Readers of literary weeklies and reviews need no reminding that writers' lives seem often to be considered more palatable or more piquant than their writings; and there are those for whom a biography is a fitting end. The great authors of ancient Greece will never find biographers, simply because the material is not there: luckily perhaps, since they are thus freer to flit, alive, through the minds of posterity. But modern historians have persistently tried - if not to compose the life - to re-create the experience of Thucydides. We can understand them. The History of the Peloponnesian War is not only, in the author's own words, 'something to keep for ever', but a lifetime's work, and an unfinished one; and he himself lived through the period which was his theme. There are apparent strains and tensions and unevennesses in it, which may be partly because different passages were composed in different phases of the author's thinking and existence. But after many decades of scholarly activity, there is still no agreement about the genesis of Thucydides's history. No wonder. The work does not tell the tale of its own formation; and what may be explained by hypotheses about the author's experience may often be explained no less well, or better, by other means.
LRB 21 January 1982 | PDF Download