“He Does Not Prefer Thucydides out of Love”: Romans on the Greek Historian

In my discussions of Thucydides with students over the years, we have focused on the typical modern topoi, his rivalry with Herodotus and Homer, his notion of the representation of speeches which were “appropriate to what was needed for the situation” (ὡς δ’ ἂν ἐδόκουν ἐμοὶ ἕκαστοι περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντων τὰ δέοντα μάλιστ’ εἰπεῖν, 1.22), the scientific presentation of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, his belief that his history was a “possession for eternity” (κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ), Perikles’ rhetorical power in Athens, the suspenseful danger of the Mytilenean debate (book 3), and the depressing logic of power in the Melian dialogue (5.84-116). But most of all, we have read his history as a tragedy: Athens falls just as much if not more because of herself as because of Sparta.

Roman authors did not see this Thucydides. (One is tempted to say they value the style far beyond the substance.) Here are some samples of their views.

Cicero, de optimo genre oratorum 17

“This is why if there is ever anyone who claims that he will plead legal cases in the style of Thucydides, he will show that he is completely ignorant of what happens in political and legal matters. If he will merely praise Thucydides, let him record my opinion with his.”

Qua re si quis erit qui se Thucydideo genere causas in foro dicturum esse profiteatur, is abhorrebit etiam a suspicione eius quod versatur in re civili et forensi; sin Thucydidem laudabit, ascribat suae nostram sententiam.

 

Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 9

“Roman orators, historians, and poets have not ripped off many words from the Greeks, but rather they have improved upon them. Then he offered a saying by Thucydides “success is adept at hiding and cloaking everyone’s mistakes” followed by Sallust’s version: “success is a miraculous cover for vice”. Although the chief virtue in Thucydides is brevity, Sallust has done better and has overcome him in his own territory. The Greek saying is brief enough that you can shorten it without losing the sense. You may take out “hiding” or “shadowing” and then “everyone” and the sense remains, perhaps not as polished, but still whole. You cannot take anything away from Sallust’s version without losing the sense.”

Multa oratores, historici, poetae Romani a Graecis dicta non subripuerunt sed provocaverunt. Tunc deinde rettulit aliquam Thucydidis sententiam: δειναὶ γὰρ αἰ εὐπραξίαι συγκρύψαι καὶ συσκιάσαι τὰ ἑκάστων ἁμαρτήματα, deinde Sallustianam: res secundae mire sunt vitiis obtentui. Cum sit praecipua in Thucydide virtus brevitas, hac eum Sallustius vicit et in suis illum castris cecidit; nam in sententia Graeca tam brevi habes quae salvo sensu detrahas: deme vel συγκρύψαι vel συσκιάσαι, deme ἑκάστων: constabit sensus, etiamsi non aeque comptus, aeque tamen integer. At ex Sallusti sententia nihil demi sine detrimento sensus potest.

Contr. 9

“He does not prefer Thucydides out of love for him, but he praises one he does not fear and believes he may defeat Sallust more easily if he appears to be conquered by Thucydides first.”

Nec hoc amore Thucydidis facit, ut illum praeferat, sed laudat quem non timet et facilius putat posse a se Sallustium vinci si ante a Thucydide vincatur.

 

Pliny, Natural History 7.111

“The Athenians drove Thucydides the general into exile but recalled the historian. They appreciated the eloquence of a man whose bravery they had condemned.”

Thucydiden imperatorem Athenienses in exilium egere, rerum conditorem revocavere, eloquentiam mirati cuius virtutem damnaverant.

 

Image result for thucydides ancient Greek

One thought on ““He Does Not Prefer Thucydides out of Love”: Romans on the Greek Historian

  1. Arguably this is true of Italian cinema, at least genre cinema, which is always very stylish but doesn’t always make a lot of sense and no one seems to mind. You could argue that has more to do with the relative amounts of money in an Italian genre production from the 50s to the 90s vs. one from the U.S., but U.S. lower budget productions usually have a bit more sense to them and a lot less style. There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course.

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