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Thucydides as a Tragic Writer

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Summary of Article

In The Tragic Reading of the Thucydidean Tragedy, writers David Bedford and Thom Workman argue that Thucydides ’ Histories was written as a tragedy. The writers’ main criteria for declaring the Histories as a tragedy are the “loss of reason and rise of passion” (The Tragic Reading, 56), “the decline of logos (speech) and rise of ergon” (decisiveness in action) (The Tragic Reading, 59), and “the decline of nomos (law) and the movement towards physis (nature)” (The Tragic Reading 61).

Bedford's and Workman's Approach

Workman and Bedford use the criteria of past tragedies in order to help prove that Thucydides Histories were, in fact, written as a tragedy. They said the Athenian’s being overambitious helped cause its downfall as well as hope. “This overreaching ambition displayed by the Athenians in their decision to invade Sicily, was the culmination of the passion of excessive hope” (Bedford/Workman, 65). The writers point to specific instances in the Histories that show the Athenians pushing their limits. The writers also say that “reason and passion” is example that shows Thucydides’ Histories was a tragedy. The reason and passion that they are referring to is the tension between “concrete matters for the purpose of action” (58) and “impulses” (58). This is important to note because in tragedies, there is often a struggle between the two. Bedford and Workman point to Cleon and Diodotus speeches as well as Pericles’ overall character. “We are intended to see in Pericles the preferred relationship between reason and the passions…” (58). According to Workman and Bedford, Pericles is the perfect example because his character is trying to balance the two sides. The writers also use the text to show the movement away from law and towards nature. Workman and Bedford use Sophocles’ Antigone to help show the similarities to Thucydides’ Histories. “Here, Sophocles was capturing the idea that the political order was grounded in the customary practices that are framed by the ‘unwritten and unfailing laws’” (61). The authors are able to relate the passage from Antigone by saying that moving away from laws sand towards nature parallels following one’s ancestor’s way of life. By doing so, Bedford and Workman are able to use Pericles’ funeral oration in which he says the reasons why the Athenians bury their dead the way they do is because “our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval” (62). Bedford and Workman use examples from Thucydides’ text, as well as other famous tragedies, in order to help show how Thucydides was a tragic writer.

No Reference to Religion

The poet Homer wrote two of the most famous classical tragedies, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King, and Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound; all three writers are known as great tragic writers of their times. However, Thucydides was not; instead, he was known as a classical historian who wrote about events from an unbiased point of view. Even if one were to consider Thucydides a tragic writer, what makes him completely different from the aforementioned writers is his lack of dialogue between mortals and gods, which is usually very prevalent in tragedies, as well as not blaming events, caused by either humans or nature, on the gods. In ancient Greek tragedies, the gods and goddesses usually interfere, or play a role, in the story. Whether it is Apollo helping the Trojans in The Iliad or Prometheus’ story after he gets chained to the rock for giving fire to mankind in Prometheus Bound, the gods always have a role. However, Thucydides makes very few references to religion at all in his Histories!

The Tragic Fall

Even though Thucydides does not have the same style as other tragic writers, he still should be considered one. In all tragedies, the main subject, be it a person or country, is at the peak of its existence. Throughout the tragedy, the subject usually gets greater power and eventually falls. This happens in The Iliad where Troy is said to be impenetrable but it eventually falls to the Greeks. In Thucydides’ Histories, Athens is at its peak power just after the Persian War. The empire is larger than it has been before and democracy is stronger than before. However, the Peloponnesians eventually make Athens crumble.

Prior to the war, the Athenians seemed a little overconfident in their abilities. “And neither a fortified outpost of theirs nor their navy is truly anything to fear…For we have a greater advantage as to land warfare from our experience in seafaring than they have from their experience on land where naval matters are concerned” (Thucydides 1. 142). That was an excerpt from Pericles’ speech that shows hubris. Hubris is arrogance or overconfidence. It is important to note the overconfidence of the Athenians because in all Greek tragedies, the people that act with hubris eventually are defeated by the opposing side.

Throughout the book, Thucydides mentions things that could have led to the Athenian downfall. The most prominent one is the plague. “After the Peloponnesians had invaded, the plague began immediately, it did not reach the Peloponnesos to any significant extent, but it made inroads in Athens…” (Thucydides 2.54). This is significant because it points out that the Athenians were the only ones affected by the plague. Before the plague the war was not turning out to be a terrible choice by the Athenians. However, once the plague hit, the war took a turn for the worse because it severely diminished its land forces.

The final stage of the Athenians’ hubris coming full circle and eventually causing its downfall is the Sicilian expedition. Out of fear that the Sicilians would aid the Peloponnesians, the Athenians decided to launch an attack on Syracuse. The expedition would fail miserably and the Athenian troops were killed, sold into slavery, or captured; it was the failure that was the beginning of the end for the Athenians.

Acting as Greek Chorus

While reading Thucydides ’ Histories, the reader gets the feeling that he is a spectator at the events that are occurring. This is also a prominent feature that is in other Greek tragedies. The “spectator feeling” is usually accomplished through the use of a chorus , or group of people that gives information to add to the scene. Unlike other tragic writers, Thucydides does not make use of a chorus per se. Instead of having a defined chorus, Thucydides acts as the chorus by providing additional commentary within a conversation between characters in the scene. In the Melian Dialogues, during the discussion about the treaty, there are parts where Thucydides interrupts the exchange between the two sides and gives additional information on the scene. In book 5, there is dialogue between the two sides in chapters 18-19 and 23-24. In between the two sets of quotes, Thucydides writes the following, “This treaty was made at the end of the winter when spring came immediately after…” (Thucydides 5.2). In chapters 20 through 22, Thucydides is acting as a chorus because of the information he is giving.

Another example of Thucydides acting as a Greek chorus is in book three chapters 35 through 50. During these chapters, there is a debate on between Cleon and Diodotos on whether or not the Athenians should kill those that revolted. After the speeches, Thucydides adds in extra information that was not given in the speeches. “And after these proposals were made opposing one another with very even strength, the Athenians clashed in their opinions after all, and in the show of hands the resolutions were nearly equal, but that of Diodotos prevailed. They immediately sent off another trireme in great haste, lest they find the city destroyed because the first had already arrived” (Thucydides 3.49). Thucydides tells the reader what decision is made and the action that takes place right after it. The way the scene is set up, with the speeches and then Thucydides ’ extra commentary, it allows readers, to not only feel like we are watching the scene unravel right before our eyes, but it also provides additional information that is not available in the original conversation. Here, Thucydides is taking the job of the chorus in Greek tragedies.

Different Style of Tragedy

Although Thucydides ’ Histories is generally regarded as a straightforward history of events, and not as a tragic story, one can argue that it is, indeed, a tragedy. Yes, Thucydides ’ way of writing would be considered somewhat unorthodox compared to other famous tragic writers such as Homer or Aeschylus . In tragedies, the main subject of the story starts off at its peak; in the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was at full strength. It had never been stronger, or more overconfident. Another feature in tragedies are acts of hubris. When the Athenians were deciding whether or not it would go to war, Pericles shows his overconfidence when he hinted that the Athenians would not lose to the Spartans. Another characteristic of tragedies is the part of the chorus. Although there is no actual chorus in Thucydides ’ Histories, the writer acts as the chorus by giving extra information that is otherwise unavailable to the reader. Thucydides ’ role also allows the reader to feel that he is watching the scene as an outsider. Even though Thucydides ’ writing style is more like a historian, he does show elements of tragedy in his Histories.

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