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Thucydides’ Use of Counterfactuals in the Pylos Narrative

Anne Begin

Hillsdale College

This paper focuses on counterfactual statements within the Pylos narrative, contained in Thucydides Book 4. Thucydides recounts a battle that took place around modern day Messenia for control over the island of Sphacteria. Thucydides is clearly very interested in the event, and considers it a turning point in the first phase of the war. There are two examples of counterfactual narratives within the text in question (4.1-45), one which corresponds to the Spartan point of view, while the other corresponds with the Athenian point of view. Using narratology, this paper draws some conclusions about Thucydides’ narrative technique, while also suggesting that Thucydides uses such devices as a covert means of intervening in the narrative.

A counterfactual passage from Herodotus Book 7 serves as a means of comparison for the remainder of the paper, along with the important observation that Thucydides is more likely to use a counterfactual statement of this nature more so than Herodotus.  

The Pylos narrative is carefully crafted, and the two counterfactual narratives occurring at critical moments of the narrative seem to serve as the focal points of the entire narrative. Critical to understanding Thucydides’ argument is the observation that both counterfactuals are preceded by prolepses that give away the ending of the episode before Thucydides actually narrates it. Thucydides also carefully balances the prolepses with the counterfactuals to create a sense of narrative symmetry and balance.

The first counterfactual is focalized from the Spartan point of view, and centers upon the disappearance of one of the ship-captains, Brasidas, who is wounded in action. The implication of the counterfactual is that had Brasidas had not fallen so soon into the action and been successful in forcing his own landing, the outcome could have been very different. Also by implication, the Athenians were fortunate, otherwise they might have suffered worse consequences. From a grammatical point of view, this counterfactual is not obvious. Thucydides seems to make an argument from what did not occur. However, the counterfactual nature of this segment of narrative is obvious.

The second counterfactual is similar in nature to the first. However, the second counterfactual clearly occurs at an even more intense high point of the narrative. The struggle for Pylos is coming to an end, and the point at which the counterfactual occurs is the decisive moment. Like the first, there is a prolepsis that gives away the ending and the reason why the Athenians were ultimately successful. Grammatically, it is a series of potential statements taking place within the mind of the Athenian commander Demosthenes. It is much more explicit than the first counterfactual, and the outcome is even more dramatic than the first. The Spartans had managed to hide on the wooded island, making an assault on the island seem impossible for the Athenians. By some chance, someone had accidentally set the wood on fire, clearing the way for an Athenian attack. The counterfactual statements occur after Thucydides has informed the reader that the woods had burned down; Demosthenes is considering how he might attack the island while the wood was still intact, highlighting the initial difficulty facing the Athenians.

After careful analysis, it becomes evident that Thucydides tells his readers what he believes is the underlying cause behind the turn of events: luck. The disappearance of Brasidas early into the first battle was fortunate; the accidental fire on the island was also a stroke of luck for the Athenians. Thucydides uses the counterfactuals to highlight their good fortune, by suggesting alternatives. The counterfactual narratives set up alternative timelines in the mind of the sensitive reader, suggesting the precariousness of the situation. It is a kind of narrator intervention, where Thucydides leads his careful readers to his conclusion about the true nature of the events at Pylos.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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