Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Book Review (#34 of 2014) The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

I should have read The Peloponnesian War before I read Xenophon's Anabasis. Xenophon's work takes place shortly after the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and that event sets the context of the relationship between the Athenian Greeks and the Spartans. One can see generals like Demosthenes and Lysander as influencing how Xenophon would have led, as well as learn what was expected of Athenian commanders both on the battlefield and in the realm of politics.

Donald Kagan is apparently the world's foremost expert on this event, and his works on it seem unassailable. Kagan's goal is to bring his academic research into a format more relevant to the modern reader who is familiar with modern wars and politics. While some reviews on Amazon have criticized this work as being "dry" or "too detailed," I disagree; it was a long and historically consequential war involving various people groups and cultures and is more than just "Athenians" vs. "Spartans." It is also "Ionians" vs. "Dorians" and others. The modern reader (myself) may tend to forget that in this period there was no united "Greece," the Aegean was all loose affiliations of independent and democratic city states that fell under the influence of larger city states. Spartans and Athenians had differing cultures and political structures and did not get along.

One is struck by the parallels between this war and 20th century wars. You have a problem/conflict in a far-off territory supported by a superpower, which begins to pull in other regional powers and eventually grows into a major war between superpowers. What looks like a quick-and-easy war turns into a costly quagmire. Democratic institutions get subverted in the name of defending the country, and much blood and treasure is robbed from future generations. During the war, people do things so far outside cultural norms and accepted morality that it cracks the very foundations of their civilizations. The question of how to have "peace with honor" for both sides in a potential stalemate becomes the issue. Bold speeches lead to disastrous actions, and popular sentiment changes with news of each battle's result. Borders get redrawn setting the stage for future conflicts.

Greece early on was moving from a true democracy to a "republic of the first citizen," where a general or other man of consequence had actual power and sway beyond statutes. By the end of the war, many of its cultural institutions were badly undermined and it was no longer an empire. 


In the first phase of the war, the "Archidamian War," Athens was influenced by Pericles to adopt a defensive strategy-- to resist until the Spartans see they cannot be beaten. To rely heavily on its naval advantage while Sparta relies on its superior infantry. After Pericles death, the Athenians begin having some success on offense and adopt a more aggressive strategy. Good tactics and luck swing the war into Athens' favor, but they overreach at a point where they could have achieved very favorable terms with Sparta and expanded their empire. Instead, the Spartans achieve some victories and sue for a more favorable peace.

In the interim, both Sparta and Athens wage a sort of proxy war by supporting opposite sides of other regional conflicts. Athens and their allies experience major defeats, which is foreboding for the next chapter of the conflict.

When Athenian allies are attacked by Spartan-backed Syracusans in Sicily, Alcibiades convinces the Athenian assembly to mount a massive expedition to crush Syracuse and incorporate Sicily into the empire. After this meets with disastrous defeat, Alcibiades is convicted of treason and flees to Sparta-- effectively turning traitor and convincing the Spartans to follow his advice in attacking Athens! Athens ends up doubling down on its Sicilian campaign, resulting in almost the complete destruction of its navy, infantry, and the loss of city states as the balance of power shifts in Sparta's favor. Nicias opposes the Sicilian expedition but gets appointed as a general, and ends up the last remaining general on the expedition after Alcibiades is arrested and others are killed. Generals who experienced bad results in the battlefield, even if there were a good excuse, were routinely disgraced, tried, executed, or banished. Demosthenes suggests the army retreat to defend Athens but Nicias hesitates both due to fear of returning to Athens and because of a solar eclipse that soothsayers say is an omen to wait before retreating. The Syracusans press the attack and destroy the Athenian forces and execute Nicias and Demosthenes. 

While Athens now fears mass uprisings and Spartan conquest, the Spartans face the problem of not having a strong enough navy to finish off the Athenians and Alcibiades convinces them to seek alliance with Persia for help. The Spartan's supposed desire to defeat Athens "for the independence of Greek states" becomes subverted to their desire for victory as they're willing to sacrifice Greeks to Persian rule.

Meanwhile in Athens in 411 B.C., a group of 400 wealthy Athenians stage a coup, replacing Athenian democracy with oligarchic rule and eliminating lower classes from serving on juries or being able to participate in government. They promise that it will be "temporary"  in order to save money and prevent the demise of Athens and will eventually restore democracy to a larger group of 5,000. The 400 desire to change the Constitution to bring back Alcibiades, who they falsely believe has Persian support and can enlist Persian help to to defend Athens. They elect Alcibiades as general and he now plays his newfound power as a sort of negotiation chip with the Persians. The coup fails as the outraged navy at Samos depose their generals and elect new ones, now with a desire to attack Athens and restore democracy by force. Kagan does a good job explaining the players in the complicated political intrigue, from moderates who calculatingly went along with the 400 to those who really would eliminate Athenian democracy in the name of defense. As the coup falls apart, the moderates execute the extremists, building monuments to their treachery. The 400 become the 5,000, and eventually Athens reverts to full democracy. Meanwhile, the Persians who had promised aid to Sparta are slow in delivering and the price the Spartans pay is costly in terms of money and morale. 

Alcibiades and the Athenian navy score some victories against the Peloponnesians, and the Spartans sue for peace-- which the Athenians reject because they would not accept the status quo with so many of their former colonies, including Byzantium and Ephesus, under Spartan control.Eventually, the Peloponnesian forces allied with Persia and led by Lysander defeat the Athenian navy decisively in 406 B.C. (ending Alcibiades' command) and in 404 B.C., effectively wiping out the Athenian navy. Lysander kills all his prisoners, which hardens Athenians' resolve to hold out under siege. The Athenians negotiate a final peace where they agree to give up their colonies and raze their walls, but maintain their liberty.

Lysander and the Spartans then impose their will on Athens and other colonies, setting up oppressive oligarchies and extractive institutions. "Greek independence" was never actually intended. However, Sparta would end up facing costly revolts and wars with Thebes and conflicts with Persia that would eventually cause its demise. Within a year of the peace treaty, Athens had restored its democracy, rebuilt its walls, and restored many of its colonies. The cost of the war was high, with about half of the adult male population of Athens wiped out by either war, plague, or famine.

I learned a great deal from this epic work, I give it 5 stars









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