The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, Ashendene Press (1930)

The Ashendene Press was one of the great private presses of the early twentieth century. Their most famous works include Tutte le Opere di Dante Alighieri (1909, often considered with the Kelmscott Press Chaucer and Doves Press Bible as one of the three greatest private press books ever)and seven magnificent large folio’s: Malory’s Morte Darthur, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Spenser’s Minor Poems, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the work reviewed here, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian WarAll works from Ashendene are extremely sought after, collectible and expensive (the fact that the limitations were very small does not help!).  Many of their works were printed without illustrations (only ten works were illustrated, including the exceptional Daphnis et Chloe, their only publication to contain original wood-engravings, in this case by Gwen Raverat).  Instead, the Press relied on beautiful typographic design, page layout and execution to allow the work to stand on its own.   The pages are typically adorned with beautiful initial lettering, mostly by Graily Hewitt (whose work is in most editions from 1902 forward), though others such as Eric Gill (Utopia), Louise Powell (Don Quixote) and Edward Johnston also contributed.

The press was founded by Charles Henry St John Hornby (1867–1946) in 1894, and other than a five year hiatus around World War I, remained open through 1935. Their beautifully done Descriptive Bibliography, the last book from the Press and a model for all future private press bibliographies, listed their production as having included 40 books, 12 minor pieces and 10 items of ephemera. The first few years of the press (through 1901) can be thought of as ‘hobby years’ of Hornby, with him printing about a dozen small books with limitations between sixteen and fifty copies. These early works typically used Fell types from then Oxford University Press. In 1900 Hornby met and became friends with Sydney Cockerell (who was William Morris’s secretary at the Kelmscott Press at the time) and Emery Walker (co-founder of the great Doves Press). These relationships provided much encouragement to Hornby. Importantly, they assisted Hornby in creating two typefaces for his use that ultimately adorn most Ashendene books: Subiaco and Ptolemy types. Subiaco was used in 24 of the books from the press beginning in 1902. Ptolemy was used in four books, beginning with 1927’s Don Quixote.

Hornby choose works that appealed to him. He was a wealthy man, so could follow his own inspirations, one of which was great Italian literature. In fact, about 1/3 of his works were published in their original Italian or Latin. Hornby pretty much did most of the work himself, never employing more than a single pressman and a single compositor. He used a Crown Albion press until 1900, then an Albion Royal Press until he closed the Press. Hornby was a partner in the English booksellers W.H. Smith and Son, which was run by Sydney Cockerell’s younger brother Douglas, one of the greats when it comes to book binding and preservation. In fact, many Ashendene books that were bound by W.H. Smith are bindings done by Cockerell himself (mostly those published between 1904 and 1915).

The prospectus for The History of the Peloponnesian War advertised it as “the last Folio to be issued by the Ashendene Press” and announced the closing down of the press. The look of the edition is elegant and classical simple with the binding by W.H. Smith and Son in full white pigskin using raised bands with gilt titling upon the leather, red and black ink on the pages (specifically, printed in black in Ptolemy type with three-line initials, borrowed from the alphabet designed by Eric Gill for the Press’s Utopia, at the beginning of each chapter and the larger initials and opening line of each of the eight books designed by Graily Hewitt and printed in red), generous margins and handmade Batchelor paper.  In addition, for the first time, Hornby used a different type for the side-notes (done in red Blado Italic type).

The History of the Peloponnesian War is the definitive classical account of the war between Athens and Sparta and is considered one of the greatest works of history ever written (certainly in the ‘historical literature’ bucket it has very few peers). The work remains very influential. It is still widely studied in military colleges and in universities (at least those that continue to provide classical knowledge). Thucydides (ca. 460 – ca. 395 B.C.) was the greatest of all Greek historians and is considered one of the ‘fathers’ of Western scientific history. He actually fought in the first phases of this was as an general in the Athenian army, yet the History is written from a detached, intellectual and reasonably unbiased standpoint. There is significant focus on the causes of the war, its harmful and degenerative impacts and the role of human nature in the conflict.  Thucydides was methodical in writing this history, spending a lot of time visiting battlefields and interviewing participants from both sides of the war. What makes his history so compelling is that he is a great storyteller, writer and dramatist. He could have been one of the great Greek tragedians should he had gone that route!

As stated in the Wikipedia article on Thucydides’s History, the work “is extraordinarily dense and complex. His particular ancient Greek prose is also very challenging, grammatically, syntactically, and semantically.” This, of course, makes translation extremely difficult (it has been called “untranslatable”). Thomas Hobbes, who along with Thucydides and Machiavelli are often considered the founding fathers of political realism, was the first to translate his writings into English directly from Greek, doing so in 1628.  Ashendene Press used the well regarded translation of 1881 by Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College and Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford. Jowett was a very influential nineteenth century classical scholar whose translation of Plato’s Dialogues, completed in 1871, remains an English classic. Similarly, his translation of Thucydides remains well thought of (see here for a review/comparison of three later translations that may be of interest). Jowett had intended to provide a set of essays to accompany the translation of Thucydides, as he had done for Plato, but these were never written.

Sidney Cockerell praised the Ashendene Thucydides as “one of the greatest of the many accomplishments of [the] Press–a very fine page, the measure not too wide for so large a type and the side notes most beautiful and effective.” A most true summarization! The edition is stunning, especially the page layout, generous margins and the interplay of the black and red type. The text on the page is a tour de force, a visual feast. One could argue that the type and side notes do not ‘get out of the way’, breaking the ‘rule’ that great type and layout should be transparent, not standing between the reader and the author. Bah humbug! If all pages were as glorious to look at! Copies today typically run at least $4,000, often more the finer the copy is.

About the Edition

  • Translated Into English by Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College and Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford

  • 260 copies on handmade ‘Batchelor Ashendene’ paper plus 20 on vellum

  • Printed in black in Ptolemy type with three-line initials at the beginning of each chapter and the larger initials and opening line of each of the eight books designed by Graily Hewitt and printed in red

  • Marginal chapter summaries also in red in Blado Italic type; printer’s mark D printed in black

  • Publishers white pigskin by W.H. Smith and Son

  • Spine lettered in gilt with seven raised bands; all edges uncut

  • 15 3/4 x 10 3/4 in (400 x 273 mm)

Pictures of the Edition

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The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Slipcase (Custom, with iPhone 6 for scale)
The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Slipcase (Custom, with iPhone 6+ for scale)
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The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Book in Slipcase
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The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Macro of Spine
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The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Cover
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The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ashendene Press, Printers Device

One thought on “The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, Ashendene Press (1930)

  1. I jokingly refer to the three great British private presses responsible for starting the modern private press movement, i.e., the Kelmscott Press, the Ashendene Press, and the Doves Press, as being akin to the three bowls of porridge Goldilocks sampled inside the bears’ house:

    The Kelmscott Press is thought by some to be “too hot”. The elaborate wood-engraved border decorations, initial letters, and title pages are considered overly fussy and interfere with the actual reading of the book. While this is certainly true of their magnum opus, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I am not bothered by their appearance in other books and find them quite beautiful.

    The Doves Press is considered by many to be “too cold”. The insistence by founder T.J. Cobden-Sanderson upon using only one type – his beloved Doves Press type – throughout their entire bibliography, the belief that the “book beautiful” should consist only of beautiful type, handset letterpress printing, and careful page design without any embellishment, ultimately proves to be somewhat boring. The cold, austere appearance may work for the Doves Press books of poetry but this approach is much less successful for books such as Sartor Resartus, Faust, Shakespeare’s plays, etc. Ironically, the few books in which a bit of color is added, e.g., the English Bible, Paradise Lost, and the copies of Robert Browning’s ‘Men and Women’ with hand-flourishsed initial letters in several colors, are the most sought after Doves Press books.

    The Ashendene Press, however, got it “just right”. C.H. St. John Hornby combined flawless letterpress printing and page design with judicious use of color and engraved initial letters by Grailly Hewitt to magnificent effect. Their folio-sized books are amongst the pinnacle of the Ashendene Press bibliography and the few books in which wood-engraved illustrations were added, i.e., the three-volume set of La Divina Commedia by Dante, Tutte le Opere di Dante Alighieri and Le Morte DArthur are a league apart.

    As Chris’ ample photographs illustrate, the Ashendene Press ‘Thucydides’ is magisterial but what really sets it apart is the work by translator Prof. Benjamin Howett. The English translation is both scholarly and readable and, best of all , Prof. Howett’s extensive commentary and summation in the margins of each page (printed in red ink in Blado Italic type) give the reader the impression that he/she is being guided and coached through this reading with a senior tutor at the University of Oxford looking over one’s shoulder and bringing the history of the Peloponnesian War to life.

    This is a magnificent book!

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