VD Hanson — A War Like No Other

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Hanson, Victor D., A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, Random House, 2005, 397pp.

Thucydides’ “The Peloponnesian War,” written almost 2500 years ago, still sells roughly 50,000 copies a year in English translation. Why? From a literary perspective, as the first true example of historical narrative recorded in the Western world, the book clearly deserves pride of place in importance and general interest for classical or literary scholars. As an account of thirty years of catastrophic war between democratic urban Athens and oligarchic rural Sparta (431 – 404 BCE), it has more than its share of drama, intrigue, anachronism, and tragedy for any general reader. But why should the war itself have been become a metaphor for republican and democratic hubris for the last several centuries? Why is it still the subject of heated discussion even in our current era? And why should this tale of agrarian Greeks butchering each other so long ago have been required reading for generals and diplomats since the Renaissance?

Answering those questions requires deep familiarity with the text and Victor Hanson, a famous historian and social commentator in his own right, has now created a concordance of sorts to Thucydides’ great masterpiece which makes the original text substantially more approachable and comprehensible. As a gateway then to all that Thucydides might mean for the Anglosphere (or not), Hanson’s new book deserves a quick look.

The Table of Contents for A War Like No Other immediately telegraphs what is different about this book.

Fear – Why Sparta fought Athens (480-431)
Fire – The war against land (431-425)
Disease – The Ravages of the Plague at Athens (430-426)
Terror – War in the Shadows (431-421)
Armor – Hoplite Pitched battle (424-418)
Walls – Sieges (431-415)
Horses – The Disaster at Sicily (415-413)
Ships – The War at Sea (431-404)
Climax – Trireme Fighting in the Aegean (411-405)
Ruin – Winners and Losers (404-403)

By picking a theme and reviewing what the archaeologists and historians can tell us to supplement Thucydides, Hanson makes it much easier to track both the sequence of events in the Peloponnesian War but also their source and implications. As can be seen by the table above, Hanson was faced with a challenge: some subjects had significance which stretched across the entire period of the war (e.g. Ships) while others had their greatest impact at a particular time (e.g. Disease). The author accepted the problem and readers must therefore accommodate a certain amount of repetition and scene-changing as the War is surveyed, theme by theme. We follow the thread of each theme through the places, battles, and personalities of the War. This actually aids recall. Hanson does his best to front-load the themes from the early part of the War toward the front of his book but nonetheless, the reader cannot coast through the book as they would a strict chronological narrative. Thucydides and Hanson are complements, not duplicates.

Online reviewers at Amazon.com have noted the less-than-crisp maps found in Hanson. While I personally didn’t find them a problem, there’s no doubt that greater care in matching the text with the maps (i.e., illustrating more of the text in the maps) would have been worthwhile. In some cases, the maps seemed unnecessarily repetitive. Painful as it might be for some readers, they may well have been better grouped together at the front or back of the book.

Having made unsuccessful stabs at reading through Strassler’s Landmark Thucydides (an excellent annotated version of Thucydides) and Donald Kagan’s narrative The Peloponnesian War, I’m really grateful for Hanson’s approach and his background material. If I was a young military officer or classics students, my gratitude would be even greater. I’m not qualified to say but Hanson’s new book seems like an ideal and permanent bookshelf companion to Strassler for those who want to refer to Thucydides work in future.

I feel I’m now better able to track the “players” of the war, and settle into the pure chronological narrative with a better grasp of the broader social, economic, and technological stances of the day. In addition, Hanson’s end notes offer a wealth of modern bibliographic source material for those who find a sudden interest in hoplite warfare or trireme construction.

The Peloponnesian War certainly has resonance for modern democracies, with its tale of Athenian over-reach and reckless execution and expulsion of their military leadership. The Spartans come across as more lucky than bright. The Persians and Carthaginians waited effectively in the wings to pounce. Critiques of Hanson’s book claim that he draws links to the present day too often but I didn’t actually find that at all. Hanson certainly notes how the Athenian democracy fought on far longer than anyone of the era expected. From a financial perspective, it was far more willing to commit itself to battle and military regeneration after each defeat. It should be remembered that the fiscal resources necessary for the Spartans to outlast Athens came from Persian satraps in western Turkey. No doubt the Athenian slaves offered their freedom for service in the final fleet of ships assembled by Athens fought for their own dreams as well as those of their city. But we see no broad-brush analogies between Athens and America in this book. Readers must turn to Hanson’s many essays for National Review to determine how his historical conclusions relate to the modern world.

Hanson’s tale of the war does circle a broader theme — the shift from inter-Greek hoplite warfare by agrarian landowners to a model of “total war” that engaged the poor, the enslaved, mercenaries, and the urbanites in battles using lightly-armed soldiers on foot, horseback, and sea. Rather that fighting for scraps of land between city-states and deciding the matter in an afternoon, the Greeks embarked on a thirty year catastrophic engagement that left neither side a victor and demolished the economies of cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Peloponnesian War broke the rules of warfare in a way that traumatized the literati of Greece far into the 4th century BC, and it established the Greek genius for warmaking in a way that underlay the success of Phillip of Macedon and Alexander, a half-century later. Alexander’s success at dominating the Greeks was based on their fiscal and demographic exhaustion from the Peloponnesian War.

Hanson hints at but does not elaborate unnecessarily on the conditions of Athens, its many mistakes, its endurance, and the results of its final collapse. The destruction of generals, the slaughter of civilians, soldiers, and sailors, the madness of the Sicilian expedition and lack of Spartan capacity to follow up on their victory all get their due. After complete defeat and destruction of the critical walls linking Athens with its port, the city fell to an oligarchy — the Thirty Tyrants (404). Yet within months, democracy in the city was restored and 60 years of relative tranquility followed. The “Long Walls” were rebuilt within 11 years of defeat by Sparta, along with a spate of new border forts on the edge of Attica. Within three decades, Athens had regained its role as a leading sea-going trade depot and was patrolling the Mediterranean with 300 triremes, providing protection for a widespread trade network. Agriculture outside the city rebounded almost immediately. Sparta and Athens were to reconcile in the face of new threats from Thebes and Boeotia.

A War Like No Other is certainly not a book for everyone. And it’s certainly not the feel-good book of the year. But it is an excellent companion to Thucydides’ great story and it resparked my confidence in returning to the subject in future as time and circumstance allow. The impact of this first civil war of the Western world stands unique in its ability to both inspire and worry our modern world.

5 thoughts on “VD Hanson — A War Like No Other”

  1. As a true and loyal son of the University of Chicago Common Core, I have to weigh in and suggest that diving in and reading Thucydides is well worth doing. It is a demanding book, but I read it twice in college and did not find it to be too hard to get through, and Thucydides is one of our greatest thinkers on war and politics, and he has had a massive impact on the thought of the West for over two thousand years — so it is worth coming to grips with The Man himself.

  2. How can anyone suggest reading secondary sources before reading the primary source? Read Thucydides first, and then you will be in a position to evaluate what you read by Kagan and Strassler.

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