This news release originally appeared on June 26, 1998.
Who were the greatest of the revered ancient Greeks?
Plato and Aristotle? Certainly.
What about Thucydides? Although his name may not leap as quickly tomind, he belongs at the top of this timeless list as well, says StevenLattimore, a UCLA scholar of classics who has just published the most accurateand faithful English translation of Thucydides' "The PeloponnesianWar" (Hackett Publishing Co.).
What makes Thucydides -- who wrote one unfinished book -- so importantand underappreciated?
"Thucydides was the first great historian in the modern style andeven the first modern author," Lattimore said. "He was the firstto write a largely objective, factual account of current events, and thefirst to make them meaningful, dramatic and resonant in the way that epicpoetry was. Other ancient `historians' (a word Thucydides did not use)wrote with heavy reliance on patriotic fiction or mythology. Thucydidespioneered in emphasizing the idea of objectivity in history."
Thucydides' lone book is his account of the 27-year war pitting a coalitionled by Sparta against Athens and its allies -- a war in which Thucydidesfought for Athens as a naval commander. Despite flaws, the book is a monumental,unprecedented work. It is the most authoritative source on the war thatengulfed the Greek world at the peak of its cultural and intellectual lifemore than 2,400 years ago. It is also an early example of history as literature,Lattimore said.
"As a literary artist, Thucydides has always had a spell over me,and over a great many other people, including those who have no particularinterest in the war," said Lattimore, a member of UCLA's faculty since1967 and whose principal specialty is classical archaeology.
While other ancient historians offered religious explanations, Thucydidesdid not see a divine cause for events. He instead focused on what wouldlater be called historical explanations. "He did not believe in omens,like an eclipse of the moon," Lattimore said. "I may sound likea die-hard Thucydidean fundamentalist, but I believe he is still one ofthe great historians of all time."
At a time when other historians wrote about enormous subjects, suchas the history of all the world, Thucydides' subject was unusually narrow-- even if the war did last for more than two decades. Thucydides revisedhis writing like a modern author, which, as Lattimore notes, could notbe done easily in those days.
Thucydides began writing a record of the war the year it began, 431B.C., because he was convinced it would be the most momentous in history,and he continued writing for 30 years. The Peloponnesian War ended withthe defeat and overthrow of the Athenian empire by Sparta's coalition after10 years of war, followed by six years of relative peace, and 11 more yearsof war.
Why has Thucydides been somewhat overlooked by readers? Perhaps, Lattimoreanswers, because he is so difficult and demanding to read. Although Thucydides'writing is vivid, powerful and original, even some scholars find him unreadablebecause he seldom describes events in a straightforward way, Lattimoresaid. (In his new translation of "The Peloponnesian War," Lattimoreprovides commentary and notes to make the task more manageable.)
"He's a great writer without being a good one," Lattimoresaid. "Thucydides didn't want to say anything the ordinary or predictableway, and may not have wanted the reader to find the main verb in a sentencetoo quickly. He's capable of telling a story very well, although he triesto compress too many ideas into one monster sentence. I usually like writerswho are more smooth and effortless, but what he does, he does so well --describing important events in a powerful, original way.
"Aristotle criticizes the writing of history as artless, `lessphilosophical and less serious than poetry.' It's hard to believe thatAristotle would have been so dismissive if he had bothered to read Thucydides."
In his new translation, the first in English in more than 40 years,Lattimore, unlike many earlier translators, keeps Thucydides' long sentencesintact.
"A research assistant who had read a previous translation said,`I notice you take a lot of his sentences and combine them into longersentences,' and I thought that was a charming way of putting it,"Lattimore said. "Thucydides' sentences were long, but not becausehe forgot to stop. The aims of fidelity, clarity and readability at timescome into conflict; at some points, I was tempted to paraphrase, but Iresisted the temptation. I made fidelity to Thucydides my priority."
Even after 2,400 years, a number of controversies remain about the warand Thucydides' history of it. One such controversy involves Pericles,the articulate and incorruptible statesman who led Athens into its goldenage between the close of the Persian War in 449 B.C. and the outbreak ofthe Peloponnesian War. Pericles died in office of the still-unidentifiedplague early in the war (428 B.C.), Lattimore said. (This is not mentionedby Thucydides but recorded by a writer of the Roman imperial period, Lattimorenoted.) Even though the plague is thought to have killed close to a thirdof the population of Athens, some scholars think Thucydides exaggeratedfor dramatic purposes when he described it.
In one of the most controversial sections of the book, Thucydides wrotethat Athens would have won the war had the Athenians followed Pericles'policies and strategies after he died and had his successors not been inferiormen who took unnecessary risks, such as invading Sicily while fightingSparta. Lattimore translates Thucydides' views, but does not take sidesin this debate.
In many of the speeches, which represent more than a quarter of thebook, Thucydides inserted his own words and opinions into the mouths ofothers, Lattimore said.
"I think most of the speeches are composites," he said. "Thucydidesstarts with what he can learn or recover, and includes some phrases thatwere actually spoken -- although not necessarily on that day -- and thenexpands on it by adding what he thinks the person should have said. Thismatter of the speeches is one of the big controversies among scholars.Thucydides probably wouldn't satisfy modern standards for objectivity,but for his time, he was remarkably objective -- by far the most reliableand accurate of the ancient historians, Greek or Roman."
Thucydides, a better historian than naval commander, was held partlyto blame for the loss of an important Athenian city that was captured bySparta. Lattimore believes he was exiled for 20 years because of the militarydefeat, and that he returned to Athens only in the last months of the war-- although the question of his exile is also disputed. During the exile,Lattimore believes Thucydides may have lived in Corinth -- an ally of Sparta's.(This theory was first advanced by Ronald Stroud, a professor of classicsat UC Berkeley.) Thucydides wrote his history of the war for more than30 years.
Did his personal experiences as an Athenian lead him to show favoritismtoward Athens? Did his 20-year exile lead him to show favoritism towardSparta?
"I believe in his basic objectivity, even if one concedes someanti-Sparta bias," Lattimore said. "You might expect that hisexile would cause him to turn his back on Athens. He never did."