The tale of an ancient conflict, with ample leadership lessons for contemporary statesmen on fate and miscalculation.
Debilitating and drawn-out, the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.) ended a golden age of peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement in the Hellenic world. It featured Sparta, the leading army and authoritarian regime in Greece; Athens, the greatest naval power and imperial democracy; and allied city-states that frequently served as the sites of the bloodiest action. With the death of Pericles two years into the war, Athens lost firm, consistent leadership and thereafter veered between peace and expansionist factions. At the end of hostilities, both sides had abandoned their war aims and indulged in rising numbers of atrocities, among them killing captured soldiers; factional and class warfare burst out; and participants violated formerly sacred taboos. Sparta and Athens suffered staggering losses (the latter to plague as well as warfare) that ultimately weakened their ability to fight off first Persia, then Macedonia. While necessarily reliant on Thucydides’ classic account, Kagan does take issue with it at points, noting, for instance, that the ancient historian may have relied on notorious Athenian turncoat Alcibiades as a source. The author points out innovative tactics, such as the use of enormous flame-throwers to set fire to walls and drive off defenders, with the same dexterity that distinguishes his portraits of major personalities like Nicias, the Athenian politician-general who turned the modest Sicilian campaign of 415 b.c. into a massive debacle. At times, general readers may get lost as Kagan (Classics and History/Yale; On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, 1995, etc.) attempts to do justice to this complicated era. But, ultimately, he justifies in painstaking detail Thucydides’ characterization of war as “a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances.”
Authoritative history demonstrating that, though the weaponry may have multiplied, the reactions of leaders and societies during wartime have altered little. (maps, not seen)