Hawking History

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History BY Donald Kagan. Viking Adult. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

The Greek historian Thucydides has long been a favorite of American secretaries of state. For George Marshall, the History of the Peloponnesian War illustrated many of the diplomatic pitfalls of the cold war. A generation later, framed on Colin Powell’s State Department desk was the more ambiguous and ultimately ironic paraphrase of Thucydides: “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.”

Restraint doesn’t much preoccupy Yale classicist and political commentator Donald Kagan, who spells out his version of the lessons the ancient historian has to offer in Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. Ahab-like, Kagan has tracked Thucydides for forty years, a decade longer than the Athenian general devoted to his History, translating and commenting on his work and now, finally, attempting to refute it. The new book pivots on the implication that Thucydides was a biased historian whose work is a defense of an undeserving Pericles, whose dovish strategy was “inadequate” and doomed Athens in its fifth-century BCE war with Sparta.

By using the modern analogy of military doves and hawks, Kagan attempts to turn Thucydides’s classic narrative of Pericles versus the demagogic, warmongering Cleon on its head. In a series of historical what-ifs, Kagan claims that had Pericles employed overwhelming force against the Corinthians before the war, this preemptive action “would have guaranteed a smashing victory and possibly the obliteration of the enemy’s navy” and led to peace. Pericles ignored the “hawks” of the Athenian democratic assembly and lost his chance for a swift win: “Had Pericles seriously intended to fight the Corinthians, in preparation for a war against the Peloponnesians or otherwise, he should have sent at least two hundred warships.” Instead, the “obdurate” Pericles kept Athens on the path of dangerous “deterrence” and “arbitration” with the Megarian Decree, a trade embargo that angered the Spartans and led to war.

Kagan is troubled by what he considers Thucydides’s whitewashing of his own defeat at Amphipolis in 424 BCE, for which Thucydides was tried and exiled. Kagan attempts to show that Thucydides’s defense of his own actions and his condemnation of Cleon contradict ancient accounts, though he provides little solid evidence and admits that the primary source on the trial is the historian himself: “Although Thucydides’ explanation of his actions did not convince an Athenian jury, it has had much more success among modern historians.” Kagan hypothesizes that the prosecutor in Thucydides’s trial was none other than Cleon, Thucydides’s nemesis. If Thucydides misrepresented his own trial, Kagan infers, much of the History itself is misleading. The Athenians were loath to convict their own generals and would not have exiled Thucydides without justification. “If we had all the evidence the jury did,” writes Kagan, “we might decide as they had.” We are led to the conclusion that, despite the “judgment of the mass of Cleon’s contemporaries,” Thucydides was able to avenge himself by writing his history for posterity.

To be sure, today’s readers might reach the same verdict as the Athenian jury were they able to consult the evidence, but it no longer exists. As for Thucydides’s condemnation of Cleon, Kagan’s dichotomy of a vengeful man and his just critic is hardly credible. Thucydides criticized Cleon not simply for his inquisitional zeal but also because he thought of him as a dangerous demagogue who manipulated the bellicosity of the assembly to cover his own illegal dealings. While Kagan convincingly argues that Thucydides was biased against Cleon, he doesn’t entertain the likely prospect that Thucydides was biased for the right reasons.

Even Kagan’s insistence on considering the Peloponnesian War through the lens of modern historical context is problematic. It is normal for generals and politicians to look for universal truths in Thucydides’s text, but it is a gross error for a historian. Ancient Athenians did not use the terms dove and hawk, and nowhere does Kagan demonstrate that they saw war policy as we do today. To superimpose our values makes for juicy insinuations, but it is weak historical analysis. Is the unfortunate neoconservative lesson that Pericles the negotiator is Obama, and Cleon the realist is Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney? Is the Peloponnesian War Iraq, and Sicily Vietnam?

Reading history backward often leads one to the conclusion one set out to find, rather than history as it was, in all its temporal complexity. If Kagan had stuck closer to the evidence and engaged more with the rich historiography on Pericles, his account would certainly have been more nuanced. Would he have found that Pericles was neither a dove nor a hawk, but rather a cautious and fallible politician who succeeded in some areas and failed in others? In any case, it is difficult to completely condemn Pericles’s grand strategy of deterrence, for he died unexpectedly, before he could realize his plans. To imagine what Pericles would have done is the kind of speculation Thucydides hoped his critical style of history would replace.

Jacob Soll is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (University of Michigan Press, 2009).