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The Peloponnesian War (2003)

by Donald Kagan

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1,595219,908 (4.07)3
For three decades in the fifth century b.c. the ancient world was torn apart bya conflict that was as dramatic, divisive, and destructive as the world wars of the twentieth century: the Peloponnesian War. Donald Kagan, one of the world's most respected classical, political, and military historians, here presents a new account of this vicious war of Greek against Greek, Athenian against Spartan. The Peloponnesian War is a magisterial work of history written for general readers, offering a fresh examination of a pivotal moment in Western civilization. With a lively, readable narrative that conveys a richly detailed portrait of a vanished world while honoring its timeless relevance, The Peloponnesian War is a chronicle of the rise and fall of a great empire and of a dark time whose lessons still resonate today.… (more)
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There was a time when every educated person had to learn Latin and Greek; The Gallic War and The Civil War (Caesar) for Latin and The Persian Wars (Herodotus) and The Peloponnesian War (Thucydides) for Greek. By the time I got to college, you no longer read them in the original languages, but Introduction to Western Civilization at the University of Chicago still required them (student unrest compelled UofC to add “History of Africa Civilization”, “History of Oriental Civilization” and “History of Russian Civilization” as alternates shortly afterward). Did it do me any good to study the ancients? Well, I don’t think it hurt me any; I probably would have read these on my own sooner or later. The instructors kept trying to kept things relevant by linking things to current events; the Vietnam War was in full swing at the time and there was plenty of opportunity to compare Athens to the US. The popularity of the Greeks and their battles may be on the upswing with books like Gates of Fire and movies like 300, so it’s perhaps apropos that historian Donald Kagan has produced a condensation of his four-volume history of the conflict between Athenians and Spartans.

The book is good, but not great. Kagan’s approach to the classical history is, well, classical – his sources are Thucydides, Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch, plus a scattering of fragments from other ancient authors. He does do considerable speculation on the strategies and ideas of the participants, and those speculations are cogent and usually convincing. What the book lacks, unfortunately, is background. The reader is assumed to be knowledgeable about ancient Greek history – which means she’s already read all the authors Kagan cites. There’s nothing here drawn from archaeology; little to no discussion of how a hoplite army actually fought or how a trireme navy was outfitted and supplied. (One exception is Kagan’s discussion of the catastrophic defeat of the Athenian navy at Syracuse, where the Syracusans modified their ships to counter the usually devastating Athenian diekplous, but that’s about it – and even then it isn’t really clear exactly what the Syracusans did. An illustration, even a speculative one, would have been worth 1000 words).

My own background reading helped a lot to fill in the blanks Kagan leaves. For example, Kagan notes that the Athenians were usually dominant at sea because of “better training”; a casual reader might think “Well, how much training does it take to row a boat?”. The answer seems to be “A lot, for a trireme”. A trireme was packed to the gunwales with rowers; only the top row of oarsmen could actually see their oars contact the water. The diekplous tactic involved opposing triremes playing a game of nautical chicken, approaching ram to ram. At the last second before head-on contact, the Athenian steersman would swerve to one side, and simultaneously all the oarsmen on that side would pull their oars in – meaning an already packed rowing space now had a bunch of 16-foot poles sticking into it - doing that without bashing your rowing mates in the head or getting your oars tangled up, yes, I imagine that did require some practice. Now the Athenians cruised down the side of the enemy trireme; if they weren’t exactly as well trained and alert as the Athenians some to all of their oars were still sticking out and got snapped off, creating havoc inside (remember, all of the rowers had their backs to the other ship and two thirds of them couldn’t see outside anyway; thus everything depended on the skill of the steersman). Experiments with the replica trireme Olimpias demonstrated that a skilled crew could bring a trireme to a stop, turn it 180° in its own length, and re-accelerate to 6 knots in 60 seconds. So the opposing trireme had now had half its oars snapped off; the force of the impact had swung it in the water so it was now at right angles to its original heading – and the Athenians had turned around and were now approaching it ram to broadside at 6 knots. It’s not surprising at all that it took the Spartans a long time to match the Athenians at sea – since the Athenians controlled the Peloponnesian coast for most of the war, the Spartans never had a chance to take their crews out and practice – and the final “naval” battle was actually fought on land, at Aegospotami in the Hellespont, when Lysander surprised the Athenian fleet while most of the crews were foraging and landed enough hoplites to capture the Athenian triremes on shore.

Similarly, although Kagan notes numerous sieges in the war, there’s no explanation on what was involved. No siege weapons had been invented yet (Assyrian and Egyptian armies had siege towers, but the news never made it to Greece). There were no catapults and mining wasn’t used (Kagan doesn’t even mention the idea; I suspect the soil in most of Greece wasn’t conducive). Thus the only way to capture a walled city was to have traitors inside open the gates (the usual method) or starve it out. (The walls of Athens – or more precisely the walls connecting Athens to the port of Piraeus – were what precipitated the war in the first place; the Spartans realized a walled Athens was essentially invulnerable and demanded that the Athenians tear them down).

Both Kagan and the ancient authors devoted a lot of attention to politics of Athens – but there’s no single clear explanation on how that worked. As near as I can tell, for most of the war the Athenians had a “true” democracy; every enfranchised citizen could show up at the assembly and vote. “Generals” (Kagan’s translation of “archons”) were elected but there is no explanation of how such an election worked. A number of Athenians – most notably Pericles – strongly influenced politics, but there’s very little discussion of how they accomplished that. Spartan politics gets even less attention; Kagan mentions the “ephors” and the “assembly” several times, but from my other reading on Sparta it isn’t clear exactly what powers the ephors had, and it seems like the gerousia – which Kagan doesn’t mention at all – actually had more power than the ephors did. There is some more explanation of Athenian politics near the end of the war, when an oligarchic coup de etat temporarily took control, and of the brave attempt by Socrates to stop the mass trial of the navarchs after the Battle of Arginusae.

I don’t want to sound too critical. I will say the book has excellent maps – every major land and naval battle is depicted (insofar as ancient sources allow it to be reconstructed) and there are overall maps of the major operating areas. The book’s an easy read; Kagan’s writing style is clear and straightforward. As mentioned, Kagan’s analysis of the tactics and strategy of the conflict always seems on target. Interestingly, despite their reputations, the aristocratic Spartans usually come across as vacillating and indecisive while the democratic Athenians are aggressive and usually seize opportunity with successful results. Kagan refrains from drawing analogies to modern politics, although there’s certainly plenty of opportunity for it; the Athenians were winning when they decided to commit the bulk of their land and naval forces to a disastrous attack on Syracuse, which was far outside their area of interest and another democracy; the Spartans, although justifying the war as “liberators” of Greece from Athenian domination, eventually negotiated a treaty with Persia that would have returned all the Greek cities on mainland Asia plus the Aegean Islands to Darius II.

I’m not really sure how to judge this book; it’s an enjoyable enough read but I think it could have been a lot better if Kagan had spent less time recapitulating the ancient authors and more time explaining what life, warfare and politics were like in their times. ( )
3 vote setnahkt | Dec 28, 2017 |
I should have read The Peloponnesian War before I read Xenophon's Anabasis. Xenophon's work takes place shortly after the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and that event sets the context of the relationship between the Athenian Greeks and the Spartans. One can see generals like Demosthenes and Lysander as influencing how Xenophon would have led, as well as learn what was expected of Athenian commanders both on the battlefield and in the realm of politics.

Donald Kagan is apparently the world's foremost expert on this event, and his works on it seem unassailable. Kagan's goal is to bring his academic research into a format more relevant to the modern reader who is familiar with modern wars and politics. While some reviews on Amazon have criticized this work as being "dry" or "too detailed," I disagree; it was a long and historically consequential war involving various people groups and cultures and is more than just "Athenians" vs. "Spartans." It is also "Ionians" vs. "Dorians" and others. The modern reader (myself) may tend to forget that in this period there was no united "Greece," the Aegean was all loose affiliations of independent and democratic city states that fell under the influence of larger city states. Spartans and Athenians had differing cultures and political structures and did not get along.

One is struck by the parallels between this war and 20th century wars. You have a problem/conflict in a far-off territory supported by a superpower, which begins to pull in other regional powers and eventually grows into a major war between superpowers. What looks like a quick-and-easy war turns into a costly quagmire. Democratic institutions get subverted in the name of defending the country, and much blood and treasure is robbed from future generations. During the war, people do things so far outside cultural norms and accepted morality that it cracks the very foundations of their civilizations. The question of how to have "peace with honor" for both sides in a potential stalemate becomes the issue. Bold speeches lead to disastrous actions, and popular sentiment changes with news of each battle's result. Borders get redrawn setting the stage for future conflicts.

Greece early on was moving from a true democracy to a "republic of the first citizen," where a general or other man of consequence had actual power and sway beyond statutes. By the end of the war, many of its cultural institutions were badly undermined and it was no longer an empire.

In the first phase of the war, the "Archidamian War," Athens was influenced by Pericles to adopt a defensive strategy-- to resist until the Spartans see they cannot be beaten. To rely heavily on its naval advantage while Sparta relies on its superior infantry. After Pericles death, the Athenians begin having some success on offense and adopt a more aggressive strategy. Good tactics and luck swing the war into Athens' favor, but they overreach at a point where they could have achieved very favorable terms with Sparta and expanded their empire. Instead, the Spartans achieve some victories and sue for a more favorable peace.

In the interim, both Sparta and Athens wage a sort of proxy war by supporting opposite sides of other regional conflicts. Athens and their allies experience major defeats, which is foreboding for the next chapter of the conflict.

When Athenian allies are attacked by Spartan-backed Syracusans in Sicily, Alcibiades convinces the Athenian assembly to mount a massive expedition to crush Syracuse and incorporate Sicily into the empire. After this meets with disastrous defeat, Alcibiades is convicted of treason and flees to Sparta-- effectively turning traitor and convincing the Spartans to follow his advice in attacking Athens! Athens ends up doubling down on its Sicilian campaign, resulting in almost the complete destruction of its navy, infantry, and the loss of city states as the balance of power shifts in Sparta's favor. Nicias opposes the Sicilian expedition but gets appointed as a general, and ends up the last remaining general on the expedition after Alcibiades is arrested and others are killed. Generals who experienced bad results in the battlefield, even if there were a good excuse, were routinely disgraced, tried, executed, or banished. Demosthenes suggests the army retreat to defend Athens but Nicias hesitates both due to fear of returning to Athens and because of a solar eclipse that soothsayers say is an omen to wait before retreating. The Syracusans press the attack and destroy the Athenian forces and execute Nicias and Demosthenes.

While Athens now fears mass uprisings and Spartan conquest, the Spartans face the problem of not having a strong enough navy to finish off the Athenians and Alcibiades convinces them to seek alliance with Persia for help. The Spartan's supposed desire to defeat Athens "for the independence of Greek states" becomes subverted to their desire for victory as they're willing to sacrifice Greeks to Persian rule.

Meanwhile in Athens in 411 B.C., a group of 400 wealthy Athenians stage a coup, replacing Athenian democracy with oligarchic rule and eliminating lower classes from serving on juries or being able to participate in government. They promise that it will be "temporary" in order to save money and prevent the demise of Athens and will eventually restore democracy to a larger group of 5,000. The 400 desire to change the Constitution to bring back Alcibiades, who they falsely believe has Persian support and can enlist Persian help to to defend Athens. They elect Alcibiades as general and he now plays his newfound power as a sort of negotiation chip with the Persians. The coup fails as the outraged navy at Samos depose their generals and elect new ones, now with a desire to attack Athens and restore democracy by force. Kagan does a good job explaining the players in the complicated political intrigue, from moderates who calculatingly went along with the 400 to those who really would eliminate Athenian democracy in the name of defense. As the coup falls apart, the moderates execute the extremists, building monuments to their treachery. The 400 become the 5,000, and eventually Athens reverts to full democracy. Meanwhile, the Persians who had promised aid to Sparta are slow in delivering and the price the Spartans pay is costly in terms of money and morale.

Alcibiades and the Athenian navy score some victories against the Peloponnesians, and the Spartans sue for peace-- which the Athenians reject because they would not accept the status quo with so many of their former colonies, including Byzantium and Ephesus, under Spartan control.Eventually, the Peloponnesian forces allied with Persia and led by Lysander defeat the Athenian navy decisively in 406 B.C. (ending Alcibiades' command) and in 404 B.C., effectively wiping out the Athenian navy. Lysander kills all his prisoners, which hardens Athenians' resolve to hold out under siege. The Athenians negotiate a final peace where they agree to give up their colonies and raze their walls, but maintain their liberty.

Lysander and the Spartans then impose their will on Athens and other colonies, setting up oppressive oligarchies and extractive institutions. "Greek independence" was never actually intended. However, Sparta would end up facing costly revolts and wars with Thebes and conflicts with Persia that would eventually cause its demise. Within a year of the peace treaty, Athens had restored its democracy, rebuilt its walls, and restored many of its colonies. The cost of the war was high, with about half of the adult male population of Athens wiped out by either war, plague, or famine.

I learned a great deal from this epic work, I give it 5 stars. ( )
2 vote justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
This book is wonderful because it takes Thucydides classic text--itself a wonder--and fills in the gaps, or corrects the ancient text where necessary. Thucydides is cited throughout in a manner reminiscent of the notation used to cite Biblical chapter and verse. In addition, Kagan refers to the writings of Plutarch, Xenophon, Diodorus, Socrates, Aristophanes, and others, especially for the last seven years of the war, a period Thucydides does not cover. Like any scholar worth his salt, Kagan is conversant with the scholarly consensus, with which he is for the most part in step, though he occasionally offers alternative scenarios. Much of the book is simply riveting. Like when the Spartan general Brasidas retakes Amphipolis, or the naval battle fought late in the war for control of the Hellespont. Woven throughout is the longer story of the Athenian turncoat, Alcibiades. Professor Kagan preceded this one-volume history with a four-volume history of the war that took him around 20 years to write. That 4-volume series is a much more detailed consideration of political motives and military strategy. But with this single volume, Kagan was able to produce a fast-moving tale, full of incident and colorful description. I am not a great reader of military histories; most, in my experience, are a boring slog. But because of Kagan's previous in-depth consideration of the same events, and the need to get the story told in a mere 485 pages, the result is a taut, compressed narrative that moves briskly and bears the reader delightedly along. ( )
1 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
This book thoroughly covers the battles of the Peloponnesian war, along with the political back story of the era. The account was very detailed, and the story of Alcibaides? was quite interesting. I found the political details rather tedious after a while, and couldn't wait for the next battle. I find it amazing that the leaders were all well rounded generals who functioned as naval commanders when necessary. Generals who were active politicians. ( )
  delta351 | May 4, 2014 |
Extremely helpful overview of the people, places, politics, and dilemmas involved in the Peloponnesian War. Really opens up Thucydides' account. ( )
1 vote KatrinkaV | Oct 30, 2013 |
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(Introduction): For almost three decades at the end of the fifth century B. C. the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance in a terrible war that changed the Greek world and its civilization forever.
The Great Peloponnesian War, undertaken, it was claimed, to bring freedom to the Greeks, began not with a formal declaration of war and a proud and open assault upon the homeland of imperial Athens, but with a stealthy and deceitful raid in peacetime by a powerful state against its much smaller neighbor.
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For three decades in the fifth century b.c. the ancient world was torn apart bya conflict that was as dramatic, divisive, and destructive as the world wars of the twentieth century: the Peloponnesian War. Donald Kagan, one of the world's most respected classical, political, and military historians, here presents a new account of this vicious war of Greek against Greek, Athenian against Spartan. The Peloponnesian War is a magisterial work of history written for general readers, offering a fresh examination of a pivotal moment in Western civilization. With a lively, readable narrative that conveys a richly detailed portrait of a vanished world while honoring its timeless relevance, The Peloponnesian War is a chronicle of the rise and fall of a great empire and of a dark time whose lessons still resonate today.

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