A well-crafted tale of ugly little battles in faraway places, as newsworthy and compelling today as it was in 400 B.C.
During the Cold War, the journalist Walter Karp recounted, American military officers read Thucydides on the 30-year-old Peloponnesian War and role-played the war in the modern age, the U.S. being democratic Athens, the USSR being authoritarian Sparta. To read between the lines here, conservative classicist Hanson (Ripples of Battle, 2003, etc.) agrees in likening Athens to the modern U.S., but otherwise casts the war as a civil conflict among “Greek speakers who worshipped the same gods and farmed and fought in the same manner.” Athenian democracy was, of course, democracy for the few, and it may be stretching reality to call the long conflict “the first great instance where Western powers turned on each other,” inasmuch as Lysander and Alcibiades and company likely did not think in any such terms. Still, the possibilities of anachronism are endless, for it’s possible to read the adventure in Iraq into nearly every page (as when Hanson remarks, lyrically, that the endless war “calls for acceptance that thousands will end up rotten in little-known places”) and to see current political figures recapitulating such mistakes as Pericles’ notion that a war of attrition would convince the foe to yield. Few modern scholars have addressed that war beyond a few big battles and the plague that devastated Athens after Pericles turned “the most majestic city of the Greek world into one enormous and squalid refugee camp”; Hanson instead writes of two Peloponnesian Wars, the one of huge clashes at places like Mantinea and Delium and the small one fought “in the shadows.” Big or small, the war drained the lifeblood of two great city-states and effectively ended Greek suzerainty over the ancient Mediterranean.
A fine example of ancient history made vivid for modern readers.