In 1628 Thomas Hobbes characterised Thucydides as the “most politique historiographer that ever writ”. Two centuries later, during the turmoil of the French Revolution, Pierre-Charles Levesque would pick up on this epithet when he called Thucydides the “historian of politics”. This paper aims to explore the issues involved with reading classical historians, particular Thucydides, as contributions to political thought during the French revolution. During the revolution key assumptions about antiquity and its relationship to the present were broken down. Many segments of revolutionary society employed the images of antiquity in their art, festivals and political discourse. This is often as seen as attempt to invoke the classical republican virtue first advocated by Mably and Rousseau. Less attention has been paid to the contributions made by individual ancient writers directly to revolutionary thought. Yet new translations of Tacitus, Thucydides, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, Sallust, and Livy were printed between 1789 and 1799, representing an attempt to make classical thought available to the literate masses not seen since d’Ablancourt at the end of the seventeenth century. Often the prefaces to these translations contained allusions to their political value, Levesque went so far as to claim Thucydides was the one historian who should be read by citizens of a country were they had a free say in politics, referring to France. The Thermidorians even offered a new translation of the relevant portions of Xenophon to help Parisians understand the intricacies of a mixed constitution. Thucydides is the perfect writer to begin these studies. He was largely ignored in French intellectual life throughout much of the eighteenth century but through the efforts of scholars such as Levesque and Jean-Baptiste Gail he began to take centre stage, displacing even Tacitus. Key issues for consideration are: What were the ruling concepts for the interpretation of Thucydides in different disciplinary traditions? What pressures did the events of the revolution exert on ancient historiography and its claim to truth? How far did the interpretation of Thucydides shape this debate, for example by promoting political historiography over other approaches? What was the place of Thucydides in debates about the historian’s proper task and methods?

Advertisements