Ancient Greek World

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Ancient Greek world

A modern researcher, in his/her attempt to focus on, and shape a coherent and complete argument regarding any aspect of the rich thematology of the ancient Greek world, unavoidably refers to classical historiography as one of the primary sources of material. Due to the chronological distance of the subject-matter and lack of relevant surviving documentation in abundance, classical historians of the ancient Greek era evolved as authoritative figures in the reconstructional process of ancient history. Thucydides is largely considered by critics as the ancestor of modern historiography, through the introduction of basic scientific methods in his effort to narrate the Peloponnesian War.

In the selected passage (6.08) of the translation of the sixth book of the Peloponnesian War[1], Thucydides portrays his artistry and method in narrative through the use of several techniques. The text starts with the chronological reference of the incident described, with the division in seasons and solar years following precedent events. The outbreak of the war was the only instance fixed chronologically.[2] Though inaccurate, this system provided Thucydides with a supportive tool to the linear development of his history.

All the information in the extract concerning the return of the delegation with the Egestaeans, the gathering of the Assembly twice, decisions and voting, are details that Thucydides must have collected from an informant. According to the outline of the method of his historical writing presented in 1.20-1.22, his primary source of information were eye-witnesses of the events, or himself.[3] He did not rely on documentary evidence, with the exception of the last book, generally regarded as incomplete. Thucydides admits the eventual subjectivity and fragmentary distribution of the information, providing as safeguards the cross-examination of more than one informants where possible, and his thorough examination of the data he collected. However, I endorse, partiality cannot be disregarded, although difficult to be revealed, since the Peloponnesian War for us, the modern readers, is the exclusive product of Thucydides' history.[4]

The author makes use of several narrative and rhetorical techniques, aiming at foreshadowing any subjectivity of interpretation with a sense of vividness, objectivity and accuracy. In 6.08, he follows his general complexity of narrative through multiple subordinate clauses. The language is direct, not ornamental, bare of romantic elements. All information is presented as a series of facts, assessing the immediacy of the effect on the reader towards accuracy and precision. Narrative displacement in his reference to the deception of the Assembly from the Egestaeans as far as money availability is concerned, serves as a supportive item to the general notion of ignorance of the Athenians with regard to Sicily and the dangers of their expedition. The importance of the delusion of the Assembly will be revealed upon arrival in Sicily and the discovery of the truth. This kind of chronological deviation is identified in several instances in Thucydides work, either to stress or reduce the impact of the reference.[5]

Finally, at the end of the passage, Nicias rises to speak in order to persuade the Assembly to cancel the expedition. The uniqueness of the combination of narrative and speeches constitutes one of the most important aspects of Thucydidean historic writing. The narrative-speech technique, apart from depicting moral values, true intentions of speakers, demagogic and rhetorical strategies, or even Thucydides' personal opinion and criticism by "exploiting" his speakers as mouthpieces, underlines and justifies the narration rather than vice versa.[6] The impact of the above combination in our perception of accuracy and objectivity of the demonstration of events is striking. I support that the use of speech following this passage, as in most other instances, should not be marginalised as a mere supporting device of the narration for the sake of persuasiveness. It also reflects the author's intention to express his thoughts, opinion and ideas about the course of events, avoiding thus negative effects on his narrative "objectivity".


The extract includes some crucial historical points preceding the events of the Sicilian expedition. Firstly I intend to focus on the two Assemblies and the way the author engages with both in the narrative. On a second level, the commission of the expedition to three generals in full power, Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus constitutes an interesting historical event for further investigation, in the light of the importance of the failure of the Sicilian War and its impact and contribution to the outcome of the Peloponnesian War with the defeat of Athens.

The author informs us that after the return of the Athenian delegation from Sicily along with the Egestaeans, two Assemblies were held. In the first Assembly, after the encouraging report concerning financial abundance in Egestaean treasury and their temples, the citizens voted in favour of the organisation of the expedition and decided to send sixty ships and appointed three generals as commanders of the task with full powers to resolve the conflict of Egesta and Selinus, reestablish Leontini and take any further action necessary according to the interests of the city. Thucydides refers to the first Assembly briefly, in a paragraph actually, and focuses on the second Assembly, held to decide on the means of preparing the fleet quickly and vote for any additional supplies the generals thought needed.

Strangely enough, there are no speeches reflecting the different points of view of the first Assembly. Taking into account the importance of the decision of the citizens, we should expect from Thucydides to elaborate more on the discussion that was conducted in the presence of the delegation and the Egestaeans. I suspect that either he did not manage to collect sufficient evidence from his informants describing any speakers during the first Assembly in order to report, or "recreate", their speeches, or that the Assembly altogether kept an openly supportive stance to the organisation of the expedition, an argument which may also justify Nicias' silence in the first Assembly in order for him to avoid being overwhelmed by the general euphoria and enthusiasm of the citizens who voted in favour of the operations in Sicily. He does not reveal his opposition in the first Assembly, but prefers to sway the citizen's beliefs in the second.

Thucydides reports extensively the events of the second Assembly with Nicias' speech against the expedition and Alcibiades' one in support of it. We already know that Nicias was appointed general in full power for the expedition against his will as the author remarks in the extract, and later as it is demonstrated in his speech.[7]

Another fact that requires further investigation is the commission of the expedition not to one, but to three generals in full power. The text does not offer a satisfactory explanation for the above decision. Alcibiades appears as a strong supporter of the operation, having Nicias as his counterpart, with the name of the Alcibiades first on the list as the chief proponent of the expedition, without any hint on behalf of the author of superiority following the position of the names in the list of the three commanders.[8] Since the Assembly is presented as more than enthusiastic to organise the expedition, a logical assumption would be the choice of an equally supportive commander who could ensure the successful completion of the operation, in the face of Alcibiades. By "successful" in the minds of the Athenians we should rather consider the subordination of all of Sicily under Athenian control, than the resolve of the conflict of Egesta with Selinus. The main motives of the Athenians were presented by the author not only in 6.8, but also in Book 4, when they banished two of their generals and fined a third, accusing them of bribery because they left Sicily without taking control of it, during the first expedition on the island.[9] A risky judgement could be that the Assembly might have considered to keep the balance between the excessive excitement of Alcibiades and the reserved and cautious stance of Nicias concerning the expedition, with Lamachus in the role of the balancing point, in order to safeguard the successful completion of the operation. We could not be definitely positive that the citizens were aware of Nicias' doubts before the second Assembly.

In an attempt to organise a productive strategy to analyse and invesitgate further the historical points I deducted from the extract, I collected a series of ancient sources and critical scholarship described briefly in the annotated bibliography. A close reading of the history apart from the extract of reference is important towards the causality of events and Thucydides' preoccupation with both themes. Accessibility to the original text and different translations can also contribute to a more thorough knowledge of different perceptions of interpretation of events. A reference book on the ancient world provides the researcher with vital collective information collected from multiple sources, sometimes inaccessible due to locality issues. Inscriptions and epigraphic sources would serve a researcher to make a more systematic investigation of the events. Modern criticism and scholarship offer multiple alternative perspectives of interpreting historical points. I made a careful choice of the most important works that would provide my research with adequate support of my main argument. Selective attitude towards modern scholarship in accordance with a personal point of view for the historical points described above may constitute a basic framework of my argumentation.



[1] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. by Rex Warner with introduction by M.I. Finley, 2nd edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1972), p. 414.

[2] Thucydides, p. 22.

[3] Thucydides, pp. 47-48.

[4] Thucydides, p. 9

[5] Simon Hornblower, 'Narratology and Narrative Techniques in Thucydides', in Greek Historiography, ed. by Simon Hornblower (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 139.

[6] Hans Peter Stahl, 'Speeches and course of Events in Books Six and Seven of Thucydides', in The Speeches in Thucydides, ed. by Philip A. Stadter (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), p. 62.

[7] Thucydides, pp. 414-418.

[8] Arnold Wycombe Gomme, Antony Andrewes and Kenneth James Dover, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), iv, p. 224.

[9] Thucydides, p. 303.