Reading Thucydides’ Rhetoric

(Diesen Beitrag auf Deutsch lesen)

Thucydides (ca. 460–400 BC) wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War that for much of the 19th and 20th century has been admired – whether rightly or not – for prefiguring ideas about scientific historiography that accorded completely with modern historiographical thinking and practice. One aspect of modern western scientific history is a strong aversion to rhetoric, which is often considered a dirty word, referring to a means merely used to present fiction as fact. Thus, the many admirers of Thucydides would not describe him as a rhetorical historian and would not be inclined to pay much attention to the presence and role of rhetoric in his narrative of events; the speeches, of course, are a different matter.

To be sure, in I 21.1 Thucydides clearly sets off his own approach from that of those poets and logographers (historians or orators, we do not know), who write to please the ear. But here his purpose is not just to emphasize that his interest is solely with the truth, but also polemically to claim superiority over those whom he accuses of solely aiming at entertainment. Such cases of oppositional self-promotion and accusation of predecessors, however, always need to be taken with a grain of salt. It needs to be asked, furthermore, whether any text can ever be completely free of rhetoric, which is after all merely a way of phrasing one’s ideas in the – for the intended audience – most persuasive manner possible.

In this context it is highly interesting to look at scholarly interpretations of Thucydides’ statement that on no other occasion in the Peloponnesian war there was greater panic than during the Peloponnesian attack on Salamis in 429:

ἔκπληξις ἐγένετο οὐδεμιᾶς τῶν κατὰ τὸν πόλεμον ἐλάσσων
“there was panic greater than with any other event of the war”
(Thuc. II 94.1)

Yet in a later passage about the revolt of Euboia in 411 Thucydides seems to create a contradiction by making a very similar claim:

ἔκπληξις μεγίστη δὴ τῶν πρὶν παρέστη
“the greatest panic ensued, such as had never occurred before”
(Thuc. VIII 96.1)

Scholars have often taken the apparent contradiction to be a sign of different stages of composition, something which, unlike rhetoric, they have for a long time been very eagerly looking for in Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, namely, is usually divided into three phases: the Archidamian War (431–421 BC), the Peace of Nikias (421–416 BC), the Dekeleian War (415–404 BC). The statement about the attack on Salamis at II 94.1 is then considered to concern only the Archidamian war and is assumed to have been written before 415 at the latest, as is clear from the views expressed in most commentaries on Thucydides’ second book, e.g.:

“clearly, one would say, referring to the Archidamian War only, and written before 415 B.C. Cf. VII 71.7, VIII 1, 96.1”
(A.W. Gomme, A Commentary on Thucydides, books II-III, Oxford 1956, ad loc.).

“This was probably written with reference to the Archidamian War only: for later panic in Athens see VI 28–9, VIII 1.2, and (fear for the Piraeus again) VIII 92.3 with 94, 96; in 413 at Syracuse after the Athenian defeat in the great harbour ‘the immediate result was a panic as great as at any time’”
(P.J. Rhodes, Thucydides, History II, Warminster 1988, ad loc.).

“evidently an ‘early’ passage, written before 421”
(J.S. Rusten, Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, book II, Cambridge 1989, ad loc., with reference to that part of the introduction on “Inconsistencies of detail” as “Evidence on composition”).

That the statement about the greatest panic is taken as evidence of composition is perhaps most surprising in the case of P.J. Rhodes, who just before putting forward that interpretation has noted “Thucydides’ fondness for this kind of superlative”, which he describes in some detail in the introduction to his commentary (ibid., pp. 3–4). There he points out for instance that:

“Though Thucydides’ narrative manner is commonly thought of as matter-of-fact, he is actually very willing to use superlatives. At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War the Greek states were more powerful than ever before (I 1.3, 18.3–19, Archidamus in II 11.1); never before had there been such destructions of cities, banishment and slaughter of people, earthquakes, eclipses, famine and diseases (I 23.3); the losses of Ambracia in the battle at Idomene were ‘the greatest disaster to befall a single city in the same number of days in this war’ (III 113.6); the massacre at Mycalessus was a ‘lamentable disaster, second to none in the war for the size the place’ (VII 30.3); and the disaster suffered by the great Athenian invasion of Sicily was the greatest ever (VII 75.7, 87.5–6). In book II, there had never been such a fatal disease as the plague at Athens (47.3), ….”

On that basis, it seems clear that the statements about the greatest panic in 429 and 411 are just to be read as a rhetorical way of stressing something, as Hornblower rightly observes in his commentary on the passage:

“But at viii 96.1, Thucydides will say almost exactly this about the revolt of Euboia in 411. Strictly, this should mean that the present passage refers to the Archidamian War only, and consequences about composition dates would follow. But I cannot help thinking that this is to press unduly what is no more than a favourite Thucydidean way of making an emphatic point.”
(S. Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides, vol. I, Oxford 1991: ad loc.)

That the passage is indeed to be understood as a merely rhetorical statement is confirmed not only by Thucydides’ practice as discussed by P.J. Rhodes, but also by the way in which it confirms to the theory of epideictic oratory. Epideictic or ceremonial oratory is the oratorical genre under which historiographical rhetoric was classified in Antiquity. Consider the following passages from rhetorical treatises about how to make an emphatic point in praising someone:

“[In epideictic] one should also use many kinds of amplification, for example if the subject [of praise] is the only one or the first or one of a few or the one who most has done something; for all these things are honorable”.
(Aristotle, Rhetoric I 9.38)

“And one must select achievements that are of outstanding importance or unprecedented  or unparalleled in their actual character; for small achievements or those that are not unusual or out of the ordinary are not as a rule felt to be specifically admirable or to deserve praise at all”.
(Cicero, De Oratore II 85.347)

“(…) what most pleases an audience is the celebration of deeds which our hero was first  or only man or at any rate one of the very few to perform: and to these we must add any other achievements which surpassed hope or expectation”.
(Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria III 7.16)

All these theorists deal with the phenomenon of amplification (Latin amplificatio), which is basically any means to enhance the rhetorical effect of a statement in a way that is clearly reminiscent of Thucydides’ practice. That Aristotle (384–322 BC) is the earliest theorist that can be quoted, is simply to be explained by the fact that he is earliest preserved rhetorical theorist, and thus need not mean that this theory is irrelevant for Thucydides. And even if the theory would have been formed only after Thucydides had written his work, he still could have employed a common trick that was simply awaiting being theorized in the rhetorical handbooks as soon as those started to be written.

It becomes clear, then, that we can never read an ancient author with modern expectations about the absence of rhetoric or at least about the prioritisation of classification over rhetoric. And while it is a legitimate pursuit for scholars to look for evidence of different stages of composition, it is always dangerous to let our desire for useful information get the better of the respect for the historical context of the author.

Alexander Meeus, 2. Oktober 2018

Alexander Meeus is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Mannheim


Suggestions for further reading

J.H. Neyrey, ‘“First”, “Only”, “One of a Few”, and “No One Else”. The Rhetoric of Uniqueness and the Doxologies in 1 Timothy’, Biblica 86 (2005), 59–87, p. on 59–68 offers further examples from both rhetorical theory and practice (available online).

For more on rhetoric on Antiquity, see L. Pernot, Rhetoric in Antiquity, Washington DC 2005.

The literature on Thucydides is enormous. Among many good introductions, see e.g. J. Marincola, Greek Historians (Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 31), Cambridge 2001, 61–104.

N. Morley, Thucydides and the Idea of History, London 2014, treats the reception of Thucydides.

On Rhetoric in modern historiography, see e.g. J. Rüsen, Konfigurationen des Historismus: Studien zur deutschen Wissenschafts­kultur, Frankfurt a.M. 1993, 114–135.

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