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Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War as Multifaceted Disaster

Rachel Bruzzone

Bilkent University

Thucydides’ anxiety to prepare the reader to identify a calamity similar to the events he relates, the basis for his claim of his work’s “usefulness” (1.22.4 ὠφέλιμα), is one of his more puzzling stances. This identification must not be obvious if even the intelligent audience he envisions requires his guidance to make it, but he does not specify what, exactly, he proposes to enable the reader to recognize. His certainty that this type of event will return is clearer: he states that he writes so that the future may be able “to examine the fundamental nature (τὸ σαφές) of what happened and the sort of thing, or similar, which will happen again sometime” (1.22.4), a crisis “such as happened and will always happen” in differing degrees and forms (3.82.2). In this paper I argue that he presents his war as an extreme manifestation of a specific pattern of catastrophe with a lengthy literary pedigree, and that it is this pattern, often portending the total collapse of the society, that his work readies the reader to recognize. Many authors in a variety of genres describe a multitude of disasters assaulting a society in concert (e.g. Hes. WD 243, Pind. Paean 9 Maehler = fr. 52k.13, Aesch. Supp. 659-82, Eup. 206 K-A). While the afflictions involved are to some degree interchangeable, they often include war (polemos); civil war (stasis); starvation (limos); environmental upheaval such as eclipses and tsunamis; and plague (loimos). Recent scholarship (Jouanna, Demont), building on older arguments (e.g. Woodman (1988) 28-32), has made the case that Thucydides’ prominent but often-neglected pathemata passage alludes to this tradition, but concludes that he represents a “rationalist” break from it. A close reading suggests, however, that far from distancing himself from this tradition, he casts his war as its most impressive exemplum. Before describing the “sufferings” of 431-404 BCE, he asserts that his war proved oral stories relating similar events plausible (1.23.3 τά τε πρότερον ἀκοῇ μὲν λεγόμενα…οὐκ ἄπιστα κατέστη). His statement that his research validates these tales, despite his usual dismissiveness of popular belief (e.g. 1.20.1 τὰς ἀκοὰς τῶν προγεγενημένων), implies that he views his war as another iteration of a real, recurring historical phenomenon. He next lists the Peloponnesian War’s pathemata, corresponding with those that appear in earlier authors: cities desolated by both polemos and stasis (1.23.2), eclipses, massive droughts, famines (limoi), and the plague (1.23.3 loimôdês nosos). Later he will call the plague a loimos (2.47.3), a word that appears in other sources almost exclusively in descriptions of such multifaceted crises (e.g. H. 1.61 πόλεμός τε… καὶ λοιμός, Hes. WD 243 λιμὸν ὁμοῦ καὶ λοιμόν). For a few examples of his overlap with the preexisting tradition, he repeatedly emphasizes the simultaneity of disasters striking Greece (e.g. 1.23.3 ταῦτα γὰρ πάντα μετὰ τοῦδε τοῦ πολέμου ἅμα ξυνεπέθετο), a feature Jouanna (2006) 200 has discussed in the earlier stories. The plague in particular is depicted breaking out only alongside some other disaster, ranging from renewed violence to earthquakes, another typical element (e.g. 2.47.3, 54.5, 54.1, 59.1, 3.3.1, 87.4). Frequent variations of φθίω (e.g. 1.23.3 2.47.3, 51.4, 52.2, 57.1) and an emphasis on the total emptiness caused by the crisis (1.23.2 ἠρημώθησαν, 2.51.5 καὶ οἰκίαι πολλαὶ ἐκενώθησαν) also tie Thucydides’ work to the earlier narratives. The key triad of afflictions that appear in almost every earlier instance converges in Thucydides’ report of a prophesy predicting war arriving alongside either plague, loimos, or a famine, limos (2.54.3). The fact that they accompany a polemos in either case (2.54.1) pushes the reader to think of the polemos-limos-loimos tradition, and the alert observer might recall Thucydides’ statement that this war contained all three (1.23.3). If Thucydides views the Peloponnesian War as the ultimate example of a type of periodic, civilization-threatening cataclysm, his urgency to prepare the reader to recognize the symptoms that distinguish it from a lesser crisis, such as a simple war, is fully comprehensible.

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Texts and Contexts: Learning from History

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