Review of Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War
One of the pleasures from reading is the ability to find a book on a subject that is completely new to me. The Peloponnesian War is such a subject to me, given that my historical interests have been Western- and American-centric. So I had great expectations for A War Like No Other
And these expectations were fulfilled, for the most part. Hanson takes a different approach from most historians of the Peloponnesian War, in that his treatment is not chronological, nor does it follow Thucydides and Xenophon (our ancient Greek sources for almost everything we know about the war) closely. Rather he takes the events with the greatest impact on the war and examines each of them in detail: fear (why they fought), fire (destruction), disease (the famous plague of Athens), terror, armor, walls, horses, ships, and finally, the climax of the naval campaigns around Athens, followed by a discussion of the final results of the long war.
The major idea that Hanson returns to again and again is the overwhelming power of Athens vis-à-vis the comparatively weak Spartans. Athens started the war with far more money, ships, tributary cities, administrative experience, ability to project force, and population. It even survived a devastating plague, a wildly capricious assembly, and an utterly disastrous expedition to Sicily, and still managed to continue the war and even win battles after each of these calamities. It should have been no contest, Hanson implies, and yet the amazing fact is that after twenty-seven years of war, it was Athens that waited in fear for Lysander’s Spartan fleet to enter their port at Pireaus.
Precisely why Athens lost the war is not specifically explored by Hanson, who is more interested in each thematic event during the war, though these provide plenty of clues for Athen’s eventual loss. In the process, Hanson explores a number of obscure but historically interesting facts about the strategies of the two sides. For instance, in examining the Spartan plan to ravage the Attican countryside while the Athenians sheltered behind their strong walls, Hanson took an axe to his own fruit trees and also tested various ways of burning crops (He concluded that it is very difficult to effectively destroy an agricultural state with ancient weapons).
These sorts of side explorations would likely have been more useful to me if I were already versed in the Peloponnesian War: Hanson wrote his book expecting readers to already know the chronology and major events of the war, I think. This difficulty can be forgiven, given the number of scholarly works already existing on the Peloponnesian War.
What is more difficult to forgive, at least to me, is Hanson’s style of writing. It is frequently jarring, without smooth transitions or conclusions of thoughts, sometimes even within paragraphs. Too many times I read a paragraph and thought, "Huh? How does that sentence follow from the one before?" He draws comparisons frequently to modern or near-modern events as comparisons to the ancient events, such as comparing the farm-burning strategy of the Spartans to Sherman’s March to the Sea or Curtis LeMay’s fire-bombing of Japanese cities in World War II. He admits in his foreword that he will do this, and explains that he is a classicist, not a historian. Still, these trips forward in time interrupt the flow of the ancient story.
The ancient story is, nevertheless, a strong story. At the end of the book, I left with a conception that the war was most of all great tragedy: for Athens, but also for all of Greece, as it left them weakened and open for exploitation for the Persians and, shortly thereafter, for Philip of Macedon.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the longest war in the history of the ancient Greeks. It would be most useful to a classicist with pre-existing knowledge, but is fully accessible to someone who last read about the war in a high-school textbook (you’ll learn, as I did, that the plague did not lead at all directly to Athens’ defeat, coming as it did more than 20 years before the end). I wish it were written in a manner that flowed more smoothly, but it’s a flaw that can be forgiven.