A War Like No Other : How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War
One of our most provocative military historians, Victor Davis Hanson has given us painstakingly researched and pathbreaking accounts of wars ranging from classical antiquity to the twenty-first century. Now he juxtaposes an ancient conflict with our most urgent modern concerns to create his most engrossing work to date, A War Like No Other.
Over the course of a generation, the Hellenic city-states of Athens and Sparta fought a bloody conflict that resulted in the collapse of Athens and the end of its golden age. Thucydides wrote the standard history of the Peloponnesian War, which has given readers throughout the ages a vivid and authoritative narrative. But Hanson offers readers something new: a complete chronological account that reflects the political background of the time, the strategic thinking of the combatants, the misery of battle in multifaceted theaters, and important insight into how these events echo in the present.
Hanson compellingly portrays the ways Athens and Sparta fought on land and sea, in city and countryside, and details their employment of the full scope of conventional and nonconventional tactics, from sieges to targeted assassinations, torture, and terrorism. He also assesses the crucial roles played by warriors such as Pericles and Lysander, artists, among them Aristophanes, and thinkers including Sophocles and Plato.
Hanson's perceptive analysis of events and personalities raises many thought-provoking questions: Were Athens and Sparta like America and Russia, two superpowers battling to the death? Is the Peloponnesian War echoed in the endless, frustrating conflicts of Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and the current Middle East? Or was it more like America's own Civil War, a brutal rift that rent the fabric of a glorious society, or even this century's "red state--blue state" schism between liberals and conservatives, a cultural war that manifestly controls military policies? Hanson daringly brings the facts to life and unearths the often surprising ways in which the past informs the present.
Brilliantly researched, dynamically written, A War Like No Other is like no other history of this important war.
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September 12, 2006
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Excerpt from A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson
Chapter 1 Fear Why Sparta Fought Athens (480–431) Our Peloponnesian War The Peloponnesian War is now 2,436 years in the past. Yet Athens and Sparta are still on our minds and will not go away. Their permanence seems odd. After all, ancient Greek warring parties were mere city-states, most of them smaller in population and size than Dayton, Ohio, or Trenton, New Jersey. Mainland Greece itself is no larger than Alabama, and in antiquity was bordered by empires like the Persian, which encompassed nearly one million square miles with perhaps 70 million subjects. Napoleon’s army alone had more men under arms by 1800 than the entire male population of all the Greek city-states combined. In our own age, more people died in Rwanda or Cambodia in a few days than were lost in twenty-seven years of civil war in fifth-century b.c. Greece. Nor were Greeks themselves especially lethal warriors, at least by later historical standards. Rudimentary wood and iron of the preindustrial age, not gunpowder and steel, were their shared weapons of destruction. Even the soldiers themselves who fought the war were not much more than five foot five and 130 pounds. They were often unimpressive middle-aged men who would appear as mere children next to contemporary towering two-hundred-pound GIs. Yet for ancient folk so few, small, and distant, their struggle during the Peloponnesian War seems not so old even in this new millennium. During the weeks after September 11, 2001, for example, Americans suddenly worried about the wartime outbreak of disease in their cities. In October and November 2001, five died and some twenty-four others were infected from the apparently deliberate introduction of anthrax spores by unknown terrorists. During the spring of 2003 a mysterious infectious respiratory ailment in China threatened to spread worldwide, given the ubiquity of low-cost transcontinental airfare. The panic that ensued in Washington and Peking during a time of global tension evoked ancient wartime plagues, such as the mysterious scourge that wiped out thousands at Athens between 430 and 426. Similarly, at about the same time, Sicily, Melos, and Mycalessus were all cited in contemporary media, as millennia later the world once again watched military armadas head out to faraway places, saw democracy imposed by force, and read of schoolchildren killed by terrorist bands. But even before September 11 the Peloponnesian War was not really ancient history. Scholarly books regularly appeared with titles like War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War, or Hegemonic Rivalry: From Thucydides to the Nuclear Age. Thucydides had long been assigned reading at the U.S. Army War College. And an array of statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, and Eleuthérios Venizélos either taught or wrote about Greek history, in which the use of Thucydides’ war loomed large. More recently, controversial thinkers known as neoconservatives (“the new conservatives”) were for a time influential in American strategic thinking, and the text that they purportedly consulted frequently was once more Thucydides’.1 What is it about this particular ancient clash that causes it to be called to mind during our present wars? Why were the conflict’s supposed lessons both astutely and clumsily applied to most of our own struggles of the last century? Russia—or was it really Hitler’s Germany?—supposedly resembled oligarchic Sparta in its efforts to destroy a democratic, seafaring America. Did not the Cold War, after all, similarly divide up the world into two armed leagues, led by superpowers who had united for a time against the common enemy only