Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Thucydides in Late Antiquity

One of my tasks over the next few months is to write a chapter for a companion that explores the place of Thucydides amongst the historians of late antiquity, which both has something for the specialist and the uninitiated.  It's no small task, and to make this manageable, and in the vague hopes of saying something (even if it's little more than a sentence or two) somewhat new, I'm going to focus my attention on one episode in Thucydides' History that has had a particularly marked impact:  his description of the Siege of Plataea.  Yes, this also means I get to touch on something I know reasonably well - the ins and outs of siege descriptions.  It turns out that there are three historians (that we know of) who modelled at least one of their accounts on Thucydides' Plataean siege:  Dexippus (3rd century), Priscus (5th century), and Procopius (6th century).  The main question that I will address is how far can we take this Thucydidean influence, and what does this mean for how we read these later historians?

As I comb through the modern literature and read and re-read some of the relevant ancient accounts, there are a number of issues that have jumped out at me thus far as I have considered those questions.  First, why have those historians chosen to base their description on a siege found in Thucydides and why Plataea?  Combat is ubiquitous in the ancient world, and we can find descriptions of sieges in all sorts of different historians.  What is it about Thucydides' siege that makes it so special?  I wonder how many moderns would ran it as a pivotal moment in the the text, let alone the war?  A siege like Syracuse?  OK - and it did have an impact on Procopius, for it seems to have influenced his account of the siege of Rome in 537/538, and just as Syracuse ushered in big changes in the course of that war, so too did Rome in the Gothic war.  There must have been something about Thucydides, then, and this particular siege that stood out in their minds when they sat down (so to speak) to describe their respective sieges (Philippopolis in Dexippus, Naissus in Priscus, and Naples in Procopius).

Of course, ancient historians are less likely to be motivated by the relative importance of a siege in selecting models, or so I would think.  Rather, it's the literary character that carries of the day more often than not.  This then brings up the second consideration, the impact of education and the rhetorical handbooks.  Indeed, as it happens a number of the surviving progymnasmata highlight Thucydides' account of Plataea as one worth noting.  If those three historians, and others, had read any of those rhetorical handbooks, and they likely would have done in the course of their similar educations, it seems likely the primacy of Thucydides' account would have been hammered into their heads and so it's not surprising, then, that they did think of Plataea.  If anything, maybe we should have been asking not why Thucydides, but which other historian and siege could they have used instead?  Could there ever have been any doubt? 

This, though, brings up a third issue.  Is it really Thucydides they have in mind, or some sort of list of key phrases, quotes, or even passages, the sort of thing that was said to be present (common, ubiquitous?)  in late antiquity?  Did they remember Thucydides from school, then turn to the section they needed and simply copy what they wanted?  Less of a full appreciation of Thucydides then than something far more superficial?  If you read Lucian's How to Write History you get the impression that there were a number of historians (most lost - and assuming he was alluding to real historians) from the first and second centuries who might have fallen into this superficial category, so to speak.

In fact, this brings up a fourth issue.  Although there are all sorts of interesting potential examples of intertextuality involving Thucydides and other authors like Procopius, a topic discussed in a number of provocative works by Pazdernik, is this the same sort of thing we have when we focus on episodes like these sieges or, as suggested above, are they something more superficial?  Can they ever really be something more than a sytlistic choice?  Given the comparative lack of importance it would seem unlikely.  And, the fragmentary state of both Dexippus and Priscus makes this a difficult issue to discuss outside the bounds of Procopius' Wars.  It is worth asking, however.

A fifth point, related to the previous one, if tangentially, has to do with what this Thucydidean impact then has on the veracity of the respective accounts.  If they're all based on Thucydides - and a handful of studies have highlighted the profound linguistic impact - does this mean their sieges are little more than literary artifices?  Ought we then throw out the baby with the bathwater?  The sieges are too closely modelled on Thucydides for comfort, they (the descriptions) couldn't then be based on the actual accounts, and so we should discard them as little more than something of literary interest.  Valuable for what they say about the impact of Thucydides:  check.  Useful for historians with a real interest in the respective conflicts:  no. 

A sixth issue, what does all this tell us about the practice of history-writing in late antiquity, when such a seemingly significant chunk of the works of one segment of the era's historians can be reduced to what we could consider examples of flagrant plagiarism?  In other words, from this perspective, should we consider going back to the old appellation, dark ages?  Are the classicizing historians of the age not deserving of the credit we tend to afford them if this is what they call history?  Perhaps, then, it really is the Malalas', the Jordanes', the Eusebius', the Theodorets and the Marcellinus Comes' that really deserve our attention, as they seem to be the ones who were really doing something different.  Or does the fact that there were still individuals capable of engaging with arguably the world's greatest historian in the age in addition to those experiementing with new forms and new subject matter reveal to us the age's vitality, at least from the perspective of historiography?

All this from Thucydides, late antique historians, and one little siege.  Should be a fun (if endlessly frustrating) chapter to write.

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