TCS Daily

A Book Like No Other

By Ilya Shapiro - November 21, 2005 12:00 AM

What possible interest could a war fought nearly 2500 years ago between two city-states on arid Mediterranean soil generate in the present? Forget the inevitable application to Iraq and the war on terror that any study of military history must now endure; the Peloponnesian War, the power struggle that consumed ersatz Greece for thirty years in the late fifth century B.C., is so removed from modernity that we would do just as well to draw our lessons from "Star Wars."

Yet there have now been two books in the last three years about this ancient war, aimed precisely at the general reader. The first was Donald Kagan's masterful The Peloponnesian War, a synthesis of his seminal four-volume treatise on the subject. Now comes Victor Davis Hanson's A War Like No Other, which, instead of reinventing Kagan's (or Thucydides's) sublime history, considers it from a topical perspective. (Chapters are entitled "Fire," "Disease," "Armor," "Horses.")

Hanson weaves together a narrative out of seemingly disparate elements, evaluating key issues and events from several perspectives to provide a holistic view of this crucial but poorly understood period in world history.

After all, the Peloponnesian War was effectively a world war, with severe repercussions on social organization in the then-known world, not to mention the sheer destruction of life and property. By intensifying class hostility, it weakened the bonds within and between Greek states, eventually reducing their ability to resist conquest from the outside (first by Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander, and later by the Romans). By perverting and ultimately defeating mankind's first democratic experiment -- with its liberalizing effect on other states -- it sent ancient Greece spiraling into the oligarchy from which it would never recover its place as a center of civilization.

A War Like No Other does not shy from these conventional themes. Indeed, it embraces them, as Hanson emphasizes the destabilizing effects of political upheaval, social displacement, and siegecraft -- the word "circumvallation" appears not infrequently -- and the folly of the Sicilian expedition. He portrays the rich irony that it was the brilliant Pericles who exacerbated the plague's (more than) decimation of Athens by commanding rural inhabitants to move inside the city walls.

Hanson eloquently recounts how, as violence escalated, the war brought about a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life. (Hark what discord follows!)

Simply by telling his tale, Hanson hammers home the relevance to our time of the protracted clash between Athens, Sparta, and their shifting constellation of alliances. Most interestingly, he includes long discursions on the expansion of proxy and asymmetrical warfare (complete with guerrillas and terrorists); the great powers rarely met each other head on and there were few set-piece battles between hoplite phalanxes.

Unlike in so many "unconventional" history books, Hanson's invocations of the 20th and 21st centuries -- whether for direct comparison or as a benchmark to give context -- flow logically from his presentation (rather than serving as a gratuitous add-on demanded by a sales-conscious publishing house).

While discussing the use of "triremes" -- light, fast boats propelled by three levels of oarsmen, the staple of the magnificent Athenian navy -- Hanson parallels the establishment of supply "bases" on far-flung islands and coastal communities to the British Empire's network of coaling stations. In describing the expansion of Athenian culture and dialect, he mentions this process's contemporary counterpart, the spread of the English language and American popular culture. And Corinth was not unlike Mussolini's prewar Italy, thought to be a valuable potential ally by both sides but offering little military advantage once the fighting began.

Hanson's vast array of personal experience makes the reader believe that he may well have been at the siege of Plataea or the battle of Syracuse. When Hanson writes about complications in the Spartiate campaign to destroy Athenian agriculture, he relates the practical difficulty of chopping down live fruit trees. When he describes the life of an armored infantryman in the withering heat of the Attic plain, he compares it to wearing full pads during pre-season football training. As he chronicles the grumbling of farmer-hoplites restless to return to their harvests, he shares a knowing frustration with the vagaries of agrarian life.

Writing on the Peloponnesian War gives Hanson the opportunity to combine the subjects that he has covered to such great effect in previous work: Greek history, classical military strategy and tactics, the relationship between culture and a society's "way of war," the agrarian roots of virtue and democracy, and even the corrosive effect of political correctness on republican politics. A War Like No Other, despite being ostensibly limited to long-ago events in a far away place, allows the "Sage of Fresno" to display the full range of his intellect and imagination.

A War Like No Other illustrates the interplay of reason and emotion in human affairs and describes with particularity how both chance and singularly gifted individuals play a greater role in history than perhaps we would wish. It is a powerful story of extraordinary human tragedy and the rise and fall of a great empire and civilization, all the result of a clash between different societies and ways of life, fighting a war nobody wanted.

Ilya Shapiro, who once spent a month on Victor Davis Hanson's farm in the San Joaquin Valley, is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatches from Purple America" column compared Alito to Reagan.


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