Thucydides: Heavyweight Champion Historian of the World!
Written by Neville Morley
Prof. Neville Morley (University of Exeter) shares news of a new animation about Thucydides, created with the help of an ICS public engagement grant.
In recent years, Thucydides has become an increasingly familiar name in debates about current events, such as the future of US-China relations, the rise of populism and factionalism in western democracies, and of course Brexit. Boris Johnson’s professed admiration for Pericles has simply added to the level of interest on social media in recent months. Many of these references are trite and simplistic, taking a few quotes or examples out of context and elevating them into universal political theories. Worse, they tend to be obscure and elitist; it’s not so much that these commentators assume extensive knowledge of Thucydides on the part of their audience, as that they assume their audience will simply accept their invocation of Thucydides and what he stands for without question.
In other words, there is a clear need for better knowledge and understanding of Thucydides, to demystify the ways that people make use of his name and accumulated authority. The problem is that Thucydides’ work is long, difficult and inaccessible – even his name is long, difficult and inaccessible. Of course there are excellent introductory books about him, and resources like the episodes of Radio 4’s In Our Time (on Thucydides generally from 2015, and on the Mytilinaean Debate from earlier this year) – but those already demand considerable investment of time. What is there for someone who wants more than just “Athenian historian and general”, but wants it in under three minutes..?
Thucydides: Heavyweight Champion Historian of the World is a short animation designed to offer an accessible introduction to Thucydides and his work. I originally proposed it as a TED-Ed video, but they changed their minds about the idea halfway through the development process; I’m enormously grateful to the ICS, along with my Head of Department and the Associate Dean for Research, for coming up with the funding to make it possible nevertheless. It was written and narrated by me, and illustrated and animated by Bee Jamieson and Matt Hawkins, a couple of students from Falmouth University – and if anyone else has plans for something similar, I can’t recommend these two strongly enough for their enthusiasm and imagination, but failing that I’d certainly suggest that working with students is the cost-effective way to go.
The animation is intended for anyone with a passing interest in who Thucydides was, especially young people and those for whom English is not their first language. It’s a lot shorter and less wordy than any of the videos on Thucydides currently available, as well as funnier (sillier?) and rather more memorable (I hope), without being too simplistic. Yes, it’s ended up being less explicitly critical of the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ idea than I would have liked, but there’s a limit to what can be done in three minutes – and the opportunity to show Greek warriors falling into a pit was too good to miss…
It’s now on YouTube for anyone to see. I’m going to be adding it to the resources supporting the ‘Might and Right: Thinking Through Thucydides’ activities that Lynette Mitchell and I have been developing with The Politics Project to help support political literacy in schools (contact me for further details if interested!), but I hope it will be useful in lots of different contexts. I’m enormously grateful to the ICS for their help in making this project possible. And if anyone wants to crowd-fund an animation of a Herodotus-Thucydides Historical Deathmatch…
by Neville Morley
You can read more about Neville’s research on his personal blog, and you can also find him on Twitter @NevilleMorley.