Ancient Greek historians shed light on modern political theory

Kate Dannenmaier

Arthur Eckstein, history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the writings and views of two ancient Greek historians, Thucydides and Polybius, have influenced modern realist political theory at a lecture on campus Wednesday.

Eckstein’s lecture is part of a series titled Strategic Insights into the Ancient World. Postdoctoral fellow Steele Brand said Eckstein has a knack for helping students and scholars understand the relationship between modern international relations and ancient war and politics. Brand said Eckstein has written five books, including one about the writings and ideas of Polybius.

“Polybius is this ancient historian. He’s a general, he’s an adventurer, but he’s also an intellectual, and the question is, How does Polybius look at the rise of Rome in this harsh world?’” Brand said. “[Eckstein] is once again very accessible and delves into some of those tricky nuances as to whether Polybius is just a cynical bloke or if Polybius is really concerned with broader questions of morality.”

Eckstein said political scientists see Thucydides as the founder of international systems theory, and realist theory in particular. Realism is an international relations theory that world politics are driven by the competitive self-interest of states.

“Modern realists have no doubt that Thucydides, writing around 410 BC, is their intellectual ancestor,” Eckstein said. “Further, they employ Thucydides to argue that intellectuals perceived a world of fearful, ruthless, power-maximizing and warlike states as soon as international politics itself came into existence 2,500 years ago. The realist view is this is the view that everybody who’s smart understood this for the past 2,500 years.”

According to Eckstein, Polybius should be seen in the same light as Thucydides. Eckstein said Polybius showed crucial parallels of analysis with Thucydides, even writing 250 years later.  

“Our two most profound surviving ancient observers of international politics and war emphasize the brutal nature of interstate politics and international law without anarchy and the impact of system level redistributions of power as primary explanations for the violent events they chronicled.”

Elizabeth Rozacky, ancient history, classics and classical archaeology junior, said she enjoyed the end of the lecture when Eckstein related the events and ideas Polybius and Thucydides wrote about to recent events such as the situation in Crimea.

“There’s almost a return to this ancient anarchy,” Rozacky said. “There’s this situation where states are pursuing their own survival rather than adhering to international law.”