The best books to understand Thucydides

The Books I Picked & Why

Eight Bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre

By Thomas Hobbes, David Grene

Book cover of Eight Bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre

Why this book?

There are lots of excellent modern translations of Thucydides (I tend to recommend either the Oxford World Classics edition by Martin Hammond or the CUP one by Jeremy Mynott), and Hobbes’ version, the first proper translation into English, is not the easiest place to start, not least because at times you effectively have to translate it out of seventeenth-century English. It is powerfully and elegantly written, and above all it offers the spectacle of one great thinker on matters of politics and war engaging with another – you can almost feel Hobbes developing his own ideas (some of which later appeared in works of original philosophy like Leviathan) as he works to make sense of Thucydides’ ideas. If you read nothing else, the introduction To the Readers and the sketch of Thucydides’ life and work are short and brilliantly insightful, capturing the particular nature of Thucydides’ text – neither a conventional history nor a conventional work of political philosophy – in a manner that has eluded many later readers.

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Thucydides and the Shaping of History

By Emily Greenwood

Book cover of Thucydides and the Shaping of History

Why this book?

Thucydides is generally seen to be a kind of historian; one of the two inventors of history in fifth-century BCE Greece (together with Herodotus) and, according to many of his modern admirers, someone who had anticipated the modern idea of history as critical and scientific. On the other hand, he never thought of himself as a historian, and many aspects of his work do not fit at all with our expectations. Emily Greenwood does an excellent job of exploring these issues from different perspectives: considering Thucydides in his original context and his relationship to different contemporary traditions of making sense of the world, and thinking about his relevance to the writing of history today.

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The Humanity of Thucydides

By Clifford Orwin

Book cover of The Humanity of Thucydides

Why this book?

There is an equally strong tradition of reading Thucydides not as a historian, just interested in past events as an end in itself, but as a kind of political theorist who wanted to his work to be useful, as a guide to ‘the human thing’. Sometimes this produces incredibly crude readings of his work, such as the idea that Thucydides was a Realist who preached the power of the strong over the weak (actually those are ideas associated with people in his book), but there have been many powerful interpretations by political theorists who have deep knowledge of the text and relevant scholarship, and who can use this to explore contemporary issues of power, justice, and human motivation. I find Orwin’s account rich and thought-provoking, clearly the product of vast experience and deliberation.

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How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy

By Johanna Hanink, Thucydides

Book cover of How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy

Why this book?

Not a book about Thucydides, but a selection of the speeches – one of the most striking aspects of his approach to history is the way he includes set-piece debates, not so much as accurate transcripts of what was actually said as a means of exploring issues of war, peace, democratic deliberation and so forth. If you already own a copy of Thucydides, this may not be of much interest (unless you’re obsessive enough to compare Hanink’s translations with others), but if you’re new to the topic this may be a good place to start: the speeches are more accessible than the lengthy battle narratives, they’re the main basis for Thucydides’ reputation as a thinker about political issues, as well as the source of some memorable lines, and Hanink’s introduction does a good job of explaining all of this.

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The Plague

By Albert Camus

Book cover of The Plague

Why this book?

Historians and political theorists praise Thucydides – but they don’t try to write like him. A small number of modern writers have done, or have at least engaged with ideas about his work (compare W.H. Auden’s poem 1 September 1939, or Anne Carson’s ‘Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the set of The Peloponnesian War’ in Men in the Off Hours). Camus’s novel takes its cue from Thucydides’ account of the devastating outbreak of plague in Athens on 430 BCE: in the style of the narration, the meticulous, matter-of-fact descriptions of the course of disease and how people responded to it, and in using this event as a basis for thinking more broadly about the dynamics of society and social relations in a time of crisis. You don’t need to have read Thucydides to appreciate Camus, or vice versa, but I’ve found that each suggests new things to think about the other.

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