This entry examines the impact of Thucydides in the Latin West on political thought, from Leonardo Bruni to Hobbes.
The Athenian Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which he himself participated. Having lost Amphipolis to the Spartans in 424/423, he was exiled, but was probably able to return after the capitulation of Athens. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war, but did not have time to finish his work, so he is believed to have died around 400 BC.
The History has always been admired for the speeches of politicians and generals that we find interspersed with the ordinary narrative. In a completely innovative manner, they constitute a dialectic investigation into the nature of politics and power. Thucydides maintained that while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of a given speech, he would make the speakers say what, in his opinion, the situation had called for (1.22.1). Other celebrated passages are: the proem with the so called Archeology, treating the early history of Greece (1.1–22); the description of the plague in Athens (2.47.3–54); and the description of the civil war in Corcyra (3.81–84).
During the Middle Ages, Western readers had no direct knowledge of Thucydides’ work. This changed around 1400, with the renewal of interest in Greek in Italy. An early student of Thucydides was the Florentine humanist Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444). In his speech for the condottiere Nanna Strozzi (1427–28), he imitated Pericles’ funeral oration, to the point where he boasted of the popular government of Florence, just as Pericles had exalted Athens’ democratic constitution. Bruni’s oration marks a shift in Western political thought which had until then generally accepted Aristotle’s somewhat negative view on democracy.
The History gained a wider circulation when it was translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457); finished in 1452, Valla’s translation remained in use until the nineteenth century. Not least with regard to Thucydides’ political vocabulary, Valla came to influence later translators of the History, among them Philip Melanchthon and Giovanni della Casa.
Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), praeceptor Germaniae and Luther’s close collaborator, translated several speeches, but even more important is his Latin version of Thucydides’ chapters of the civil war in Corcyra, the description of how politics change the meaning of words. First published in 1542 as the opening text of his Instructions in Dialectic, it became hugely popular and was reprinted numerous times.
During the sixteenth century Latin translations of the speeches abound, their prefaces stressing how they contain important political lessons. We see a practical example of this in the work of the Italian diplomat and writer Giovanni della Casa (1503–1556) who translated several speeches in the mid-1540s as a rhetorical exercise to prepare himself for his own official speeches. There is also a strong Thucydidean influence in Casa’s political letters.
Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) English translation was first printed in 1629. In the History, Hobbes found many of the ideas fundamental for his later political thought, such as the view on human nature, the function of fear, and the effect of ambition on political associations. For both writers, their investigation into the nature of men was the point of departure for political analysis: man being what he is, how may we create, and preserve, the good society? Thucydides and Hobbes shared a skepticism towards democracy, and although aristocracy was perhaps a better form of government, it was still liable to break up into warring factions. In his On the Life and History of Thucydides (Hobbes 1629, a2r), Hobbes emphasizes that Athens under Pericles had in fact a government of one man and that Pericles himself was of royal descent. Apparently Hobbes read into the History a preference for monarchy, and he used Thucydides’ account of Greek fifth-century politics to argue in favor of absolute monarchy, in opposition to classical political theories like those of Aristotle and Cicero.
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