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Thucydides: The Reinvention of History Hardcover – October 29, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Yale professor of classics Kagan thoroughly examines Thucydides' life and work to successfully demonstrate that the Athenian historian was the first to utilize a truly professional (i.e., realistic and methodical) approach in recounting contemporary events. An unsuccessful general and a devoted adherent of Pericles, Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War was the most significant event in Greek history. He was determined that his study of the war, unlike more romantic or folkish histories, would stand the test of time because of his attention to detail; his comprehensive documentation includes symptoms of the mysterious plague afflicting Athens for the benefit of future generations, showing the historian's far-sighted versatility. To his credit, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War remains a necessity in the study of international relations, military strategy and political science. Like his subject, Kagan (The Peloponnesian War) tends to minimize the impact of Herodotus on the evolution of history as a discipline, yet any such weakness is offset by the inescapable fact that if Herodotus remains the acknowledged Father of History, then Thucydides could be described as the Father of Objective History, who opened the realm of history to serious study. (Nov. 2)
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From Booklist

Acclaimed for his independence of judgment, Thucydides might have written more reliable history had he not separated himself so sharply from his contemporaries. So Kagan argues in this provocative reassessment of the great Greek historian. To be sure, Kagan acknowledges Thucydides’ singular accomplishment as the father of political history, a new intellectual enterprise based upon painstaking factual research and complete repudiation of traditional mythology. However, careful analysis repeatedly shows that in his famous account of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek historian allows his biases to intrude. Scornful of the Athenian democracy that exiled him for his own failure at Amphipolis, Thucydides interprets key events—such as Cleon’s victory at Pylos and the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily—as justification for his prejudices. Remarkably, in the details he himself provides, Thucydides furnishes Kagan with ample evidence for challenging the historian’s interpretations. Ultimately, Thucydides emerges as a writer so intent on discrediting the prevailing public understanding of the war that he merits the label “revisionist.” A daring approach to a cultural icon. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021291
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,044,359 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Trinque VINE VOICE on November 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Undoubtedly Thucydides ranks among the greatest of historians. Indeed, he probably deserves to be recognized as the founder of modern history ("modern" in this case meaning a wide-ranging, fundamentally objective analysis of events). His great work on the Peloponnesian War is unmatched in its long-reaching influence. Thucydides' depiction of the great 5th century BC war between Athens and Sparta has for more than two millenia formed the basis for viewing and understanding those events. Very likely no single other work of history has ever had such an impact in forming future perception of events. In "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History", Donald Kagan -- the pre-emininent modern historian of the Peloponnesian War -- examines Thucydides' work in light of Thucydides' own claims of cool objectivity; Kagan ably demonstrates, I believe, that inevitably the ancient Greek historian did not in fact, could not indeed, wholly maintain his objectivity, certainly understandable in the Thucydides himself was a direct participant in some of the events he described. In several cases, notably Pericles' involvement in the origin of the Peloponnesian War and the doomed Athenia expedition to Sicily, Kagan presents a strong case that Thucydides has deliberately crafted an interpretation of events that ran counter to popular perceptions and, in fact, runs counter even to the evidence that Thucydides presented in his own book.

Kagan's "Thucydides" might be viewed as a companion, with differences of emphasis, to his earlier single-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. Although much of the same ground is covered in both books, the focus is different, with the ancient historian much more in the forefront of this new volume.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By G.X. Larson on August 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Any discussion of Thucydides almost always begins with a juxtaposition of the Athenian with the Halicarnassian, Herodotus. Herodotus, who wrote before Thucydides, filled his history of the Persian Wars with colorful discussions of exotic cultures, far away kings, distant geography, and, most notoriously, mythology. Thucydides, on the other hand, wrote with a clear and rational hand; his history of the Peloponnesian War is prized for its sharp analysis, an analysis that was unknown up until Thucydides and extremely rare thereafter. Herodotus, we now know, wrote to entertain the listener or reader; Thucydides wrote to get to the truth. Indeed, the Athenian prefaced his History with a direct shot against Herodotus: "To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful." In his own words, then, Thucydides wrote to depict objective. Later writers would share his attitude: Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that Thucydides "reports the facts without judging them," while Nietzsche noted that the Athenian was "the grand summation, the last manifestation of that strong, stern, hard matter-of-factness instinctive to the older Hellenes."

Donald Kagan, the world's foremost scholar of the Peloponnesian Wars, in his career-long interest of Thucydides and the Wars, has discovered that the belief in Thucydides' complete objectivity is mistaken. We must realize, says Kagan, that Thucydides was a contemporary of the topic about which he wrote; moreover, his history of the period differs from the interpretations of his contemporaries.
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45 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Reichmann on November 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The book is barely over 200 pages and contains huge chunks (word for word) from Kagan's one volume history of the Great War. Since the War took place over 2000 years ago it is disturbing, in discussing what various partcipants thought or said, to find the author using such phrases as "It is inconceivable that" or "There can be no doubt that". This book will be mostly incomprehensible to the reader unfamiliar with the Great War and annoying to those who have read Kagan's previous work.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Levesque on August 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Kagan's book is essentially a historiographical study of Thucydides as a historian. The bottom line is that the author sees Thucydides as a "revisionist" historian of his period who was subject to the same limitations, professional and personal, that affect all historians.

In the introduction, Kagan puts Thucydides in the context of his society and prevailing philosophies of the time, and he addresses Thucydides own place in that society as a wealthy Athenian aristocrat who lived through and fought in the Peloponnesian War, and who was later exiled because of a perceived failure on his part as an Athenian general. The body of the book is essentially multiple case studies of key events and personalities that Kagan compares and contrasts between Thucydides interpretation of the same, and the views of other ancient historians and contemporary Athenians.

In the conclusion Kagan basically argues that while Thucydides' history is valid and that he invented, "a new kind of history," Thucydides' history is his interpretation of the facts and events, as filtered through his own values and experience, in the same way any other historian is affected by his own prejudices. The bottom line is that Thucydides created a new way of writing history, one that we appreciate and value today, but he also provided a historical interpretation, based on fact, which reflected his views.
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