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Is Thucydides’ work a possession for all time? Or a book that matters every time it is read?
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, author of The Peloponnesian War, was regarded as the finest historian of antiquity, and his work is today considered a model of intellectual and artistic power. Early in his history he makes the famous claim that he intends his work to be a serious “possession for all time”, not a competitive piece of rhetoric composed for the moment. That, at least, is the way his words are usually understood, as the crowning statement of his discussion of how he has gone about researching and writing his history. Later historians, taking Thucydides as a model and inspiration, have made the same claim for the study of history as a whole.
This lecture will argue that the traditional interpretation of this passage is mistaken. In fact, what Thucydides contrasts in this oft-quoted sentence are two purposes for writing and reading: one elite, truth-seeking and ongoing, the other populist, pleasure-seeking and immediate. “Reading” in Thucydides’ day almost always meant listening to a work being read aloud to a group, large or small. Indeed, to “publish” a piece of literature meant generally to read it aloud to an audience. Thucydides specifies that he does not seek or expect his work to appeal to a general audience wanting to be entertained on the spot. Rather, he writes for intellectuals who will want to “read” continually and study carefully the clear truth of what happened in the past as an aid to understanding future events.
Thucydides’ expectation for his readership has been essentially fulfilled, right up to the present day. His history is dense and detailed, and it is full of complex and rhetorically sophisticated arguments. He made history an intellectual enterprise, full of penetrating observations and paradigmatic lessons. As a result, the general public does not read Thucydides, and never will. Instead, his readers are political scientists, professional historians, military leaders, classicists and philosophers of history. Invariably, they read Thucydides in the way he meant to be read: by analyzing individual passages, by debating their meaning, and by arguing about their capacity for constituting general principles.
Thucydides’ readership, then, is elite and committed; reading his history is an intense experience requiring close attention and moral judgment. To a surprising degree, events in Thucydides matter.