x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

What the wars between Athens and Sparta can teach us

A new history finds the roots of the Peloponnesian War in ancient codes of honour and aggression, codes that still have relevance in conflicts today.

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins

JE Lendon

Basic Books


The Peloponnesian War was actually a series of wars, running hot and cold, that engulfed the fifth-century BC West for nearly 70 years. They began in 461 BC when Sparta and its Peloponnesian League fought Athens and its Delian League, and lasted, through intervals of peace and sporadic campaigning, until the final defeat of Athens at Aegospotomai in 404 BC.

The heart of this long conflict was the Ten Years' War (often called the Archidamian War after Sparta's King Archidamus II), fought from 431 to 421, and its presiding historian has always been and will always be Thucydides, who partook in the conflict as a general and determined to write its definitive history as a "gift for all time". The world had seen nothing like his history before: it was dry, dispassionate, reportorial, and entirely free of meddling gods. It was also magisterial, which makes JE Lendon's accomplishment in Song of Wrath all the more remarkable. Not only does he retell the story of the Archidamian War but he does so by taking a self-confessed "adversarial" stance towards his predecessor. If the modern philosophy of history has a single father, it is Thucydides; opposition to him seems almost unfilial.

But Lendon isn't really opposing him. His adversarial role consists mainly of clarifying and filling out. And the result is a brilliant work of history and ideological reconstruction. In 2005, Lendon's magnificent Soldiers & Ghosts examined how warriors of the ancient world fought; Song of Wrath concentrates on why they fought. Here Lendon's focus is timé, honour, which he sees as both highly individualistic and idiosyncratic, sometimes appeased by money, sometimes by bloodshed, sometimes by mercy or savagery. It's his contention that honour, the desire to keep or regain it, the desire to strip it from the enemy, lies at the heart of ancient military history to a degree that threatens to make it all but incomprehensible to a modern age of push-button warfare.

Take the moment when the Spartan hero Brasidas faced down the Athenian invasion force at Megara's port in 424 BC. "To us," Lendon writes, "the climactic encounter between Brasidas and the Athenians on the plains of Megara seems as strange as the confrontation between tribes of hooting apes or a standoff between feathered savages in a faded documentary. Its logic was not that of modern war, in all its glistening lethality, but that of drunks in a bar, eyes locked on eyes, shouting, 'What are you looking at?' and inching closer to each other, knuckles gleaming, until one drops his gaze and yields the victory." He supplements Thucydides by pointing out that the ancient historian would never have thought it necessary to explain such basic psychological components of his world as timé. As Lendon points out, Thucydides never conceived of an age in which his "gift" wouldn't be read by … well, ancient Greeks.

But times changed and military technologies, Lendon argues, altered military mind-sets. Wars between nations were no longer fought for personal reasons, and the vagaries of honour no longer dictated strategy (such assertions hint that the author, like most of his contemporary military historians, is unwilling to admit the Victorian age happened at all). Song of Wrath is his spirited, utterly captivating reclamation of that Homeric worldview in which generals and their soldiers were emulating not a tactical handbook but a poem, Homer's timé-riddled Iliad.

Along the way, we get a great deal of the vivid writing that made Soldiers & Ghosts so memorable, as when Lendon quips that "the Spartans never got to fight the war they wanted", or when he pauses to reflect on one of Athens' significant initial victories: "That was the time of Athens' greatest historical glory, and if Athens sought to be supreme in honor among the Greeks, that was the period of her past she must evoke now. What Athenian strategy after Sphacteria looks like, then - a grab for the past with both hands - is precisely what Athenian strategy after Sphacteria was."

Song of Wrath is an even richer work than its predecessor, revelatory in its historical recastings. Its deft reworking of Thucydidean ground will prompt the reader to reread the old master, but with new insights and a new appreciation.

And a new relevance, according to Lendon. Just as Thucydides predicted that his work would always be useful because mankind doesn't change its nature, so Lendon maintains that the Homeric age isn't quite done with us yet. The anarchic desperation of Bronze Age warfare, he claims, is appearing again among "the wrathful ones, those who seek symbolic victory regardless of consequence, those who seek revenge for ancient slights". It is these "nations and international actors" (Lendon seems wary of using the word "terrorist", no doubt for fear that it would derail his argument into demagoguery) that the present-day West finds most difficult to understand. Thucydides' ancient conflict provides a key: "It is not, therefore, only interesting to know how the Spartans and the Athenians once fought a great war over national rank by cycles of revenge and retribution. It may, alas, be useful as well."

There's a bit of simplification in this, inevitably. For example, those modern-day "wrathful ones" are motivated in large part by religious factors, after all, and the Peloponnesian War has nothing at all to tell us about religious conflict. There's also the fact that, despite his pioneering attempts at historical even-handedness, Thucydides was hardly impartial between the democracy of Athens and the warrior-oligarchy of Sparta: there are right (and righteous) nations, and wrong ones, in his book, just as such assumptions of right and wrong also underpinned the judgments of his contemporary and fellow general Sophocles.

Lendon's contemporary parallels are thought-provoking, but where Song of Wrath really excels is its dramatisation of how strange ancient warfare could be, especially to modern sensibilities shaped by the capacities of truly long-range weaponry. This book is a persuasive reminder, as is Homer, for all that, of how personal and even intimate most combat was for the 40 centuries before the refinement of gunpowder and artillery in the mid-19th century. For most of the Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta were locked into a dance of avoidance: the latter avoided the former's naval superiority, and the former avoided the latter's superior infantry on land. And in all encounters, the concept of timé, and its mirror image, shame, was crucial.

"This disparity in the abilities of Athens and Sparta," Lendon explains, "meant that determining who was winning the war over rank depended in large part on weighing against each other the values of different kinds of shaming. Athens' shame at a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica had to be weighed against Sparta's shame at Athens' reprisal raids from ships and the Athenian attacks on Sparta's allies." Today's armies, by contrast, "establish artificial,and often futile measures to gauge their progress, trying to count (as in Vietnam) enemy dead, or the volume of enemy equipment captured, or (as in Iraq) the frequency of enemy attacks on friendly forces". Throughout Song of Wrath, there is a faint but insistent hint of regret that this should be so. Lendon's passion makes this book compulsively readable, but underneath the learning it is very much a personal passion, perhaps akin to the animating force supplied to Thucydides' narrative by his great unnamed rival, Herodotus. This adds an extra irony to Lendon's determination to clear up the "doubtful netherworld" of Thucydidean opinionising: he is not one bit less present in his book's subtext than the old general was in his.

When writing about the ultimate origins of his Peloponnesian War, Thucydides claimed "the truest cause of the war was the growing greatness of the Athenians, and the fear this inspired, which compelled the Lacedaemonians to go to war." Song of Wrath mines these events for richer motivations, but it shares one thing with its predecessor: both are indispensable accounts of a war whose interest is undimmed by the years.

Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Historical Novel Review, and Kirkus. He is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.