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Pathos in Thucydides

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

Donald Lateiner*
University of Pennsylvania


Dionysius asserts more than once that Thucydides is superior to all other historians and poets in delineating , in vividly portraying disaster and arousing the reader’s feelings. For Dionysius and other Greek critics, a capacity to evoke ‘pathos’ (emotion) was a requirement for the orator and the historian. The rhetorician ranked Thucydides far above Herodotus in ‘dramatic’ ability, and ‘pathos’ was central to that judgment. He never comments on Thucydides’ rare use of moral and ethical judgments, although such judgments were the Hellenistic historian’s goal, for which ‘dramatic effect’ was but a tool.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1977

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1 De Thuc. 15 (in Opuscula, Usener-Radermacher edd., vol. i [1899], p.347, v.18; all refs. to Dionysius are to this volume unless otherwise specified). See also, in this essay alone, 23 (360, v.23, comparison with Herodotus), 24 (363, v.15), 42 (398, v.l2), 48 (405, V.19); cf.53 (412, v.25). See now Pritchett’s, W.K. translation and commentary, On Thucydides (Berkeley and Los Angxeles, 1975),Google Scholar especially that part of the introduction which tries to establish the worth of Dionysius’ criticisms (pp.xviii-xxxiv). Dionysius is no slavish admirer; he frequently criticizes Thucydides, even for failures in eliciting e.g. de Thuc. 48 (406, v. 19) and the introduction, 2–3 (326–9).

2 Arist. Rhet. 1356 a 24 ff., 1378 a 18 ff., 1408 a 10; D.H. de Thuc. 53 (412, vv.23–26); Cic. Orator 37, 128–30. Thucydides, is the standard for ‘pathos’ as Lysias is for ethos in Dionysius de Demosth. 2 (131, vv.5–6).Google Scholar See Cope, E.M.An Introduction to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Cambridge, 1867), pp.113–18Google Scholar for a clear account of Aristotle’s concept of the pathetic.

3 Dionysius prefers Thucydides to Herodotus expressly in : de Thuc. 23 (360, vv.22–4); de Thucydidis idiom. (ibid. 425, v.6); ep. ad Pompeium 3 (Dion, . Hal. Three Literary Letters, ed. Roberts, W.R. [Cambridge, 1901], p.114, vv.13–15).Google Scholar On the ‘pathetic faculties’, see Arist, Eth. Nic. 2 5.Google Scholar MarcSee Dionysius, de Thuc. 5–7 (330–4),Google Scholar and refs. to Dionysius in n.3; also Marce llinus’ vita 38: earlier historians, including Herodotus, were ‘without soul’, and had few or no speeches, whereas Thucydides perfected the genre. See also Plut, bellone an pace …(Moralid) 347Google Scholar a, c, on Thucydides’ vividness in descriptions of πάθος (quoted below, p.51). In this paper πάθος refers to human calamitellinus reports the fable of Thucydides’ hearing Herodotus recite (vita 54): See de Romilly, J.L’Evolution du Pathétique d’Eschyle à Euripide (Paris, 1961),Google Scholar for an attempt to define the role of ‘pathos’, scenes of striking spectacles of suffering, in Greek tragedy.

4 See Dionysius de Thuc. 5-7 (3304), and refs. to Dionysius in n.3; also Marcellinus’ vita 38: earlier historians, including Herodotus, were ‘without soul’, and had few or no speeches, whereas Thucydides perfected the genre. See also Plut. bellone an pace … (Moralia) 347 a, c, on Thucydides’ vividness in descriptions of πáξος (quoted below, p.51). In this paper πáξος refers to human calamity, ‘pathos’ to passion, or rhetorical and dramatic effect.

4a The dichotomy is not necessary; it is not even possible. Every historian is perforce an artist, especially among the Greeks. Grant, J.R.Towards knowing Thucydides’, Phoenix 28 (1974), 8194,CrossRefGoogle Scholar notes that Thucydides’ protests against artistic embellishment do not deny a desire to create a polished and pleasurable work. At i 22.4, Thucydides states that ‘the lack of the mythical element [romantic stories] perhaps makes listening to the work seem less pleasant’. The pleasure perhaps lost by absence of romance is, however, but a small part of the artist’s potential creative accomplishment.

Only recently has the justified praise of Thucydides’ devotion to discovering the truth been joined to juster estimates (such as J.R. Grant’s) of his literary purposes and techniques of selection and emphasis. The ‘scientific’ Thucydides dies hard: ‘iron restraint’, ‘objectivity’, ‘detachment’, states Grant, MichaelThe Ancient Historians (New York, 1970), p.116.Google Scholar M. Grant soon modifies this stance (p.117, quoting M.I. Finley), but only to admit (I paraphrase) Thucydides’ infrequent, personal interventions breaking through impersonality into savage, whiplash comments. The implication is that Thucydides tries to avoid shaping his reader’s judgment at all times, and this view I criticize in the following pages.

The ‘science’ metaphor and model continue to beleaguer the study of history; see the comments of O. Luschnat on this problem, s.v. Thukydides, in RE Suppl. 12 (1971), 1238–9; also nn.6 and 19 below.Google Scholar

5 Corinth’s loss c. 458–7 (i 106.2), the plague (ii 54.1), the capture of the Spartans on Sphacteria (iv 14.2, 55.1), Demosthenes’ Aetolian defeat (iv 30.1), the slaughter of the Messenians (over 1,000 dead, iv 25.11), the double Ampraciot disaster (iii 113 bis), the last phase of the Corcyrean stasis (iv 48.3), the carnage at Mycalessus (vii 30.3), the ambush of pro-Syracusan Sicilians (over 800 dead, vii 33.3), and the proemium’s general statement (i 23.1). The other, less interesting, instances: ii 65.2, 86.5; vi 55.4.1 find no distinction between the two nouns in Thucydides.

6 Kitto, H.D.F.Poiesis. Structure and Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), pp.270–5,Google Scholar examines passages in Thucydides which concern ‘death and destruction’. Descriptions of indicate that Thucydides was not ‘a cold and scientific historian’ but considered the war a tragedy for almost all mankind, an agony. Immer-wahr, H.R.Pathology of Power and the Speeches in Thucydides’, The Speeches in Thucydides, ed. Ph.Stadter, (Chapel Hill, 1973), pp.1631, esp. 22–3, 28–9,Google Scholar recognizes Thucydides’ dramatization of minor events ‘which have a purely emotional impact upon the reader’; he speaks of a ‘humanitarian factor’ which tinges considerations of power with tragedy. See also id. ‘Ergon: History as a Monument in Herodotus and Thucydides’, AJPh 81 (1960), 261–90, esp. 279–80, 284. Neither author considers at length the passages discussed below.

7 These disasters are emphasized by comparative and superlative adjectives, or litotes, or, at the least, positive adjectives which add to the weighty effect of the drawn-out three sentences i 23.1–3 (14 lines).

8 An annoyed Dionysius argues that disproportionate attention is given to certain ‘trivial’ incidents and then discusses the account of the capture of the Spartans on Sphacteria: de Thuc. 13 (343, vv. 5–7; 344, w. 10–14). I omit here consideration both of the sufferings of individuals and of cities whose significance for the war is evident (Plataea, Mytilene, Corcyra, and Aegina [ii 27.1 ; iv 57.1–4] ). See n.19 below for the opinio communis on Thucydides’ principles of significance and inclusion.

9 Herodotus, who refers to an earlier ‘unique‘ earthquake at Delos, considered it a portent foreboding horrors to come including the Peloponnesian War (vi 98.1–3). The contradiction between Herodotus and Thucydides makes it impossible to date this earthquake; see How and Wells ad loc., Vol.ii p.104. This passage reflects Thucydides’ interest not only in Delos, but also in superstition (e.g. ii 54, viii 1.1) and startling natural phenomena (e.g. i 23.3, ii 28, iii 89, vi 95). See now Oost, S.I.Thucydides and the Irrational’, CPh 70 (1975), 186–96,Google Scholar for an evaluation of the historian’s dicta on faith and the divine.

10 Thucydides elsewhere quotes but one line of ‘Homer‘ (i 9.4). The hymn also, of course, confirms the former existence of a venerable festival. For Athens’ political motive, see Meiggs, R.The Athenian Empire (Oxford, 1972), p.301.Google Scholar The circus which the Athenians created is described by Plut. Nicias 3.4–6.

11 The connexion between the two Delian incidents is emphasized by Thucydides who here gives one of his two explicit cross-references (the other occurs at vi 94.1). Thucydides mentions the religious motive only, but Diodorus (xii 73.1) reports that the Athenians alleged as pretext a secret Delian-Spartan alliance.

12 Scione’s revolt is reported in detail (iv 120–32), but the capture finds only brief mention (v 32.1). The murder of all adult males and the enslavement of women and children and the transference of their land to the homeless Plataeans is quickly summarized. Scione was no less an atrocity than Melos to the next generation; see Isocrates 4.100,109; 12.62 ff; also Dion, Hal. de Thuc. 15 (347–8).Google Scholar

13 Thucydides elsewhere refers to the senseless slaughter of beasts: iv 128.4.

14 The vehement phrase πασα occurs in Thucydides at iii 81.5, 83.1, 98.3, 112.7; vii 29.5; it is always restricted by a term involving πάθος: θάνατος, κακοτρσπία, φιτγή (bis), όλεύρος (bis and only thrice elsewhere in Thucydides). When the phrase does not involve πάθος (ii 19.1 and ii 77.2), it refers to military ingenuity (as do most of the other seven occurrences of ιδέα).

15 Note την μίν νύκτα λαΰών, άψνλάκτοκ, άττροσΒοκήτοις, την ôe αδόκητος. Sudden misfortune was a favourite theme of Hellenistic historians – even Polybius. See Walbank, F.W.A Historical Commentary on Polybius Vol.1 (Oxford, 1957), pp.1415.Google Scholar

16 vii 29.4: τε … και… και… oihe … otíre …, πάντας …, και … και. . ., και… και... καί .... See J.R. Grant (above, n.4a) 83 f. for Thucydides’ fondness for superlatives, discussed next in the text.

17 For the labour of factual determination, see (in addition to iii 113.6) i 20.3 ή ίήτησις της άληιίείας, 22.3 έπιπόνως δέ ηΰρσκετο, 22.4 τών re "γενομένων το σαφές ακοπέΐν, and cf. an actual example at Syracuse: vii 71.2–4.

18 See ‘Heralds and Corpses in Thucydides’, CW 71 (1977), 97–106.

19 Gomme, A.W.A Historical Commentary on Thucydides Vol.1 (Oxford, 1945 [repr. 1956]), p.25:Google Scholar ‘He confined himself to the war. … He interpreted his task as one with narrow limits.’ No cultural or economic history (ibid.), little of trivial biographical detail (p.27), he will not tell anecdotes (ibid.); ‘Thucydides will not gossip; he will not give personal details’ (p.28). This narrative is labelled (Vol.ii [1956], p.426) ‘an episode … foreign to Thucydides’ normal manner of writing’. Westlake, H.D.Irrelevant Notes and Minor Excursuses in Thucydides’, Essays on the Greek Historians and Greek History (Manchester and New York 1969), pp. 138, esp. 25–6,Google Scholar remarks that this passage draws attention to ‘the extreme severity of the Ambraciot losses’ ‘in the form of private and unofficial conversations which have a tinge of colloquial gossip’. We now inquire into the historian’s structure: why this method and why here?

20 Immerwahr, ‘Pathology’ (above, n.6), p.23, lists among the functions of speech in Thucydides: ‘the relations of … intellectual perceptions to the individual actions in the war .... The speeches always stand in a dramatic relationship to the scenes of which they are a part and to the rest of the work.’ The former function is clear to any reader of our dialogue, although speeches most frequently precede and predict actions rather than follow and indicate their significance. Thucydides rarely alludes to, as he does here, his or the reader’s existence with first-person verbs — ο έ γραφα and οΐδα — and the historiographical άπιστου.

21 Cf. iv 40.2, the other significant example. See also iv 30.2, where the identity is insignificant.

22 In οϋκοσυν we have a very emphatic negative; see Denniston, J.D.The Creek Particle2 (Oxford, 1966), p.425,Google Scholar and Gomme, Vol.ii (1956), p.424. Ed. Schwartz, Das Geschichtswerk des Thukydides2 (Bonn, 1919), p.290,Google Scholar conjectured the necessary predicate in the next-quoted clause.

23 The particle marks the logical response to the previous remark; cf. Denniston (above, n.22), p.41, and for punctuating as a question, Gomme Vol.ii (1956), p.425.

24 This cluster of particles appears nowhere else in Thucydides; it marks an irrefutable progress in discussion; see Denniston (above, n.22), p.397.

25 Cf. iv 99: of the last fourteen words there, nine begin with α-, of which five have the prefix απο-, and the last four read Άϋηναlων άκουσας απdev Ηπρακτος. Thucydides abstracts us from these two incidents with rhetorical assonance.

26 Köhler, U.Zur Geschichte des Amphilochischen Krieges’, Hermes 26 (1891), 46,Google Scholar thought not, but his reasons are hardly conclusive, as Gomme, Vol. ii (1956), P.426 realized.

27 Does he mean that his reader will not believe the number which Thucydides in fact knows, or (see Gomme, Vol.ii [1956], pp.425–6) that Thucydides will not record the very large number which he heard because he does not trust it? The latter interpretation, inherently more likely, seems contradicted by the following statement (113.6) that the Athenians and the allies could have easily secured all Ampracia without a battle, if they had tried. At Mantinea, Thucydides (v 68.2) complains that information on numbers was unobtainable.

28 Thucydides employs the rhetorical calculus of disaster to emphasize lucky and chance survival (iii 49.4): παρά τοσούτον μέν ή Μυτιλήνη ήλύέ κινδύνου. Here as elsewhere this phrase indicates the role of (a favouring) chance: cf. vii 2.4 (Syracuse’s danger), viii 33.3 (Astyoehus’); similarly ii 77.5 (Plataea’s). See also ii 94.1, viii 76.4, and vi 37.2 with the note of K.J. Dover in Gomme, Vol.iv (1970), p.302. See also J.R. Grant (above, n.4a), 83–5. Thucydides employs arithmetical notions for rhetorical effect where a superlative adjective will not suffice. An exact unknown quantity multiplies the effect. As with the statement summarizing the careers of Pausanias and Themistocles (i 138.6), these terse epilogues offer dramatic and ‘pathetic’ authorial interjections.

29 Parry, AdamThucydides’ Historical Perspective’, YCS 22 (1972), 47 n.l;Google Scholar see, for a sensitive analysis of Thucydidean, rhetoric, id. ‘The Language of Thucydides’ Description of the Plague’, BICS 16 (1969), 106–18Google Scholar.

30 See the excellent comments on Mycalessus and Ampracia in Stani, H.-P.Thukydides. Die Stellung des Menschen im geschichtlichen Prozess [Zetemata 40] (Munich, 1966), 133–8:Google Scholar Thucydides’ concern is ‘nicht von der absoluten Quantitat sondern von der Proportionalität…’. In Ampracia the herald incident ‘bildet den Höhepunkt der Episode’ (p.134).

31 The slaughter of Nicias’ troops at the Assinarus was the greatest of the war (vii 85.4). Herodotus uses similar language of the massacre of the men of Tarentum and Rhegium at the hands of the Messapian lapygians, c. 473 (vii 170.3). Greek historians felt a need to prove, in advance and throughout, the unique greatness of their theme.

32 See Piitchett (above, n.l), pp.xxvii–xxx.

33 Ibid., pp.xxiii–xxvii.

34 Scheller, P.De hellenistica historiae conscribendae arte (Leipzig, 1911), esp. pp.57ff.Google Scholar

35 I thank Dr. Frances Kohler for aid in the organization of my argument. Any errors of fact or explanation are mine.

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