Donald Kagan: Greeks at War

Many and terrible things happened to the cities because of [political] faction, such as happened and always will happen so long as the nature of human beings is the same.—Thucydides

In his acclaimed study of the Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan writes history in the best style of the “classic modern” scholar. He provides a clear, unpretentious narrative without dumbing-down his language, and emphasizes detail without descending into banality. Because his study of the conflict between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) is based on the writings of Thucydides and Xenophon, Kagan has to explore and explain things in the light of new findings. But he does not simply make things up nor does he impose faddish interpretations on the past. In this respect his book reminds me of the solid interpretive work done by erudite non-ideological historians like Norman Cohn, Regine Pernoud, and Christopher Dawson.

One of the most important points about this conflict is how much it was a sort of Hellenic “World War,” quite unlike previous squabbles between the Greek city states. Those had been of a limited character and the manner of fighting between hoplite armies followed rather strict rules. This changed dramatically. Not only was there a revolution in combat tactics, but there was an even greater political and moral revolution. From the outset the attack by pro-Spartan Thebes on Plataea (an ally of Athens) was marked both by the way in which the attackers launched a sneak attack at night, without a declaration of war, and the fact that the outraged defenders subsequently massacred captured enemy soldiers. It was a harbinger of things to come.

What contributed to the increasingly unconventional nature of the war was the ideological strife between democratic (pro-Athenian) and oligarchic (pro-Spartan) factions that struggled for power in the “no man’s land” of cities caught between the major powers. Though Kagan does not hesitate to criticize Athenian actions, it is clear that he sympathizes with the moderate and restrained democracy of the great Pericles, with its quasi-aristocratic leanings (comparable to the early American republic). But Pericles died only three years into the conflict, and he was succeeded by a new political generation dominated by opportunists and adventurers. It is as if Kagan were describing the greater part of the 20th century with its “total war,” reckless political creeds, and cultural upheaval.

Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance increased as the war dragged on, and they gave rise to a progression of atrocities rarely or not at all known before that time. Even the powerful ties of family and of the most sacred religious observances succumbed to the pressures of the long war. Its terrible effects encouraged the questioning of the traditional values on which classical Greek society rested and in the process further divided society.

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