The Peloponnesian War

by Donald Kagan
ISBN: 0670032115

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Peloponnesian War
by David A. Welch

"The majority of the promises and expectations of the proponents of the initial expedition had proven to be unfounded, while most of the fears of the opponents had been justified. The Shi'ites and Sunnis had not joined the Americans with enthusiasm and in great numbers, al-Qaeda was now engaged, and the Ba'athists were resisting with renewed morale. We might expect the American people to have felt deceived by the optimists, and to have conceded the wisdom of the doubters and recalled the expedition . . ."(Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, p. 296.)

No, wait, I have that wrong. Let me try again:

"The majority of the promises and expectations of the proponents of the initial expedition had proven to be unfounded, while most of the fears of the opponents had been justified. The Italians and Sicilians had not joined the Athenians with enthusiasm and in great numbers, the Peloponnesians were now engaged, and the Syracusans were resisting with renewed morale. We might expect the Athenian people to have felt deceived by the optimists, and to have conceded the wisdom of the doubters and recalled the expedition . . ." (Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, p. 296.)

That's better.
And that, in a nutshell, accounts for our endless fascination with the Peloponnesian war, and, in particular, with the first (and in many respects the most remarkable) history of the event: that written by the Athenian Thucydides, son of Olorus, who himself served briefly in the war. Luckily for us, the Athenians blamed Thucydides for an important military defeat in 424 BCE and sent him into exile, thus affording him the time and leisure to document the conflict for posterity. Eyewitness to what he saw as "the greatest disturbance in the history of the Hellenes, affecting also a large part of the non-Hellenic world, and indeed, I might almost say, the whole of mankind," Thucydides set out to write a history that would be "useful" to those "who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future." And document he did, though in an unusual way. To maintain narrative and stylistic integrity, Thucydides made things up. Not events as such, mind you, but speeches, debates, thought processes-the kinds of things that would add colour, drama, and coherence to his tale. He did it so well that everything seemed real. Thus he earned himself the reputation not only of being the first truly professional historian, but also an unusually objective and reliable one.
Thucydides either did not complete his history, or we have lost the end of it. What we have ends in mid-sentence, only twenty years into a twenty-seven year war. A number of lesser contemporaries recorded the remainder, and while their works do not survive, we do know of them, mostly through Xenophon, Diodorus of Sicily, and Plutarch. Modern classicists, exploiting recent advances in archeology and epigraphy, have given us additional purchase on what Thucydides both did and did not say, and we are now happily in the position of having a fairly good idea of what actually happened during this period of ancient Greek history, notwithstanding Thucydides' omissions and inventions. And we are in the even happier position of being able to argue about it all endlessly.
Without doubt the greatest living scholar of the Peloponnesian war is Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. The author of a monumental four-volume history (Cornell University Press, 1969-1987), Kagan's purpose in writing The Peloponnesian War was to provide a concise, readable, yet reasonably complete account for a general audience. While some might not consider a 500-page tome to be concise, it is a remarkably efficient distillation of an incredibly complex series of events beginning with Sparta's decision to go to war against Athens in 431, and ending with Athens' capitulation in 404. Drawing heavily upon Thucydides, though with an appropriately skeptical eye, Kagan has done a masterful job of synthesizing what we know and flagging what we do not know. Unlike Thucydides, Kagan is not shy about venturing his own interpretations of controversial events, but in eschewing Thucydidean stealth, he has done us the favour of making it relatively easy for us to see what is controversial and what is not. For general readers who are interested in the Peloponnesian war, this is definitely the book to read.
And there certainly seem to be a lot of interested readers. The book is selling very well for a hardcover ancient history text. It is attracting an astonishing amount of review space, too. Daniel Mendelsohn even went to the trouble of flaming it in a recent issue of The New Yorker (Jan. 12, 2004). "Kagan is alert to the opportunities presented by the new world order for rereading-or, some might say, rewriting-the Peloponnesian War," Mendelsohn muses, before moving on to diss Kagan as a conservative who counts Ronald Reagan and Otto von Bismarck among his heroes. By Mendelsohn's reading, Kagan is a dishonest apologist for belligerence whose "brisk" but "tendentious" book has an ulterior motive: to buttress the current neoconservative policy of unilateralism and preemptive war. "Kagan's perspective on events and personalities at first suggests an admirable desire to see the war with fresh and unsentimental eyes," Mendelsohn writes. "But after a while it becomes hard not to ascribe his revisionism to plain hawkishness, a distaste for compromise and negotiation when armed conflict is possible. His book represents the Ollie North take on the Peloponnesian War: If we'd only gone in there with more triremes,' he seems to be saying, we would have won that sucker.'"
What licenses Mendelsohn's disdain? The fact that Kagan may have said complimentary things of Reagan and Bismarck? Or is it the complaint that "you tend to come away from his history with an entirely different view of the war than the one you take away from Thucydides"?
Both of these possibilities are worth pondering, for they tell us much about why this topic seems perennially fascinating. I know little of Kagan's politics, though I would wager that they don't explain his having earned the Sterling Professorship of Classics and History at Yale University. I suspect his scholarship had something to do with that. Still, it is possible for one's politics to colour one's books as readily as one's reviews, I suppose, and so we might profitably wonder whether Kagan is guilty of "revisionist championing of Cleon and other Athenian hawks," as Mendelsohn suggests.
Cleon is a central figure in Thucydides. A gifted orator and politician, he was the nemesis of Nicias, who advocated moderation and repeatedly sought opportunities for a negotiated peace with Sparta. Here is what Kagan has to say by way of summing up Cleon:

". . . Cleon pursued an aggressive policy out of sincere conviction that it was the best course for his city. His public style, no doubt, lowered the tone of Athenian political life, and we need not approve of his harshness toward rebellious allies, but Cleon did represent a broad spectrum of opinion. He always carried his political positions forward energetically and bravely and presented them honestly and directly. No more than Pericles did he flatter the masses but addressed them in the same severe, challenging, realistic manner. He put his own life on the line, serving on the expeditions he recommended and dying on the last of them."

Whatever Thucydides' "sensible men" might think, Athens was not, in fact, better off after Cleon's death. His views endured through the efforts of other men, some of whom lacked his capacity, some his patriotism, others his honesty, and still others his courage. Thucydides is correct, however, in asserting that Cleon's death ". . . made peace a genuine possibility. No one now remaining in power in Athens had sufficient stature to oppose successfully the peace advocated by Nicias" (p 187).
Thucydides, in contrast, bluntly calls Cleon "the most violent man at Athens" (which seems unlikely as a mere matter of statistical probability) and attributes his belligerence to "the success and honour which war gave him." Thucydides misses no opportunity to cast poor Cleon in an unfavourable light. He clearly disliked the man. Who has the more balanced and more nuanced view here?
The larger issue, though, is this: whose account of the war is more likely to be reliable-Thucydides', which is partial, or Kagan's, which is synthetic? I vote for Kagan. I do so notwithstanding my dislike of Ronald Reagan, my moral horror at Bismarck, my delight when Cleon loses arguments to moderates, and my inability to resist Thucydides' spell. Like Mendelsohn-and apparently everyone else-I am easily transported by Thucydides. He was too good a writer to withstand; there is astonishing variety in his tale; and everything in it seems irresistibly familiar. As G. F. Abbot put it: "Hardly a problem of statesmanship is left untouched. Here is shown an island state whose constant policy had been to keep out of entangling alliances suddenly waking to the perils of isolation (I. 32); there the aim of another state's diplomacy as being, under specious pretences, to subdue by dividing (VI. 77, 79). The advantages of sea-power (I. 142, 143; II. 62), the weaknesses inherent in the nature of a coalition (I. 141), the respective merits of severity and magnanimity towards rebellious subjects (III. 39-40; 44-48), and many other questions of perennial interest are discussed with a perspicacity which has never been excelled." The very richness of Thucydides, and his uncanny ability to seem to disappear from his own history so that the "facts" seem to speak for themselves, are what make him irresistible. But these come at a cost. Thucydides is a mirror. We can find in him whatever we wish. Hawks can find in him ample evidence for realpolitik. Doves can find in him ample ammunition against it. Because we treat Thucydides as an authority, we unwittingly treat ourselves as authorities. We need to be reminded of this, and Kagan unwittingly does so.
When I look in the Thucydidean mirror, I see ample evidence of my particular hobby horse: human error. Thucydides does a better job than anyone I know of demonstrating the reliable fallibility of political leaders who, through lack of understanding, imagination, and foresight, repeatedly screw up. Kagan does not contradict Thucydides on this particular point. His history, just like Thucydides', is a tragic tale of misplaced confidence. In the light of the Iraq debacle, one wonders just how much aid and comfort he can therefore possibly be giving the Vulcans in the White House anyway.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us