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Thucydides' classic work on the history of the Peloponnesian War
is the root of Western conceptions of history—including the idea
that Western history is the foundation of everyone else's. Here,
Marshall Sahlins takes on Thucydides and the conceptions of
history he wrought with a groundbreaking new book that shows what
a difference an anthropological concept of culture can make to
the writing of history.
Sahlins begins by confronting Thucydides' account of the
Peloponnesian War with an analogous "Polynesian War," the fight
for the domination of the Fiji Islands (1843-55) between a great
sea power (like Athens) and a great land power (like Sparta).
Sahlins draws parallels between the conflicts with an eye to
their respective systems of power and sovereignty as well as to
Thucydides' alternation between individual (Pericles,
Themistocles) and collective (the Athenians, the Spartans) actors
in the making of history. Characteristic of most histories ever
written, this alternation between the agency of "Great Men" and
collective entities leads Sahlins to a series of incisive
analyses ranging in subject matter from Bobby Thomson's "shot
heard round the world" for the 1951 Giants to the history-making
of Napoleon and certain divine kings to the brouhaha over Elián
Gonzalez. Finally, again departing from Thucydides, Sahlins
considers the relationship between cultural order and historical
contingency through the recounting of a certain royal
assassination that changed the course of Fijian history, a story
of fratricide and war worthy of Shakespeare.
In this most convincing presentation yet of his influential
theory of culture, Sahlins experiments with techniques for mixing
rich narrative with cultural explication in the hope of doing
justice at once to the actions of persons and the customs of
people. And he demonstrates the necessity of taking culture into
account in the creation of history—with apologies to Thucydides,
who too often did not.