Diagnosing War in Ancient Greece
Dr Rachel Bruzzone
The Ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ anxiety to prepare the reader to identify a calamity similar to the events he relates, the basis for his claim to his work’s “usefulness” (1.22.4), is one of his more puzzling stances as he does not specify what, exactly, he proposes to enable the reader to recognize. His certainty that this type of event will return is clearer: he states that he writes so that the future may be able “to examine the fundamental nature (τὸ σαφές) of what happened and the sort of thing, or similar, which will happen again sometime” (1.22.4). I argue that he presents his war as an extreme manifestation of a specific pattern of catastrophe with a lengthy literary pedigree, and that it is this pattern, often portending total societal collapse, that his work is meant to ready the reader to identify. Many ancient authors in a variety of genres both preceding and following Thucydides describe a multitude of disasters assaulting a society in concert, usually including international war, civil war, starvation, environmental upheaval such as eclipses and tsunamis, and plague. This is precisely the constellation of catastrophe that Thucydides emphasizes in his programmatic but often-ignored pathemata passage, immediately before he asserts his work’s usefulness. This reading suggests that Thucydides understands the phenomenon of warfare not as the manifestation of Realpolitik he is often seen as advancing, but rather as something more organic and uncontrollable, his work serving as a warning rather than support for modern attempts to justify amoral action in war.