Book Review: A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is, hands down, my favourite contemporary popular historian. I've been
reading his columns for years, and his books are almost always thought-provoking, interesting, and well-written. With this book, VDH returns to his roots as a classical historian with a ground-level view of the great defining conflict of the Hellenic Age: the Peloponnesian War.

As the author points out in his introduction to this book, this is an ancient conflict that has resonated through history, replete with lessons for every age of empires, precisely because it pitted two diametrically opposed ideologies against each other in a 27-year-long war that left one power completely shattered and the other ascendant only for a short period before it too experienced a series of crushing defeats. During the Cold War, in particular, the long series of epic clashes between democratic Athens and proto-Communist Sparta was carefully examined by historians on both sides of the modern conflict in order to glean whatever lessons were there to be learned. And indeed, that is the paradigm through which most people today (who are educated enough to know anything about the ancient world) view this struggle.

Yet, as VDH points out, this is not entirely appropriate. Athens, though democratic, was also a great imperial seaborne power, with a massive (by Greek standards) empire of vassals and tributaries stretching throughout the Aegean, and massive wealth to match. It possessed the finest and largest navy in all of Greece, and its mastery of the seas was unquestioned and untouchable. Sparta, by contrast, was oligarchic, inward-looking, closed-off, land-locked. It was a society maintained by slaves, while its citizen-soldiers, the Spartiates, formed the most formidable and terrifying army the world had ever seen. Yet it was also dedicated to the exercise of ancient martial virtues and, weirdly, prided itself on its poverty- and looked with deep suspicion upon the hedonism, chaos, and imperialist ambitions of its great rival.

It is odd, at first glance, to think that the two great powers of their age would come into conflict so soon after they had united to defeat the Persian threat, repeatedly, in the 5th Century BC. First the Athenians had crushed the armies of Darius at the legendary Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Then, just ten years later, a force of 300 Spartiates (and allies and auxiliaries totalling up to 7,000 men, who never get mentioned in the histories) were slain to the last man defending all of Greece against the armies of Darius's son Xerxes in a now-mythic last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae. Shortly afterwards, the Athenians, allied with Sparta, crushed the Persian fleet at Salamis before an allied pan-Hellenic army, led by the Spartans, finally destroyed the Persian threat to mainland Greece at Plataea two years later. How is it possible that two great powers of their time, who worked so closely to act as the immovable object that stopped Persia's unstoppable force, could within a single generation go to such great lengths to destroy each other?

As VDH points out, the answer is simple: the Peloponnesian War was not just a clash of cities but of ideologies. It was a contest between a sea-based empire and a land-based confederation. And in the process, each became very much like the other, to the ultimate detriment of both.

There is a great deal to like and enjoy about this book. The prose is highly accessible- Hanson writes, as usual, with the deftness of a historical novelist and yet shows the precision and attention to detail of an academic. The point of this book, as Hanson states very clearly at the end, is to show the human side of the war- to remember those who fought and died on both sides, since it was their war and their contributions to it made the war what it eventually became. The causes, course, and consequences of this great war are described in careful detail, without ever getting boring- in fact I can't remember being bored at all while reading this book, which is something of a rarity with a history book. That's not to say you'll be able to plough through it in a single sitting- the material in question is dense and requires time to absorb- but it is fascinating to read even so.

The descriptions of the battles are, I think, particularly well done. Hanson does a great job of building a coherent narrative out of the events of the war, showing how Athens made mistake after mistake in its approach to the war, and showing how strongly the personalities of the great men of both sides affected the course of the war. Much attention is paid to the statesmanship of Pericles, the treachery of Alcibiades, and the skill of the greatest military leaders on both sides, like Cleon and Brasidas.

A great deal of attention is also paid to the mistakes made by both the Spartan and Athenian military forces in their conduct of the war. The Spartans, for instance, were a land-based power, and as such had no next to no understanding of sea-based supply lines. As a result, when they thought that they could starve out the Athenians by ravaging their crops, every single year during the early or "Archidamian" stages of the war, the Athenians simply drew the outlying villagers into the city walls and used the tremendous stored wealth of their treasury, plus their unimpeded access to the port of Piraeus, just a few kilometres away, to keep themselves going. This is described with a certain wry humour, as if VDH is your grandfather telling you a story while sitting on his knee, yet there is plenty of interesting detail packed into the prose to keep a true history buff occupied.

Three things about this book really stand out to me.

The first is in its meticulous description of the ravages of an unknown plague upon the Athenian forces. The nature of the plague itself is, even today, not well understood, yet it is known that it absolutely decimated the Athenians. The aftermath of the plague left Athens's political body and naval supremacy seriously weakened, and unquestionably played a factor in hastening her defeat- the city once thought invincible, the heart of a pan-Hellenic empire, was brought low by a plague so severe and so terrible that tens of thousands of people were slain by it for reasons that we can't figure out even today.

The second is the lesson of imperial overstretch that VDH hammers home time and again in the final chapters of the book. The biggest mistake the Athenians could possibly have made in their entire conduct of the war was their invasion of Sicily in the later stages of the war. The invasion was a complete disaster. It broke the back of the Athenian navy, already teetering on the brink of collapse due to years of losses, miscalculation, and a once-vast imperial treasury that was rapidly being depleted. Though Athens eventually recovered and rebuilt much of its fleet and prestige following its disastrous Sicilian campaign, it would never be the same. After the Battle of Aegospotami, in which Sparta and its allies annihilated what was left of the Athenian fleet, which forced the eventual surrender of the city and its allies. Hanson points out that the invasion of Syracuse was completely pointless, a cautionary tale of overweening arrogance and deep political miscalculation that stands to this day as one of the most inexplicably silly military decisions ever made.

The third is the way Hanson describes the evolution of Greek strategy and tactics in the art of war. Prior to this war, the Greek experience with long, drawn-out sieges was next to nil. The Spartans, in particular, turned themselves into the laughingstock of all Greece during their "siege" of Potidaea for a short time because they just didn't know how to conduct a decent siege- and yet they were the finest army in the world. But they adapted, and soon enough, the Spartans were teaching the rest of Greece about the power, the horrors, and the requirements of siege warfare. The massed-charge hoplite battles of the glorious past would fade into memory within a couple of centuries; the time of the phalanx would soon be over. And this is the war in which the simple and straightforward phalanx, which would demonstrate its great usefulness at crushing Spartan and Theban victories like Delium and Mantinea, would give way to naval stratagems and a more coherent philosophy of theatre-based campaigns that would later be perfected by generals like Philip of Macedon and his legendary son Alexander the Great.

The end of the war, as Hanson narrates, was really the end of both powers. Athens, exhausted from decades of imperial overstretch and massive losses, simply couldn't fight any longer after the crushing Spartan land victory at Mantinea and the even more crushing allied victory at Aegospotami. Sparta, on the other hand, had made a devil's bargain with its ancient enemy, Persia- and with Persian gold flowing into its coffers, Sparta could afford to lose more ships than Athens and yet keep right on fighting. And the supposedly incorruptible Spartans, who prided themselves on being paragons of moral virtue and exemplars of martial prowess, proved to be just as susceptible to the temptations of gold as anyone else- even more so, in fact, given that Spartan currency consisted pretty much of iron bars and ingots. The end of Athens and the rise of Sparta was really the end of the latter, too, because it only took a single generation of Spartan hegemony before the greatest of all of the Greek generals, Epaminondas, completely crushed the supposedly invincible Spartiates at the Battle of Leuctra.

This book is, in summary, an excellent layman's guide to a now-legendary war, of which most people in fact know very little. It is replete with dry humour, interesting anecdotes, great storytelling, meticulous research, and solid analysis. While it may not be the fastest read ever, it is certainly a fascinating one, and I highly recommend it to any student of history.

Didact's Verdict: 4/5, a little slow and difficult in places but still a very fine read.

Buy/download A War Like No Other here.

UPDATE: A certain eagle-eyed reader (well, I assume it's him) pointed out that I mixed up the siege of Potidaea with the siege of Plataea. That is, of course, entirely my mistake. My apologies for that.

Comments

  1. I think you mean the siege of Platea. It was the Athenians besieging Potidea...for _years_.

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    Replies
    1. You are correct sir. That's my bad.

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