Presenter: Dr Edith Foster

This seminar puts Thucydides’s accounts of Athenian military defeat in their social and literary contexts. It begins by demonstrating that other genres at Athens, such as tragedy, comedy, public oratory and inscriptions, were reluctant to mention Athens’s defeats, and never described the events of its military disasters. Historiography’s detailed accounts of military losses thus preserved the memory of these adverse events; in addition, they offered an argumentative analysis. After discussing why postwar Athenians might have been interested in reading descriptive explanations of their own military disasters, the seminar reviews two famous Thucydidean narratives of Athenian defeat: the stories of the battles at Delium and on Epipolae at Syracuse. It compares these narratives to such post-defeat responses as are available from our Athenian evidence, showing that these responses were characterized by a tendency to deny defeat, to blame generals or soldiers for cowardice, or to blame bad luck or the gods. The seminar concludes that Thucydides’s accounts would have been read in the context of these more common explanations, which his accounts opposed, and suggests that we consider his narratives of Athenian defeats as arguments that pertained to the postwar political context, in which it was advantageous for parties who wished to undertake new wars to forget or deny defeat. At the same time his detailed accounts commemorated the efforts of the defeated Athenian combatants.

The podcast of the seminar is available from UQ eSpace.