The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan is a comprehensive political, social, economic, and military account of the great war between Sparta and Athens. For those interested in these types of histories, as well as the history and culture of ancient Greece, this book will be an engrossing experience. Kagan a Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University has also published a massive four - volume history of the conflict aimed at serious scholars. This is his one volume “condensed” version that is in itself extremely detailed.
The Peloponnesian War was actually a series of conflicts. Athens was a direct democracy; that is, all free males who were citizens voted on almost every public decision. Athens was the center of a powerful, wealthy, but often oppressive maritime empire.
While Sparta is often described as a military dictatorship, Kagan points out it was really a mixed system that was part monarchy, part aristocracy, and part democracy. Sparta was famous for its highly militaristic system that imposed harsh martial training on all male citizens.
For nearly thirty years the two states waged an on again and off again war upon each other and as well as on allied states. The struggle encompassed an area that stretched from the coast of modern day Turkey and the Black Sea in the east, to Sicily in the west. The wars involved dozens of city-states as well as the Persian Empire. It was characterized by both land and sea battles. The conflicts finally ended with the surrender of Athens in 404 BC.
The ancient Greeks played an integral part in the shaping of the modern world. This conflict played an immensely important part in shaping the world of Ancient Greece. I think that Kalgan gets it about right when he compares the impact of this clash on Ancient Greece to the impact that the First World War had upon twentieth century Western Civilization. Therefore, the Peloponnesian War is well worth studying for those who wish to obtain a clearer understanding of the world.
There is so much one can talk about here. I want to focus on only one of a multitude of facets to this conflict, what is known as the “Sicilian Expedition”. This campaign and its consequences can teach us some important lessons relevant to our modern world. In 422 BC Athens and Sparta had actually been at peace, but in a state of “cold war” for about seven years. In that year the Athenians decided to launch a major invasion of the island of Sicily. The expedition involved an enormous number of ships and soldiers and was exceedingly expensive. Athens expected an easy victory. After two years of fighting against various Sicilian city-states led by Syracuse, as well as a Spartan expeditionary force, the Athenian army was surrounded and annihilated. Her enormous fleet was bottled up in a harbor and sunk. Most of the Athenian military leadership was killed in the campaign and the democracy was nearly bankrupted.
The Sicilian calamity was the beginning of the end for Athens. Much of its empire subsequently rebelled, Sparta attacked on land and sea, and civil strife gripped the city resulting in the temporarily overthrow of the democracy. While the war continued for another ten years, Kalgan convincingly argues that had these losses in Sicily not occurred, the total defeat of Athens would likely never have happened. It seems to me that the war between the Sparta and Athens may never even have reignited, and if it had, it is likely that Athens would have defeated Sparta.
Why did Athens launch such as ill-conceived mission? First, the conquest of Sicily would have provided the Athenians with a strategic advantage over Sparta, cutting off much of the Sparta’s foreign trade. Second, the addition of Sicily to the Athenian empire would have bestowed increased power and wealth upon Athens. Finally, Kagan’s description of the Athenians’ deliberations leading up to the expedition indicates a certain level of arrogance and overconfidence as to the prospects for success. At the time Athens was brimming with wealth derived from its empire. The city-state was mistress of the seas, and in possession of an enormous navy that had previously won battle after battle against its enemies. To many Athenians, the easy conquest of Sicily was a given.
Before we draw parallels with other historical events it is important to point out that while comparative history can be useful and enlightening such judgments have their limits. Kagan compares the Athenian calamity in Sicily to the Franco – British Gallipoli Campaign as well as to America’s involvement in Vietnam. While I believe there are parallels with those actions, in terms of the scope of military defeat and the ensuing destruction of empire, the Sicilian Campaign was closer to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Again, the similarities only go so far, as those cases did not involve democracies launching invasions over the maritime distances.
Most recently, America’s invasion of Iraq comes to mind. That poorly conceived venture was also planned with both strategic and economic advantage as goals. As an American I can personally attest to the overconfident and arrogant attitudes, as well as the uncritical beliefs in America’s power, expressed by many of my fellow citizens leading up to the war. Of course, like the Athenian experience in Sicily, the military campaign did not go nearly as successfully as planned, and ultimately weakened the United States both strategically and economically.
All foreign military involvements cannot be considered as mistakes however. For instance, America’s intervention in World War II can be characterized as a foreign intervention (America had a foot as well as leg in the game well before Pearl Harbor). Yet, that historical intervention can be seen as moral, necessary and successful.
Nevertheless, modern states would do well to consider both the morality and unforeseen outcomes that result from these ventures. History abounds with other examples of democracies intervening militarily, over vast oceans, which were both justified and beneficial. The trick is to figure out which ones are worth the risk and the cost as well as meeting a moral litmus test. If careful and thoughtful deliberations with less arrogance had occurred prior to some of the events outlined above, many terrible and unfortunate events likely would not have occurred.
On a side note, I cannot neglect to mention that strangely enough, Kagan was one of the leaders Project for the New American Century. Project for the New American Century was the conservative think tank that provided the intellectual force and the theories behind the America’s invasion of Iraq and the Bush administrations aggressive military policies. Thus, I suspect that Kagan would cringe at parts of my commentary. His politics not withstanding, the author has written a fine work of history in The Peloponnesian War.