Affect and Vision in Thucydides' History of the Peleponnesian War

Submitted by Bradley Hald on Mon, 03/25/2019 - 15:58

Bradley Hald, Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellow in Classics

Long celebrated as the ‘most scientific’ historian of the ancient world, the fifth-century BCE chronicler Thucydides was also deeply concerned with human emotionality. His History of the Peloponnesian War records twenty years of a conflict that raged for twenty-seven years in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta, the two preeminent powers of the day. The conflict left a mark on Greek society, as it did on Thucydides himself, not only for the seismic shifts in political power it brought about, but, as he says himself, for the unparalleled human suffering it entailed for the Greeks and non-Greeks who were dragged into it. My research tries to better understand Thucydides’ conception of how the emotions functioned throughout these historical processes. What was their role in domestic and international politics? on the battlefield? To what ends were they invoked in political rhetoric? in the various representations of Athenian civic ideology we encounter throughout the text?

The most pervasive emotion in Thucydides’ History is fear. It turns up in every major person and place in the war narrative. In fact, Thucydides cites the Spartans’ fear of Athenian power as the ‘truest cause’ that set this whole war in motion in the first place. But its macro-scale causality is replayed again and again in the micro-scale of the text’s narrative of individual events. For Thucydides, fear is a prime mover of history.

In the first military action of the war, a night assault by a band of Theban soldiers on the Boeotian city of Plataea, soldiers on both sides of the action are affected by fears according to what they are able to see of their opponents in the darkness. And so Thucydides establishes, already at very beginning of this war narrative, a clear relation between fear, visibility, and subjective understanding. Vision acts as the chief conduit for knowledge for the characters in this scene, and their visual knowledge, in turn, sits in a direct relation with the fear they feel (or don’t feel).

Image, painted marble eye from the prow of an Athenia trireme
Painted marble eye from the prow of an Athenian trireme, late 5th c. BCE

The scene establishes a basic three-way interaction that recurs throughout the text, not only in its battle narratives but also in the political and ideological rhetoric Thucydides puts into the mouths of his historical agents. The Athenian general Pericles, for instance, in his famous Funeral Oration, outlines a highly prescriptive way of seeing and knowing about the world whose target is Athenian citizen fear. The speech is a public eulogy given for the Athenian citizen-soldiers who have died at the end of the first year of fighting, and in it Pericles exhorts his Athenian audience to emulate the sacrifice of these exemplary dead. These men, he assures his listeners, felt no fear in their final moments of life, because they understood the value of the honourable death as the only pathway to the pinnacle of civic renown. When they saw mortal danger approaching in front of them, Pericles insists, they did not see their impending death but rather their impending glory. In this way, Pericles enlists the visual, the epistemic, and the emotional in the coercive ideological agenda his speech presents to its audience of Athenian citizens and soldiers.

By reading Thucydides in this way, I am able to focus on the ways the actors of the History are shown to read, understand, and feel their own world within the text. But the relation between seeing, knowing, and feeling can extend to the reader outside the text as well. Thucydides offers his reader an explanation of this particular war at this particular time in the late fifth century BCE. But his text is also far more ambitious than this—as he says, ‘a possession for all time’ that seeks to uncover a set of universal truths that obtained in Thucydides’ day and will continue to influence historical processes as long as human nature remains the same.

photograph, marble votive offering to Asclepius, south slopes of the Acropolis, ca.350 BCE
Votive offering to Asclepius, South Slope of the Acropolis, ca 350 BCE

So then, while the History as a whole cannot hope, nor does it claim, to prevent future conflicts from occurring, my research suggests it may offer a certain emotional utility to its prospective readership: by providing its reader with a framework for making sense of the mechanics of such future catastrophes, it can serve to alleviate the subjective fears that, as the text itself demonstrates, arise from failures of clear understanding. Breaking down the otherwise inscrutable complexities of historical causation, Thucydides’ text presents itself as a comprehensive vision of humanity, a powerful tool for the discerning reader against the anxieties of his/her present day. In short, it offers to shine a light onto the processes that propel human events, and in so doing, to render the darkness of history clearly visible, knowable, and less daunting.