Was Ancient Historian One Of The First Spin Doctors?



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Without a man named Thucydides, the chances are slim that we'd know anything about the Peloponnesian War. A new book about the man attempts to correct what we know.

For more than a quarter of a century, starting in 431 B.C., two Greek cities faced off. Sometimes they confronted each other directly, and sometimes through proxies and allies. Thucydides recorded the details of the conflict throughout the war and, Yale professor Donald Kagan tells NPR's Guy Raz, "invented the modern understanding of history."

The war between Athens and Sparta has long since become an allegory of modern conflicts like the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq — even Afghanistan. Historians and students of Thucydides all draw comparisons back to that ancient conflict. Kagan says Thucydides was the first person to apply rigorous scholarship in the approach to storytelling.

Kagan's own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is considered a seminal work, widely cited by students and scholars. His latest book, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, delves into the ancient author and why he may not have always told the truth.

Thucydides was born around 455 B.C. to a noble Athenian family. During his youth, the Athenian empire was ruled by Pericles, who was something of a benign autocrat. But after Pericles' death in 429 B.C., the governance of Athens was taken over by a group of self-proclaimed democrats — most likely an affront to Thucydides' family, Kagan says, who would have had a deep skepticism of democracy.

In his history of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides attempts to assign blame for Athens' eventual demise on those democratic leaders.

"I think he tried the best he could to be objective," Kagan says, but Kagan's new book is an attempt to revise and even correct some of Thucydides' accounts. Kagan draws upon other sources to argue that, at times, Thucydides is selective in the way he uses direct quotations and reconstructs events.

Thucydides' work remains required reading at the U.S. military academies, and Kagan says there's still good reason. "One of the wonderful things that his work does is to make it clear to us what is so little clear when most people get into war — and that is how terrible war is."

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, about 400 years before Catullus was writing his burlesque poetry, a man named Thucydides was writing about war, the Peloponnesian War. For more than a quarter century, starting in 431 B.C., two ancient Greek powers, Sparta and Athens, faced off, sometimes directly, sometimes through proxies and allies, in a war that has long since become an allegory for modern conflict.

The Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, historians and students of Thucydides have all drawn comparisons. Now, Yale professor Donald Kagan has written a new book about the way Thucydides covered the conflict between Athens and Sparta. The book is called "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History," and Donald Kagan joins me from New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome.

Professor DONALD KAGAN (Classics and History, Yale University; Author, "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History"): Thank you very much.

RAZ: Describe for us who Thucydides was.

Prof. KAGAN: Thucydides was an Athenian. He lived in a democracy, but he himself was a man of noble birth, an interesting fellow because his family tradition would have been skeptical of democracy, and yet, he was elected general in the course of the Peloponnesian War at a time when the democratic forces were rampant.

RAZ: He was basically operating at a time when history meant you wrote about gods, but he was different. I mean, he saw himself, as he calls himself, an objective historian. I mean, he was operating in some ways closer to the way modern historians operate than his contemporaries, right?

Prof. KAGAN: In a certain sense, he invented the modern understanding of history. Thucydides jumps in, rejects all supernatural explanations of anything and insists upon applying reason and hard-nosed, critical examination of the evidence as the only way to achieve an understanding.

RAZ: What do you make of the, sort of the allegorical aspect to this book? I mean, the Cold War is this great example that people have pointed to, where the U.S. and Russia were aligned against the Nazis, Athens and Sparta aligned against the Persians, and then once that conflict is over, they then face off against each other.

Prof. KAGAN: It is a remarkable thing. His history is so widespread source in so many college courses and so many different kinds of institutions. I think that the major reason is the stunning similarity between what you just describe and the experience of United States and the Soviet Union in the middle and the latter parts of the 20th century.

RAZ: Donald Kagan, I don't think I need to announce a spoiler alert here, but in the end, Athens loses badly, the empire collapses.

Prof. KAGAN: It's good to have somebody remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Do you think in some ways, Thucydides' book is an anti-war book?

Prof. KAGAN: No, but he - one of the wonderful things that his work does is to make it clear to us what is so little clear when most people get into a war, and that is how terrible war is, what the cost is not merely in the lives of the dead but what it does to a society if a war carries on for any period of time and really stresses a society, as war does. It's one of those great tests, like a terrible plague, which in fact comes in the course of the Peloponnesian War, and puts the character of a society to test.

So I would say in that sense, he wants us to be very realistic and to understand the negative possibilities of war, but I think he would not simply say one ought not to fight wars.

RAZ: And Donald Kagan, many historians have pointed to a pivotal moment in the demise of ancient Athens, the decision to invade Sicily in 415 B.C. That ends in disaster. Athens loses something like 200 ships, thousands of men, and throughout history, people have pointed to that example, you know, when countries make certain political decisions that turn out badly. Most recently, of course, the parallels were made with the decision to invade Iraq. Do you think that's a fair comparison?

Prof. KAGAN: Well, no because the really important part of that story was how that undertaking, which made sense, although it wasn't a required action, turned into a disaster. And it was turned into a disaster, in my opinion, not in the original concept but in the political fighting and, finally, in the execution. So - I guess maybe there is some analogy. It seems to me, when I look at the Iraq situation, there were good reasons to be fearful of allowing Saddam Hussein to return to power, but then there are very good reasons for condemning the execution of the war that was brought against him.

RAZ: One of the most notable places where Thucydides' "Peloponnesian War" is required reading is at West Point. What does he teach us about the nature of modern war?

Prof. KAGAN: Well, I think it teaches us the nature, something about the nature of war at all times. He has the Athenians show up at Sparta in the time that the Spartans are discussing whether to go to war against Athens, just before the war really begins, and they put forward this triad of explaining why do states go to war. And the three things that he mentions are fear, honor and interest.

To my mind, the great wisdom that's contained in that is for us to concentrate on this question of honor, and I put it another way, especially in the modern world. The fear and hatred of being dishonored, the slang word to be dissed, is what we want to think about. Nobody wants to be dissed, and so often, people really go to war even though the interest element is highly dubious, the fear element is manageable, but their concern at being dishonored is what really drives them forward.

But modern Americans, when I talk to them, start out being very puzzled by that idea.

RAZ: Why so?

Prof. KAGAN: The think honor is a concept of another world. It has nothing to do with us. We don't really believe in those things. And so I use the analogy of go to your neighborhood bar, and go dis somebody there and see what happens.

RAZ: Not something we recommend on this program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Donald Kagan is the Sterling professor of Classics and History at Yale. His new book is called "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History."

Professor Kagan, thank you so much.

Prof. KAGAN: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.