Athens vs. Sparta

The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (391 pp., $42.50, 1969); The Archidamian War (367 pp., $39.50, 1974); The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (372 pp., $39.50, 1981); The Fall of the Athenian Empire (426 pp., $39.50, 1987).
by Donald Kagan.
Cornell University Press.

Imagine that the only contemporary record of most events of World War II had been written by a well-known general on the losing side, seriously at odds with his own people—a Rommel, say, though of philosophical disposition, moral clarity, evident compassion, and altogether superior intellect. Such a Rommel would be an incomparably greater man than his real-life prototype, but as a historical source his shortcomings would still be most severe. Because of the inevitable limits of his knowledge of a complicated and protracted war, many events would escape his scrutiny in the whole or in detail; because of the unconscious partisanship induced by his origins and fate, further events would be subtly or less subtly distorted; and given the great variety of polities, customs, and procedures he would have to cover, still other events would be obscured by confusions technical, topographic, or even political. Finally, there would be a partiality entirely deliberate, caused by the author’s selection of what he deemed most important, thereby slighting other facts perhaps only circumstantial and ephemeral yet still integral to the web of events.

Now imagine that despite his shortcomings, this vastly enhanced Rommel had written a history of World War II of such surpassing merit in every way that it caused all other contemporary accounts to be abandoned without trace, keeping subsequent historians in its thrall thematically, factually, and stylistically, and indeed defining the very task of writing history.

What would we then know of World War II? As it is, the gap between the texts—official histories included—that now fill our libraries and the findings of the latest documentary research is becoming embarrassingly wide, so that reputations once secure are now greatly diminished by recent scholarship while others have been greatly elevated; various events once supposed to have been inevitable are now revealed as adventitious, and vice versa; and the Holocaust is slowly emerging as the central event of Hitler’s war, but less and less a purely German crime. What colossal mystifications would be uncovered, what sort of sweeping reappraisal of causes and modalities would be necessary, if till now the only record of what happened between 1939 and 1945 had been a single book by our transfigured Rommel?

That, in short, is more or less our condition vis-à-vis the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C.E. and resulted in the transfer of hegemony over Greece from Athens to Sparta. But in the case of the Peloponnesian War there are no archives to redeem our dependence on Thucydides, son of Olorus, born around 460 B.C.E., one of ten generals elected in 424, thereafter exiled from Athens for twenty years, and the author of the great History of the war that breaks off abruptly in the year 411.

One very simple solution to our difficulties would be to adopt the view already sanctioned by many of our most expensive universities and to treat the History of Thucydides as just one more text among many, of inevitably modest importance alongside the writings of every age and culture. We could, moreover, cheerfully overlook its limitations as a source by agreeing that the warfare it records among Athens, Sparta, and even pettier town-states two-and-a-half millennia ago was of no greater importance than, say, African tribal struggles, Aztec slave-raiding expeditions, the Mogul invasion of the Deccan, or the contemporaneous strife of the Chinese warring states. Since none of these episodes is anywhere nearly so well documented as the Peloponnesian War, historiographical egalitarianism would surely compel us to research them first, rather than striving for further clarifications of the minor details of a war so remote in time, and materially so insignificant.

But even though no human culture should be alien to us, and curiosity about the past, regardless of what ensued from it, needs no justification, it is simply foolish to deny that the history of the Greeks before, during, and after the Peloponnesian War is of incomparably greater significance than the deeds of Aztecs, African tribes, Moguls, or ancient Chinese—and precisely because of what ensued from that history. Instead of surviving only as a passive residue, of great scholarly and antiquarian interest perhaps but no more, the record of what a few Greeks said and did so long ago still resonates vibrantly in our own day—and not least for Latin Americans, Africans, Indians, and Chinese. The comedies of the Greeks make us laugh and their tragedies make us weep, we know their names and even their feelings as we share in their great events, glorious victories, crushing defeats, or agonized debates. But it is above all the ideas of those 5th-century Greeks that are so completely alive for us.

Our own schools and universities may now be subjected to a regime of cultural relativism,1 but polite pretense or academic perversity cannot alter the primacy of the culture that invented the three ideas which are still instructing, inspiring, and conquering minds all over the planet: the idea of science—that is, the quest for rational explanations by refutable hypothesis, invented by the ancient Greeks alone and by no one else; the idea of democracy and its concomitant, the priority of freedom as the greatest happiness, most famously expressed by Pericles in the funeral oration which Thucydides reports (or improves), but concretely manifest in the detailed political practices he records; and the idea of the individual personality as a universe of consciousness, rather than as a mere fragment of some imposed collectivity, whether tribe, nation, civic community, or family, whether caste, faith, class, or party.

These three intertwined ideas, more subversive today than ever before of every form of political, ideological, religious, and social oppression, are autonomously living forces. Simply because they arose in that place and time, the Peloponnesian War is far more than another historical episode among many. Because all three ideas pervade and find within the History of Thucydides their finest expression, that text is far more than just another text among many.



And this is the text that has been the subject of the twenty-year labors of Donald Kagan, long-time professor of history and classics at Yale. In four volumes and 1,556 pages (not counting appendices, bibliographies, and indices), of which the last has recently been published, Kagan contends with Thucydides as a historical source while incidentally displaying for us Thucydides the philosopher of life and continuing master of our thoughts.

To build the edifice of a coherent and more comprehensive history of the Peloponnesian War around the incomplete and often cryptic text of Thucydides, Kagan has employed several methods.

First, he has made the fullest use of all other contemporary sources, poor as they are. In the comedies of Aristophanes, for example, there are only hints and jocular references to the events and personalities of the war. But because these plays were performed for a public that included many who actually took part in those events and knew those personalities quite intimately, authenticity is uniquely guaranteed: had Aristophanes been inaccurate, his audience would have missed the joke and his parodic intention would have misfired. Kagan extracts what he can from this source, which many previous scholars have simply overlooked. Similarly, he strives to use fragments from the speeches of Andocines the companion of Alcibiades, and of Lysias the orator (whose views do not appear to have been mechanically conditioned by the fact that his family owned a shield factory), and from Plato, who as it happens is of remarkably little use though he was over twenty when the war ended.

Xenophon (born c. 430 B.C.E.), an experienced soldier, a late-phase participant in the war, and a prolific writer, could have been the ideal author of a competing version of the war from a pro-Spartan perspective; though he was an Athenian, it was Sparta that gained his loyalty, and kept it even after later defeat at the hands of Thebes. As it was, though, Xenophon must have been one of the first to be dissuaded from emulating his predecessor by the immensity of the latter’s achievement. (Others did write, but in competition with Thucydides their works could not attract enough interest to ensure survival—only the names of such lost authors have been preserved.) In his Hellenika, Xenophon merely tries to continue where Thucydides left off in 411 B.C.E., and the book’s shortcomings (glaring distortions, worse omissions) are so severe that Kagan follows all modern historians in preferring the account of a later anonymous historian recovered in 1906 from papyrus, as well as much later authors.

There are also some contemporary inscriptions, though many fewer than would be the case for, say, the Roman empire, where the abundance of surviving epigraphic material allows the reconstruction of entire decades of history without a single narrative source. For 5th-century Greece the most notable epigraphs are the Athenian Tribute Lists, which record the voluntary and involuntary affiliates of that peculiar empire. Cut in stone or scratched on pieces of broken pottery (ostraka), the inscriptions that survive, mostly in fragments, cannot tell stories, but they do provide factual reference points for Kagan’s account, sometimes invaluably.



Second, Kagan has been bold in his use of the later writings of antiquity. Diodorus the Sicilian (Siculus), author of the Bibliotheke Historike, a world history in forty books, lived at the time of Julius Caesar some four centuries after Pericles. He was, moreover, a rather uncritical compiler of previous texts. But because among his sources were earlier writers who in turn had access to solid evidence, Kagan uses what he can of the fifteen surviving volumes (which fortunately include the period 480-323 B.C.E.), just as he carefully extracts bits and pieces from the unreliable biographies of Cornelius Nepos, the military anecdotes of Frontinus (1st century CE.), the abridged history of the still later Justinus, and so forth, and also consults Aristotle, who was of course much closer in time to the war but otherwise preoccupied.

Even bolder because altogether larger is Kagan’s use of Plutarch, who lived half a millennium after the events of the war, and under a Roman imperial autocracy in many ways more different from the age of Pericles than are our own days of turbulence and freedom. Worse, Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi, the “parallel lives” of eminent Romans and Greeks, are moral and psychological character studies rather than “life-and-times” biographies. Hence, historical events are described in them only incidentally, when they figure in illustrative anecdotes. For these reasons, Plutarch on Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, etc., has been little used by previous historians of the war.

Obviously Kagan relies on a particular statement in Plutarch only when he has no stronger corroboration, for otherwise he would not need so very late an author. But the reliability of Plutarch as a whole can be tested in detail, because some of his Roman lives at least are well documented in other texts of known reliability, and, even better, by epigraphic, numismatic, even archeological evidence. Unlike that other collection of biographies, the pseudonymous Historia Augusta so heavily followed by Gibbon and now condemned as hopelessly unreliable, Plutarch’s Roman biographies have triumphantly survived systematic comparisons with the mass of new evidence; Kagan’s wider reliance on him is thus solidly justified.



Third, Kagan is not afraid to evoke analogies, ancient and modern. Although they can provide no new facts they can offer explanations for facts unexplained, poorly explained, or even misrepresented in the primary sources—and in Thucydides most often. For even Thucydides, whose insistence on explanation defined the very nature of historiography (as against mere chronography), and whose honesty and insight are so inspiring—even Thucydides can nod, and his expertise too is not limitless.

That analogy is a dangerous device is clear enough, for it can easily serve to mislead. But Kagan does not employ analogies to persuade us; his purpose, rather, is to find new explanations, which he then offers in full for our own scrutiny. Thus, for example, in discussing the Athenian invasion of Aetolia in 426 B.C.E., Kagan invokes the analogy of Churchill’s landings at Gallipoli to suggest that the Athenian strategy may have been sound even though this particular application of it failed. After pointing out that in 426 as in 1915, powerful alliances were stalemated in a war of attrition, Kagan quotes Churchill on the merits of surprise outflanking maneuvers as a path to victory that can “save slaughter.” He then reproduces Churchill’s list of the conditions under which even a secondary front can be a decisive theater (“. . . if the strongest power cannot be directly defeated itself, but cannot stand without the weakest, it is the weakest that should be attacked”). Kagan then tests the circumstances of 426 B.C.E. by Churchill’s criteria, and finds that the Aetolian operation, like the Gallipoli landings, could have been so successful as to justify the risk. The overall effect is illuminating and, to this reader at least, persuasive.



Fourth, Kagan, a scholar of the classics, that most disciplined of disciplines, has also made complete use of the abundant modern research on the war, in French and Italian as well as German. On important points, the views of earlier historians are not merely cited but quoted, sometimes by the paragraph; without pedantic excess the terms of debate are defined, rival hypotheses deployed, criteria of selection established, and only then does Kagan present his own view. That view, moreover, is always sound, often subtle, and not infrequently original.

Finally, Kagan employs the information he derives from all four methods to extract more from Thucydides himself than any previous scholar. This is a text which ever since the 3rd century B.C.E. has been subjected to systematic editing, exegesis, and internal analysis. Work begun so well by the Hellenistic scholiasts of Alexandria—their “book” divisions, still followed in every modern edition, are the convenient length of a papyrus roll—was being continued by Byzantine commentators a thousand years later, and was resumed in the West as soon as a knowledge of Attic Greek was broadly revived in the 16th century. Kagan ably stands on the shoulders of all his predecessors, to construe more than ever before from the much-studied text.



Although I am not qualified to assess the validity of Kagan’s choices when alternative-theories are in contention, there are some things that even a nonspecialist can assert with confidence about his reconstruction of the Peloponnesian War.

This is above all a wonderfully attractive work. Once the reading begins, the four volumes seem not too long but too short; it was in the middle of the second volume that I began to dread the parting to come. Given the interest of the subject, only a poor style could dissuade, but Kagan’s style is light and perfectly lucid, always elegant, never intrusive. For all its care and completeness, Kagan’s careful scholarship does not at any point deprive us of the dramatic excitement which makes the reading of Thucydides himself as stirring as it is instructive.

It seems most unlikely that the fate of Kagan’s four volumes will be settled once and for all by their current publication, for he too has written a work that will attract the continuing attention of future generations. In the meantime, to read these volumes is a delight not to be missed: seldom is such profound education so amply pleasurable.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link