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Since Dionysius of Halicarnassus, readers have been struck by Thucydides’ dense and contorted Greek. Several scholars (Parry 1970 p. 20, Macleod 1983 p. 123, Connor 1985 pp. 7f.) have sought to explain Thucydides’ style by the idea that this idiom alone allows him to capture the complexity of historical reality. Yet they have not pursued the topic in great detail. Taking my point of departure from their approach, I will consider one characteristic of Thucydides’ style, namely his fondness for nominal abstract expressions (Schmid 1948 pp. 182f.), and suggest an answer as to what aspect of historical reality such locutions capture: they hint at a process that qualifies the scope of human choice. Loraux (2009 pp. 287f.) has drawn attention to the prominence of this stylistic feature in the so-called Pathology (Th. III.82-83). I will consider three examples from these chapters.

The following passage will serve as the first example: ἐστασίαζέ τε οá½–ν τá½° τῶν πÏŒλεων, καὶ τá½° ἐφυστερίζοντά που πύστει τῶν προγενομένων πολὺ ἐπέφερε τá½´ν ὑπερβολá½´ν τοῦ καινοῦσθαι τá½°ς διανοίας (“And thus the affairs of the cities were being distracted by party-strife, and the things which came later, by a learning, I suppose, of what had happened before, carried the excess in inventing new devices much further”; 3.82.3). Through a comparison with Dionysius’ rewritten version of the sentence (D. H. Th. 29) two Thucydidean peculiarities come into focus. First, instead of differentiating, as Dionysius does, between “cities” and “later people”, Thucydides uses neuter abstracts both times: τá½° τῶν πÏŒλεων and τá½° ἐφυστερίζοντα. Thus Thucydides “systematically avoids distinguishing persons from events” (Macleod 1984 p. 132). Second, Thucydides uses a verbal noun (πύστει τῶν προγενομένων) instead of a participle like Dionysius (ἐπιπυνθανÏŒμενοι τá½° γεγενημένα). Through the participle, Dionysius makes explicit that οá¼± ἐφυστερίζονετες is the subject of the activity of “learning”. Thucydides’ πύστις, on the other hand, avoids such explicitness about the subject of the action. Both of Thucydides’ stylistic choices reduce the significance of personal agents.

Let us proceed to the second example: τὸ δá½² á¼€ντιτετάχθαι á¼€λλήλοις τῇ γνÏŽμηÍ… á¼€πίστως ἐπὶ πολὺ διήνεγκεν (“To be distrustfully opposed to each other in one’s thinking got the upper hand far and wide”; 3.83.1). In a more conventional version, one would expect the issue to be put like this: “Everywhere people were opposed to each other in their thinking.” Thucydides, however, transforms the main verb of this alternative sentence into an articular infinitive and makes it the subject of his sentence. He thus, first, avoids having a personal subject in his sentence. Second, the idea of the activity of “being opposed to each other” comes to resemble an occurrence or event. The notion of something happening takes precedence over the idea of someone acting.

The third example will be: ἐκ δ’ αὐτῶν [sc. πλεονεξίας καὶ φιλοτιμίας] καὶ ἐς τὸ φιλονικεá¿–ν καθισταμένων τὸ πρÏŒθυμον (“And out of them [sc. greed and ambition] arose also eagerness of people settling into being contentious”; 3.82.8). The locution ἐς τὸ φιλονικεá¿–ν καθισταμένων enables Thucydides to avoid making persons the subject of the forceful verb φιλονικεá¿–ν. Instead people are said to “settle themselves” or to “be settled” into “being contentious”. Two consequences follow. First, people are put into a situation instead of carrying out an action. Second, by using καθίστασθαι, Thucydides employs a form that oscillates between middle-reflexive and passive so that it becomes unclear whether people are acting or are being acted upon.

The three examples leave the reader with the impression that instead of people bringing about events, events have come to exercise control over people. Stasis at Corcyra appears as a process that exceeds the control of human beings and qualifies the scope of their power of choice. Through his abstract expressions Thucydides finds a language that does not cloak the power of this process. Instead his style provides him with the linguistic means to capture his observations adequately.


  • Connor, W. R. 1985. “Narrative Discourse in Thucydides.” In: The Greek Historians: Literature and History. Papers presented to A. E. Raubitschek. Stanford.
  • Loraux, N. 2009. “Thucydides and Sedition Among Words.” In: Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Thucydides, ed. J. S. Rusten. Oxford.
  • Macleod, C. 1983. “Thucydides on Faction.” In: C. Macleod. Collected Essays. Oxford.
  • Parry, A. 1970. “Thucydides’ Use of Abstract Language.” In: Yale French Studies 45.
  • Schmid, Wilhelm. 1948. Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, part 1, Vol. V.2.2. In: Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, edd. I. Müller and W. Otto. Munich.

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