The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), fought between the Spartans and Athenians, featured battles on land, battles at sea, sieges, disease, treachery, destruction of land and cities, weakness and foolhardiness, wasted money and wasted lives. Thucydides, who both fought in the war and wrote its definitive history, called it “a war like no other,” but in time it has come to seem like a template for many wars yet to come.
Victor Davis Hanson took Thucydides’ description for the title of his study of the war. A War Like No Other (2005) is more about how the war was fought than why. This explains the somewhat unusual structure of the book—instead of being a straight chronological history of the war, the book is divided into sections that describe different tactics used throughout the war, such as “Fire,” about the Spartans attempt to raze the farmland of the Athenians; “Disease,” about the plague that struck down more Athenians than were killed in land battles; “Armor,” about open-field hoplite battles; “Walls,” about sieges; “Horses,” about the role of cavalry; and “Ships” about triremes and naval battles.
At first I found this a little disorienting, as I am not well-versed in the chronology of the war. However, Hanson includes a timeline in the book’s prologue and that helped when I felt lost. After a while, though, names and places started to become more familiar and it became easy enough just to look at specific events rather than worry about order. Besides, in a war as long and unwieldy as this one, one action did not often lead directly to another, so I suppose sequence isn’t really that important.
The details Hanson gives about the ways the war was fought are fascinating. Sparta’s initial idea, to destroy the Athenians crops in order to provoke them into open battle must have seemed like a good idea, but there were two problems. First, Athens, under the lead of Pericles, had plenty of money and supplies and therefore was content to lie back behind the Long Walls that protected the city and let Sparta hang itself. Second, the destruction of crops is much, much harder than it looks. What is ready for harvest in one area might not be only a few miles away. Wheat that’s too young won’t burn. Stalks that are too old might only flare up quickly and go out without igniting the hoped for inferno. Olive trees are hard to cut down and even harder to burn and worse, take root again quickly. (Hanson, who takes every opportunity to remind readers that he is “a farmer” when he is not a history professor, tried all this himself.)
Sieges were not much more effective. Hanson points out that the same societies that were able to carve intricate marble friezes and affix them to the roofs of buildings, struggled with how to efficiently tear down a wall and storm a city. This all reached a high point of absurdity in the Spartan siege of Plataea, with the Spartans building higher ramps and ladders outside the city and the Plataeans building taller and higher walls on the inside. Periodically the Plataeans would tunnel under the walls to collapse the ramps; in return, the Spartans threw brush, pitch, and sulfur over the walls and set it on fire. Unfortunately, it rained, the tactic failed, and the siege dragged on.
Hiding from the war outside didn’t help much, though. Inside the Long Walls of Athens, a mysterious plague struck, killing tens of thousands of Athenians, including Pericles. The disease not only greatly diminished the potential fighting forces of the Athenians, but, as Hanson points out, the epidemic led to a breakdown in society. Feeling that death was coming inescapably quickly, people were prompted to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. The proper treatment of the dead, previously so important to the Athenians, was abandoned as bodies piled up in the streets and in buildings. Hanson’s idea seems to be that even after the plague had passed, people found it hard to return to their previously more civilized ways. Criminal behavior and savagery became a normal part of city life rather than the exception, and this made later wartime atrocities more acceptable than they may have been in the past.
Though war in ancient Greece is often depicted as battle fought by hoplites, the heavily armed infantry, fighting in the tightly structured phalanx formation, Hanson points out that the Peloponnesian War featured few such open field battles. Hoplite battles were traditionally short affairs, where the squares advanced, attacked at high speed, then retreated. Hanson estimates that in the entire twenty-seven years of the war, there were only about four to five total hours of these type of battles.
This is part of a larger point that Hanson makes throughout the book: that the Peloponnesian War is important because it is a turning point in how wars were fought and thought about. Prior to this, wars had been relatively brief affairs, with only a few of these quick battles and retreats (the Persian War was an exception, but that was a war against foreigners, as opposed to this war which was Greek vs. Greek). Wars had rules—they were fought certain ways, each role was taken by members of different classes (the wealthiest as cavalry, the middle class as hoplites, the poorest as rowers), and niceties such as retrieval of the dead were observed. There was honor in such fighting. As the Peloponnesian War dragged on, though, these rules began to break down. Lightly armed fighters began to take the place of hoplites and broke down the phalanxes. Refusing to return the bodies of the dead became a form of fighting because of the psychological toll it took on the losing sides. Promises were broken, with civilians executed or enslaved. War was changing.
Probably my favorite part of the book was the description of fighting at sea, in the light, swift triremes, which were basically used as battering rams. One hundred and seventy rowers, set in three tiers on the ships, rowing in unison as quickly as possible towards enemy ships. The lucky ships survived somewhat intact to be repaired and fight another day. The losers broke apart and the rowers, hoplites, and crew were left to be killed, captured, or drowned. Rowing as part of a crew was a difficult skill to master and experienced rowers ers were highly valued. When a ship went down, the victors felt they had accomplished a great deal because now the enemy had 170 less rowers less to put to use. One Athenian general proposed that any captured rowers have their right hands cut off so they couldn’t be further employed (of course, to me this seems absurd; if rowers were so highly valued, why not put any captured rowers to work in your ships?). Trireme battles were supposedly exciting events, with lots of speed, noise, and action. The fights took place only a mile or two from shore, drawing spectators from the towns and soldiers from each army; the groups made a lively audience, raucously cheering on their sides as if they were fans at a big game (does anyone have the point spread on Sparta vs. Athens at the Great Harbor battle?).
The best parts of this book are these types of fine details about how the fighting worked, that give you a picture of what life was like for both the soldiers and the civilians caught up in it all. As previously mentioned, the structure seems a little offputting at first, but I came around to it and believe it was a good choice. I am also appreciative of the number of maps, the timeline in the introduction, the glossary of terms and places and the guide to important people (to keep you from mixing up Lamachus with Lysander and other potential disasters). The end notes are also comprehensive and interesting. These may seem like just accessories, but they’re very helpful to the general reader who is not an expert in a particular subject.
On to the negatives. Hanson is a clear writer who is good at explaining; it’s easy to imagine him lecturing in a classroom. But that's also part of the problem--he's a good explainer, but not much of a storyteller. The book lacks drama and there's no sense of any kind of narrative. You could argue that this is due to the thematic versus chronological structure, but I still think that within the different themes there is room to construct stories. Peculiarly, he writes in the beginning that Thucydides is a difficult writer that modern readers have trouble getting through, but the excerpts from Thucydides he includes are by far the most exciting and dramatic passages. I guess you could say he’s just picking out the best or most accessible parts, but even so, they’re still a good example of what you can do with this material.
Hanson also has an annoying habit of tossing very current catch phrases into his descriptions. He refers to “sleeper cells,” “coalition forces,” and “a global village.” He calls Thucydides an “embedded reporter.” I wish I was making that up, but I’m not. I guess Hanson thought that would help present-day readers connect more with the material, but the effect is more like that of a trying-to-be-cool high school teacher whose inept attempts to use slang leave the class collectively rolling their eyes.
Another problem is that there really aren’t any characters. There's no one who really comes to life, who you can follow throughout the book. The best candidate is probably Alcibiades--the sneaky Athenian general was nineteen at the beginning of the war, switched sides to Sparta midway through, then came back to Athens, fought ably for them, and finally was murdered at age 45, just short of the war's end. But these are all just events and dates, without much information about the man himself. I have a feeling that all of this is a problem of not having available material rather than neglect, so I can’t really fault Hanson too much. But I do find myself wishing for some other contemporary accounts, other voices from that time just to balance out Hanson and Thucydides’ points of views. Are there missing diaries anywhere out there? I can only hope so.
This book made me a think of a lot of questions about wars and how to conduct them. However, I have been somewhat dismayed by the lengths of some of my recent posts and had hoped to keep this one shorter. Unfortunately, I have failed miserably, which means I can’t really add anymore. So now you will just have to guess what I am thinking.