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Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader

Perez Zagorin, (Princeton University Press, 2005), 190 pages, $24.95.

The Peloponnesian War was fought, with a brief intermission about a third of the way in, for twenty-seven years, the citizens of Athens’ vibrant democracy arrayed, together with their allies, against the plodding but fearsome Spartan military machine and its allies. Between 431 and 404 B.C. thousands of men died, rebellious populations were decimated and enslaved, schoolboys were slaughtered, governments overthrown; men were pelted with roof tiles and starved in quarries and lost at sea. Much of what happened might have been lost to us had not the Athenian Thucydides recognized the magnitude of the nascent conflict and been determined to record it.

Someone else, it is true, might have chronicled the war if Thucydides had not. Thucydides died before completing The History of the Peloponnesian War, so that the work of his successor, Xenophon, must supplement his narrative. However, juxtaposing the two authors’ works just underscores the brilliance of Thucydides. He was no mere chronicler. Though an Athenian and a participant in the war (he served as a general in 424 but was exiled after the Athenians lost a strategically important city under his watch), Thucydides strove to write a factual and objective account of the conflict, and he maintains a striking level of impartiality in his treatments of Sparta and Athens. He eschews superstition—there are no partisan gods tipping the scales of battle in Thucydides’ account. He explains that human history unfolds as it does not because of divine agency but because men, motivated by fear, ambition, and self-interest, act as they must in particular circumstances, compelled by necessity, the success or failure of their plans vulnerable to the vicissitudes of chance.

Historians have long appreciated Thucydides’ history as a paradigmatic work of scholarship. It is read not only because it illuminates fifth-century Greece but because Thucydides is widely thought to be relevant in today’s world. Perez Zagorin, a historian of early modern Britain and Europe, explains why he seeks to introduce Thucydides to the “common reader”: “My purpose in writing this book…is to promote a wider interest in Thucydides and especially to assist common readers, whether students or intellectually curious people who have heard of the Greek historian and wish to know more, to understand and appreciate his work.” Whether he will succeed at the first of his goals is unknowable, but Zagorin has written an accessible, intelligent, and above all pellucid introduction.

The first four of Zagorin’s eight chapters are thematic. In “The History and Its Background,” he discusses Thucydides’ life, originality, and influences, and outlines Greek history to 431. “Subject, Method, and Structure” includes discussions of the historicity of Thucydides’ speeches and of the difficulties Thucydides faced in gathering data since, unlike modern historians, he could not rely on written sources.

In “Thucydides on the Causes of the War,” Zagorin examines Thucydides’ famous distinction between the immediate causes of or pretexts for the war and the conflict’s “real though unavowed cause.” In “Thucydides and Pericles,” Zagorin considers his treatment of the politician and general who spearheaded Athens’ foreign policy during the war’s initial years.

In chapters five to seven Zagorin provides a mostly uncritical summary of Thucydides’ account. These will be the least interesting to readers already familiar with Thucydides, but the uninitiated will find them helpful. Zagorin concludes the book with a chapter on Thucydides as a realist and naturalist, as a writer who sees “men, human affairs, and the world as they are, without illusion or self-deception” and who regards “events, men’s actions, and the physical world itself as all part of the natural order and subject to some extent to its regularities and natural laws.”

Zagorin introduces each of his chapters with a quotation from Thucydides that provides a launching point for further discussion. (He tells us in the notes to chapter five that he usually follows Benjamin Jowett’s translation with some modifications, information that would better have come in the book’s introduction.) He includes a short list of books for further reading, but provides far more extensive references in the endnotes. Readers looking for leads to both primary and secondary sources will not be disappointed, though the inclusion of a bibliography of all works cited would have been helpful. My only substantial complaint is that the book does not include maps: The average reader will not be able to place a great many of the cities Zagorin mentions.

In short, Zagorin’s book provides an excellent introduction to Thucydides and his history, and to the questions and controversies that have long animated Thucydidean scholarship. The author’s ability to relay complex information in precise prose is formidable.

The intelligent general reader who is Zagorin’s intended audience will enjoy and benefit from this brief book, whether or not he goes on from it to read the original history itself.


Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here