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Rotting Ships and Bloodied Water: Destructive Liquids and Thucydides’ Skepticism of Naval Imperialism

  • Author(s): Vivian, Anthony
  • Advisor(s): Phillips, David D.
  • et al.
Abstract

Thucydides’ construction of liquids and solids undermines both the rhetoric of Athenian characters within his History and the consensus reading of this text. This dissertation analyzes Thucydides’ depiction of liquids as active and destructive and contextualizes it within Greek history and literature.

From the oldest extant Greek texts, authors have described all sorts of liquids as active, mutable, and in motion. Their activeness is the fundamental quality that separates them from solids. One major subcategory of liquid activeness in Greek literature is liquid destructiveness. Greek authors consistently show the sea and other liquids to be dangerous, destructive, and deadly. These authors developed this theme as Greek seafaring and naval warfare consistently increased in the Aegean from the end of the eighth century up through the fifth century BCE and beyond.

Thucydides writes within these well-established traditions. He portrays the motion and activeness of liquids in scenes of changing topography. He maps the binary between active liquids and inert solids onto his important dichotomy between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians, who control a naval empire, are active, mutable, and loquacious; the land-based Spartans are stable, conservative, and laconic. Thucydides also develops the destructiveness of liquids throughout his text. Seawater and river water sink ships and kill soldiers. The historian constructs the plague in particularly liquid terms. The Athenians prove to be the most frequent victims of liquid destruction; their over-extended naval empire exposes them to the sea and other dangerous liquids. This reality undermines the rhetoric of Athenian characters within the text who argue for the stability and security of naval empire.

This project thus argues against the consensus reading of Thucydides which frames him as a general supporter of Athenian naval imperialism; it contextualizes him within Greek history and literature; and it argues for the study of authors’ construction of physical, inanimate material as a useful analytical tool.

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