Hobbes’ Thucydides

Thucydides (ca. 455-ca. 400 B.C.); Hobbes, Thomas, translator (1588-1679)

Eight Books of the Peloponnesian Warre. Written by Thvcydides the sonne of Olorvs. Interpreted with Faith and Diligence Immediately out of the Greeke By Thomas Hobbes. Secretary to the late Earle of Deuonshire.

London: Charles Harper, 1676


Folio: 31 x 20.5 cm. [π]2 (engraved and printed titles), A4, (a)-(d)4, (e)2, B-Z4; Aa-Zz4; Aaa4. With five added maps and plates.


Illustrated with the famous engraved title page showing Archidamos, Perikles and the author with vignette views of Sparta, Athens and a small map of Greece; and five engraved maps and views by Thomas Cecill entitled: "The Mappe of Ancient Greece", "Plataea", "Sphoicteria", "Antient Sicele According to the Description of Philip Chiuerius", and "Syracvse Beseeged by the Athenians". Bound in contemporary sprinkled calf, ruled in compartments with decorative tools at each corner of the central panel. The hinges are starting, the corners bumped but the binding is in overall good condition. The contents are in excellent condition: the leaves are bright and crisp, the maps and plates are intact and present.

Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides' masterpiece in 1629, when he was in his early forties. Yet he tells us in the introduction that the translation, once completed “lay long by” him, indicating that it had been completed much earlier.

“Hobbes was interested in Thucydides less for his style than his subject matter. Nor did he take up the study and translation of the Greek historian simply with a scholar’s antiquarian interest, but with the humanist desire to learn and pass on the lessons of history to his contemporaries. He is not shy of speaking of the utility of history. He talks of Thucydides’ writings ‘as having in them profitable instruction for Noblemen, and such as may come to have the managing of great and weighty actions.’ It is in the history of Thucydides that the purposes of history are most finely embodied: ‘For the principall and proper worke of History, being to instruct, and enable men, by the knowledge of Actions past, to beare themselves prudently in the present, and providently towards the Future, there is not extant any other (merely humane) that doth more fully, and naturally performe it, then this of my Author.’…

“Hobbes had very definite ideas about the conclusions to be drawn from Thucydides. In the long introductory essay, ‘Of the Life and History of Thucydides’, he derives from the history an account of the political opinions of its author:

‘For his opinion touching the government of the State, it is manifest that he least of all liked the Democracy. And upon divers occasions, hee noteth the emulation and contention of the Demagogues, for reputation, and glory of wit; with their crossing of each others counsels to the damage of the Publique; the inconstancy of Resolutions, caused by the diversity of ends, and power of Rhetorique in the Orators; and the desperated actions undertaken upon the flattering advice of such as desired to attaine, or to hold what they had attained of authority and sway amongst the common people. Nor doth it appeare, that he magnifieth anywhere the authority of the Few; amongst whom he saith every one desireth to be chiefe; and they that are undervalued, beare it with lesse patience than in a Democracy; whereupon sedition followeth, and dissultion of the government. Hee prayseth the government of Athens, when it was mixed of the Few and the Many; but more he commendeth it, both when Pisistratus raigned (saving that it was an usurped power) and when in the beginning of this Warre, it was Democraticall in name, but in effect Monarchicall under Pericles.’

“Thucydides here is represented as a closet royalist. The passage to which Hobbes is directly referring, which must have been written after the final defeat of Athens in 404, is Thucydides summary account of the causes of her downfall in Book II. This is a long but crucial passage in Hobbes’ translation, a shortcut to the lessons to be learnt from the larger narrative. While there are many factors that contributed to the political philosophy later developed by Hobbes (not least his experience of civil disorder in Britain), it might be argued that the political analysis here of the weakness of the Athenian democracy was influential in defining a problem to which the doctrine of Leviathan was the solution.”(Robin Sowerby, “Thomas Hobbes’ Translation of Thucydides”)

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