A War Like No Other

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?

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...

(The entire section is 1680 words.)