The Peloponnesian War

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Another post from the History Book Club

The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan

Donald Kagan is Professor Emiritus at Yale. I viewed his course Ancient Greek History on iTunes a couple of years ago. He is best known for his four volume History of the Peloponnesian War, which I haven’t read. The Peloponnesian War is a one volume treatment for the “non-professional” reader.

Any historian stands in the great shadow of Thucydides. Professor Kagan takes a critical look at Thucydides in several ways. First, Thucydides wrote not as a neutral observer, but as a former general in the war and a partisan of Pericles. Brought to trial after the battle of Amphipolis, which he lost, Thucydides was exiled for the last twenty years of the war. Finally, Thucydides’ work stops in mid-sentence seven years before the war’s end.

Kagan and Thucydides differ most dramatically on the outbreak of the war. Thucydides:

The real cause [of the war] I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon [Sparta], made war inevitable.

Kagan agrees with the first sentence. He characterizes the immediate trigger of the war as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”, a quote from Neville Chamberlain describing the situation in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Mutual fear and distrust, conflicting forms of government, economic differences and naval vs. land-based might, and the interests of allies—all played a role in igniting the war. But Kagan does not see the war as inevitable. First, the war put an end to the Thirty Years Peace, which had been sealed with a truce, of which Kagan says:

Another provision required both sides to submit future grievances to binding arbitration. This seems to be the first attempt in history to maintain lasting peace through such a device and suggests that both sides were seriously committed to avoiding armed conflict in the future.

Kagan notes the voices for peace on both sides: the respected king of Sparta, Archidamus, a personal friend of Pericles, and many in the Athenian assembly. In the run-up to the war, he observes how Athens frequently took a moderate path, trying to send diplomatic signals: determined but not aggressive. For example, consider the Megarian embargo. Megara, a Spartan ally, had been a thorn in Athens’ side, and Athens retaliated with an embargo. Kagan:

Economic embargoes are sometimes used in the modern world as diplomatic weapons, as a means of coercion short of war. In the ancient world, however, we know of no previous embargo employed in peacetime.

This ultimately back-fired: the Spartans demanded that Athens rescind the decree, without arbitration. Athens refused. Pericles explained the refusal “by reference to an obscure Athenian law that forbade him from taking down the tablet [with the decree]. The Spartans countered: ‘Then don’t take it down, turn it over’, but Pericles held fast.”

What are we to make of this tragicomedy? Many Athenians felt the decree was hardly worth going to war over. Pericles’ real concern was the consistent refusal by Sparta to submit to arbitration, as required by the treaty. And this just reflects the mutual fear and distrust of the two great Greek powers of the time.

Also feeding the war was an unrealistic assessment of its costs, on both sides. Most prior Greek conflicts between poleis amounted to one battle and lasted one day. Certainly the Athenians did not expect that, but Kagan makes a convincing calculation that Pericles must have expected about three years of conflict, the Spartans probably only months. The war lasted 27 years. Pericles died after the first three years.

Athens originally adopted a unique and novel strategy: retreat behind its walls, allow the invading Spartans to ravage the surrounding countryside, and rely on its powerful navy both to provide food and harass the coast. Kagan notes, with Thucydides, the advantage of this approach, which played to Athens’ strong points. But he also notes that it contained, from the beginning, the seeds of failure. Athens could inflict no real pain on Sparta. While Athens could hold out for years against the Spartan-inflicted devastation, this exacted a heavy psychological toll on the Athenians, not to mention flouting basic Greek ideals of arete: manly virtue. As a piece of bad luck, a plague struck Athens early in the war, killing off perhaps a third of the population and also Pericles.

Athens eventually adopted a more aggressive style of warfare. In a long war, the tides turned this way and that several times; opportunities for peace were squandered by whichever side felt it had the advantage. Finally Athens lost.

Kagan, summing up, sees little to celebrate for Sparta:

The costs of the long and brutal Peloponnesian War were enormous. Loss of life was unprecedented … Economic damage … was severe … Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance … gave rise to a progression of atrocities rarely or not at all known before that time.

The defeat of Athens … was also a blow to the prospects of democracy in other Greek cities. …

In spite of its apparently decisive outcome, the war did not establish a stable balance of power … [or] a new order bringing general peace … Sparta’s victory … brought only a temporary rise in Spartan influence …

It is … instructive to think of what we call the Peloponnesian War as “the great war betweens Athens and Sparta”, … because, like [the first World War] … it was a tragic event, a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.

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Filed under History Book Club, Reviews

2 responses to “The Peloponnesian War

  1. Why did Thucydides’ work stop in mid-sentence seven years before the war’s end? Did he die? Get distracted?

    • We don’t know for sure. We have no ancient sources that tell us when or how Thucydides died. However, it’s usually assumed that he died before he could complete the work. Seems plausible, I guess. Other authors, like Xenophon, wrote histories that picked up where Thucydides left off.

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