01 May 2009

This is not madness. This…is…Atheeeeennnnnnnsssssss!!!!!

One of my goals for deployment is to finish three books: The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer, and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

There are a number of great translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad. I prefer reading the Robert Fagles translation of these books (he did a wonderful Aeneid), but one can't discount T.E. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey either (published under the pseudonym T.E. Shaw), which was a favorite of author Stephen Pressfield.

I wish the same could be said for Thucydides. I had an interesting translation of Thucydides by Penguin Books, but alas, it didn't come with any maps. Kindle's version has the same issue—Thucydides will refer to people and places which makes it necessary to follow along with an unfolded map nearby. Fortunately, I was able to pick up a version entitled "The Landmark Thucydides", which features amazing maps, pictures and a heavy dosage of relevant footnotes. Unfortunately, I wish the same could be said for the actual verbiage of his translation. Like many translations from Latin and Greek, the sentence structure can be difficult to follow. I've been slugging through this translation page by page, albeit with considerable frustration.

One of the most famous passages from Thucydides takes place early in the book. It is a speech by the Athenian general Pericles, who discusses the merits of democratic Athens—a free and open society, which bears many similarities to the modern-day United States. An excerpt:

"Our military training is in many respects superior to that of our adversaries. Our city is thrown open to the world, though and we never expel a foreigner and prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas [the Spartans] from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils which they face. And here is the proof: The Lacedaemonians come into
Athenian territory not by themselves, but with their whole confederacy following; we go alone into a neighbor's country; and although our opponents are fighting for their homes and we on a foreign soil, we have seldom any difficulty in overcoming them. Our enemies have never yet felt our united strength, the care of a navy divides our attention, and on land we are obliged to send our own citizens everywhere. But they, if they meet and defeat a part of our army, are as proud as if they had routed us all, and when defeated they pretend to have been vanquished by us all."

To help put the Peloponnesian War into context, I purchased a few books by Victor David Hanson, one of which is "A War Like No Other". In this book, Hanson discusses the Western method of making war, making the argument that the West's emphasis on citizenship in their nation and innovation in battle has produced superior Soldiers—similar (though not exactly) to the argument put forth by historian Stephen Ambrose. At first glance, he appears to dedicate a hefty amount of space in his books to drawing analogies between the US and Athens, and our modern-day enemies and Sparta. Looks like an interesting read. And I don't want too many Thucydides spoilers; I believe that the forces of democracy lose that particular war. Let's hope we don't repeat the mistakes of the Athenians.

FOCUS: Anyone have a preferred translation of Thucydides they want to suggest? Any commentary on America's War on Terror and the Peloponnesian War?


Duncan Kinder said...

The obvious association between Thucydides and the so-called War on Terror is between the invasion of Iraq, on the one hand, and the Syracusan expedition, on the other.

El Goyito said...

Kudos to you, Starbuck, for reading these classics! You will, I think, be greatly enriched for doing so.

My preferred translation of Thucydides is the Richard Crawley version (available on Kindle). One amazon reviewer says of this translation: "Crawley's translation is a master work. The language flows easily and fluidly. It's easy to comprehend and a joy to read. It's a modern translation so no Victorian words to stump you. You can really jump right in and read without any problem."

Here's a link to the Crawley trans on gutenberg.com:

Here's a very accessibly presented Benjamin Jowett translation:

And, to thoroughly overdose you in translations...the Thomas Hobbes (worth a look!):

Of the Thomas Hobbes, one amazon reviewer says:
Suggestion: of all the readers who responded to the challenge of Thucydides, none met it more dramatically than Thomas Hobbes, the British political philosopher who began his career by fashioning the first great English translation of the Peloponnesian War. Hobbes' 17th-Century translation is perhaps not the most accessible, and I gather it is not the most accurate. But Hobbes has a gnarly directness of his own, and echoes of Thucydides reverberate through just about everything he later wrote.

Starbuck said...

Goyo--Greatly appreciate the alternate translations. I already started on my version, and I really love the heavy dose of maps and annotations. Plus, I already highlighted much of it. I'm an avid highlighter, so if I start a new book, I need to re-highlight. Yeah, I have issues.

Duncan--you bring up an excellent point about Athens' failed expedition to Sicily and the Iraq War--and one worth examining in another post.