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Book Reviews

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War

by Victor Davis Hanson

New York: Random House, 2005
396 pages, $42.00

Reviewed by Mark Tunnicliffe

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Book CoverPeople dance and music plays as the symbol of a nation’s power is systematically smashed. A great maritime power, dominant economic and cultural centre, and an aggressive proponent of democracy and regime change is humbled by a reactionary, doctrinaire opponent. The war that led to this conclusion is the Peloponnesian War, perhaps one of the most studied conflicts in history.

This begs the obvious question: what new approach can Victor Hanson bring to the subject of this decades-long civil war that laid waste to classical Greece? Perhaps its very relevance to warfare throughout the ages provides one answer – each generation finds themes from this struggle that reflect their own experience, and this is no less true today. The issues range far beyond military strategy and tactics to national governance, ethics and ethos, environmental degradation, and (albeit unintended) weapons of mass effect. This conflict has had echoes in almost all succeeding generations, and Hanson brings it to life again against our current backdrop of terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and clash, if not of civilizations, then certainly of values.

His approach is signalled in the subtitle he has chosen for the book. For his is not a chronological recitation of events, but rather an examination of the modalities of classical Greek warfare. After a brief summation of the causes and social factors underlying the war, Hanson simply tabulates the main incidents of a civil war that lasted from 431 BC to 404 BC. This sets the stage for his examination of the strategies and methods of Greek warfare of the period.

Hanson’s approach is best summarized in his chapter headings: Fire (pillaging), Disease, Terror (mass murder), Armour (phalanx/hoplite battle), Walls (siege warfare), Horses (cavalry), and Ships (the maritime campaign). Each of these headings focuses upon a particular warfare modality (or, as the author puts it, an “experience” of war) but these headings tend to be used to explore particular key events and the associated social factors of the campaign as much as to discuss the technology and techniques of Greek Warfare. For instance the theme of Horses provides an opportunity to discuss the Athenian campaign in Syracuse. Why? Because cavalry was the only arm that the Syracusians had that could hold the Athenian phalanxes in check (by outflanking them) and for which, because of the long maritime supply chain, the Athenians were unable to provide an adequate counter. In fact, the Athenian loss at Syracuse was achieved by the Athenians themselves through delayed redirection of their troops – and assured through a foolish decision to waste their maritime supremacy by accepting battle in a cramped harbour, losing the advantage of their superior ship-handling skills. With their fleet, and thus, their lines of communication cut, the helpless Athenian army ashore simply gave themselves up to slaughter. Consequently, while cavalry was a critical factor in the Syracuse campaign, it comes across in Hanson’s recital as secondary to the politics and slaughter of this unnecessary enterprise.

An exception to the modalities of war discussed in the book is the chapter on Disease. The plague that cut down almost 30 percent of the population of Athens (including its most capable leader, Pericles) early on in the campaign had a profound influence on how the democracy conducted itself in the following 20 years. The disease was the product of the seemingly unsuccessful initial Spartan tactic of ravaging the land and farms in Attica, the Athenian hinterland. For not only was it harder than it seemed to fully pillage a significant portion of the Athenian agricultural base, the city’s ‘Long Walls’ that connected it to the port of Piraeus ensured that its maritime (naval and commercial) superiority guaranteed access to external supplies of grain. The Athenian strategy, in the face of the invincible Spartan hoplite army, was simply to withdraw all of its citizenry from the outlying areas behind its invincible walls, and wait until the Spartan army faded away for the season. However, the influx of people generated the conditions for a plague that not only killed a significant portion of the population (hence crippling the Athenian population resource base for future campaigns) but also, probably more significantly, destroyed the social order and mores of the people. Hanson treats the plague, the identification of which he reviews as an unsolved 2500-year-old mystery, as a happenstance of the war – albeit one with far-reaching consequences for Athenian fortunes later on. Ironically, within months of the release of his book, DNA testing on the teeth of exhumed victims of the plague has permitted its identification as typhoid fever, a disease transmitted through feces. Clearly the Athenian sanitary system was incapable of dealing with the influx of refugees resulting from the Spartan pillaging operations in the surrounding countryside. Consequently the author’s summation of the initial Spartan invasion as largely ineffectual, though correct in terms of its intended consequences, needs to be reviewed in light of the unintended ones – effectively an early legitimate equivalent of a weapon of mass effect.

The approach Hanson takes to this old story is innovative, but it requires work from the reader as well. It helps if the reader is already familiar with the chronology of the war – the events, names and places. The thumbnail sketch he provides in the opening chapter is not sufficient, except perhaps to recall to the reader earlier readings he may have accomplished. Readers unfamiliar with this campaign are advised to re-read the book a second time for full comprehension of details and contexts that may have been missed the first time through the text. Additionally, the book is heavily annotated with substantive endnotes, which present their own challenge – does the reader flip back and forth to the notes as he progresses through the main text, or leave reading them until he reaches the end of the chapter? Either option is somewhat disruptive, but well worth the effort.

A main complaint that can fairly be levied against a book such as this, that focuses on the techniques and tactics of warfare, is its complete lack of illustrations. Not only would modern illustrations based on recent research and trials (which Hanson quotes) have served to underline the points he wants to make, but judicious selection of contemporary Greek military artwork would have simultaneously illustrated the character and promise of the society engaged in this ruinous civil war. Indeed, this is one instance where an illustration would have been worth many thousands of words.

The book succeeds, however, in the most important mandate that any author possesses. It makes the reader think – and perhaps in ways that may not particularly have been intended. Hanson is clearly thinking of an American audience in making many of his points, and he is not particularly subtle about it. In his opening chapter, he sets the stage for the reader’s mindset with a section on ‘Athens as America’, a not necessarily original comparison, but one which he brings forward in today’s context – a successful, democratic power, envied by its neighbours and perhaps more anxious to be liked than respected. The message is obvious – Athens did eventually lose, and its detractors eventually came to regret the loss.

But there are more subtle lessons – ones that probably depend as much on the reader as on the author. A key one is the role of sea power in war, and the fundamental differences between armies and navies, in their roles, tactics, sociology and societal settings. Athens could afford to lose time and again on land, but never at sea. Similarly, while she was supreme at sea, she could win, or at the least, not lose, while ashore. This lesson was signalled at Syracuse where the poorly led Athenian army nevertheless penned the Syracusians in until the Athenian fleet was destroyed in the harbour. Their communications cut, the horrified land forces simply gave up and were destroyed. Conversely, when the Spartans, supported by Persian gold, finally learned to fight at sea, they had to win only once. Not until then did their decades of excellence in land warfare come to mean anything to the final outcome.

Similarly, the book brings to mind the management and role of a democratic system of government in wartime – something for Canadians to ponder. Unrestricted democratic control was, in the Athenian experience, a disaster. Once the skilled guidance of Pericles was removed by disease, the unrestrained Athenian assembly, spurred on by demagogues, voted for foolish expeditions, mass executions of conquered cities, and expulsion and even execution of successful leaders – never failing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Democracy, as revolutionary America understood, needs to be tempered with appropriate checks and balances. It must choose and agree upon its course through debate and consensus, but once a decision for war is taken, a democracy must then be guided by firm leadership.

Failing this, it can expect defeat and the humiliation of watching the symbols of its former glory destroyed to the cheers of its detractors.

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Commander Mark Tunnicliffe is currently serving in the Maritime Research Coordination Cell of the Director General Maritime Force Development at National Defence Headquarters.