In my ongoing fight against ignorance, I once again return to ancient history. Having battled my way through Herodotus’ Histories last year, Thucydides seemed like the natural follow-on as the period he writes about takes place shortly after the period at which Herodotus stops. There is a distinct change in tone however, between the two, with Thucydides being far more focused on his task in hand, whereas Herodotus wrote about pretty much anything that took his fancy. The translation I read was that of Rex Warner. As far as making the ancient Greek intelligible in modern English, he did a splendid job. Whether it is the most faithful translation, I cannot tell. This was the one and only translation I picked up.
One cannot begin a review without commenting on its sheer length. It took me several months to work through the 8 books. It would have taken even longer had it not been for a very accessible translation and the help of the introduction. The title of the book really gives it away. It’s a detailed account of a war that took place some 4 centuries before the birth of Jesus, predominantly between the forces of Athens and those of the Peloponnese, though the war also brought in warring parties from other parts of the Mediterranean.
I could not hope to give a synopsis of this 600+ page tome, except to say that it’s pretty much wall-to-wall war. Thucydides gives detailed accounts of the military movements of each side as well as the discussions that took place between the various warring faction when negotiating terms and treaties. In these discussions, there is an important point to be made regarding the accuracy of what was recorded. I wrote about this when I started the books, some time ago. So while there may be some lingering questions over the precision of some of the details, the fact remains that Thucydides is the most reliable witness and author about the events described whose work survives today.
In trying to remain as factual as possible, Thucydides doesn’t give his reader any great sense of scale. One must discern for oneself what was important and what was recorded merely for the purposes of record-keeping. Indeed, Thucydides is poignantly silent on the matter of why he wrote the history. There is no grand narrative, no lessons to be had. Or rather, Thucydides doesn’t give them to us. There is very little by way of analysis, which is in stark contrast to more modern exponents of history and even current affairs.
This is not a book to be picked up lightly and it will draw you in. There are times when it gets quite turgid, you must be warned. But if you liked Herodotus (particularly the second half) then this should appeal to you. It won’t be for everyone; indeed, talking to some people who had attempted to read it, about half gave up and the other half thought I was mad.
A book more to be admired than enjoyed, I think.