Thucydides: reception, reinterpretation and influence

Greek Memorial, LiegeThe Athenian historian Thucydides (c.460-c.395 BCE) claimed that his account of the Peloponnesian War would be ‘a possession for ever,’ valued by posterity more than by his contemporaries.

The history of his text's reception since the Renaissance has proved him entirely correct; not only has his work continued to be read, by historians, political thinkers, philosophers, international relations theorists and many others, but Thucydides himself has been seen as ever more prescient and modern.

Since the Second World War, for example, Thucydides has been one of the most frequently cited thinkers in debates about western foreign policy and military intervention, especially in the United States. The lessons which Thucydides drew from his analysis of the war between Athens and Sparta are seen as timeless reflections of the nature of war and inter-state relations. Similarly, the development of modern ideas of ‘history as science’ in the nineteenth century did not lead to the rejection of his work as out-moded, but to his enthronement as the first modern historian, an inspiration and a model for all historians. Debates about the future direction of history focused on Thucydides; all sides accepted his authority and status as modern before his time, and sought to claim him in support of their own ideas.

The idea of Thucydides and his work thus had and has enormous power, shaping modern ideas about how to understand the world and serving to legitimise them. However, there is considerable scope for debate about the relationship between this idealised Thucydides and the reality; it is clear that some references to him are based on naïve, partial and dehistoricised readings of his work, or of a few isolated passages in it.

Further, Thucydides has appeared in completely contradictory roles: as mythographer and rhetorician as well as scientific historian; as the perfectly objective observer of society, and as the model for a politically engaged scholar; as both democrat and oligarch, realist and idealist.

The history of Thucydides’ reception, and the development of these contradictory ideas, has never been studied in any depth. This four-year research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, will examine how knowledge and understanding of his work has developed within different national traditions since the Renaissance, through the work of scholars and translators and the inclusion of his text (or extracts from it) in different systems of education. It will explore the ways that the interpretation of Thucydides and his work has changed over time, in fields like political philosophy, historiography, international relations theory and military strategy, and examine his place in debates on such themes as citizenship, the functioning of democracy and its institutions, and war and peace. It will consider not only how the image of Thucydides has changed, but also the role it has played in shaping modern ideas about the world.

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