re all ‘group essays’. The text of Thucydides has not been pieced together from fragments, but has been transmitted in manuscript copies, into which various inconsistencies (many of which have little effect on the sense) inevitably intruded over time. It has been the work of scholarship to resolve these inconsistencies in order to produce a text as close as possible to what Thucydides actually wrote (though – again as with all other ancient texts – we’ll never quite get back to the latter), but your ‘group essay’ comment vastly overstates the difficulties.

    Sam’s version of Thucydides’ statement about the speeches in his work is a very free (and somewhat loaded) paraphrase of what he actually says, and omits altogether the crucial closing part, which I translate as: ‘… while at the same time I have stayed as close as possible to the overall thrust of what was actually said’.

    Had he been writing today, Thucydides would no doubt have cited sources, and had the benefit of verbatim transcriptions and recordings of speeches; however, he was helping to found a tradition, rather than being able to benefit from 2,400 years of subsequent evolution in historical practice. Judgements based on presentism do not take us very far in understanding his work.

    Finally, why do ‘literature’ and ‘history’ have to be mutually exclusive?

    Best wishes,


  • There is ‘no one complete contemporaneous text’ for any ancient work of literature, but that doesn’t mean they’re all ‘group essays’.

    True. Some are undoubtedly the work of single authors and have come to us in what we might reasonably think of as intact but, unfortunately, we have no real idea of who that author was. All of the letters of Paul of Tarsus (noting that the authoricity of at least some are in doubt), for example, are contained in the Codex Sinaiticus which dates from the 4th century, an enormous period of time closer to the events portrayed than the Peloponnesian Wars. I don’t think that they’re accurate reports of events.

    Consider, for example, two of the “historical” works attributed to Xenophon. One, Cyropaedia , is rather clearly fiction, a “political romance”. The other, the Anabasis is thought of as history. Why?

    What I mean when I write “history” is accurate reports of events. Certainly, a work can be both history and literature. I think that most of what we think of as history prior to about 1600 (and much afterward) may be literature but is not history.

    Finally, in dealing with ancient texts I think the question “why were they preserved?” is more important than “are they history?”. The gap between when they were written and the earliest copies we have is frequently quite large and that means that many, many scribes spent considerable time in copying them, an enormously expensive proposition.

  • John W.

    Many thanks for the reply.

    You ‘re certainly right about some authors being unknown, but that doesn’t of course apply in the case of Thucydides.

    Regarding his text, papyrus fragments (e.g. from Oxyrhynchus) carry us back several centuries beyond the complete mediaeval manuscripts, and further back still there are references and citations of his work in other ancient authors; none of this suggests that the text as we have it is fundamentally, or even seriously, corrupt.

    There was a fad in the 19th century for assuming extensive corruption, but this largely stemmed from an unwillingness on the part of certain scholars to recognise that many of the difficulties in the text stemmed from Thucydides’ own style, and frequent bending of the ‘rules’, rather than from later corruption. The papyrus discoveries largely exploded such theories.

    I’m not an expert on Xenophon, but one difference between the two works you mention is of course that the Anabasis relates to events in which he was directly involved.

    I take your point about ‘history’, but then one has to ask: ‘just how accurate is “accurate”‘? By this I mean that no historical work, with the best of intentions, is ever going to achieve 100% accuracy. Apart from simple mistakes, and the limitations of source material, all such works will be influenced – to a greater or lesser degree, and whether consciously or unconsciously – by the preconceptions of their authors. I’m certainly not saying that Thucydides is 100% accurate – that would have been impossible, especially given the limitations under which he was inevitably working – but it doesn’t mean his work is of no historical value. And I don’t think we can simply lump historical writing into two polarised camps, ‘accurate’ and ‘literature’, as it really cannot be that straightforward, whether we are taking about ancient or more modern authors.

    As to the preservation of his work, I think this reflects ancient and later appreciation of the importance of what he has to say about human nature under stress, and the uses and abuses of power by states and individuals, as well as of the literary power of his work, and its value as an account of a key period in Greek history.

    Best wishes,


  • I return to my basic points: we should appreciate The Peloponnesian Wars for what it is more than what it might be and we should be much more skeptical about what we’ve been taught about antiquity.

  • John W.

    Indeed, but that of course presupposes that we know ‘what it is’; this question is still the subject of much debate, and probably always will be (which is part of the fascination of Thucydides!). As far as I am aware, however, modern historians of antiquity do still regard his work as of considerable historical value, even though they may dispute some of its facts and interpretations. My own main point is that much the same could be said of many other historical works, including some of much more recent vintage.

    Scepticism is an admirable thing, and in the case of Thucydides it should prompt us to look critically at his work in the light of such other corroborative evidence as exists, and to consider in depth just what Thucydides himnself was trying to achieve, and how his own outlook may have coloured his conclusions. My only concern is that we should avoid narrowly confining him to the camp of either ‘accurate history’ or ‘literature’ when his work may well include elements of both.

    Best wishes,


  • My own main point is that much the same could be said of many other historical works, including some of much more recent vintage.

    No argument here on that. It’s been said of archaeology that archaeology isn’t a science; it’s a vendetta. IMO something of the sort could be said about history.

  • John W.

    I’ve just seen that a hefty forthcoming volume of essays is entitled ‘Thucydides between History and Literature’, which perhaps summarises things nicely!


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