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The Peloponnesian War, a Review

The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Read on for a review of The Peloponnesian War, the great war of the ancient world.

Read on for a review of The Peloponnesian War, the great war of the ancient world.

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War is a history of the greatest war of the ancient world, fought between the Greek city-states of Athens and her allies on one side against Sparta and her allies on the other. Donald Kagan takes the reigns in an examination of a war that shaped the Mediterranean world and laid the groundwork for the integration of Macedon into the Greek sphere. Kagan expertly identifies the similarities between the ancient great war and the conflicts of the twentieth century, but more importantly this history looks to "demonstrate, also, that a study of the Peloponnesian War is a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressure of war, plague and civil strife."

The Peloponnesian War opens with a spirited narration of a Theban attack on Platea before moving into explaining the tension of the Greek City states in the wake of the Greco-Persian Wars. This history runs from 479BC in the Greek world until the end of the Great Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. The chapters of the book break down the phases of the war into similar sections, and further into specific actions of the war.

Expertly drawn maps are placed throughout the book, preceding the chapters they pertain to. These are especially helpful in understanding the movements of the various factions in the war. The writing is aimed at layman and is not heavily footnoted. though there is a section at the end of the book explaining the authors sources and notes for the history.


War, Then and Now

The Peloponnesian War has a number of striking similarities to the Great War of the 20th Century and the Cold War that followed. Two power blocs controlled Greece, the Delian League, led by Athens and the Spartan League, nominally led by Sparta. The two lead cities held different ideologies to be supreme and believed in ruling their communities differently. They each led a series of alliances which sometimes they could not control.

The Peloponnesian War breaks out not as a conflict between the major powers, but as a conflict between smaller powers trying to get the most out of the system. Athens has a great navy, and few ground forces, while Sparta has no true navy and superior hoplites. The imbalance in the type of forces each side wields quickly breaks the norms of warfare in the Greek world. Usually hoplites met at a designated site and fought, with the war quickly ending for the season so farmers could return home. Kagan points out that this war would not be like other wars fought in Greece in the past.

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Kagan identifies the Peloponnesian War as the turning point in Greek history where ancient Greeks ceased to look at tomorrow as a better day. It was the beginning of a decline in civilization that led to plague, poverty, death, and conquest by foreign powers. The old states that had dominated the Greek system, Sparta and Athens, would never recover their old glory. It would take the intervention of outside powers, first Macedon and then others, to restore peace to the Greek peninsula.


For Scholars and Layman Alike

In The Peloponnesian War Donald Kagan lays out all the information a reader could hope to find in a history of the Peloponnesian War. Kagan starts off looking into the causes of the war, and develops the readers understanding of Greek warfare. He takes this knowledge to bring the reader the understanding of how very different this war was to the wars of the time. The Peloponnesian War looks at the battles, the sieges and the naval warfare that shaped the time.

The Peloponnesian War is more than just a military history of the Peloponnesian War though. Throughout the book Kagan takes the time to look at the political machinations occurring inside Sparta and Athens. Kagan expertly weaves the fates of the great officials of the time inside the story of the larger conflict, and show politicians embattled with their own states at various times.

The Peloponnesian War is not just a history of Greek warfare in the ancient era. It is a tale of human emotion, of human psychology. The Peloponnesian War shows a time when warfare was in flux, and the rules of war rapidly changed. It shows a shared humanity where people make decisions that would not have been palpable in times of peace.

The human element of the Peloponnesian War makes this narrative of the ancient worlds great war a tale that extends beyond just the clash of spears. It speaks to our shared experience, and in doing so teaches us something about ourselves. Kagan's The Peloponnesian War is an excellent history of the ancient worlds great war that is written to accessible to layman and scholar alike with plenty of background, maps and explanations to guide the reader along the trail of history.

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  • Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books, 2004.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 A Anders

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