A War Like No Other

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680

Victor Davis Hanson has written widely on ancient Greece and also upon war, ancient and modern, both as an academic and as a journalist. In A War Like No Other, Hanson discusses the Peloponnesian War, one of the most famous, and widely written about, of all wars prior to the nineteenth century. The Greek city-state of Athens, along with members of its empire and its many allies, and Sparta, the other iconic polis of ancient Greece, and its Peloponnesian League allies and other supporters, engaged in a bitter contest that lasted for almost four decades, from 431 until 404 b.c.e., and arguably brought to a tragic end the Golden Age of Greece. The war has had many chroniclers, beginning with the Athenian general Thucydides, who took part in the war but was cashiered by Athens’s democratic government. More recently Donald Kagan authored a four-volume work, The Peloponnesian War (2003). A reader might fairly ask, what can Hanson say that has not been said many times before?

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A War Like No Other is a history of the Peloponnesian War “like no other” history of that war. Instead of writing a narrative history of the conflict, Hanson focuses upon certain themes, explicating them at considerable length. Thucydides, whose narrative ended in 410 b.c.e., several years before the war’s conclusion, composed a year-by-year account and wrote about the war’s justice and morality, as in his famous dialogue between the Athenians and the inhabitants of the little island of Melos, in which the former argue that might always makes right. Kagan’s work focuses upon the diplomacy and politics of the war from the top down. While not ignoring the major political figures, such as the Athenian statesman Pericles and the controversial turncoat Alcibiades, A War Like No Other looks at the conflict from the bottom up and the impact it had upon the civilian farmers of Attica and the lower-class rowers on the triremes, the Greek ships. These varied topics are discussed in separate chapters, and it can be claimed that the parts are greater than the whole. However, taken altogether, if the reader brings some knowledge of the background and the course of the war, a semi-narrative emerges, as Hanson has arranged his topics within a general chronological framework.

Hanson, the historian-journalist, is pointedly writing to a post-September 11, 2001, audience. In his opening chapter, “Fear,” the author explicitly connects the events of Greece in the fifth century b.c.e. to the early twenty-first century when the United States, the modern Athens in its superpower status and democratic ideology, found itself in an intractable war against terrorists in the Middle East. Parallels in history are problematic, and no reputable historian would claim that the present precisely replicates the past. Still, Hanson argues in a subsection titled “Athens and America,” today’s reader, particularly in the United States, might well gain some insight into the present and its many challenges by considering the ancient world’s most famous war, when another democratic empire went to warand lost. When wars begin, Hanson points out, there are many unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Was the Peloponnesian War inevitable? Pericles, the leader of Athens, claimed it was. Athens was democratic and expansionist, depending upon trade to fuel its economic and political systems. Sparta, conversely, was a rural oligarchy, long dominated by militaristic values. Initially, the advantages lay with Athens, with its wealth, its formidable human resourcesAthens was by far the largest city in Greece with a population of 250,000 to 300,000and military experience, particularly in naval warfare. Sparta depended upon its heavy infantry, the hoplites, and the phalanx formation, which was formidable in formal battles fought on relatively level ground. However, Athens had recently constructed its Long Walls, connecting Athens to its seaport of Piraeus. Secure behind its walls, Athens would merely wait until Sparta gave up the fight.

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When Sparta and its allies invaded Attica, the area around Athens, in 431, the intent was that by destroying the crops and the farms, the Athenians would be either starved out or forced to come out and fight. However, as Hanson, who still lives on his family’s farm in California, observes, it is not easy to cut down and destroy olive trees and grape vines or burn grain fields. The Spartans tried but with no success. However, Pericles also miscalculated in assuming that Athens could readily accommodate thousands of farmers and their families fleeing the countryside to find refuge behind the walls. Again, unintended consequences arose when a plague descended in 430-429the specific disease is unknown, although Thucydides’ description is explicitthat caused the death of a hundred thousand Athenians, including Pericles. Hanson’s discussion of the plague, including the chaos that followed, raises the question of what might happen to today’s society in the event of an outbreak of deadly disease, whether intentionally caused or otherwise. Its impact on Athenian military capacity was profound, resulting in more deaths in the plague than it suffered in battle, a parallel to the 1918-1919 flu epidemic that killed more people than did World War I, which just preceded it.

In his chapter titled “Terror” the author discusses the transition from hoplite warriors with their heavy armor to the employment of irregular troops, which to regular soldiers violated the traditions of Greek warfare. The response of the hoplites was to kill troops in retreat and murder civilians and other noncombatants, something that Hanson claims rarely, if ever, happened in earlier Greek history. When the anticipated formal battles did not occur, both sides reverted to raiding the towns and farms of their opponents, a policy of terror against civilians that pre-figured the bombing of cities of World War II and, Hanson notes, the killing of 150,000 civilians in Lebanon between 1975 and 1985, or “the Lebanonization of Greece,” when innocent Greeks were seized, held for a time, and then executed when thought propitious.

The world was turned upside down in other ways. More people died on the sea and in urban sieges, when those who surrendered after the city fell were invariably executed, than in formal hoplite battles. Also, in the course of the long war, which took place all over the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, or wherever there were Greeks, hundreds of thousands of slaves gained their freedom when their masters were defeated by their opponents, and conversely, thousands of free Greeks were enslaved when captured in the conflict. In addition, over the course of the war, any ideological purity was cast aside in spite of the rhetoric of Pericles and others about the democratic Athens being the school of Hellas. One of the major events of the war was the Athenian invasion of the island of Sicily, where its opponent was equally democratic Syracuse. In that Sicilian campaign, Athens and its allies lost forty-five thousand warriors in just over two years.

Horses played a major role in the Sicilian campaign, although not to Athens’s advantage. Riders and their horses are portrayed on the Parthenon friezes that Britain’s Lord Elgin removed from Greece in the early nineteenth century and have since been dramatically exhibited in London’s British Museum. In reality, as Hanson states, the riders would have been no more than five-and-a-half feet, and weighed about 120 pounds, and their small horses only about thirteen-and-a-half hands at the withers. It was a smaller world two millennia ago, if not a less violent world.

Ultimately the war was decided upon the sea. The Athenian fleet had destroyed the Persian navy in 480 b.c.e. at the battle of Salamis, and Pericles’ initial strategy assumed that Athens would retain control of the sea against land-locked Sparta. So long as Athens ruled the waves, it could import food and other supplies and thus withstand any Spartan siege. There were numerous naval battles in the course of the Peloponnesian War, and Athens won many of them, with its citizen oarsmen drawn from the lower classes in Athenian society, unlike the hoplite soldiers, most of whom were land-owning farmers. The trireme ships, with their three banks of oars, could not stay long at sea and were beached at night to rest the crew, and they were too small and unsteady to transport infantry troops. Naval battles meant either ramming or grappling, and the rowers usually could see nothing of what was taking place on deck or the surface of the waves. In just the last decade of the war, fifty thousand sailors died, many by drowning, others captured and executed.

Pericles’ strategy proved inadequate, particularly as the war entered its third decade. Greece’s archenemy, Persia, provided monetary support to the Spartan alliance. Ironically, the war’s greatest naval tactician emerged on the Spartan side, and Lysander led the Spartans to victory at the naval battle of Aegospotami in 405, destroying or capturing 170 Athenian ships, most of them on shore. Predictably, the Athenian survivors were executed. Lacking a navy, the following year, in 404, Athens was forced to surrender. Democracies do not always emerge victorious. The Athenian defeat, Hanson contends, was a failure of enlightened leadership after the death of Pericles and the disastrous decision to invade Sicily.

In reality, there were no victors. In the fourth century, Sparta declined, and it was the Macedonians under Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, who became the masters of Greece. One of the virtues of A War Like No Other is its accessibility to a nonspecialist reader. Hanson uses many colloquial terms and phrases in his discussion of the Peloponnesian War, such as “unintended consequences,” “old habits die hard,” and “ethnic cleansing,” phrases not likely to have been common in ancient Greece. It could be argued that by using such current expressions, Hanson is making an ancient war more relevant to the present, making the Peloponnesian War in all of its idealism and deceit, glory and violence, seem as close as the day’s newspaper or television news. Ultimately the war was a tragedy, and hubris, or excessive pride, was partially its cause, as the dramatists of the eraAeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripidesso poignantly illustrated in their tragedies.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28

Booklist 102, no. 2 (September 15, 2005): 21.

Commentary 120, no. 4 (November, 2005): 104-108.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 16 (August 15, 2005): 897.

The New York Times 155 (October 11, 2005): E9.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 23, 2005): 15.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 28 (July 18, 2005): 196.

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