- Thucydides, Pericles, and Periclean Realism
Foster's book on Thucydides will have an appeal well beyond her own field of classics. International-relations specialists and others have long looked to Thucydides as the first exponent of the realist school of interstate politics; he writes of the Athenian Empire, the Spartan war that Athens' fearsome power sparked, and the politics of his day in a hard-edged manner, scorning any who would mistake specious words for the real causes of events or the true, self-interested motives of state actors.
But not everyone has accepted that Thucydides is the coldly rational realist that he is often taken to be. Especially in recent years, some observers of international politics have rejected the association of Thucydides with the modern realist point of view, arguing that Thucydides' history, properly understood, undermines any possible faith in the principles of power politics, showing the tragic costs of such an approach to policy.1 Inconvenient for such a view has been Thucydides' praise for Pericles, the chief advocate of Athens' swaggering imperial power on the eve of its war with Sparta. Foster's book would solve this dilemma, since she applies her philological training and a narratological approach to the first two books of Thucydides' history to argue a striking thesis: Contrary to the received opinion among ancient historians, Thucydides did not approve of Pericles' vision of Athenian greatness and power. Rather, the ancient author constructed his early narratives in such a way as to undermine completely the worldview propounded in the speeches that he gave to Pericles.
Foster analyzes large chunks of Thucydides' early accounts, proceeding in order from the opening section (the "Archaeology") to the battles of Corinth with Corcyra, the Spartan War Congress, the [End Page 276] Pentekontaetia, Pericles' background, and finally Pericles' speeches. She argues, often with meticulous attention to the Greek language, that Thucydides repeatedly showed the self-destructive folly of states accumulating resources and using them aggressively, whether in Greece's distant past or in contemporary Corinth and Corcyra. He countered Pericles' high-flying, confident rhetoric centered on Athenian money, ships, and imperial glory not only with the horrors of the plague narrative but with subtle reminders about other kinds of civic and military strength, such as that of the Spartans and their allies. Foster even argues that Thucydides' famous encomium of Pericles (at 2.65) is qualified, depicting the leader as misguided and fatally overconfident about Athenian resources.
Foster's book deserves a wide audience for its thought-provoking argument, but it is not entirely convincing. The passage at 2.65 does not read as Foster would have it—carefully limited praise amid a narrative that portrays Pericles as a tragic, hubristic failure. Rather, Thucydides heartily endorses the leader, not just for his political talents, but explicitly for his insights about Athenian resources and capabilities, thereby rendering dubious all of Foster's labors to show that Thucydides must have disapproved of the Periclean-style pursuit of resources and power because of subtle themes lurking in Thucydides' narratives. Also weighing against her interpretation is the fact that neither ancient commentators like Dionysius of Halicarnassus nor leading modern classicists noticed any consistent authorial agenda bent on undermining Pericles' vision. Foster does not help her cause by occasionally overstating her case—for instance when she finds Athenians showing "contempt" for the Corcyrean navy (59), and when she cites "acquisition" (instead of, say, power) as the distinguishing theme of Pericles' speeches (191). But such occasions are uncommon, and balanced by many useful insights. Hers is, in all, a thoughtfully argued and worthwhile study.
1. See, for instance, Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests, and Orders (New York, 2003). For a useful critical overview of Thucydides and modern realist ideas, see Jonathan Monten, "Thucydides and Modern Realism," International Studies Quarterly, L (2006), 3-25.