THE PLAGUE OF WAR by Jennifer T. Roberts
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Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece
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Lively study of the Peloponnesian War by noted classicist Roberts (Classics and History/City Coll. of New York; Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction, 2011, etc.).

In the author’s telling, both Athens and Sparta, despite having nursed long grudges, entered somewhat reluctantly into the long conflict that became known, “Athenocentrically,” as the Peloponnesian War. That designation came largely through Thucydides, who wrote a magnificent though sometimes-ponderous account of the struggle. Roberts adds to her predecessor’s eye for the telling detail a vigorous prose style: “This was a war that might well not have happened. The king of Sparta had no stomach for it, and his countrymen were anxious enough that they sent to Delphi throughout for reassurance even after they had voted for it.” Allowing people—well, free males, anyway—to vote on whether to go to war was a Spartan custom, not widely shared even in supposedly democratic states. But Roberts allows that, as Thucydides himself believed, things had gone too far to allow either side to back down from war. The author is a stickler for exactitude; here she points out that an ancient account is off, there that the terminology is wrong—the first decade of conflict is called the Archidamian War, she notes, after the Spartan king, but it was really the bellicose Athenian leader Pericles who deserves the rubric. Overall, she does a very good job of sorting out the complexities of the war, which came to involve not just Athens and Sparta, but also allies, willing and unwilling, throughout the Mediterranean, as well as contending ethnicities and, to complicate matters even further, the Persians, who would go on to make trouble for both sides. Roberts also connects the war to later historical developments, such as the forging of treaties among Greek powers in the following century and the crafting of the Socratic dialogues of Plato, whose Republic reiterates the old arguments over which kind of state was best, the Spartan or the Athenian.

Literate and lucid—a fine complement and corrective to the ancient sources.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-19-999664-3
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2016


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