Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2003

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (New York: Viking, 2003), 511 pp.

It was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. The same can be said about the Greek historian Thucydides and the study of international relations. As Robert Gilpin, author of many books on international relations theory, writes in War and Change in World Politics, “In honesty, one must inquire whether or not twentieth-century students of international relations know anything that Thucydides and his fifth-century B.C. compatriots did not know about the behavior of states.” He concludes that it is hard to find any contemporary issue of statecraft and foreign relations that does not have an antecedent in Thucydides’ magisterial account of the Peloponnesian War.

Indeed, the Peloponnesian War features everything one finds in modern international relations theory and practice: “international anarchy,” the condition in which political entities (poleis or cities) exist in a state of nature with one another; attempts by these poleis to improve their security by means of alliances or war; weak allies who drag stronger allies into war, balance of power considerations; and “security dilemmas” brought about by a lack of trust among the actors.

The seeds of conflict lay in the fifth-century B.C. competition between Athens and Sparta following their successful alliance against the Persians. Athens, a sea power and a democracy created the Delian League, an alliance of poleis around the Aegean Sea, to hold the Persians at bay. Sparta, a narrow oligarchy and a land power, created its own alliance of poleis on the Peloponnesus out of concern about Athenian power. The first Peloponnesian War broke out in 461 B.C., ending 16 years later with a truce that was intended to secure peace for 30 years.

The conflagration of the second Peloponnesian War, the subject of Thucydides’ history, can be traced to a spark on the periphery of Greek life, the city of Epidamnus, in which a civil war pitted democrats against oligarchs. The former appealed to Corcyra, which was the metropolis of Epidamnus. Refused help by Corcyra, the democrats of Epidamnus turned next to Corinth, which did help. This angered the Corcyreans, who sent a fleet to recapture their erstwhile colony, defeating the Corinthian fleet along the way. The Corinthians declared war on Corcyra, who then appealed for help to Athens. The Corinthians likewise sent representatives to Athens to dissuade them from helping the Corcyreans.

The Athenians did not wish to break the Thirty-Year Truce, but they were afraid that if Corinth, which was close to the Spartans, defeated Corcyra and took control of its large fleet, it would tip the balance of power against them. They tried to deter the Corinthians, but were drawn into a sea battle, which infuriated the Corinthians. Athens now feared that Corinth would cause problems in Potidaea, which indeed did revolt against Athens.

Dispatching a force to put down the revolt in Potidaea, Athens asked Sparta to remain neutral. But the Spartans were swayed by the arguments of Corinth and Megara and opted for war. In 431 B.C. Sparta attacked. The first phase of the war, often called the Archidamian War after one of the Spartan kings, saw Attica ravaged by Spartan forces, the outbreak of the plague in Athens and the death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles, but nonetheless ended in a stalemate. This was followed by the Peace of Nicias, a fragile truce that did not hold. The war resumed.

The Athenians embarked on a bold plan to conquer Sicily. The attempt ended in disaster. Meanwhile, the Spartans were shored up by the Great King of the Persians, who wished to recover the cities of the Aegean that Persia had once controlled. Athens was wracked by internal turmoil, and oligarchs seized power in 411 B.C. Eventually, the Spartans were able to defeat Athens in its own element, the sea. In 404 B.C., Athens was forced to sue for peace, agreeing to pull down the “long walls” from Athens to its port at Piraeus, which protected it from attack by Sparta’s land power.

It is not always easy for modern readers to understand the twists and turns of the Peloponnesian War. For one thing, Thucydides’ style of Greek is very difficult (a judgment to which I can personally attest), making any translation as much an interpretation as anything else. Secondly, it is often difficult to keep track of the action during the war. Where is Potidaea in relation to Plataea? How about Megara, Melos, Mytilene, and Miletus? Most editions of The Peloponnesian War don’t have enough maps. And finally, Thucydides’ account of the war stops some seven years before the war ended.

Over the past few years, two tools have appeared that make it much easier to understand the war. The first was the publication in 1996 of The Landmark Thucydides by The Free Press. Edited by Robert B. Strassler, it uses the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, but provides numerous aids for the reader, including excellent detailed maps, running headers, footnotes, and marginal notes. The second tool is Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War, his outstanding new one-volume history of the conflict.

There is certainly no one better to write such a book than Donald Kagan, who is Hillhouse Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. He is without doubt the foremost living expert on Thucydides, having written, among numerous other works of history, both ancient and modern, an acclaimed four-volume study of the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, the shadow of Thucydides looms over all his studies of war and peace—On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and, While America Sleeps, which he wrote with his son Frederick, a professor at The US Military Academy. Not one to succumb to passing fads, he gave a famous speech as dean of Yale College in 1991 to freshmen in which he called for putting Western Civilization “at the center of our studies.”

Professor Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War is designed for the non-professional reader but it can be read with profit by all. It is not merely a commentary on Thucydides, but a stand-alone history of the great war that focuses especially on the policies and strategies of the two belligerents. The Peloponnesian War is more than a condensation of Professor Kagan’s four-volume study of the war. It is a crisp narrative of the war that supplements Thucydides’ account with the work of other authors, such as Plutarch and the Greek dramatists, Of course, Professor Kagan relies heavily on Thucydides, as any historian of the Peloponnesian War must, but he doesn’t hesitate to take issue with his judgments.

In a 2002 interview with Yale Alumni Magazine, Professor Kagan outlined the two main truths that Thucydides teaches about international relations: that war, not peace, is the default position of the human species; and that nations fight for three reasons—fear, self-interest, and honor. While Thucydides cannot be reduced to a formula or a bumper-sticker, these pretty much get to the essence of the international realm as Thucydides sees it.

For instance, both Thucydides and Professor Kagan contend that the real cause of the war was Sparta’s fear of growing Athenian power. Sparta claimed to fight to free the Greeks from Athenian hegemony, but its conduct of the war and the decisions consistently reflected a calculation of advantage and interest.

Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War is important on many levels. Thucydides’ approach to history differs from that of his great predecessor, Herodotus. The latter uses “history” (historia) in its original sense of an “inquiry.” Thus Herodotus’ The Histories examines the “ways” of the various peoples with whom the Greeks were familiar, viz. Egyptians, Persians, Scythians, and the like. Thucydides’ use of history is closer to the modern understanding—a narrative account of a great event with a clear temporal aspect.

Nonetheless, Thucydides does pay a great deal of attention to the differing characters of Athens and Sparta. The former was a democracy and a sea power, the latter a military oligarchy whose army set the standard in Hellas. The Athenians were bold and enterprising. The great Athenian statesman Pericles describes the qualities of Athens in his justly-famous funeral oration: generosity without pettiness or calculation, generous gaiety and ease, courage in war not from compulsion and discipline but from generosity and a well-tempered love of the noble and the beautiful. Thucydides, himself an Athenian general who was sacked for his alleged failures at the battle of Amphipolis, judged the Athenians to be rash and mercurial after the death of Pericles.

The Spartans on the other hand possessed the qualities of piety and moderation, for which Thucydides praises them. But as noted above, the Spartans, despite their claim to act on the basis of dike (justice) and the divine law, were motivated in practice as much by interest or advantage as any other actor in the international arena.

The continuing relevance of Thucydides is captured by the story of how the Peloponnesian War came to be studied at my institution, the Naval War College. In 1972, Admiral Stansfield Turner became the President of the War College and immediately set out to reinvigorate academic rigor at the institution. One of the problems he confronted was how to teach about certain manifestations of the Cold War, especially Vietnam. The wounds inflicted by Vietnam on the officer-students were too fresh. Students were not able to discuss the war dispassionately. The result was a rancor that undermined the comity necessary for scholarly work.

To this end, Adm. Turner introduced the Peloponnesian War into the syllabus of the War College’s Strategy and Policy course. It made a great deal of sense in light of the fact that the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union greatly resembled that between Athens and Sparta. Students could now use Athens’ Sicilian Campaign as a surrogate for Vietnam. Although Vietnam is far enough removed in time that it can now be discussed directly, the great war between Athens and Sparta remains the archetypal case study for students at Newport.

A short review of The Peloponnesian War cannot do justice to Professor Kagan’s accomplishment here. He provides a clear narrative of the war, punctuated by insightful judgments about the action and actors. As previously noted, he does not hesitate to take issue with Thucydides. For instance, Thucydides blames the Athenian demos for the disaster in Sicily. It overreached in the first place and its propensity for blaming its generals for failures made it difficult for those generals to cut their losses. Thucydides praises the Nicias, Athenian general who led the effort against Sicily, and opines that “of all the Greeks…[Nicias] least deserved to meet with such misfortune because he had led his entire life in accordance with virtue.” On the contrary Professor Kagan places responsibility for the failure squarely on the shoulders of Nicias, whose failure of strategy and will, he argues, led to the disaster.

The consequences of the Peloponnesian War validated Thucydides observation that “war is a violent teacher.” At the end, the Greeks were less free than they had been at the beginning. A Spartan empire replaced that of the Athenians, and it moved to suppress democracy throughout the Greek world. But Sparta could not sustain its dominance. A mere three decades after the end of the Peloponnesian War, a Theban army under Epaminondas crushed the Spartans, but Greece was so weakened that it lay at the mercy of Persia and the Macedonians.

As Professor Kagan observes, “the thin tissue of civilization that allows human beings to live decently and achieve their higher possibilities was repeatedly ripped asunder, plunging the combatants into depths of cruelty and viciousness of which only human beings at their worst are capable. The declared purpose of the victors, the liberation of the Greeks, became a mockery even before the war ended, and the peace that followed was of short duration… If it was indeed the greatest of Greek wars, it was also the most terrible of Greek tragedies.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.