(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War is a fitting capstone to a lifetime of research and writing on one of the most tragic and destructive conflicts in human history. Kagan is a distinguished historian. His exhaustive four-volume work on the great war between Athens and Sparta, published between 1969 and 1987, is widely regarded as a landmark of recent scholarship. In addition to his magnum opus, Kagan has written a number of other books, including a biography of the great Athenian statesman Pericles and a comparative history exploring the origins of wars. With his latest book, Kagan has distilled his years of study of ancient Greece and the Peloponnesian War into a highly readable narrative history designed for the general reader. The result is a book that both informs and enlightens.

The story that Kagan tells is classic in more than one sense. He addresses himself to a war that came to an end almost twenty-four hundred years ago, in a Greece where the Parthenon was still a relatively new building. This war lasted for twenty-seven years and brought an end to the most dynamic period of classical Greek civilization. The combatants were so badly wounded during this long struggle that the political destiny of Greece would come to be shaped by outsiders, first the Persian Empire and then by the kingdom of Macedon, led by Philip II, followed by his son Alexander the Great.

The memory of the Peloponnesian War has been preserved by one of the greatest books written in ancient times. Thucydides, a failed Athenian general, recognized early the significance of the conflict. He set out to produce a history that would be “a possession for all time.” He succeeded brilliantly. Few books can compare with Thucydides’ history for narrative force and analytical penetration. Beginning in ancient times, readers have turned to Thucydides for a somber commentary on the frightening limits of statemanship and human nature.

Kagan has spent his career working in the shadow of Thucydides, whose book remains the chief primary source on the Peloponnesian War. He readily acknowledges the greatness of his illustrious predecessor. He does not let himself be intimidated by Thucydides’ authority, however. Thucydides famously strove for objectivity in his history. He was notably successful in this. Nevertheless, Kagan observes that Thucydides could not remove all traces of bias from his account; his judgment of men and events inevitably shaped his narrative and subsequent traditions about the war. Drawing upon sometimes fragmentary sources from antiquity, Kagan demonstrates that alternate interpretations of the war existed. Thus he is able to supplement the Thucydidean record, at times challenging Thucydides at crucial points. Also, because he died before he could complete his project, Thucydides’ work breaks off nearly seven years before the end of the war. Kagan makes use of lesser-known historians to bring the story to a satisfactory close. Comparing Kagan to Thucydides would be a thankless and unfair proposition and something that Kagan himself would reject. He contents himself with modestly asserting that he has produced a lucid history for twenty-first century readers.

The roots of the Peloponnesian War go back to the epic defense of Greece against a Persian invasion almost a half-century earlier. Athens and Sparta took the lead in the coalition of Greek city-states that took up arms against the Persians. At Salamis in 480 b.c.e., the Greeks routed the Persian navy before the eyes of Xerxes the Great. A year later they destroyed the army that the retreating Xerxes had left in Greece. Victory highlighted the differences between Athens and Sparta. Athens was a vibrant mercantile state. Athenians prized their hard-won democracy, which they continued to extend and perfect for the body of male citizens during the course of the fifth century. Athens became the home of artists, writers, and thinkers such as Phidias, Sophocles, and Socrates, creating a brilliant humanistic culture seldom equaled and never surpassed.

Sparta, on the other hand, was a garrison state. Here a small landowning elite ruled over a great mass of powerless helots, whom they treated little better than slaves. In order to maintain their position, the Spartans devoted themselves to war. Through a rigorous regime of military training, the Spartans made themselves the supreme soldiers of Greece. The price they paid was that they fitted themselves for little else. Their outlook remained narrow and provincial. Thus, when the Persians had been repulsed, the Spartans went home to keep an eye on their helots. The Athenians instead continued the war against the Persians. During the Persian invasion, the Athenians had sheltered on ships, their famous walls of wood, while the enemy ravaged their city and its environs. Now the Athenians used this fleet to lead a Greek counterattack on the Persian position in the Aegean...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)