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Thucydidean nightmares: remembering the Peloponnesian War in the age of madnesS

Ben Earley. Freie Universität Berlin. Germany.


Thucydidean nightmares: remembering the Peloponnesian War in the age of madness

Ben Earley. Freie Universität Berlin. Germany.

Thucydides offers a dark depiction of the motivations and human costs of conflict in the History of the Peloponnesian War. In emotive passages such as at the description of the plague, the stasis on Corcyra, the Melian Dialogue, and the destruction of the Athenian fleet in Sicily Thucydides confronts his readers with the terrible reality of war. These passages were remembered and reinterpreted by journalists, soldiers, and scholars seeking to understand the carnage that they witnessed during the First and Second World Wars. This paper will recover remembrances of Thucydides in the writings of largely forgotten figures today such as Orlo Williams, G.F. Abbott, Albert Thibeadet, G. Glover, and David Mitrany, among others. It will be argued in this paper that these writers remembered the description of the Peloponnesian War in the context of Thucydides’ supposed cold impartiality, which was emerging in classical and political scholarship at the time. Thucydides’ impartiality added an air of veracity to his account of the horrors of war. Paradoxically, viewing Thucydides in this way allowed these writers to displace their own strong feelings and emotions onto the Peloponnesian War and to see their own wars as the product of immutable laws of human nature. Remembering Thucydides, in my interpretation, became akin to recalling a nightmare. Where other classical texts provided heroic examples for poets to emulate or reject, readings of Thucydides suggested that humans could not escape their passions and the conflicts that they produced. The Peloponnesian War, alongside the First and Second World War, became recurrent nightmares that readers felt they could not escape. In remembering Thucydides in this way these readers elevated his work to the level of political philosophy.


This paper will also focus on the experiential aspects of reception and remembering. For Toynbee, it was the momentous events of 1914 and the outbreak of the war that recalled Thucydides to his mind. Williams read Thucydides in a trench at the Battle of Gallipoli while the allies and the Turks exchanged shell fire overhead. Similar stories can be told of other readings of Thucydides during the war. It was the lived experience of the war, the carnage, the shell shock, and the feeling that momentous political decisions were being taken that drove readers back to Thucydides and which invited thoughts on the equivalence between the Great War and the Peloponnesian War. The experience of the war prompted and allowed new readings and appropriations of Thucydides. Many previous reception studies have utilised linguistic approaches to modern appropriations of ancient texts. My argument is that the way commentators conceive of war, democracy, expansion, violence, the state, and other pertinent topics in Thucydides are both linguistic and based upon experience. Modern warfare drove readers to Thucydides but it also effected how they read and experienced the work.

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