Christopher Pelling (ed.)
CUP (2022) p/b 352pp £22.99 (ISBN 9781316630211)

Christopher Pelling (ed.)
CUP (2022) p/b 290pp £22.99 (ISBN 9781316 630228)

Thucydides’ account of the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC) is one of the great masterpieces of historical writing. The narrative, interspersed with speeches and digressions, moves inexorably towards its tragic climax with a cast of well-drawn characters and a deft control of pace which together make what is a history into both a drama and even an epic. The opening chapters of book VI show Athens in turmoil—the debate over Sicily, the religious scandals and the recall of Alcibiades—while the closing chapters of book VII show the heart-breaking collapse of the Athenian enterprise, as the remaining men ended their days either starving in the stone-quarries or being sold into slavery. The battle in the Great Harbour (7.59.2-74) is a masterpiece of suspense and meticulous description, and the chapter following it is fittingly entitled ‘Despair’ by P. The expedition is described with forensic attention to detail and with a constant eye on the narrative arc as the apparently invincible force ends up annihilated. The character of Nicias adds to the tragic mood of these two books, as he goes from initial reluctance, through resigned and dutiful acceptance of the generalship, to a bitterly undeserved end, and P. shows how Nicias tried to work the campaign to a sensible conclusion, assessing the validity of his decisions at every stage (e.g. 7.61-4n.: ‘At 7.11-15 Nicias’ letter may have been despondent ahead of its time. Things were not yet that bad. Now they really are that bad, and Nicias does not conceal it…’. Cf. also 7.77n.). P. is right to see that Thucydides’ attitude towards this flawed general was not uncritical (VII pp. 26-30) but the historian’s account of his death and summary of his character at 7.86 is deeply moving and heartfelt.

These two books have similar (but by no means identical) introductions, covering the essential background to the war and the writing of the text as well as judicious analysis of the speeches (in book VI) and the reasons for its failure and their consequences (in Book VII). They can be read independently of each other but the two together are a powerful combination and we are very fortunate that P. has managed to publish both simultaneously. The text printed is P.’s own (based on that of Alberti) with a selective apparatus criticus. There is a comprehensive bibliography, a general index, and index of literary topics and an index of Greek terms. The proof-reading and production are both exemplary.

The commentary is outstanding in breadth and depth. Decades of research and teaching have gone into it, as shown both in the mastery of the literature (primary and secondary) and also in P.’s sure-footed ability to tell readers exactly what they need to be told when tackling what can be a daunting piece of Greek.

Help on the language is generous and engagingly expressed (6.13.1 is ‘a beast of a sentence’, 6.64.1 is a ‘monster sentence’) and makes useful reference to the Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek(2019) as well as older standard text-books. P. constantly shows how the style serves the meaning (cf. e.g. 6.64.1n. (where ‘the structure mirrors the complex interplay of factors…’), the masterly note on καί at 6.71.2, the deft analysis of 7.80.1n.) and especially how Thucydides’ choice of words is perfect for recreating the experience of those living through these events: as the armies watched the battle in the Great Harbour, for example, the historian tells us that they were συναπονεύοντες which P. glosses as ‘“following with their bodily gestures”, the sort of involuntary movement familiar to any enthusiastic sports fan.’ He adds tellingly that such physiological responses ‘are an intrinsic part of the “viewing” experience … and one that can extend to the reader of a vivid narrative as well’ (VII p. 224). Add to that the reader of a commentary such as this one.

Book VI has more speeches than any other book of Thucydides and these are especially well handled: P. shrewdly points out how they ‘explore the Athenian mind set’ and how debate ‘elucidates not merely this one decision but the whole texture of politics’ (VI p.123). Speeches allow the historian to bring out the characters of those in charge and also supply a layer of irony for an audience who knew how it would all turn out in the end and who would be able to call out errors as they heard them: Nicias, for instance, speaks as the cautious, pious man that he was, Alcibiades imputes his own worst qualities to the enemy he wishes to attack (see esp. 6.17.3n.) and is capable of a highly tendentious take on Mantinea at 6.16.6. Nor is this confined to the Athenians: Sicily was the home of brilliant orators and P. shows how Hermocrates in particular uses rhetorical skills bordering on those of his fellow-Sicilian Gorgias (see e.g. VI p. 265).

P. asks excellent questions of his author. Why (for instance) was Thucydides’ account of the first battle at Syracuse (6.69-71) so detailed? His suggestion that this battle had something of a ‘paradigmatic’ role makes a lot of sense—just as in the case of the Camarina debate which rehearsed arguments shared by many Sicilian cities but which especially concerned the ‘swing-city’ of Camarina (VI p. 263). P. sees the story in dynamic terms, avoiding the trap of seeing it all from the end backwards: at 6.34.4, P. questions the wisdom of Hermocrates’ proposal but points out how the speech sows the seeds of later problems (such as the difficulties of supply), as well as highlighting the Syracusan reluctance to engage. Hermocrates here underestimates the Athenian character, ‘but he will prove a good learner’ (VI p.191). The exuberant passage describing the sailing of the fleet (6.30-31) is astonishingly poignant in the light of later events but especially so in the light of who was leading it, and P. shows how much of Thucydides’ description owes its emphases to Alcibiades: ‘perhaps he and his city always had a lot in common. That is not reassuring.’ (VI p. 178). P.’s use of parallel passages (quoted in English) is always illuminating, making good use especially of epic, tragedy and medical writers; see for example his superb account of the intertextual background to Nicias’ speech in 6.68 (VI pp. 251-2) or the highly moving pages on the despair following the defeat in the Great Harbour (7.75: VII p. 230).

One of the most difficult aspects of this text is the technical military language. Students will probably not know their ἐπωτίδες from their παρεξειρεσία (VII 34.5), and P. does not underestimate the difficulty of some of this material: he introduces the section (6.94-103) on the battle of the walls: ‘the narrative is dense, the manoeuvres and constructions complex, and the modern student finds it difficult to follow them even with the aid of a map.’ Readers are in fact well served here with five excellent maps, but more particularly with P.’s lucid explanations of how events actually unfolded. Nothing is left unexplained, even down to the finer points of mass cremation (6.71.1n.).

These are timely books to read in 2022—as questions of military adventuring and also of governmental ethics dominate the news—and P. demonstrates on every page his own engagement with this text and his infectious conviction that this stuff really matters. Every now and then he offers us a knowing aside such as ‘politicians tend to adjust principle to circumstances’ (6.34.2n.) and his notes on democracy and equality (6.39.1) are as apposite now as they have ever been. Thucydides is studied in military academies and the term ‘Thucydides trap’ has become a commonplace in discussing theories of international affairs: but all too often he is seen as just a desiccated Jeremiah or a neoconservative hawk avant la lettre. To appreciate Thucydides fully you need an edition like this one, which shows how he infuses the grim realities of warfare with a pathos which is all the more powerful for being restrained—see e.g. the enslaving of Hyccara at 6.62.3 and the dreadful events in Mycalessus (7.29-30: ‘an incident that had no effect on the war as a whole but that brings out the reality of what war can mean’) and above all VII p. 240 (‘the pathos is intensified by the tension between the restrained, apparently dispassionate precision of the narrative and the audience’s awareness that life and death are continually at stake’). P.’s commentary and introduction are as Thucydidean as the text they present: meticulous, scholarly and technically brilliant but also breathing a warmth of feeling which avoids sentimentality but lets the text speak for itself in all its astonishing power, vindicating at every stage Thucydides’ claim (1.22.4) that his text is a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί (‘possession for all time’).  

John Godwin