I haven’t read Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian War since I was an undergraduate. Because I’m a military historian I thought it would be valuable to go through it again. What follows is a peak into what I describe to my students as “active reading.” As I go through it I’m not just trying to follow the narrative, but I’m engaging the material, questioning it, seeing how it might apply, and generally making notes in the margins and brain storming as I read. I’ve mainly applied it to the Book of Mormon (with a click bate title of course), though as you might have seen in my articles at W&T, I also include notes on comparison to Chinese history, and current events. What eventually happens is this information remains in the back of my mind until I have some kind of ah ha moment, start a new project, and I’ve had to spend a good deal of time searching and even have to re-read these books to find the mental note I took. (I should really take better notes.) Without further ado, here is a peak behind the curtain as passages that inspired additional thoughts.
i.22 “What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker says what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.”
This is a good discussion of the kind of questions people ask about historical sources. There seems to be three options that he has which are : actual words (this is more likely for public speechs like Pericles funeral oration), paraphrase (which might apply to things like the Melian dialogue that happened in private), and historical fiction, which is Thuycdides basically having people say what he thinks they would say.
I’ve thought about this a good deal in the Book of Mormon. John Gee pointed out how Limhi’s speeches all occurred in events where a scribe would be present. Amalickiah in 47 is particularly revealing though. Alma 55:5 suggests that at least one of the servants of the Lamanite king served in the army, he (or they) could provide a source for the killing of the king and at least second hand political knowledge of the Lamanties. But the direct speeches and tactics of Amalickiah are more complicated. It could be propaganda, or like the Book of Judges in the Bible, a collection of folk tales about the figure eventually written down. But the way he ruthlessly maneuvered into the kingship suggests something a little more organized than a collection of tales. It could be a genre of Mesoamerican literature that highlight great or infamous deeds of leaders. Regardless of the exact nature of the record, I find an intriguing insight from Thucydides about the difficulty of reconstructing speeches exactly, which should inform our understanding of the text.
i.10 He does, however, show that all the rowers in Philoctetes’ ships were also fighters, for he writes that all the oarsmen were archers. As for passengers on the ships, it is not likely that there were many, aside from the kings and other top people, especially since they had to cross the sea with military equipment on board, and in ships without the protection of upper decks, built in the old pirate fashion. So if we take the mean between the largest and smallest ships, we find that not many went to Troy…
I thought it was very interesting that Thucydides analyzed the numbers of Homer. As I’ve discussed before, questioning numbers is one of the first things that professional historians did. Unreliable eye witnesses, deliberately or accidental corruption of the text, numbers as a colloquial or symbolic use (I’ve told you a thousand times, 666), and historians use of battle for a didactic or moral point can change the numbers. As usual, when historians do these techniques to assess other texts, it’s seen as good scholarship. When the same thing is done to assess the text of the Book of Mormon, it is attacked as mental gymnastics and dismissed with a snide and condescending, “we know the book is false anyway.” (As a reminder, I delete comments like that on my posts.)
i.23 “ I believe the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so [they felt] compelled… into war.”
The war chapters inspire a good deal of writing, but it is mainly a good deal of speculation and inappropriate and superficial analogies. What I’ve tried to do in all of my research is look beyond battle to see it a culmination of tactics, strategy, history, culture, material culture, and geography. In doing that I’ve tried to look for the causes of the war chapters. There are a few models I’ve suggested such as the anthropological or great person model. The former sees the war as a competition for resources, trade routes, prime farm land, and the control of tax bases. The latter looks at the role that great people like Moroni and Amalickiah had in leading to war.
But the third model comes from Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian war which is a classic tale of interstate rivalries. After leading the Greeks to victory against the Persians, Athens and Sparta split and competed for the leadership of Greece. Athens started in the much more dominant positions with a fleet and eventually a lucrative empire . But the Spartans were powerful as well and they continued to vie for influence in Greece with a fearsome land army and set of allies opposing Athens. This competition for leadership in the political sphere led to armed competition as Athens tried to maintain its preeminent status and deny Sparta any more strength. So I’m kind of impressed that I could remember what Thucydides thought was the main driver of the war.
The shift of the Zoramites into the Lamanite sphere of influence (Alma 31:4; 43:4), the shift of the Anti Nephi Lehis into the Nephite sphere of influence (Alma 27:22-23), the expansion of the Nephites into the wilderness after expelling the Lamanites, the quick strike at Ammonihah (a city that only tacitly acknowledge Nephite rule, Alma 49: 6) in order to bolster Lamanite claims to Kingship (keep in mind that was the first city they attacked several times) point to the geo political factors of expanding and contracting spheres that cause conflict. This happens in particular during times of rapid growth or decay of one power against another and definitely recalls the “fear” that drove compelled them to conflict.
iii.82 Civil war ran through the cities…and they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one’s own security was though a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion…
Sounds like an average day online. I’ve seen this a good deal and its one of the most frustrating aspect of being a writer. Angry clowns seem to get all of the attention, while reasoned assessments get ignored. In fact, I’ve lost writing positions because I wasn’t angry enough or angry at the right people. You could also look at the counter puncher in Trump, the incivility of twitter, those for whom cuck is their favorite and frequent insult, and bomb throwers who sling warmonger, racist, and sexist with reckless abandon.
I used to teach a class on Pakistan, and my students often reacted with shock and a sense of smug superiority at the number of Pakistanis that riot over false rumors of desecrating a Quran, or those that believe the CIA and not terrorists are behind plots. But before you pat yourself on the back for not being one of those people, and confidently attack Trump and his supporters, realize that there are people who lose their jobs before they get off the plane, and consider how many of you have reposted an inflammatory memes and news without knowing the whole story. In the upside down word described by Thucydides you can be part of the problem while simultaneously thinking you are better than everybody.
vii.44 Battles are easier to understand in daylight, but even then soldiers who are present scarcely know more than their own particular experiences. So in a night battle-and this the only one in the war to involve large armies- how could anyone know anything for certain. Though the moon was bright, they saw each other as you’d expect in the moonlight: bodies were visible, but there was no way to know whether they were friends or enemies.
I wrote something about the experience of battle in the BoM. Thucydides account above would have been a pithy quote to share. Here is the relevant material from my article:
“logic insists that battle amongst thousands of people would be a noisy affair — and the early battle sounds would be quickly added to by thousands of clashing weapons and the screams of the wounded and dying. Moreover, the rush of adrenaline triggers physical reactions that make battle notoriously difficult to understand for those participating in it.
‘Studies have found at least half of participants [in battle] will experience the event in slow motion, a fifth in faster-than-normal time; two-thirds will hear at ‘diminished volume’ … a fifth at amplified levels; about half will see … with tunnel vision and black out everything not directly ahead and the other half with amazingly heightened clarity. Most individuals will suffer memory loss, while others will ‘remember’ events that never occurred.’ Alexander Rose, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima (New York: Random House Books, 2015), 72–73.
Back to Thucydides:
vii.50 Then most of the Athenians took the eclipse to heart and called on the generals to stop, while Nicias- who put too much faith in divination and such practices- said he would not even consider moving now until they had waited the twenty-seven days prescribed by soothsayers.
This is an interesting passage. It seems to go against what I typically believe about ancients, that most of the practices were believed, but often discarded or changed when they conflicted with military realities. Despite the ancient’s belief in the super natural, rituals that harm the warrior’s efficacy in battle usually don’t last long or became heavily modified, symbolic, or placed on monuments without being practiced extensively. Losing blood and fasting would produce a weakened state that would make combat difficult. It’s possible the noncombatants fasted, or this was posted on monuments to please the masses of people (who wanted righteous rulers), but not actually done in private. We could see this passage as an example of how Thucydides did not put much stock in divination rituals as this superstition prevented the Athenians from escaping Sicily.
This was a very enjoyable read and I’m moving to the portable Greek reader for more insights. Some passages reinforced previous points, some provide a new angle, others points provided trenchant reminders about human nature, the speeches are electrifying, even if they might be historical fiction more than history, and overall I’m reminded of why his book is required reading for college students. And I still shake my head at the foolishness of the Sicilian Expedition. What have you read recently that you really enjoy?