Historian Victor Davis Hanson brings his considerable talents to A War Like No Other, a crisply written, challenging analysis of the Peloponnesian War, an ancient conflict whose echoes resonate even now, some twenty-five centuries after the war’s endgame. The Peloponnesian War lacks the immediacy often necessary for today’s media-saturated, sound-bite sensitive culture, but its significance lies not only in the fact that it marks the first great instance in which Western powers fought each other in an ever-escalating, no-holds-barred war that give the lie to the idea of wartime protocols and featured numerous atrocities and betrayals on both sides. It also remains a case-study of nation-state conflict largely because of the diversity between the participants and the detailed history of the war recorded in almost real-time by Thucydides, which offers contemporary audiences a number of still-valid philosophical insights into the nature of man – and the nature of war.
As Hanson establishes it, Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war is often studied by modern military strategists, philosophers, and other thinkers primarily because of the ironic and incisive contrasts between the cultures of the principal combatants, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. At the time the war began, Athens was clearly the most powerful city in Greece; its potent navy made exporting its democratic ideals relatively easy. Sparta, on the other hand, was not a democracy at all but a militaristic oligarchy of sorts. Athens was a naval power, while Sparta featured one of the most feared infantry’s in the ancient world.
Certainly by modern standards, one might well say the Peloponnesian War was a relatively minor affair. While it lasted 27 years, neither army was able to stay in the field for all of that time. Consequently, it was something of an episodic conflict. Likewise, the number of people killed during the war would pale in comparison to the number of dead in a single battle during World War II. But in this tale of two powerful kingdoms who feared and distrusted one another, Hanson manages to illustrate some very contemporary issues as well.
The characters of this human drama are an immense array of ancient Greek legends, from Pericles and Lysander to Alcibades and Brasidas. Sophocles lived during this period, and Alcibades was one of his pupils (Alcibades would be both a hero and a traitor in the eyes of Athens several times before the war actually ended). Many famous plays – for example, those of Aristophanes – were written during the period as well, and the laments found within them resonate from the state of perpetual conflict which surrounded Athens.
Pericles was a famed political leader in Athens. When the Spartans invaded, Pericles believed that the best course of action was to simply withdraw into the city. The plans might have succeeded but for a devastating plague that decimated the population. Even so, Athens managed to weather the Spartans’ presence (and even their tactic of “burning” the farms and fields of the people), at least for a while. But Hanson notes that Thucydides suggests that the plague was largely responsible for much of what happened – Athens lost almost 100,000 people, was left chronically short of manpower from then on, and lost many of its leaders. As Hanson says, “Spiritually, the horror of the plague eroded much of the restraint of old Athenian liberalism, and led to an escalation of violence both at home and abroad.”
As the war dragged on, both sides grew frustrated with the unilateral nature of the conflict – it was difficult for Athens to field an army capable of facing the Spartans, even while the Spartans had little in the way of naval firepower. Athens often used its navy to attack deeply into Spartan territory. The old style of agrarian warfare degenerated into a far more brutal contest. Hanson does an excellent job of documenting the chronology of events during the war – not just the plague, but pitched battles on land and sea, as well as agonizing sieges.
Hanson notes that contemporary America if often regarded as a sort of modern Athens as both a center of culture and as an unpredictable imperial power evangelizing about its form of democracy. Hanson says:
Material wealth never guarantee’s a society’s continuance – and often such affluence can undermine the very values that once produced it. Athens had far more assets than Sparta, but often squandered them through civil strife, the blame game, and demagoguery. The city-state went to war against Sparta with no real way to win, and thus found that its strategy of not losing proved hardly sufficient to stop a fast-learning Sparta that went on to build a fleet, construct a permanent fort outside the walls of Athens, and organize a Pan Hellenic resistance with Persian money.
What I also found intriguing about the book was how much of Sparta’s hostility toward Athens was based on its suspicion that Athens intended to force other nations to follow the “democratic model.” Are we faced with a contemporary parallel to this notion? Perhaps so. Certainly Hanson encourages readers to draw contemporary conclusions from his study and even as he attempts to document the evolution of warfare during this period from one between bands of opposing soldiers into a conflict that affected virtually every level of society.
In that regard, his exploration of the political background of the war, the strategies of the combatants, and the ever-escalating willingness to participate not only in combat but brutality as well is a cautionary tale. A War Like No Other is a very literate, engaging slice of history. Recommended.
Blogcritic Joshua Sharf also weighs in on Hanson’s book here.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.