publisher colophon
  • Escape from Plataea:Political and Intellectual Liberation in Thucydides's History

Thucydides's account of both the Spartan siege of Plataea and the efforts by its defenders to save themselves and escape their doomed city relates some of the most daring acts of his History, a work with no shortage of daring deeds. But reading this bracing account in light of the allegory of the cave and the divided line made famous in Plato's Republic, a reading that highlights the literary dimensions of the History, suggests why Thucydides thought he could reveal "the clear truth" about human things in a work exclusively dedicated to the practical, political events of a particular war.

A testament to the richness of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War is that it has been studied for centuries with great profit by scholars of various stripes. Since the nineteenth century students of historiography have found in his narrative and methodological statements the principles by which Greeks of the fifth century BCE collected, recorded, and arranged material for their accounts of the ancient world. During the twentieth century international relations scholars, focusing on some of the more famous speeches of the work's Athenians and the unsentimental tone of the author's narrative, saw in Thucydides an early advocate of realpolitik. And Thucydides's detailed accounts of political and diplomatic affairs in ancient Greece affords contemporary political scientists the opportunity to examine the strengths and weaknesses of classical regimes at war and peace; in this respect, his famous presentation of Periclean Athens has proven especially rich [End Page 201] for democratic theorists. Finally, over the last few decades, the History has been effectively explored for its contributions to political philosophy. All of this richness, to say nothing of the work's utility to military historians, classicists, and students of rhetoric, testifies to the fact that Thucydides has indeed composed "a possession for all time" (1.20).1

I do not hope to adjudicate these various approaches to Thucydides. Instead, I offer a reading of an episode in the History that highlights the literary aspects of its narrative, one that suggests how Thucydides might combine his attention to politics, historiography, and philosophy in an effort to reveal "the clear truth" (1.20) about human beings. When examined closely, Thucydides's heart-pounding account of the Spartan siege of Plataea, one of Athens's closest allies, and the subsequent efforts by the Plataeans and their Athenian friends to escape that siege, highlights the philosophic purpose that his so-called political history is meant to serve. This purpose best comes to light when one observes that the details of this narrative reveal a similarity to the image of the cave made so famous by Socrates in Plato's Republic: Thucydides's account of an act of political liberation reflects an act of intellectual liberation.

In pointing to the similarity between these two passages, I do not suggest that Thucydides had somehow read Plato or that Plato lifted this allegory from Thucydides. I only mean that when we use Plato to foreground the literary dimension of Thucydides's narrative we find evidence that our author was interested in exploring a scheme of human understanding, an inquiry not uncommon to philosophers of the fifth century BCE and earlier, and that he used the metaphorical instruments at his disposal to convey the political and philosophic import of such a scheme to his audience. This approach helps alert readers to certain interpretive possibilities embedded within the History, possibilities that, for contemporary readers of the work, might otherwise remain undiscovered but which, once illuminated, can be seen to emerge from Thucydides's text entirely on their own, independent of other texts. And while a comparison of the two approaches to human understanding reveals important differences between them, this particular illumination of Thucydides by Plato allows us to recover the literary and philosophic value of a work considered by many to be merely an objective chronicle of particular events. Rather than historicizing the works of Thucydides or Plato, this interpretation prioritizes the texts of both men, as opposed to the political, social, and cultural milieu in which they were written. Consequently this approach is necessarily ahistorical.2 [End Page 202]

While parts of the action of the siege of Plataea and the effort to escape this doomed city reflects the image of the cave in the Republic, other aspects of this account, including its attention to geography, call to mind the divided line, an image that precedes that of the cave in the Republic and is meant to be explained by it. Only in light of the metaphorical character of the siege narrative can one begin to appreciate the significance of an episode whose artistry and emphasis outweighs its impact on the course of the war: in Thucydides's account the ability to liberate one's self from the "Plataean cave" hinges decisively on the ability of those who would escape its destruction to grasp "the measure" not only of the enemy wall that encloses them (which is visible) but of the political community of which they form a part (which is intelligible if not always visible). It is political life—and not "the Sun/the Good" outside the cave—that constitutes the whole, which orders individual parts and which itself must be measured by those seeking wisdom if those parts are to be seen and known for what they are. This account suggests that Thucydides understood continued engagement with the opinions constitutive of Greek politics, and of Athenian politics especially, to condition the human pursuit of the "clear truth" about man and politics, universals that he promised to illuminate through his treatment of a particular regime fighting a particular war.


In 428 BCE, during the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War and about eighteen months after the Spartans and their allies formally attacked and besieged the Boeotian city of Plataea, the roughly four hundred eighty men left behind to defend the city recognized that their provisions were running out. Having "no hope" that the city of Athens would come to relieve them, they devised a scheme to escape (3.20.1; also see 2.70). By counting the layers of bricks in the counter-wall that the Spartans built to hem them in, the besieged Plataeans, along with some of the eighty Athenians sent to assist their defense, were able to design and build ladders long enough to allow them to climb the counter-wall, assault and occupy the towers from which the Spartans kept their guard, and cross Spartan lines. Equipped with such ladders and aided by both a moonless night and a diversion created by some of their fellow citizens, nearly half of Plataea's defenders broke through the Spartan lines in a heart-pounding effort to reach Athens. [End Page 203]

The daring flight from Plataea is not only one of the most memorable episodes in Thucydides's massive work; it also provides an opportunity to understand the unique historiography and architecture of the History.3 On the first point, Thucydides opens his treatment of the war proper (2.1) by declaring that his chronology of the war will follow summers and winters—as opposed to the Greek convention of ordering years by the annual eponymous offices in Athens and Sparta—a practice he immediately complicates by dating the beginning of the war during the priesthood of the Argive Chrysis, the Spartan ephorate of Aenesias, and the archonship of Pythadorus of Athens (2.2). Thucydides's deeds here complicate his speech, inviting us to wonder how and to what end his historiography will blend attention to the regular, if inconstant, motions of the natural world with those conventions that aim to give an order to human and political affairs. Thucydides's narrative of the siege of Plataea, which begins in the same chapter, provides an excellent example of this blending while showing how such historiography advances the intent of his work to reveal the "clear truth" about human beings.

As for its architecture, Thucydides not only begins the first year of the war with his account of the failed Theban assault on Plataea (2.2) but his treatment of the assault on and subsequent siege of that city frames the "opening act" of the war. Thus his narrative throughout books 2 and 3, into which he weaves his treatments of Pericles and of Athens's various barbarian alliances, themselves backgrounded by reports of natural phenomena (eclipse in 2.28; plague, 2.47–54; fire, 2.77.2–4), details the subsequent Spartan effort to help their Theban allies reduce the city. After the successful escape of roughly half of the city's defenders, those who remain surrender the city to the Spartans. The defeated are put on trial, found guilty, and executed by their captors, who then raze the entire town. Thucydides brings this opening act of the war to a close with the Corcyrean civil war and its effects (3.81–85). Following this, he points ahead to Sicily (3.86, 88, 90), which will be the focus of books 6 and 7, and he reports those natural phenomena (3.87–89) that introduce—and against which one can profitably read—the career of Demosthenes (3.90), the Athenian commander whose activity occupies much of books 3 and 4. The assault on Plataea thus begins the war while the escape from the city marks the beginning of the end of the war's first major act and anticipates the work's later climactic scenes.

Finally, Thucydides gives the siege and fall of Plataea a treatment whose attention to detail has few equals in the History. In addition to the two large speeches by the Plataeans (3.53–59) and Thebans (3.61–67) [End Page 204] respectively, Thucydides includes several smaller exchanges in direct discourse (Plataean envoys, 2.71.2–4; Archidamus's reply, 2.72.1 and 3; Plataean report of Athenian response, 2.73.3; and Archidamus's appeal to the gods, 2.74.2), to say nothing of several heraldic exchanges between the belligerents. Thucydides's narrative, meanwhile, includes, among other details, the actions of nameless individuals during the initial assault by the Thebans, the siege tactics used by the Spartans and countersiege efforts employed by the Plataeans, the layout and construction of Sparta's circumvallation, the role played by natural phenomena in the siege and escape, the demographic makeup of the besieged city, the escape plan and actual escape, and the subsequent fate of the city and its inhabitants. Moreover, many of these details do nothing to advance the overall action of the story and so at first glance appear entirely unnecessary.

To be sure, Thucydides constructs narratives elsewhere that are just as long or just as detailed, as readers familiar with the campaigns on Pylos and Sicily will attest. But those events affected the course and outcome of the war. Not so with Plataea; its loss played virtually no role in Athens's eventual defeat. In fact, six years after being razed, Athens still found itself in a position to win the war and conclude a peace with Sparta on its own terms. Because his attention to the details of this first act is incommensurate with its importance to the broader course and outcome of the war, Thucydides's artistry and intense focus here suggests a purpose beyond merely preserving the historical record.

What, then, sets apart this siege from every other bloody deed recorded in the work?4 Why does Thucydides reserve a level of detail for this particular siege that he denies to other sieges of similar importance? Viewed in the context supplied by his rare but explicit political judgments, an intriguing possibility emerges. When the notoriously reticent Thucydides praises the Athenian regime of the Five Thousand as the best the city had during his lifetime, one of the highest praises of a political community that he offers in his work, he does so in terms of its measuredness (metrios, 8.97.2). This is the same virtue to which he attributes the successes of the brilliant Pericles (2.65.2) and Brasidas (4.105, 108), two of the most impressive figures in the work. Measuredness is also a term he uses to identify the origins (1.6.2) and apparent peak (8.97.2) of Greek politics, and thus a term with which he opens and closes his account of the Peloponnesian War. As such, Thucydides's selective use of metrios and its cognates represents a rare opportunity to explore his unique political science. [End Page 205]

But when it comes to what constitutes the standard (metron) against which Thucydides judges a person, regime, or action, our author is amazingly silent; throughout his massive work, Thucydides refers to "the measure" (to metron) just four times—and the first time he does so is in the dramatic escape from Plataea (3.20.4).5 Thucydides amplifies the importance of this particular passage by including two other references to the cognates of metrios (summetreo, "to measure jointly," 3.20.3, 20.4) as well as the arithmetical and geometrical tools by which "the measure" is determined. The brief passage is also packed with references to number and mathematical concepts: "220" (diakosious kai eikosi, 20.2), "half" (hemiseis, 20.2), "great" (megan, 20.2), "equal" (isas, 20.3), "more" and "many" (pleious, polu, polloi, pollakis, 20.3), "likely" or "probably" (emellon, 20.3), "numbering" or "counting" (erithmounto, arithmountes, 20.3), "calculation" (logismou, 20.3), "width" (pachous, 20.4), "error" or "mistake" (amartesesthai, 20.3), "true" (or unconcealed, alethous, 20.3), and "represent by an image" (eikasantes, 20.4).

These details are not just of linguistic interest. As the story itself suggests, the ability of the Plataeans and Athenians who flee the city to calculate the measure of the scaling ladders needed to vault the Spartan walls proves an indispensable condition for their eventual salvation. Thucydides thus gives the most significance to, and lavishes the most attention on, a term crucial to his political judgments in his narrative on the flight from Plataea. By reflecting on a passage that frames the opening act of the war (whose extraordinary details cannot be attributed to a concern for historical accuracy alone) and that places great importance on a term crucial to Thucydides's political judgments, we can reasonably hope to understand better our author's historiography.


To understand the importance of this passage and the part played by "the measure" here, we need to appreciate its metaphorical character. In his treatment of the problematic character of Periclean politics, Timothy Burns highlights elements of Thucydides's treatment of the escape from Plataea that call to mind Plato's famous image of the cave. Whether the besieged who are now effectively prisoners in their own city, the literal ascent out of the city (via the Spartan walls) that the escape plot entailed, the fortitude and clearsightedness that making this "ascent" required,6 the "salvation" of the souls at stake (esothesan, 3.24.3), or the fact that their final destination is Athens—the city that [End Page 206] "philosophizes without softness" (2.40.1)—the details of Thucydides's account bear an uncanny resemblance to the image offered by Plato's Socrates (Rep., 514a–517c). One could say that such a narrative, so close to its counterpart, makes this narrative a political dramatization of the kind of lesson that Plato embeds in book 7 of The Republic, prompting the reader to examine both texts alongside each other.

Of course, Plato's image of the cave does not stand on its own. The immediate context of that image—that of which it is itself an image—is the preceding treatment of the divided line (Rep., 509d–511e).7 In this section, Socrates leads Glaucon from the realm of the visible to the realm of the intelligible, where one can ultimately access the form of the good, which is the cause of all beings being what they are (Rep., 517c). As Plato's image of the cave overlays and helps us understand the preceding treatment of the divided line, the action of the escape from Plataea, which dramatizes the lessons found in Plato's allegory, also exhibits the ascending movement from the realm of the visible to the realm of what is invisible but otherwise intelligible.

The concern that this reading of Thucydides imposes an interpretive burden the text cannot bear is mitigated, in part, by the fact that philosophers of the ancient world had long concerned themselves with epistemology, the sacred tetractys of the Pythagoreans perhaps coming closest to what one finds later in Plato. While we cannot know how familiar Thucydides was with the work of Pythagoras, for instance, or Heraclitus, Parmenides, Thales, or Empedocles,8 we do know that his work is concerned with ascertaining the precision (akribeia) of his evidence; that it acknowledges the obstacles to human wisdom posed by vanity, the fallibility of reason and memory, and our inability to gain direct access to the ancient past (1.1–2, 10, 20–22), and that he understood his historiography to address such matters. Thucydides's famous accounts of the plague (2.50–54 especially) and the Corcyrean civil war (3.81–85; see esp. 3.82.4) further demonstrate his sustained interest in exploring the impact of war and its ravages on human understanding.

The concern that we might be overreading Thucydides is further mitigated by the interpretive discovery of schemes of understanding, similar to that found in The Republic—whose own treatment of this subject is acknowledged to be allegorical—in the work of both Homer and Herodotus.9 And the evidence is well documented that Thucydides was familiar with and understood his own work to respond to both the poetry of Homer and the Histories of Herodotus. But since the real proof of the pudding lies in its eating, we must turn to the text of the History to have such concerns most amply addressed. [End Page 207]

The reader detects a scheme of understanding similar to the divided line through careful attention to the record of both the geography of the siege and the action of the escapees—points on which our author is extremely detailed. Thucydides depicts Plataea surrounded by three lines of circumvallation: a ditch between the wall of the city and the besieging Spartans (3.22.1), then a Spartan counter-wall behind which the enemy forces are encamped (3.22.3), and a second defensive ditch behind the Spartan forces (3.23.2–5). Thucydides explains that between the two ditches the Spartans erect two defensive walls sixteen feet apart: one facing the city of Plataea and a second facing outward so as to protect their rear from any relief forces that Plataea's allies might send. But Thucydides goes out of his way to tell us that these two walls are actually joined by the huts of those Spartans forced to encamp between them "so as to give the appearance of a thick wall" (2.21.2). The appearance of a single wall is reinforced by the erection, on top of the wall, of towers that were, Thucydides reports, "the same width as the wall, reaching across from its inner to its outer face with no means of passing except through the middle" (3.21.3). Thus when the escape party makes its dash to freedom, it does so by crossing the first ditch (line 1), climbing over and then down the Spartan counter-wall (line 2), and crossing the final outer ditch (line 3); the Plataeans save themselves and their allies by moving in a line that transects all three lines of circumvallation.

Read this way, the space between the walls of the city and Sparta's counter-wall represents the visible world. Thucydides's account informs the reader that on this side of the wall, the inhabitants of Plataea are able to see by day—by the light of the sun—the side of the Spartan counter-wall facing them 3.20.3; Rep. 508b10–509a2, 516b3–c2). Because the side facing the city has not been whitewashed, the besieged are able to count the individual layers of bricks of the enemy wall so as to determine the height of the structure. Of course, they are only able to measure accurately the height of the total number of layers, which in this case can only appear to them in two dimensions—that is, as images—because they already have prior knowledge of the bricks and of their width. They can reliably judge the quality of the "images" of the bricks that they see across from them because of their familiarity with those manmade artifacts that they already handle (2.75) and on the basis of which those images are judged to be images (3.20.4). By beginning with the images of the bricks and then turning to the bricks themselves, the order of Thucydides's report anticipates the order of the divided line as reported by Socrates, an order in which images come first, followed [End Page 208] by the things of which they are images (Rep. 509e–510b1, 511e1). But by showing that the bricks are actually first in the experience of the Plataeans (2.75), this account also expresses the relation between these two aspects of the visible world as it emerges in the Republic: the character of images as images depends fundamentally on the things of which they are taken to be an image and of which we have prior experience.

If the area before the Spartan counter-wall represents what is visible, then the realm beyond the wall, which the Plataeans cannot see from their vantage point, represents what is intelligible but otherwise invisible (Rep. 509d1–3; 510d5–511a1). Thucydides tells us that the Plataeans make their escape attempt on a windy, snowy, and moonless night (3.22.1). Moreover, they are unaided by torchlight: illumination that the Spartans possess but which only serves to intensify the darkness cloaking the escape party (3.23.3–4); the Plataeans traverse the dark as they flee, becoming invisible themselves in the process. Of course to cross the Spartan counter-wall, the line separating what is visible from what is intelligible (but invisible), the Plataeans have to use their mathematical knowledge (3.20.3-4). Thus they employ calculation, numbering, and geometry. True, Thucydides makes no explicit reference to geometry here. But the ladders that the Plataeans construct have to be longer than the wall is high; if the ladders are to be scalable, they have to be pitched at an angle of forty-five degrees or more. The prisoners of Plataea thus must be familiar with diagonals, angles, and square roots.10

Once on and then over the wall, the prisoners cross the final line (the outer ditch), into what, in Socrates's account, would be the realm of the forms themselves, a realm of pure intelligence or noesis (Rep. 511d8). Thucydides observes that, due to the inclement weather of the season, the second ditch is filled with so much ice and water that it comes up to the chests of those forging the crossing (3.23.5); in other words, only their heads remain above water. Is it simply fortuitous that, in making the transition from the realm of mathematical knowledge to what would be the realm of the forms, the liberated prisoners should appear in the narrative as disembodied heads, what some could take to be the very image of nous itself?11

In the end, however, the parallelism between the two works appears to falter. In Socrates's account, the prisoners who are liberated from the cave and can participate in the forms must be forced to leave behind their dazzling beauty to return to the shadows below.12 But the Plataeans and their Athenian counterparts are never exposed to forms,13 and they find their safety assured only when they have made it to Athens. A polis [End Page 209] at war is their final destination, not the Isles of the Blessed (Rep. 540b7); the freedom they achieve is not a freedom from political life per se but from the particular political community to which they have been attached. Though no less coerced than Socrates's would-be philosopher, the "prisoners" who would be free from the doomed city of Plataea do not find salvation in an apolitical engagement with nature but in a city that "philosophizes without softness." For Thucydides, politics—and Athenian political life especially—appears a necessity even for those who would be free of its particular shadows.


If Thucydides's narrative of the escape from Plataea is meant to convey a scheme of understanding the world, then what is the significance of such a profoundly metaphorical narrative? Again, consideration of Plato's Republic offers a useful starting point for reflection. Plato's Socrates describes the cognitive experience with natural and manmade objects as one of "trust" (pistin; Rep. 522e1): we trust that the things we handle are as they appear to us, that a brick is a brick and not a hoplite's shield. Thus the Plataeans' trust in their experience with the bricks that they make (2.75) allows them to judge successfully the bricks of the counter-wall facing them—that they are, first of all, bricks (and not shields) and that such bricks are of a similar shape and size as the ones they themselves use. Their ability to take the measure of the kind of bricks that they make and use is thus essential to their ability to compare their bricks with what appear to them (or what they "imagine"; eikasantes, 20.414) as bricks in the counter-wall, bricks whose properties are judged in relation (summetreo, 20.3, 4) both to each other and to the bricks of the Plataeans.15

This ability to grasp the dimensions and limits of a brick is also critical to their ability to distinguish one brick from another, and thus to distinguish one layer of bricks from another. Taking the measure of the brick is therefore foundational to their effort to count and number the layers of bricks in the counter-wall, which is to say, to separate (count) and collect (number) the total number of layers of bricks in the wall, an effort that in Socrates's account is preparation for dialectic. To emphasize that this whole "realm" of measuring, comparing, counting, and numbering rests on a kind of trust or opinion, Thucydides remarks that the total number of layers is "determined" by many people counting the layers many times at once, since some might have miscounted, [End Page 210] but that most hit on the correct number. In other words, while the number of the layers of bricks to be counted is objective, the number judged to be "correct" is not; that number is arrived at by the majority of those who counted. And there is no guarantee that the majority will count accurately. The realm of images and of things is governed by trust in opinions, a trust that also proves foundational to the mathematical knowledge the Plataeans use to build their ladders.16

But Thucydides's narrative suggests that this realm of opinion extends to the realm of the intelligible too;17 the Plataeans, though clear of enemy lines and no longer in need of their ladders, are not yet done with the measuring, counting, and numbering. That is to say, they are not yet done with arithmetic (or dialectic), though perhaps of a less abstract and thus less precise kind. Thucydides reports that, of the two hundred twenty men who finally decide to escape, eight turn back before they reach the counter-wall. He then goes into exceptional, and apparently needless, detail about the various components of the escape party. In addition to those who design the plot and lead the escape, one is Ammias (3.23.2), the first of the "prisoners" to scale the wall. Thucydides divides the initial assault group that he leads into several smaller groupings: 1) the men who carry and plant the first ladders; then 2) follow the soldiers armed with daggers and breast plates (themselves divided evenly into assault teams); next come 3) troops lightly armed with spears; followed by 4) those who carry their shields. Once this initial assault team secures the walls and towers, 5) the rest of the fleeing Plataeans, under the watchful guard of their forward troops, mount their own ladders, cross over the wall and provide protective cover for the assault teams, now withdrawing, with their arrows and darts (3.23.1–3). After all of the men have crossed the watery outer ditch and reassembled as a group, the Plataeans go "all together along the road leading to Thebes" (3.24.1) before finally turning south to Athens.

Thucydides's detailed account of the crossing first subtracts from the whole, separates parts into smaller subgroups, and then recollects into a whole the remaining two hundred twelve members of the escape party. If the counting of the bricks is analogous to the counting of the men, then Thucydides, to perform this arithmetic correctly, must first grasp the things being numbered and counted. His account suggests that what we need to grasp adequately, if we are to complete the act of political liberation symbolized in this tale, is not ladders or bricks (products of human art) but human beings (products of nature, in part). And his details about the composition and organization of the [End Page 211] escape party suggest that if we are to determine correctly that measure which enables our salvation, then we must be especially attentive to the specific functions or places of individual citizens within a broader community.18 Like the individual ladders whose measure the Plataeans and Athenians discover by adding up the individual bricks to determine the height of the wall, the measure by which one reaches the truth about human nature can be determined by focusing on individuals in relation to one another.19 But for human beings, these relations are set by politics. Thus one cannot do with human nature what one does with the Spartan wall20—merely adding up individuals to arrive at the truth about the whole. One must instead view individuals in the political context of which they form a part. This need to understand human beings relationally within a political context means understanding that a human being can be at one and the same time one thing and something else.

This allows us to make some sense of the reference to the otherwise forgettable (and long since forgotten) Ammias. Thucydides reports that he is the first individual to ascend to the top of the wall. But he is also and at the same time one part of the smaller assault team, which is itself part of the larger escape group. And this escape group comes from the larger subsection of people known as Plataeans, who are themselves Greeks, all of whom in turn belong to the human species. Thus Ammias is both one and other, or perhaps more accurately, he is both one and many; he is both inextricably an individual distinct from all other human beings (in being the first to ascend the wall), and like all the others, he is a member of the escape group, a citizen of Plataea and thus a Greek, and finally a human being and thus in important respects indistinguishable from the rest.

Grasping the measure of "Ammias" therefore requires appreciating what allows him to be both a particular individual distinct from others and yet, like those others, one part of a larger whole.21 And this appreciation requires continued attention to his place within the community and thus continued attention to the political opinions and conventions that define that community. To grasp the measure of "Ammias" means to focus on the political context in which the particularity and interdependency of human beings comes to light. That is, to understand what makes Ammias noteworthy means knowing not merely that he is a human being or a Greek but a citizen of a city that was besieged by Sparta, a man whose singular daring can only be seen for what it is against both the odds he faced and the unwillingness of some of his fellow Plataeans to face them as he did. It means placing him in the [End Page 212] context of his regime and the political opinions that justify and uphold its rule. Needless to say, such an understanding does not admit of the kind of precision available to numbers alone. The fact that the Plataeans and Athenians who managed to escape the siege were only truly saved after they made it to Athens reinforces this insight about the continued importance of political life to our intellectual "salvation."


When we resurface from these abstract depths to the political drama played out in the pages of the History, we see that the literary possibilities to which our use of Plato alerts us are already present within Thucydides's text and are readily available to a reader alerted to the significance of this passage by the broader context supplied by the war and our author. For instance, at the end of the dramatic first act of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides an account of the Corcyrean civil war, one whose horrifying details foreshadow the civil wars that will wrack other Greek cities and whose consequences will lead to Athens's eventual surrender to Sparta (2.65). In light of the destruction of Greek political life for which the war is responsible, and which the Corcyrean civil war foreshadows, the Plataeans' daring escape that Thucydides recounts represents a possible way out. It offers a path by which one can avoid the annihilation to which the breakdown of political life can so often lead. Read within the context of the whole History, we are alerted to the significance of such a liberation and are invited to return to Thucydides's account of it so that we can attend to its detailed treatment with great care. And it compels us to reread the rest of the History in the light of the path to "salvation" that it appears to represent.

The "way out" embodied in the escape from Plataea not only requires the wisdom and the daring to do what needs to be done but also hinges on the ability to derive the measure from those things that are most familiar and therefore come first. And the measure of these things is to be understood relationally, that is, as both one and other (or one and many). Thucydides's detailed narrative suggests that one achieves the measure, or one measures best, when one grasps the relational quality of things, a grasp made possible by the dialectical apprehension of the interdependence of parts and wholes within a political context. Such an insight into the nature of wisdom might help one understand Thucydides's unremitting focus on practical political and military matters. [End Page 213]

A more complete study of the History would be required to support this reading more fully. But if reading Thucydides's narrative of Plataea against Plato's image of the cave allows us to foreground effectively the literary and philosophic dimensions of what has long been taken to be merely history, then Thucydides's choice of his subject, his focus on the practical political affairs of particular Greek regimes at war, is not merely instrumental; his handling of politics is not simply meant to serve as an image that artfully conveys his insights into the nature of knowledge and of knowing. The intriguing possibility emerges that his particular presentation of Greek political life at war may itself be the source of such insights and must therefore be studied as such. And if one implication of Thucydides's metaphorical handling of Plataea is that our access to the "clear truth" about human nature is rooted in an engagement with the "measure" supplied by the conventions of Greek political life, then one cannot hope to separate universals from the particulars that constitute them and through which they are understood. And if one cannot hope to leave behind particulars in the quest for pure universals, or forms, if one cannot leave behind the constant tumult of political life completely for a permanent rest in the light of pure and unchanging being, then one cannot hope to access and participate in a wisdom that is whole and whose ground in nature supplies a standard for human life independent of the political efflorescence that Thucydides so artfully portrays in his philosophic work.

Bernard J. Dobski
Assumption College


1. All translations of Thucydides are mine unless otherwise noted. Citations follow the standard book, chapter, and section as found in the Oxford Classical text of Thucydidis Historiae, vol. 1, ed. Henry Stuart Jones and Johannes Enoch Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1902). For Plato, I use Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968); hereafter abbreviated Rep.

2. Jacob Klein, in "History and the Liberal Arts," best captures the approach to reading Thucydides and Plato that I adopt here: "the commonly accepted picture of an historical period is largely due to an interpretation of the content of books and other documents which presupposes in the first place the ability to deal with grammatical patterns, to discern rhetorical devices, to grasp ideas in all their implications." For Klein, this depends on "the understanding of the function of signs, of the complexity of symbolic expressions, and of the cogency of logical relations" (Jacob Klein, The Lectures and Essays of [End Page 214] Jacob Klein, ed. Robert Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman [Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1985], pp. 127–38 [137–38]).

3. Edith Foster uses portions of this account to compare Thucydides and Lucretius partly on the grounds that in the works of both men "references to material things, be they man-made or natural, are . . . also devoted to supporting political, scientific, and historical arguments" (Edith Foster, "The Rhetoric of Materials: Thucydides and Lucretius," The American Journal of Philology 3 [Fall 2009]: 367–99 [369]). For a similarly metaphorical reading of Thucydides's treatment of geography and politics as I adopt here, see Gerald Proietti, "The Natural World and the Political World in Thucydides' History," in Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory Essays in Honor of George Anastaplo, vol. 1, ed. John A. Murley, Robert Stone, and William Braithwaite (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp. 184–94.

4. Victor Davis Hanson, in War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House, 2005), argues, like so many others who treat this passage, that Thucydides's treatment of the siege of Plataea is merely a template for other similar sieges (p. 163).

5. The other three occurrences are 4.118.5, 6.1, and 8.96.

6. While the plan initially called for the whole city to escape, half of the town's forces backed out at the last minute. For Burns's treatment of the siege of Plataea see section 4 of Timothy Burns, "The Problematic Character of Pericles' Civic Republicanism," in On Civic Republicanism: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics, ed. Geoffrey Kellow and Neven Brady Leddy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), pp. 15–40. In this section Burns also notes that Thucydides chooses to speak of "Being" and "Truth"; see n. 26 and compare with Rep. 525c6.

7. My understanding of Plato's presentation of the divided line and its relationship to the image of the cave that we find in books 6 and 7 of The Republic has been assisted by Klein's treatment of this passage in Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's "Meno" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), pp. 112–25.

8. See Foster, "Rhetoric of Materials," p. 376n24.

9. See Seth Benardete, Herodotean Inquiries (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2009), pp. 126–31. On the "triple understanding of things" in Homer, see pp. 126–29. For the presence of a scheme of understanding in Herodotus parallel to the divided line in The Republic, see esp. pp. 129–31.

10. On the importance of geometry to both war and the philosopher's education, see Rep. 526c9–527b12. This discussion is laced with the same and similar terms found in Thucydides's discussion of the measure. See esp. Rep. 510c3–4; 510d8; 522c4–5; and 524c1. On the importance of geometry to the discovery of "what is," see esp. 527b6–12. See also Rep. 536d5–6.

11. On the placement of nous in the fourth quadrant, see Rep. 511d.

12. On the coerced return of the philosophers to the city, see Rep. 519c8–520d5 and 539e2–540c1. [End Page 215]

13. The most famous reference to "forms" that Thucydides makes appears in his treatment of the plague (2.50.1); his inability to account for its causes leaves our understanding of this particular eidos incomplete.

14. Compare to the first quadrant of the divided line—imagination (eikasian), Rep. 511e.

15. The relational quality of "the measure" is reflected in the other three instances in which Thucydides employs "ton metron," the first of which applies to the relative value (or weight) of money while the latter two apply to the relation between land and water. See note 5 above.

16. Compare to Rep. 533e4–534b2, where Socrates reduces the entire realm of the visible to the opinable. Mathematical objects, on the other hand, appear to fall in the realm of the intelligible (and thus to intellection and not opinion). But see the following note too.

17. Socrates also remarks that geometry as it is currently practiced is rooted in an opinion about what is (Rep. 533b5–c6). So long as geometry remains hypothetical, it too remains rooted in opinion.

18. To one way of thinking, the escape party represents its own community since, after the city's destruction, they are all that is left of Plataea.

19. The relational character of the bricks that Thucydides details finds its parallel in Socrates's discussion of smallest, middle, and first fingers, along with thickness and thinness, hard and soft, light and heavy, big and little (see esp. Rep. 523a1–525c7). Just as calculation and intellect are set in motion to discover what is true about number and being by thinking about these inextricably linked contraries, the effort to find the measure of the ladders needed to "ascend" the enemies' walls requires one first to compare the bricks they see—both to those they handle and those bricks in the layers above and below them.

20. Or with what Archidamus promised to do for the Plataeans: if the Plataeans leave their city, the Spartans promise to preserve their land by counting up in total all of the trees and plants on their property and whatever else can be numbered (2.72.3). But this promise fails to appreciate what the Plataean rejection of it surely implies—that the whole of their city is greater than the mere sum of its parts.

21. See Rep. 525a1–3: "Surely," he said, "the sight with respect to the one possesses this characteristic to a very high degree. For we see the same thing at the same time as both one and as an unlimited multitude." [End Page 216]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.