Thursday, November 06, 2008

A book for Obama

As I wrote to Dylan, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (suggested by Prof Drezner for Obama to read during the transition period) is a landmark work. Rarely has a writer, in what was a recently invented "discipline" (historiography), produced such a tour de force. Drezner is dead right: many read the naked and often ugly display of realpoitik that is the Melian Dialogue and little else.

The "characters" are sharply realised: the great eminence himself, Pericles; his polar opposite the most "violent and most persuasive" demagogue Cleon; the lisping, delusive and sinuous chameleon Alcibiades; the heroic near anti-Spartan Spartiate Brasidas; the admired and disastrously indecisive Nicias and the Athenian George S Patton Demosthenes to name but a few.

Books VI and VII, the narrative of the great imperial disaster that was the Sicilian expedition, is narrative history at its best. Every time I open it I have this absurd notion that it will turn out differently this time. I often wonder how many drafts it took to get it right. The pathos in his description of the Athenian's retreat, leaving behind the sick and wounded, is stark (VII. 75):

The dead were unburied, and when any man recognised one of his friends lying among them, he was filled with grief and fear; and the living who, whether sick or wounded, were being left behind caused more pain than did the dead to those who were left alive, and were more pitiable than the lost. Their prayers and their lamentations made the rest feel impotent and helpless, as they begged to be taken with them and cried out aloud to every single relative or friend whom they could see; as they hung about the necks of those who had shared tents with them and were now going, following them as far as they could, and, when their bodily strength failed them, reiterated their cries to heaven…

The utter destruction of the retreating Athenian army at the Assinarus river is realised in horrible detail (Vii.84):

The Athenians hurried on to the river Assinarus, partly because of the attacks made upon them from every side by a numerous cavalry and the swarm of other arms, and thought that things would not be so bad if they got to the river, partly because they were exhausted and were longing for water to drink. Once they reached the river they rushed down into it, and now all discipline was at an end. Every man wanted to be first to get across, and, as the enemy persisted in his attacks, crossing now became a difficult matter. Forced to crowd close together, they fell upon each other and trampled each other underfoot; some were killed by their own spears, others got entangled among themselves and among the baggage and were swept away by the river. Meanwhile the opposite bank, which was steep, was lined by the Syracusans, who showered missiles down upon the Athenians, most of whom, in a disorganised mass, were greedily drinking in the deep river-bed. And the Peloponnesians came down and slaughtered them, especially those in who were in the river. The water immediately became foul, but nevertheless they went on drinking it, all muddy as it was and stained with blood; indeed, most of them were fighting among themselves to have it.

And the great man’s last words on this enormous disaster (VII. 87):

…to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats; for they were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many (in excess of 50,000 and 160 ships), only few returned.

A far cry from the hubristic launching of the expedition described, at VI.31, as “by a long way the most costly and the finest looking force of Hellenic troops” and which, to the rest of Greece, appeared as a “demonstration of Athenian power”.

Thucydides is a book that repays well the reading


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