The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

Fascinating text, that gives an analysis/narrative of one of the most destructive conflicts of the ancient world.

Kagan might be the foremost living authority on Ancient Greece. This book is actually a condensed version of his four part academic series on the conflict. The man knows what he is talking about.

What we get is an account that zips along nicely, never staying in one event of aspect to long. The chapters are short, the sub-headings two pages at most. For commercial purposes, this is a good thing, as we don’t get bogged down in more mundane details. It’s very readable. Even the layman could grasp it.

It’s the story of war and government. A lot of the text is given over to examining the motivations, the rationale, the casus belli of the two sides. The clash between democracy and oligarchy seems to be at the heart of the whole conflict in Kagan’s eyes. Kagan also does well to not focus so much attention on Thucydides, the primary historian of the period, choosing to use his words and ideas sparingly. No chapters devoted to the Melian dialogue here.

The narrative flows nicely through the various periods of war and peace giving the reader an excellent overview of the political, diplomatic and military lives of the Greek city states.

Perhaps the best portion is that covering the Sicilian expedition, the famous operation that shattered Athens. It’s a campaign that has come to epitomise the dangers of operating far from home: Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan can learn many lessons from the Athenian failure there. Kagan brings it to life through his words on its commanders, its manifold aims, its disasters, its effect.

If problems exist, a lot of them are insurmountable. The sheer number of historical figures, city states, power blocks, and alliances can seem a little suffocating. It’s easy to lose track and the maps provided don’t help that much. Since it moves so fast, otherwise crucial characters get introduced, narrated upon and killed off within a few chapters. It’s necessary for length purposes, but a little bewildering.

Describing battle is not Kagan’s strongpoint, with each clash of armies and navies melding in to one another along the same patterns. Again, this is just how it was and Kagan can’t make it more interesting other than just lying about it. Probably due to the source material he had to work with, Kagan spends more of the narrative at Athens then in Sparta, where the political life of the city is judged to have just as much importance as its military. Athens really comes off as quite bad: a city of arrogant politicians who crush any who oppose them, showing no mercy for even the slightest failure. Sparta must have been just as bad, but we don’t get the balance here.

A good read. Anyone interested in the period should pick up a copy.

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