HOW TO THINK ABOUT WAR: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy

Selected, translated, and introduced by Johanna Hanink

Princeton (2019) h/b/ 336 pp £13.99 (ISBN 9780691190150)

The title here is a bit of a misnomer. This is not a study of war, nor is it, pace the subtitle, ‘an ancient guide to foreign policy’. It is not even the ‘the first English-language collection of Thucydides in nearly half a century’, as the Princeton blurb proclaims: there have been many translations since Warner, including Steven Lattimore (1998), Blanco (1998), Hammond (2009) and Mynott (2013). This book is actually only six of the most important of Thucydides’ speeches, with an introduction and a very brief note on each speech.

The speeches, over 140 of them of one kind or another, constitute of course a major part of Thucydides’ history, amounting to around a quarter of the entire text. These six, however, are not all about war or even foreign policy. As Thucydides himself notes, they are primarily about human nature and behaviour. Cavils aside, what do they tell us? For students of warfare and the causes of warfare, they articulate a defence of power: ‘gods and mortals always seek to rule wherever they can’ (5.105).

Power not only corrupts: it expands. The Athenian empire is justified on empirical grounds, no less: for example, that the most powerful member taking over the management responsibilities of the Delian League simply reflected human nature. States expand as and when they can, irrespective of moral constraints. 

Students of Thucydides have digested this according to their times. When Kenneth Dover lectured me on his commentary in the early 1970s, Thucydidean scholarship was infused by American divisions over the Vietnam War. As Professor Hanink explains, neocons continued to invoke Thucydides to justify military interventions in the Middle East, even the invasion of Iraq. The debate about might and right goes on to this day, with rising US-China tensions billed as the latest ‘Thucydides trap’. 

Thucydides of course was no uncritical imperialist. On the contrary, he puts the arguments side by side. It is no accident that the big speeches are arranged antithetically: as the history moves towards its Sicilian climax, it becomes more and more like a tragedy in in its construction. So we get the arguments for and against the alliance with Corcyra, for and against the declaration of war, for and against the punishment of Mytilene. The big set pieces also come in contrasting contexts: the Funeral Oration is followed by that gruesome account of the plague; the Melian dialogue builds up to the disaster of the Sicilian expedition.

Frustratingly in this book we get only Athenian speeches: rival points of view—whether of Sparta or Athens’ own allies—are not there. Only by re-reading the whole of the history do we pick up on Thucydides’ more nuanced concern at the lack of Athenian moderation and his respect for the institutional conservatism of Sparta. And the speeches themselves are often difficult: while Thucydides’ narrative is clear and graphic, the speeches are concise and condensed in thought and in construction.

Successive translators from Hobbes through to Crawley and those of modern times have wrestled with the challenges of making the speeches readable in the idiom of their day but still faithful to the actual Greek. And separating contemporaneous understanding of political concepts such as rights from the task of translation has often proved elusive. This translation flows along but does nott to my mind improve on Lattimore’s textual accuracy. 

Hanink may not have made me think again about war or indeed foreign policy. But what her little offering does do is remind us of just how important it is to go back to the Greek and translate it all over again for ourselves—with the commentaries of Gomme, Dover and Hornblower to hand, of course. 

Michael Fallon

Secretary of State for Defence, 2014-2017

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