The School of Athens

From The Wall Street Journal:

Book Without Thucydides the war (or wars) fought between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta late in the fifth century B.C. would have been no more significant than many another long war (or wars) whose start dates, end dates, causes and characters might (or might not) have been discussed by future historians. Only because of Thucydides' “History of the Peloponnesian War”—with his radical claims of exercising a new rationality and, most grandiloquently, of writing a “thing for all time”—did a typically messy military contest based on money, influence, bloody-mindedness and happenstance become interpreted and reinterpreted as though it were a religious revelation. Communists and anticommunists, leftists and neocons, anti-imperialists and empire builders have all fought to recruit the great Athenian as their ally.

Donald Kagan, a veteran Yale professor of classics and ancient history, has himself taken part in these arguments for almost a half-century. His own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is a classic of modern scholarship. Now, with “Thucydides: The Reinvention of History,” Mr. Kagan has produced what reads like the last word on the man, a nuanced and subtle account of a subject that has so often been treated in a spirit of high partisanship. Mr. Kagan stresses that Thucydides, an Athenian naval commander who was exiled in 424 B.C. for losing an important battle in Thrace, was more than just a participant in the conflict that he described. He was also a player in the domestic politics of the war, the “spin” as well as the strategy. Thus “Thucydides: The Reinvention of History” is a book about a long-ago historian's argument with his contemporaries—the tension between facts and what one would like to be facts. “In the important cases examined here,” Mr. Kagan writes, “the contemporary view was closer to the truth than [Thucydides'] own.”

More here. (Note: For Anju and Asad who spoke so eloquently about Thucydides over dinner last weekend.)