The Enduring Necessity of Periclean Politics

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 Department of Political Science, 329 Founders Hall, Assumption College, 500 Salisbury Street, Worcester, ma 01609, USA

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Thucydides’ interest in Pericles best comes to sight when we examine Pericles’ first speech in context. Situated at the end of Book i of the History, that speech concludes a set-piece that begins with the Corinthians’ final speech and whose bridge is the ‘digression’ on Cylon, Pausanias and Themistocles. Read as part of this narrative structure, Pericles’ speech represents the successful conclusion of a debate over political rule broadly understood. For Thucydides, that success consists in the ability of Pericles’ rhetoric to invite his audience to reflect on the ends of political life, a rhetoric that Thucydides promises to represent in his historiography.

  • 6

    L. Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 139-241; C. Bruell, ‘Thucydides’ View of Athenian Imperialism’, American Political Science Review, 68, No. 1 (1974), pp. 111-17; and ‘Thucydides and Perikles’, The St. Johns Review, 32 (1981), pp. 24-29; C. Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Empire and the Ends of Politics: Plato’s Menexenus and Pericles’ Funeral Oration with trans., introduction and notes by S. Collins and D. Stauffer (Newburyport, ma: Focus, 1999).

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  • 8

    T. Burns, ‘The Virtue of Thucydides’ Brasidas’, The Journal of Politics, 73.2 (2012), pp. 508-23.

  • 9

    S. Forde, The Ambition to Rule: Alcibiades and the Politics of Imperialism in Thucydides, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

  • 10

    T. Burns, ‘Nicias in Thucydides and Aristophanes’ Part I: Nicias and Divine Justice in Thucydides’, Polis, 29: 2 (2012) and ‘Nicias in Thucydides and Aristophanes, Part II: Nicias and Divine Justice in Aristophanes’, Polis, 30:1 (2013).

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  • 14

    See e.g. S. Monoson and M. Loraux, ‘The Illusion of Power and the Disruption of Moral Norms: Thucydides’ Critique of Periclean Policy’, American Political Science Review, 92: 2 (June 1998), pp. 285-97, 286, as well as Mary Nichols Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), p. 24. See also Taylor, Idea of Athens, who argues that Thucydides’ treatment of Pericles’ indirect speech at ii.13 suggests that disagreements with Pericles’ advice had been made public (pp. 49-50).

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  • 18

    John Zumbrunnen, Silence and Democracy: Athenian Politics in Thucydides’ History (University Park: Penn State University, 2010), p. 49, quoting Marc Cogan, Human Thing.

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  • 24

    In her gloss of this speech, Romilly, Athenian Imperialism, pp. 116-17, remarks that the Athenians ‘must strive towards achieving the perfect condition that would be theirs if Athens were an island. . . . Pericles’ strategy thus emerges clearly from the analysis which he gives of the situation; it rests entirely on the principle of thalassocracy, concerned as a sufficient and wholly satisfactory weapon: sea-power can achieve victory over land’; see also Ibid., p. 115fn11. Foster, Periclean Imperialism, takes this further, arguing that Pericles’ claims for the significance of the Athenian navy ‘border on suggesting its divinity’ (p. 189).

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  • 25

    Nichols, Pursuit of Freedom, p. 26, notes that Pericles’ resort to persuasion and not force is additional proof that he governs Athens in accordance with its political freedom. But one might wonder if such freedom is better evinced through public deliberation over the wisdom of Pericles’ counsel. Or are the Athenians just more prone to trusting him?

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  • 27

    See Cogan, Human Thing, p. 138.

  • 31

    See Hornblower, Commentary Vol. I, p. 206.

  • 33

    See M. Munn, Mother of the Gods, Athens and the Tyranny of Asia: A Study in Ancient Religions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 21fn22 and pp. 21-22 and S. Hornblower, Thucydides and Pindar: Historical Narrative and the World of Epinikian Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

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  • 38

    See B. Dobski, ‘Thucydides’ Philosophic Turn to Causes’, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, 37, 2 (2010), pp. 123-55, and ‘Thucydides and the Soul of Victory: Olympic Politics in the Peloponnesian War’, in Socrates: Reason or Unreason as the Foundation of European Identity, edited by Ann Ward (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), pp. 98-111, as well as Ludwig, Eros & Polis, pp. 261-96, especially 274.

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