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The historian of crisis

A four-year project is exploring a historian whose thought remains at the forefront of contemporary debates about democracy, war and much else

The ideas of the Athenian historian Thucydides have been passed down through the centuries, shaping concepts of the modern world, the operation of democratic society, and the theory of war.

Yet while the reception of his work ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ has – unsurprisingly - changed considerably over time, these differing attitudes and interpretations had never been studied in any depth before Bristol University began a four-year research project, ‘Thucydides: Reception, Reinterpretation, Influence’, funded by the AHRC.

“I couldn’t quite believe it when I realised this just hadn’t been done,” says project leader Professor Neville Morley. “The aim of the project is to do the groundwork to chart the history of Thucydides’ reception, and the way that he has been read, interpreted and talked about in the modern world.”

Morley is unsure why the subject has been neglected. “I honestly don’t know,” he admits. “It’s one of the things that Bristol has been known for, studying the reception of classical texts, but this has been almost entirely focused on literature and art: the influence of Homer and Virgil, for example, while other kinds of writings have not been considered anything like so much. There has been some interest in looking at the influence of Roman political writings, for example on the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, but not much on the Greeks, and certainly not Thucydides.”

To fill this gap, Morley has put together a small project team based at Bristol with a broad range of expertise on Thucydides, including two PhD students, one looking at the debates around maritime empire in 18th-century France and England, and one looking at modern military education, particularly in the US.

“I have been writing on the place of Thucydides in modern historiography, the way that he is taken as a model historian,” explains Morley. “Above all in the nineteenth century, people argued that to be a proper historian you should imitate him, read his methods, study his history - that tells you what modern critical history is all about.”

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Christine Lee has a background in political theory and international relations, and joined the team having completed her PhD on political realism at Duke University.

“The reason I was interested in this project was because of Thucydides’ reputation as the first realist,” she says. “I was really excited about this project because it seemed like a way for me to push my research backwards in time. It’s been really rewarding for me.”

With roots in America, Lee was interested in how Thucydides had been applied to the conceptualisation of modern wars.

“Unless you come from a military family, we don’t have a lot of experience with war,” she says. “Even though our countries have been engaged with warfare, we don’t have a direct experience in the way that previous generations did. I don’t think I understood how much this text means to people and how central it was during Vietnam and how central it’s been during crisis periods.

“One of the most chastening things was coming to that realisation and understanding this isn’t just an academic text. You get a sense of that from its central place in American and British political discourse. People still quote him and bring him up in legislative settings. Through working on this, I’ve got a better sense of why that was.”

Lee was also enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary nature of the project, and seeing how specialists from other fields used Thucydides' work.

“Disciplines tend to be very insular and no one pays attention to what other people are doing in other disciplines, even though you may be thinking or writing about the same texts,” she says. “For me it was nice to be able to read how people in different disciplines read, to see how it was they were coming to this text, what questions they were bringing, what purposes they were using it for, how they were interpreting it.”

Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration was widely quoted in WWI, appearing in cheap pamphlets and even on posters in London buses; its sentiments, urging citizens to remain steadfast and be prepared for sacrifices in defending democracy, seemed perfectly suited to the times. In the aftermath of the war, other phrases from the oration were chosen for public monuments to the fallen, especially in the ANZAC countries: ‘The whole earth is the tomb of famous men’, and ‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it’ (a phrase also used on the new Bomber Command memorial in Green Park). A different version of the second line is particularly popular today with veterans’ organisations in the United States: ‘Knowing that happiness depends on freedom and freedom depends on courage, do not shrink from the dangers of war.’

Despite the historical neglect of analysis of his reception, Thucydides has continued to appeal to academics from different fields, but also to politicians and to military leaders. Lee thinks this is because his insight into political systems and warfare remains relevant.

“We’re all committed to liberal democracy and yet there are enduring concerns over how democracies function during wartime, and whether democracies are as effective as authoritarian regimes,” she says. “He is a useful author to think with and think through during crisis. He really taps in. He’s very critical of democracy and he serves a useful diagnostic function. He describes the problems that democracies succumb to. He gets into the nitty-gritty of politics. When there are difficult times, no-one describes it in a more compelling way than Thucydides.”

Morley hopes that this project will lead on to further work focusing on Thucydides' changing reception during the 20th century, from historians losing interest in his ideas in the early years to his growing importance to political theorists after the First World War, and the way his ideas have crossed the Atlantic to become a significant part of American culture, quoted by politicians, military leaders and journalists.

In the meantime, this interdisciplinary work is going to result in a companion book to the project, edited by Morley and Lee, and including contributions from scholars across fields and across the world. Interested academics have been attending workshops to share and discuss their ideas, increasing knowledge exchange and building links between institutions.

“Historians don’t read him in the same way as political theorists do, the Germans have a different notion from the British,” says Morley. “We’re not going to be able to do a definitive account because it’s so big, but this will be the starting point for anyone in the future who is interested in the topic.”

“We’re hoping this is going to be a major intervention into international relations, political theory, into history and the classics,” adds Lee. “We don’t have a lot of texts that enable people to engage with work in other disciplines. This will be a text that will finally allow people from one discipline to understand how Thucydides has been read and understood in a different discipline, and to engage with that.”

For further information, visit the project website.

Article by Dr Carrie Dunn

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