Thucydides’ words reach across millennia to strike modern chord

PARIS – Between a skeptical historian of Athens in the age of Pericles and a sprightly 91-year-old in Paris, it’s almost like a love affair across the millennia. Jacqueline de Romilly, whose lifelong passion for Thucydides has made her one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Greek culture, believes the ancient historian has many lessons for the Europe of today. «I do not think you learn wisdom just like that, by reading Thucydides and becoming reasonable,» she told AFP in an interview. «But I do believe that if young people came into contact with that period of reflection, which is different from our time but which nevertheless has elements in common, we would think better, in a more measured, more reasonable and more tolerant fashion.» Thucydides, an acute observer of contemporary events who based his writing on facts and real sources rather than myths and gods, is regarded as the first modern historian. His portrayal of the triumphal departure of the Athenian fleet for the war against Syracuse, and its subsequent rout, echoes across the centuries as a warning not to undertake wars lightly. De Romilly teaches at the prestigious College de France on Greece and the formation of political and moral ideas. Her work has brought her popular success as a writer and peer recognition, but one of her proudest achievements was being awarded Greek citizenship nine years ago in recognition of her efforts to popularize ancient Athenian culture. De Romilly does not believe that the Greeks were the only people to try out democratic ideas, but they were the first to systemize and try to understand them in a way that still has an impact today. «It was the beginning of our Western culture,» she said. De Romilly keeps returning to the idea of the tolerance of ancient Greeks, perhaps because of their polytheism which «has something very beautiful and seductive» about it. The Greeks, she said, knew about violence but did not glorify it. «In all of Greek tragedy, there is only one example, Ajax, of someone dying on stage.»