Winston Churchill and Thucydides

Winston Churchill and Thucydides

Q: Churchill’s acquaintanship with Thucydides

(Updat­ed from 2012.) I am a post-doc at Tübin­gen Uni­ver­si­ty writ­ing a paper about Sir Win­ston Churchill’s appre­ci­a­tion of Thucy­dides. Did he pos­sess a per­son­al copy of the ancient historian’s His­to­ry of the Pelo­pon­nesian War? I would be very grate­ful for any help. —O.S., Germany

A: Powerful influence

(Wiki­me­dia Commons)

I can­not con­firm that Churchill owned a copy of Thucy­dides’ Pelop­pon­nesian War. His orig­i­nal library is not intact. It would seem log­i­cal that he did. Churchill cer­tain­ly read and appre­ci­at­ed the works of the great Greek his­to­ri­an. And the writ­ings of Churchill have often been com­pared to those of Thucydides.

Churchill first read Thucy­dides as a boy at Har­row or Sand­hurst (where it was in the cur­ricu­lum). In Sep­tem­ber 1913, on a cruise aboard the Admi­ral­ty yacht Enchantress, Churchill and his pri­vate sec­re­tary, Eddie Marsh vis­it­ed Greece and Sici­ly. The Prime Min­is­ter, H.H. Asquith, a great schol­ar of the clas­sics, was on board, and Marsh record­ed that Asquith “brushed up on his Thucy­dides for the occa­sion.” Churchill and Asquith then held forth on the Pelo­pon­nesian War.

T. E. Lawrence (of Ara­bia) com­pared Churchill’s mem­oir of World War I, The World Cri­sis,with the writ­ings of the Greek: “I sup­pose [Churchill] real­izes that he’s the only high per­son since Thucy­dides and Claren­don who has put his gen­er­a­tion imag­i­na­tive­ly in his debt.”

Sim­i­lar com­par­isons of Churchill to Thucy­dides were made by the his­to­ri­an R.W. Thomp­son about Churchill’s mem­oir, The Sec­ond World War (1948-54); and, more recent­ly, by Pro­fes­sor Paul Rahe of Hills­dale Col­lege about Churchill’s The Riv­er War (1899).

“A possession for ever”

In 1905 the lit­er­ary agent Frank Har­ris read the man­u­script of Churchill’s biog­ra­phy of his father, Lord Ran­dolph Churchill, writ­ing to Win­ston Churchill: “[I]t will be as Thucy­dides said of his own his­to­ry a ‘a pos­ses­sion for ever. ’”

In 1931 Oliv­er Lock­er-Lamp­son, review­ing The East­ern Front, Churchill’s final vol­ume of The World Cri­sis, wrote:

No greater writer of the Eng­lish lan­guage exists today. Mr. Churchill is our mod­ern Macaulay; or rather today’s Thucy­dides…. Some day some­one will do jus­tice to this great Eng­lish­man. Mean­time, let us read his resound­ing record and be renewed by the vigour of his patri­o­tism and versatility.

Churchill him­self wrote noth­ing spe­cif­ic about Thucy­dides, but men­tioned some­thing Lord Beaver­brook sent him in 1942. Beaver­brook was Min­is­ter of Air­craft Pro­duc­tion, where he had proven invalu­able. Churchill wrote:

He also sent me, undat­ed, the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tion from Thucy­dides, which he had per­haps tried in vain upon him­self: “Open no more nego­ti­a­tions with Spar­ta. Show them plain­ly that you are not crushed by your present afflic­tions. They who face calami­ty with­out winc­ing, and who offer the most ener­getic resis­tance, these, be they States or indi­vid­u­als, are the truest heroes.” —The Hinge of Fate (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1950), 74.

By “Spar­ta” Beaver­brook was refer­ring to Churchill’s crit­ics. The war had been going bad­ly, but Churchill had won a vote of con­fi­dence by 464 votes to 1 in Jan­u­ary. The quo­ta­tion was good advice for Churchill. It was also for Beaver­brook, but he didn’t take it. Short­ly after send­ing this mes­sage, he resigned.

Further reading

“Win­ston Churchill’s Three Best War Books,” 2020.

“Churchill and Lawrence of Ara­bia: A Con­junc­tion of Two Bright Stars,” 2020.

“Greeks Fight Like Heroes, Heroes Fight Like Greeks,” 2021.

“Lt. Churchill: A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als,” 2017.

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