The Cambridge Companion to Thucydides

Review by Diana Bentley

Nearly two and a half millennia after it was written, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War not only remains vibrantly alive and regularly referred to in discussions of modern conflict and politics, but is a rich subject of scholarly study and debate. Although left unfinished, Thucydides’ work charted the course of the gruelling conflict between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies from 431 to 404 BC, and was the only contemporary account of it to survive. This new Companion – part of the long running Cambridge University Press series of Companions to Literature – offers a wide-ranging examination of his groundbreaking work.

Considered the father of the Western historiographical tradition, Thucydides has also been adopted as a pioneer in the history of political thought and approaches to international relations. He was an Athenian who participated in the war himself, but nonetheless made numerous claims about his own work’s faithfulness to the truth, its advantages over other contemporary methods of imparting the events of the past to others (such as oratory), and its usefulness for future generations. These claims have been the subject of considerable analysis.

The Companion’s 20 chapters, written by an impressive array of scholars, examine and probe numerous aspects of Thucydides’ History, including the way in which it was constructed and was intended to be read, the subjects it explores – such as empires and justice, as well as war – and the impact it has had on writers, historians, and others from its own time right up to the present. The chapters review how, for example, Thucydides’ chiefly dispassionate presentation and the way he largely absented himself from his own narrative imbue his work with authority and foster trust in his objectivity. One essay highlights how, despite his impassive stance, he hardly shirked from depicting the tragic brutality and horror of the conflict. Examined too are the ways in which the author gathered his material and deployed sources – for instance, his use of speeches and how authentic they may have been.

Polly Low, the book’s editor and a professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Durham, notes that one main goal of the Companion is to provide an accessible guide to Thucydides and his writing, and to demonstrate why his work remains so worthwhile a subject of study today. She takes care to point out that, given the diverse ways in which Thucydides has been read and understood, her book makes no claims to be comprehensive. But the 20 essays effectively convey just how many aspects of his work provide ample scope for discussion, and why succeeding generations of readers and scholars interpret the text in new ways. It is sure to be illuminating for newcomers to Thucydides, as well as thought-provoking for those familiar with his work.

The Cambridge Companion to Thucydides 
Edited by Polly Low 
Cambridge University Press, £29.99
Paperback ISBN 978-1107514607