|Review of Thucydides: Man's
place in history, by H.-P. Stahl
Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 26.12.2004
Review by John Marincola, The Florida State University
Hans-Peter Stahl's Thukydides: Die Stellung des Menschen im
geschichtlichen Prozess was originally published in 1966. It
was a pioneering and polemical work, written in opposition to
a commonly-held belief (prevalent in Germany especially but
not exclusively, at the time) that Thucydides had written his
history as a manual for future politicians and generals which
would enable them to understand exactly the wellsprings of human
action, and, more than that, to predict confidently what would
happen in the future. It was this latter predictive value to
which Stahl particularly took exception. He argued that, on
the contrary, a close reading of Thucydides' text demonstrated
exactly the opposite, namely that events could not be predicted,
either by the actors themselves at the time or by later generations
of readers. Events had no "necessity" about them,
and throughout the Peloponnesian War (and by extension in human
history as a whole) the unforeseen, the incalculable, the irrational,
and chance played important, sometimes dominant, roles. The
book was enormously influential, and together with the work
of W. R. Connor, Colin Macleod, and Adam Parry (to name but
a few), was part of a significant re-evaluation of Thucydides'
history in the sixties and seventies.[]
In preparing an English translation of the work, Stahl decided
not to make any major revisions in the work, nor to update its
bibliography. Since the strength of the book lies in its close
readings of Thucydides' text, the decision does not have major
consequences for the utility of the English edition, although
at times his polemic seems somewhat dated, since, thanks largely
to Stahl's own work, few people today hold the views he attacks.
Stahl has, however, added two chapters to the original work,
both on the Sicilian expedition (the German edition ended with
a consideration of the Melian Dialogue in Book 5); both have
been published before, but they are right at home here and add
to the value of the volume.[] Although Stahl's book has been
well known to Thucydidean scholars and its conclusions and methods
have been well assimilated over the decades, it is nonetheless
a pleasure to welcome an English edition, since this will make
the work more accessible to a greater number of people, including
undergraduates and (should such beings still exist) the interested
general reader. In producing this handsome volume, Dr. Anton
Powell and his Classical Press of Wales have put us yet further
in their debt.
Although it would be counterproductive to simplify Stahl's
enormously complex and nuanced reading of Thucydides, one can
nevertheless point to a few methodological constants of the
work. Stahl focuses on what he calls the "hinge-points"
of the narrative, those places where events begin to develop
independently, i.e., beyond the planning of the human actors.
These hinge-points can be found throughout the history, and
they are often recognizable by the greater narrative detail
in their telling. Stahl also believes that one must pay attention
to larger narrative units (sometimes called "event complexes"),
because the meaning of events can only be seen in their end-point
and in the particular way in which they unfold. Related to this
is the assumption that speech and action are interdependent
and must be examined together. One cannot (for example) extrapolate
remarks made in speeches and then elevate such remarks to the
status of truths; instead, one must look at how remarks made
in speeches actually play out in the events that follow, so
that these events serve as a comment on the beliefs and opinions
espoused in individual speeches. Even when events turn out "successfully"
for the participants, they almost never do so in exactly the
way that had been predicted.
Chapter 1 begins by looking at the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton
in Book 6, and asks why Thucydides places this digression here.
Putting aside the notion that the historian wished simply to
correct common opinion, Stahl analyzes the story for what it
tells us of human plan, action and outcome. The plan itself
originates from a false perception of the actual situation (Aristogeiton's
fear that Hipparchus would use force against him), and the conspirators
then are guided by irrationality, passion and (as it turns out)
the empty hope of spontaneous help from the citizens. Both the
conception and the execution are done from fear and erotic excitement,
but the conspirators' private action spills over into the public
arena, for the tyrant's behavior now changes: whereas the Peisistratids,
according to Thucydides, ruled according to the laws before,
now in the aftermath of the assassination of Hipparchus, Hippias
becomes harsher. So the conspirators, having initially conceived
their plan as a way to avoid the putative violence of Hipparchus,
wind up making Athens the victim of Hippias' violence. Thucydides
in this incident shows "misconception as a direct cause
of action" (8),[] and action once taken is no longer
under rational control but has its own dynamic, the consequences
of which cannot be foreseen by the historical actors. The chapters
that follow consider whether this type of sequence is the exception
or the rule in Thucydides' history.
In Chapter 2, Stahl reviews the bibliography in order to contest
the idea that Thucydides' notion of usefulness entails "practical
applicability" (15), that Thucydides saw human nature as
a "constant whose actions are generally predictable"
(ibid.), and that Thucydides sought to train the statesman-reader
in the ability to prognosticate and perhaps even improve human
nature. He is especially critical of the labor spent on the
"Thucydidean question," and his answer to the analysts
is that there is a continuity of viewpoint in the work provided
that we abandon the approach that looks only at a narrow political
formulation in Thucydides' work (23). Thucydides' work must
be viewed in its totality: "what is human" (to anthropinon)
includes not only human nature but also "the external circumstances
affecting human existence, so that we should translate to anthropinon
precisely by 'that which pertains to man'." (29). As to
the speeches he cautions against interpreting any particular
speech as the viewpoint of Thucydides himself, and suggests,
as noted above, that the way to judge speeches is to look at
the outcome of actions, which illuminate the speeches retrospectively.
To those familiar with the trends of the last thirty years of
Thucydidean scholarship, this chapter will seem the most dated,
but, again, that is thanks largely to the influence of
Stahl and others.
Chapter 3 looks at Book 1 and gives a close analysis of the
lead-up to the war, paying particular attention to the speeches
of the Corinthians at Athens, of the Athenians at Sparta, and
of Archidamus to his fellow Spartans. Here Thucydides is concerned
not with the question of Kriegsschuld but rather with showing
how each side justified going to war and how they calculated
the events that might follow. Whereas the Athenians use the
unpredictability of war to warn the Spartans (1.78.2), the Corinthians
use this as grounds for optimism (1.122.1). At the same time,
the reasoned calculations of Archidamus are overcome by the
passion of Sthenelaidas, a pattern that recurs throughout the
history: "emotion (or the side of human nature which is
inaccessible to reason) has been recognized as an objective,
operative factor in political and historical events" (60).
Far from trying to educate future politicians in a system that
would ignore incalculable factors, Thucydides was instead greatly
interested in those very factors that defied rational interpretation.
Chapter 4 takes the opening incident of the war, the attack
on Plataea, and gives a detailed analysis of the actions of
the participants and of the calculations made by the participants
that justified their actions at any point. Thucydides' narrative
detail allows the reader to visualize the paradoxical METABOLH
that befell each side, and concentrates on three points: the
desperate situation of the Theban attackers when they themselves
come under attack; the late arrival of the Theban relief force;
and the late arrival of the messenger from Athens whose announcement
could have saved the prisoners (an action that will have severe
consequences later for the Plataeans when their city is finally
captured by the Spartans). The significance of the episode at
Plataea, according to Stahl, lies in its exemplarity, for Thucydides
here in small compass could "hint at the broad variation
and complexity of the courses of events" (72).
Chapter 5 looks at the contrast drawn by Thucydides between
plan (the speeches and calculations of Book 1) and reality.
Here events begin to have their own existence, not bound in
any way by the wishes or expectations of the participants. With
the war finally under way, "Thucydides forces the reader
to compare plan with execution, to measure the perspectives
of planning against those of the course of events" (80);
there is an "increasing 'independence' of occurrences"
as "the war takes on its own face by emerging gradually
from behind the plans of the people involved and revealing itself
as an independent entity" (95). Several kinds of action
are spotlighted in this chapter. There is, first of all, the
plague, a reminder of the unforeseen in human life; it destroys
Athenian resolve, showing immediately how plan is altered by
unforeseen circumstances. There is the genuinely tragic plight
of the Plataeans, denied a free choice in the war and without
the option to be neutral since their women and children are
in Athens. The Plataeans must lose, no matter whose side they
take. Thucydides also considers missed opportunities: he mentions
the Spartan proposal to attack the Piraeus and the hesitancy
of Archidamus on his first invasion of Attica. As the historian
looks deeper into occurrences, "the more the potential
turns of events in a situation leap out at him" (93).
Chapter 6 turns to Book 3, where the darker side of the war
now emerges. The situation at Mytilene is again shown to be
the result of a series of misunderstandings and false inferences.
By Book 3 it is becoming clear that the participants in the
war "can no longer expect to put their own overarching
plans into action unimpaired" but rather "can at most
hope to make adjustments" in light of the events that are
taking place (111). The civil war at Corcyra is a further incident
in the "author's pedagogically progressive technique"
(ibid.); this is an exemplary passage not in the sense that
it offers a "repeatable schema" (112) but because
it is representative of the same or similar actions that occurred
elsewhere. The three theatres of the action in Book 3 (Mytilene,
Plataea and Corcyra) are not great places in themselves, but
rather incidental casualties of the conflicts between the great
powers. Thucydides has expanded the scope of his work, such
that it is no longer bound to the political realm or Athenian
imperialism but instead includes all parties and individuals.
Chapter 7 continues with the story to the end of the Archidamian
War. Here Stahl begins by examining two incidents in which commanders
act outside of their original intention or orders. In summer
426 Demosthenes allows himself to be persuaded to attack the
Aetolians, and he does so out of personal ambition. The result
is moderate success followed by tremendous failure. In the same
summer the Aetolians manage to persuade the Spartans to attack
Naupactus, and again a similar type of failure results. Even
though Demosthenes later makes up for his loss by a victory,
Thucydides concentrates on the tragedy of the events, on the
way the pathos of the situation is inseparably joined to the
events themselves: "the tragic outcome is part and parcel
of the facts themselves" (136). So too in considering the
slaughter at Mykalessos, Thucydides' horror is for the "senselessness
of the pathos, which is a general characteristic of the war"
(138). The historian portrays a series of events beyond Demosthenes'
control, and a series of METABOLAI unforeseen by the participants.
As at Epidamnus, an unimportant place (in this case, Pylos)
suddenly becomes the center of the whole issue of war and peace.
And these events set in motion an entire series of consequences:
the Spartan offer of peace, which is denied by the Athenians,
and then the actions of Brasidas, which bring about another
METABOLH in Athenian fortunes, so that the Athenians now also
desire peace. And when peace is finally made, it is on the basis
of the status quo. The entire history of the Archidamian war
has been one of suffering. Thucydides writes here not so much
the tragedy of Athens as the tragedy of humanity itself, since
people blindly place their trust in "the supposed availability
of factors whose effects are beyond their reach (and control)"
Chapter 8 looks at the Melian Dialogue. Avoiding the usual
interpretation of the dialogue as a contest between might and
right, Stahl looks instead at what happens in the Dialogue itself,
i.e., how it progresses as a narrative. The Athenians, having
recognized the unequal position of the negotiators, make the
right of the stronger the perimeter within which the debate
will take place (161-2). Whereas the Athenians maintain a consistent
position throughout the Dialogue, the Melians turn to unreality,
and grasp at hope and chance, and so the thing which is by definition
incalculable (hope) becomes the guarantee of the Melians' wish
fulfillment (164). "In the Melian Dialogue we have a view
of humanity, not in terms of its values, but rather primarily
in terms of its (in)capacity to grasp the reality of a given
situation....The point is not to defend or attack the attitudes
represented on either side but to present them as historically
significant discoveries, that is, in the final analysis, as
constitutive elements of the general human way of existence"
Chapter 9 lacks the detailed method of the previous chapters
and gives instead a general overview of the Sicilian expedition,
paying careful attention to the relationship between speech
and action. Stahl looks in particular at the speeches of Nicias
and Alcibiades that open Book 6. Thucydides characterizes the
Athenians' thoughts about Sicily as based on irrational hope
and ignorance, and, as in other parts of the work, the unreal
is going to become real "because people are going to act
out their hopes and desires" and the facts will be disregarded
(183). At the same time, Stahl notes the absence of moralizing
in Thucydides, even at the end when destruction overtakes the
Athenians. Thucydides is not so simple as to believe that the
wicked must be punished or the ignorant be taught; instead,
he portays the Athenians sympathetically because their blindness
is not an isolated phenomenon but is "a universal (if regrettable)
fact about the human condition" (186). With only one aspect
of the treatment here do I take exception, namely Stahl's belief
that from subsequent events one can see that Thucydides himself
favored the view of Nicias about Sicily, since Nicias was right
to be concerned about money, supplies and cavalry. Given that
Stahl had originally said that one cannot assume any speech
of Thucydides to be evidence of the historian's own view, the
bald claim that subsequent events revealed Nicias to be right
and that this is what Thucydides intended seems problematic.
The complexity of events in Sicily as Thucydides narrates them
in Books 6 and 7, and the fact that the Athenians came very
close indeed to taking Syracuse show rather that even Nicias'
speech is but a partial view of the situation in Sicily, as
much conditioned by his own fears (for his own reputation, among
other things), partial knowledge, and desire to affect the Athenian
Chapter 10 returns to the detailed treatment practiced elsewhere
in the book, and asks the question whether the "hinges"
of history as examined in the previous chapters are also true
for Books 6 and 7. Stahl focuses on a variety of scenes here,
but the bulk of the chapter analyzes two narratives in detail:
the seizure of Epipolai by the Athenians in July of 413, and
the narrative of Gylippus' attempt to bring help to Syracuse.[]
By looking at the hinge-events, Stahl discovers the same kind
of probing treatment that he had found in earlier narratives.
He returns to his original question of whether Thucydides advocated
a degree of probability, predictability or even "steerability"
in historical or political processes (216), and he notes again
that Thucydides is always interested in the place where things
could have gone either way and with the way in which events
develop independently from their previous direction and independently
from the original planning of both sides (217-8).
Thucydides' work, he concludes, is not a textbook for manipulation
of the world. Instead, it provides insight into the human condition
and the workings of history. Rather than try to use Thucydides'
history to predict the future, "the work would fulfill
the author's intention if today's readers, when being acquainted
with the events and vicissitudes of Greek history as detailed
by him, could likewise, in an act of recognition, gain clarity
about the constitutive elements of the history of their own
time -- elements which, though recurring with inescapable constancy,
nevertheless, since being variables, cannot be concretely calculated
Stahl's book, then, is an enormously useful detailed reading
of some key incidents in Thucydides' work, while at the same
time being a profound meditation on history and the role of
human beings in the historical process. If some of his insights
will seem familiar to readers, that is (again) the result of
the influence the book has had over the years. Yet, given the
continued belief that human actions can be predicted and that
the calculations of war can be easily assessed beforehand --
one can hardly help thinking of current events -- it is clear
that the lessons imparted both by Thucydides and Stahl need
to be learned again and again. It is yet further proof, if such
were needed, that Thucydides' work really is a "possession
for all time."
1. Some of that trend is splendidly analyzed by
W. R. Connor, "A Post-Modern Thucydides?," CJ 72 (1977)
289-98. For other changes to the evaluation of Thucydides over
the last forty years see J. Marincola, Greek Historians (Oxford
2. Chapter 9 is a slightly altered version of "Speeches
and Course of Events in Books Six and Seven of Thucydides,"
originally published in Philip Stadter, ed., The Speeches in
Thucydides (Chapel Hill 1973); Chapter 10 appeared originally
as " Literarisches Detail und historischer Krisenpunkt
im Geschichtswerk des Thukydides: die Sizilische Expedition,"
Rh. Mus. 145 (2002) 68-107.
3. Stahl uses italics liberally throughout the
book, especially where he is trying to make a point. I have
not reproduced his italics, believing that in brief quotations
they will only distract the reader.
4. In this chapter in particular, Stahl's criticisms
of previous scholars seem particularly outdated. He remarks
(171 n. 19) that the last attack against Thucydides' credibility
was that of Max Treu in 1953/4 and Raubitschek in 1963, but
recently Virginia Hunter and E. Badian have provided much more
detailed and sophisticated analyses: for more see my Greek Historians
(above, n. 1) 98-103.
5. In this chapter, unlike the previous ones, there
is a great deal of topographical information and there are some
maps and plates illustrating the various sites. Stahl is much
more conscious of the Realien of Thucydides' description here,
but while such additional information is useful, it is hardly
necessary to his treatment or interpretation.