Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Those Greeks again

A correction to yesterday's post. I more or less wrote off the entire list of Greek Historians; I delivered a bad impression of them. It wasn't my intention.

Thucydides was a brilliant writer, in my opinion. He was working in a newborn field of writing and study, so there are necessarily tones and issues of style that might rub a modern reader the wrong way. However, he maintains a feeling of yearning and searching for the truth and the heart of historical events throughout his writing, without sounding nearly as naive as Herodotus. He writes with intelligence and integrity and even those he claims to admire are depicted with all their faults and poor decisions unobscured. That is what I meant when I declared Thucydides to be a true historian.

Xenophon's account of the journey of a retreating Greek mercenary army through many miles of enemy territory makes for a good adventure story. I was impressed by his sketches of the major characters, including himself, and by the flow of the narrative. On the other hand, his heroes come out looking nearly golden and his enemies come out looking like black-hearted cowards, so it's difficult to tell how honest Xenophon is being as it regards what truly happened. I meant what I said about him painting a pretty picture, however. Xenophon's account has an almost cinematic quality at times.

I remember a lot more of Polybius than I claimed yesterday. The accounts of the founding of the Achaen League and their opposition to and conquest of tyrannies in Greece I found particularly absorbing is all. However, the other selected writing by Polybius that is included in the book is his chapter on the Roman Constitution, which includes discussion of what makes a good constitution in general. According to Polybius, a nation of people moves necessarily through a certain cycle of governments, from despotism to monarchy, from monarchy to aristocracy, from aristocracy to oligarchy, from oligarchy to democracy, and from democracy to mob rule. From mob rule, of course, the people return to the rule of a despot out of necessity. I found this interesting; I found Polybius interesting. It was wrong of me to write him off as unmemorable.

That is all. Go back to work.


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