Peloponnesian War

by Donald Kagan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

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.

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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 Sea, liberating Greek cities in the islands and on the Ionian coast, what is now the Turkish mainland.

Tensions soon arose between the erstwhile allies. Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesus and in Boeotia could field formidable forces on land. They grew suspicious and increasingly anxious about the growing sea-power of Athens. These concerns were intensified when the Athenians built a wall enclosing their city and its harbor at Piraeus, effectively making Athens an island and invulnerable to a land assault. The Spartans became actively hostile when the Athenians converted the naval alliance against the Persians into an empire that they used to aggrandize themselves. Former Greek allies now became Athenian subjects, and the tribute collected from them was used to build the great architectural masterpieces that beautified Athens. In 460 Athenian ambitions in the heart of Greece collided with Spartan fears. The result was a war that lasted fifteen years.

In the Thirty Years’ Peace that concluded hostilities, the Athenians gave up lands that they had taken on the Peloponnesus, and the Spartans effectively recognized the Athenian empire. Future grievances would be settled by binding arbitration. Peace thus ushered in what was essentially a cold-war situation, with Greece divided into two great alliance systems. Despite mutual mistrust, both the Athenians and the Spartans attempted to make the peace work. For a dozen years it held. Then, ironically, as a result of events on the periphery of the Greek world, the Athenians and Spartans were once again drawn into conflict.

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The first crisis concerned the island of Cocyra, located in what for most Greeks was a remote location off the Adriatic coast of the mainland. Cocyra had been founded by the city of Corinth, a Spartan ally. The Cocyraeans and Corinthians did not get along, and in 433 they went to war. Athens intervened on the side of the Cocyraeans, hoping to prevent the Corinthians’ winning control of the large Cocyraean navy. Conflict with Corinth led the Athenians to demand guarantees from their ally Potidaea, another Corinthian colony located in the north, in Chalcidice, along the shipping lanes crucial to Athenian survival. Egged on by the Corinthians, the Spartans promised support to the Potidaeans.

Thucydides, in recounting these events, argued that the real reason that the Spartans moved toward war against the Athenians was their fear of their power. Kagan supplements this insight with an economic argument. Thucydides pays little attention to a trade embargo that the Athenians imposed upon the Peloponnesian city of Megara. Contemporaries saw this as a major cause of the war. By acting against the interests of Corinth and Megara, the Athenians were hurting two major Spartan allies. If the Spartans did nothing, they risked the unraveling of their alliance. Thus, though not immediately threatened, the Spartans felt compelled to make ready for war. They sent a series of ultimatums to Athens, demanding concessions. The Athenians, for their part, believed that they had behaved with restraint, not violating the letter of the Thirty Years’ Peace. The great Athenian statesman Pericles, who dominated Athenian politics at this time, refused any concessions to the Spartans without referral to arbitration as per the terms of the Peace. He believed that he could fight a limited war that would hurt the Spartans enough to bring them to their senses. When hostilities broke out in 431, he put his strategy into effect.

Pericles recognized the asymmetry between Spartan and Athenian power. The Spartans could field a great army but were short of the cash needed to sustain a long war. The Athenians possessed an incomparable fleet and were rich. Pericles calculated that if he brought all the Athenians into the shelter of the city walls, abandoning their farms and country estates to the depredations of the enemy, he could wear down the resistance of the Spartans by using his navy to launch raids all along the Peloponnesian coast. As Kagan points out, this was an eminently reasonable plan, but it neglected the irrational element that always figures in human affairs, and it also failed to take into account the vagaries of chance. Pericles’ strategy was paradigmatic of the tragedy of the Peloponnesian War. Time and again, well-intentioned policies would lead to unexpected consequences and disaster.

The Athenians took Pericles’ advice and crowded into the city. They soon grew unhappy with Pericles’ policy, however, as they watched Spartan forces razing their farms and burning their fields. Worse, the overcrowded conditions in the city made the Athenians vulnerable to a plague, which, by the time it had run its course, had killed between one-fourth and one-third of the population. Pericles himself was among the victims. While this was going on, the military situation remained at a stalemate. The Spartans and their allies could devastate the hinterlands of Athens every campaigning season but otherwise cause no serious harm to the Athenian maritime empire. This was as Pericles had predicted. The Athenians struck no major blows against the Spartans, who remained obstinately committed to the war.

Thus during the 420’s new leaders with new strategies came to the fore: The general Demosthenes and the demagogue Cleon for Athens and the heroic commander Brasidas for Sparta infused new energy into the war. By 422 both sides had won great victories but also suffered grievous losses. The people were ready for peace. Nicias, an Athenian statesman devoted to the vision of Pericles, negotiated a peace. To get his peace, Nicias left a number of practical issues unresolved, and the peace did not address the fundamental differences between Athens and Sparta. As a result, the peace proved stillborn, and within a few years the war was raging again.

In 416 a brilliant but unscrupulous Athenian politician named Alcibiades proposed a campaign in Sicily. The chief city of Sicily, Syracuse, was friendly with the Spartans. Control of Syracuse and Sicily held the promise of great military and economic benefits. Nicias thought such a campaign was too dangerous while the Spartans were still hostile closer to home. He tried to dissuade the Athenians by emphasizing the difficulties of such an expedition. Ironically, the result of his arguments was an Athenian decision to send an even larger force than originally proposed, with Nicias as one of the commanders. These decisions proved disastrous. The campaign did indeed prove to be more challenging than expected, and Nicias’s half-hearted and vacillating generalship resulted in the entire Athenian army being destroyed in 414.

Despite this crushing loss, the Athenians managed to fight on for another decade. In the end, the Spartans were able to defeat the Athenians only by making a Faustian bargain with the Persians. The Spartans took Persian money to buy ships and crews at the price of Greek liberties in Ionia. When Athens surrendered in 404, Sparta was left, briefly, as the dominant power in Greece. However, this was a Greece economically exhausted, with a population noticeably reduced by battles, civil strife, and the atrocities committed by both sides. Kagan, like Thucydides before him, has written a sobering indictment of human folly and the capacity of even the most brilliant of civilizations to self-destruct.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 16 (April 15, 2003): 1445.

Foreign Affairs 82, no. 5 (September/October, 2003): 174.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 6 (March 15, 2003): 442-443.

Library Journal 128, no. 9 (May 15, 2003): 102.

The New York Times Book Review, August 10, 2003, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 12 (March 24, 2003): 65-66.

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