Thucydides in Wartime: Reflecting on Democracy and its Discontents

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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The challenge of democratic statecraft is a recurring subject matter in twentieth- and twenty-first century wartime expositions of Thucydides’ History. This article examines the readings of two American scholars with great public presence, Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson, showing how they reflect enduring anxieties about the promise and perils of liberal democracy in a hostile world. I engage in close analysis of their pre- and post-9/11 interpretations of Thucydides in order to ascertain their judgments about democracy. Kagan and Hanson both use the History to defend democracy, but in ways that are at odds with their implicit criticisms of democratic politics. We can make sense of this tension by appreciating the performative dimension of their readings of Thucydides. Beyond distilling Thucydides for a general audience, their readings enact a response to concerns about democratic weakness with an account of democratic virtues. Their hermeneutic strategies are thus implicated in rhetorical politics that may have deleterious, if unintended, consequences for the democracy they seek to defend. I conclude by illustrating how Kagan and Hanson are paradigmatic rather than idiosyncratic. Their democratic exceptionalism finds echoes in leftist interpretations of ancient Greece and post-Cold War empirical political science.1

Thucydides in Wartime: Reflecting on Democracy and its Discontents

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought




J. Lane Jr.‘Thucydides Beyond the Cold War: The Recurrence of Relevance in the Classical Historians’Poroi4 (2005) p. 54.


W.R. Connor‘A Post-Modern Thucydides?’ Classical Journal72 (1977) pp. 289-98.


PalmerLove of Glory p. 13. Palmer is borrowing from Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor Jeanne Kirkpatrick.


G.F. AbbottThucydides p. 137 p. 147.


P. Fliess‘Political Disorder and Constitutional Form: Thucydides’ Critique of Contemporary Politics’The Journal of Politics21 (1959) p. 618.


L. Halle‘The Role of the University in International Relations’The Virginia Quarterly ReviewAutumn (1980) p. 628.


The first published in 2003is simply entitled The Peloponnesian War (London: Harper Perennial). The material for both works comes from Kagan’s four-volume account of the war whose writing spans the Cold War.


KaganThucydides pp. 225-6.


Kagan‘The First Revisionist Historian’ p. 47.


KaganThucydides p. 78 pp. 85-6 pp. 120-21. Importantly Kagan The Peloponnesian War p. 113 p. 157 argues that ‘[e]ven the moderates felt the need to take the offensive’ and that the more daring policies in succeeding years ‘did not so much reflect a change in the alignment of generals but rather the fact that encouraged by their recent victories the majority of Athenians were now ready to pursue a more militant strategy’.


KaganThucydides pp. 126-30.


KaganThucydides p. 128. Cf. Kagan The Archidamian War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1974) pp. 232-8 pp. 258-9.


KaganThucydides pp. 133-4.


Cf. KaganThe Archidamian War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press1974) pp. 239-44.


Cf. KaganThe Archidamian War pp. 182-6; Kagan The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1981) pp. 164-91 pp. 362-5.


KaganThucydides pp. 168-9; Kagan The Peloponnesian War pp. 251-61 p. 322.


KaganThucydides p. 114.


Kagan Thucydides p. 161; Kagan The Peace of Nicias p. 184. Nevertheless Kagan is not enamoured of Alcibiades. See Kagan The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1987) pp. 419-20 and Kagan The Peloponnesian War p. 447.


KaganThe Fall of the Athenian Empire p. 419.


V.D. HansonWhy the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam (London: Faber & Faber2001) p. 21. In North America the book is entitled Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. Hanson’s argument is informed by an earlier monograph The Western Way of War (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1989).


HansonWhy the West Has Won p. 6. In this speech Brasidas exhorts his troops to maintain their courage in the face of an upcoming battle against what appears to be a formidable enemy. Hanson presents Brasidas as dismissing the actual strength of their foes the Illyrians and Arrhabaeus because these ‘savage opponents’ and barbarian tribes are ‘the product of cultures “in which the many do not rule the few but rather the few the many” (Thucydides 4.126)’. Brasidas however is speaking to the Spartans about themselves to assuage their fears about being outnumbered after being deserted by the Macedonians: ‘The bravery that you habitually display in war does not depend on your having allies at your side in this or that encounter but on your native courage; nor have numbers any terrors for citizens of states like yours in which the many do not rule the few but rather the few the many owing their position to nothing else than to superiority in the field’. Hanson wilfully misrepresents Brasidas (and Thucydides) as a mouthpiece for the ostensibly ancient wisdom that ‘connects military discipline fighting in rank and the preference for shock battle with the existence of popular and consensual government’.


V.D. Hanson‘Democratic Warfare Ancient and Modern’ p. 18.


V.D. HansonA War Like No Other (London: Methuen2005) pp. 289-94.


KaganThe Fall of the Athenian Empire p. 416.


KaganThe Fall of the Athenian Empire pp. 4-5; Kagan Pericles of Athens p. 282; Kagan The Peloponnesian War pp. 329 366.


KaganPericles of Athens p. xiii p. 9; Kagan The Peloponnesian War pp. 97-8.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 281.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 2.


KaganOn the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Doubleday1995) pp. 572-3.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 100 p. 113 p. 227.


KaganOn the Origins of War p. 8.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 7. For more complicated portraits of Spartan politics and society than those found in Kagan and Hanson see N. Kennell Spartans: A New History (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell 2010) Chapter 6 and S. Hodkinson ‘Was Classical Sparta a Military Society?’ in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell (eds.) Sparta and War (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales 2006) pp. 111-62.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 148.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 9.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 7.


KaganPericles of Athens pp. 156-7.


KaganPericles of Athens p. 10.


KaganThucydides p. 47 p. 196.


HansonA War Like No Other pp. 311-2.


Hanson‘The Meaning of Tet’American Heritage52 (2001) p. 8.


HansonA War Like No Other p. 4 p. 311.


Hanson‘The Meaning of Tet’ p. 1 p. 9.


HansonAn Autumn of War p. xix.


HansonWhy the West Has Won p. 5.


HansonA War Like No Other p. 212.


HansonA War Like No Other pp. 11-14 p. 22 p. 39.


KaganThucydides pp. 124-6 p. 135. Cf. Kagan The Peloponnesian War pp. 138-152.


Hanson‘The Meaning of Tet’ p. 10.


M.I. FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern (London: Chatto & Windus1973) pp. 21-22 p. 33.


FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern p. 23.


OberDemocracy and Knowledge p. xiii.


See A. Downes‘How Smart and Tough are Democracies? Reassessing Theories of Democratic Victory in War’International Security33 (2009) pp. 9-51 and D. Reiter A. Stam and A. Downes ‘Correspondence: Another Skirmish in the Battle over Democracies and War’ International Security 34 (2009) pp. 194-204. Downes disaggregates war outcomes into win lose or draw and war participants into initiators targets and joiners. The original empirical analysis only divided the data using the first two categories for each variable. Downes’ views overlap somewhat with John Keane’s arguments on the symbiotic relationship between war and democracy in J. Keane ‘Does Democracy Have a Violent Heart’ in D.M. Pritchard (ed.) War Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) pp. 378-408.

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