Over the last decade, one of the most frequently cited thinkers in debates about western foreign policy and military intervention, especially in the United States, has been Thucydides. Irving Kristol, eminence grise of American neoconservatism, referred to Thucydides’ history as ‘the favourite neoconservative text on foreign affairs,’ not least because it features heavily in the writings of theorists like Hans Morgenthau and Leo Strauss. At the other end of the spectrum of Republican thought, no profile of Colin Powell is complete without reference to the (spurious) quotation that hung on his office wall as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — ‘Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most’ — supposedly a legacy of the place of Thucydides in the curriculum at West Point, as at other military training establishments like the Naval War College (where it was said to have been introduced in the 1970s as a means of wargaming the Cold War without re-opening the wounds of Vietnam). The recent travails of the neoconservative project have, interestingly, led not to the rejection of Thucydides as a source of political wisdom, but to calls for more careful readings of key episodes; the account of the Sicilian expedition, which Kagan had sought to interpret as leaving open the possibility of Athenian success, is now read as confirming the inevitability of the debacle in Iraq.
It is easy to dismiss the Thucydides of the American neoconservatives as the product of a naïve, partial and entirely dehistoricised reading of the text — or, more likely, to judge from the limited range of reference of most international relations discussions, of a few isolated passages like the Melian dialogue. However, this misses the point: the idea of Thucydides, however far removed it may be from a complex reality, has continuing power and currency, shaping ideas about how the modern world should be run and serving to legitimise them.
Thucydides played a prominent role in debates about inter-state relations even before Thomas Hobbes — generally dismissive of the wisdom of the ancients, but devoted translator of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Moreover, study of the history of his reception makes it clear that Thucydides the IR Realist is not the only version with the power to influence debates; Thucydides the Political Theorist is quite as important in the analysis of the workings of democracy and demagoguery, the ideas and ideals of citizenship, and Thucydides the Model Historian, the examplar of practice or the purveyor of methodological precepts, dominated the development of ‘history as science’ under Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century.
The perspective changes significantly over time: as each of these conceptions, developed within different disciplinary traditions, influences the others; as the valuation of Thucydides relative to rivals like Tacitus or Herodotus changes; as scholarship develops knowledge of the text and its context; and as conceptions of the relationship between ancient and modern are transformed by the experiences of modernisation.
Thucydides lost his exemplary status around the beginning of the nineteenth century — it ceased to be plausible to cite him as an expert on the evils of paper money, as a Prussian official once did — but, far from being neglected as a result, he came instead to be seen as offering universal insights and precepts that transcended his time. However, even at a given moment the idea of Thucydides was never simple or straightforward; he could equally well be cited as a democrat or an anti-democrat, an activist or a quietist, a realist or an idealist, the archetypal scientific historian or the exemplary practitioner of rhetoric and historical art.
Thucydides’ influence over the centuries has been less pervasive and unavoidable than that of Plato and Aristotle in the field of ideas or literary authors like Homer and Virgil. However, it has been far more important than one might assume from the almost complete lack of scholarship on the subject. Thucydides’ work was not read by everyone, but it was read by a select group of important thinkers at critical moments in the development of political theory, historiography and international relations. His place in the wider culture is equally circumscribed, but at critical moments, at times of war (see for example John Barton’s The War that Never Ends, originally performed in the 1960s in response to Vietnam and revived in 1991 for the first Gulf War) or national crisis (the Gettysburg addresses, the aftermath of 9/11), he becomes suddenly prominent, a text for difficult times. Moreover, consideration of the reception of Thucydides illuminates more general issues in the study of the reception of classical texts, highlighting the multiplicity of possible interpretations of antiquity and ancient authors in response to changing circumstances, and the continuing power of classical authorities in the modern world.
Remarkably, the history of the reception of Thucydides since antiquity has never been studied in depth; neither the history of scholarship and the publication of editions, translations and commentaries, nor his far-reaching influence in historiography, political science, philosophy and international relations. Detailed studies within the field of Classics, looking at the narrative and rhetorical structures of Thucydides’ work, its relation to contemporary science and its place in the development of classical historiography, are almost entirely unknown to those working on relevant material in other disciplines; conversely, debates on the place of Thucydides’ ideas in the development of international relations or political theory are largely unknown to classicists, concentrate on a single theme and generally abstract Thucydides from any historical context.
(1) Scholarship, Criticism and Education How has knowledge and understanding of Thucydides’ work developed within different national traditions since the Renaissance? What are the main staging-posts in the production of editions, commentaries and translations? What is the place of Thucydides within systems of education in different countries, both at school level and within university curricula? How does this compare with the importance accorded to other ancient historians, most obviously Tacitus and Herodotus? How far, when considering a particular author’s use of Thucydides, can we assume a broad or intimate knowledge of the text as a whole, and how far are conceptions of Thucydides’ importance founded on a limited number of set pieces such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the Melian dialogue?
(2) Key Themes and Concepts What are the ruling concepts in the interpretation of Thucydides and his work within different national and disciplinary traditions? How does the conception of the nature of historiography, its scope and its claims to truth, change over time? How far does the interpretation of Thucydides shape as well as reflect this debate, for example by promoting political history above other approaches? How do the ideas of ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’, frequently if not invariably applied to Thucydides within the political and philosophical traditions, change over time, and how does this affect readings of his work? What is the place of Thucydides in debates about the historian’s proper task and methods? Given the variety of modern readings and interpretations of the work, and the varied and contradictory ideas about its author, how far was Thucydides a blank space into which almost any set of assumptions could be projected?
(3) Modern Debates What is the role of Thucydides in debates from the seventeenth century to today, on such themes as citizenship, the functioning of democracy and its institutions, war and peace and international relations? What are the different ways in which Thucydides might be cited — sometimes as the foundation of an argument, sometimes as a key authority or crucial source of evidence, sometimes as a mere rhetorical adornment? How far do assumptions about Thucydides’ relevance and importance change as modernity comes to be conceptualised as entirely distinct from antiquity, and how far is he understood as offering universal truths or prescriptions? How far is Thucydides taken to provide answers to modern questions and how far is he employed rather to reformulate the terms of debate?
The project is overseen by a Project Board, made up of internationally-renowned scholars in different fields relevant to the topic, who review regular reports from the project team and offer guidance on the conduct of the research. Its members are: Professor Gillian Clark (University of Bristol); Professor Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck, University of London); Professor Peter Euben (Duke University); Professor Robert Fowler (University of Bristol); Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn (University of Cambridge).