chapter  5
30 Pages

Explaining the war

Yet telling a story is never simple. Thucydides is concerned to render that story intelligible, to ensure ‘that no-one ever has to ask the origins from which so great a war came upon the Greeks’ (1.22.1). The presumption may seem breathtaking:1 once he has made things clear, the inquiry will be laid to rest. In so doing, he employs various conceptual categories familiar from Herodotus. It is a tale of imperialist expansion; of confidence bred of success; of a great state which will go on to destroy itself, undermined by the very qualities which built its power; of resentful subjects waiting for their moment; of resistance fed by pride, by a taste for liberty, and above all by fear. But Herodotus left the relation between the strands subtle, shifting, and indecisive. Herodotus’ readers are continually brought to ask why events happen-is it the gods, is it human overconfidence, is it something to do with the court, is freedom an inspiration or a fragmenting delusion, are Persians doomed to defeat by their natural softness? —but any provisional answers are refined by the next sequence of events. Herodotus’ text is ‘dialogic’ (to use Bakhtin’s categories2). Multiple viewpoints and interpretations co-exist in the text; and the interaction between text and reader is itself a two-way ‘dialogue’, with each continually putting questions to the other-and not every reader will end by arranging the different causal strands in the same pattern.