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Towards a Thucydidean theory of affect

Brad Hald

University of Toronto

Aurality in Thucydides, unlike visuality, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship. Vision is usually considered to be the “privileged sense” in the History (Connor 1984: 10). Yet vivid visuality, in the narrative, is frequently accompanied with equally vivid depictions of sound, the two types of sensory phenomena conspiring together as complementary vectors for affect, each with the capacity to help or harm.

Clear vision and understanding prove decisive for the Plataians in their attempt to turn the tables and repulse a band of Theban attackers in the first Plataian episode (2.2-6). But the emotive sounds of wailing and shouting (κραυγή, ὀλολυγή, 2.4) from women and slaves create a circuit of affectivity in the charged space between the two sides in the conflict. The “contagion of affect” (Gurd 2016: 59), imbued in the pathetic language of these cries, links the Plataians and the Thebans—both now fighting for their lives—and blurs the distinctions between attacker and defender.

When dust and ash blind the Spartans at Sphacteria, their failure of clear vision contributes directly to their retreat and eventual capture (4.32-8). But in their half-blind and disheartened state, the Spartans are further terrified (ἔκπληξις) at the sound of the Athenian war cry (βοή, 4.32). The Athenians’ collective voice here acts as a weapon, deployed like a missile at an enemy on the battlefield. Sound-affect strikes the Spartans and helps the Athenians to victory.

In this paper, however, I will examine the interplay of auditory, visual, and affective dynamics in the narrative of the battle at Epipolae (7.43-4). Far removed from Sphacteria, both geographically and thematically, here it is the Athenians’ vision that fails in the moonlit darkness. And when the Syracusan contingent overhears the Athenians’ ‘watch-word’ (ξύνθημα, 7.44.5), auditory communication becomes equally compromised. Visuality and aurality here, in a clear reversal of the affective economy at Sphacteria, plot against the Athenians.

However, the “most harmful” element of the chaotic battle, as Thucydides presents it, is the Dorian battle hymn raised by the Syracusans and their allies (μέγιστον δὲ καὶ οὑχ ἥκιστα ἔβλαψε καὶ ὁ παιανισμός, 7.44.6). Far from its traditional apotropaic or healing functions (Rutherford 1994), this is a paian that assaults the Athenians’ senses, confounds their perceptions, and causes only harm. Thucydides’ litotic expression here, moreover, recalls the great plague of Athens in the early years of the war, another catastrophe that was “not the least harmful” (ἡ οὐχ ἥκιστα βλάψασα καὶ μέρος τι φθείρασα ἡ λοιμώδης νόσος, 1.23). These soldiers’ world has been so overturned in the chaos and tumult of battle that songs of healing have become as harmful as deadly plague. In a further reversal from the Sphacteria episode, here the Athenians are no longer the agents of a collective vocal assault, but rather they have become its target. The audio-visual dynamics of affect are unstable for Thucydides, subject to the changing tides of historical forces.

Nowhere in the History is their unstable nature more evident than in this night battle on the hill outside Syracuse. In my reading of the Epipolae passage, I hope to demonstrate something of the substantial affective potential inherent to visuality and aurality in Thucydides’ war narrative. The affect generated, circulated, and (re)directed via sight and sound, at Epipolae and elsewhere, can be decisive on the battlefield. And in that way, I suggest, the pathways and networks for affect can be the conduits for real military and political power in the Greek world as the History conceives it.

In addition to the scholars cited above, my paper draws on the scholarship of affect theory, particularly Ahmed (2004). Kallet (2001), Greenwood (2006), and Webb (2009) have been especially helpful for understanding visuality in Thucydides’ text, and Bassi (2007) has aided me extensively in thinking about spatiality in the History.

Session/Panel Title:

The Sounds of War

Session/Paper Number


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