You are here

Dialectics of Hope and Fear in Thucydides Book 6

Bradley Hald

University of Toronto

In his 1999 book, Robert Luginbill called hope and fear “the two basic psychological states affecting historical activity… omnipresent in [Thucydides’] work,” each exerting “a significant impact upon nearly every decision Thucydides reports” (Luginbill 1999, 65). Luginbill rightly linked the complex of hope-affects with Athenian, and fear-affects with Spartan, ‘national characters’.  National identity is, in other words, an identity defined by affective configurations, and overdetermined in the thematically opposed characters of the text’s two protagonists. The affective dichotomy between Athenian and Spartan is established early in the narrative, when, in book one, the Corinthians are given a speech in which they define the fundamental hopefulness and optimism of the former against the fear and conservatism of the latter.

            However, the division between hope and fear, manifest as it is on the broad thematic scale of the History, is not so clean within the space of discrete episodes. My aim in this paper is to complicate the straightforward reading of an affective dichotomy divided neatly into hope and fear and cleanly down political lines. I examine two closely related passages from the Sicilian narrative in book six of Thucydides’ text, both situated in Athens during the growing fervor of hope and optimism leading up to the Sicilian campaign. First I look at 6.24, where the Athenian demos rejects Nikias’ advice and votes to undertake the expedition to Sicily; and second, the fleet’s departure from Piraeus at 6.30-32.

As the Athenians in the assembly envision the wealth and exotic sights of Sicily, in 6.24, a suite of desirous affects takes hold upon them (ἐπιθυμία, ἔρως, πόθος), apparently reifying the characteristic hopefulness with which the Corinthians had earlier linked them. Nevertheless, fear (δεδιώς) irrupts into the midst of the optimistic crowd, as a certain minority (τῳ) of the populace is suddenly afraid to speak out in opposition. In Thucydides’ presentation, the fear that irrupts is in direct response to the scene’s overwhelming optimism. In other words, the very hopes and desires surging through the demos are capable of simultaneously generating a fear that marks off an unnamed minority and excludes them from participation in the democratic process. In this way, hope and fear no longer neatly divide Athenian from Spartan, but rather, they divide the Athenians among themselves.

            In the scene at the Piraeus, a few chapters later, hopes and fears again converge within the collective Athenian subjectivity. As Emily Greenwood has observed, the visual theatricality of the scene contributes directly to its affective character, as the sight of the armada fills the Athenians with hope (ἐλπίδος, 6.30.2) and confidence (ἀνεθάρσουν, 6.31.1) (Greenwood 2006, 39). But into this scene too irrupts the specter of fear, as the risks and dangers (κινδύνων, τὰ δεινά, 6.31.1) of the expedition suddenly occur to the Athenians now, on the eve of the campaign, breaking into the scene’s prevailing hopefulness. The visual gives way to the auditory as the scene fills with the emotive sounds of lamentation (ὀλοφυρμῶν, 6.30.2), and the Athenians admit the possibility they are gazing upon their loved ones for the last time. The Athenian demos, paradoxically unified in its affective division, hopes for success and conquest while simultaneously fearing failure and loss of life. The Sicilian campaign, conceived in hope and optimism, cannot escape the fear with which those hopes are inescapably intertwined.

            The affective dynamics of these scenes demonstrate the overlapping domains of hope and fear. Although the Athenians are programmatically associated with hope-affects in the History, hope does not hold a monopoly over the “affective economy” at Athens (Ahmed 2004). Rather, fear and hope coexist in the Athenian citizen body, springing up both in response to historical circumstances and in reaction to each other. As I argue in this paper, the two apparently antithetical emotions are not in fact categorical opposites for Thucydides, but rather opposite sides of the same coin, mutually constitutive and mutually transformative.

Session/Panel Title

Herodotus and Thucydides

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy