Review: A War Like No Other

A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Random House, 2006.

Summary: An account of the Peloponnesian War tracing the history, the politics, the strategies, key figures, battles, and how the war was fought.

The war went on for twenty-seven years toward the end of the fifth century BC. One of the first great works of history by Thucydides chronicled the battle. Both Athens and Sparta experienced horrendous losses culminating in the near total destruction of the once-great Athenian naval power at Aegospotami in 405.

Victor Davis Hanson, a noted classical scholar, renders an account both of the history of the war but also who fought it and how they fought. The two principle powers were quite different. Sparta was an oligarchy, Athens a democracy. Sparta had a more powerful land army. Athens was a sea power with a protected port and good walls allowing them to endure siege as well as project their power. To begin, Sparta invaded every year or two overland, ravaging the countryside but exhausting itself while the population of Attica sheltered in Athens. Very few Athenians died in battle but the city was eviscerated by plague resulting from crowded and unhygienic conditions. Meanwhile the Athenian navy raided the coastal cities of Sparta. They fought ten years to a draw ending with the temporary Peace of Nicias.

The peace lasted until 415 when Athens decided to mount an attack on Sicily, a Spartan ally, stirred up by charismatic general Alcibiades. A diffident landing followed by an inconclusive siege gave time for Syracuse to arm and be reinforced. In 413 they defeated Athens navy and then chased down the land forces for a crushing defeat. Still Athens rebuilt while Sparta, aided by Alcibiades, who had changed sides, and material help from Persia, finally built a navy to rival what was left of the Athenian navy. They fought a series of battles in Ionia culminating in the utter defeat at Aegospotami in 405, and Athens surrender to Sparta, led by Lysander.

War has always been gruesome. Hanson describes the particular gruesomeness of war in this time, whether it was destruction by fire or the ravages of disease, which took Athens singular leader Pericles. War unravels any war ethic. Hanson chronicles the killing of civilians and captives, especially in later stages of the war. He considers the hoplites and the vulnerabilities of their armor to thrusts to the groin and neck, and lightly armored fighters with spears or armors. Hoplites were mostly fitted to fight other hoplites, and often suffered relatively light losses. They need mounted forces to protect their flanks. The lack of horses was a key factor in the defeat at Syracuse. Siege warfare had not yet been mastered. Siege towers and catapults emerged after these wars. Mostly, they built siege walls, rams, and tried to penetrate walls and gates with rams.

Ultimately the war hinged on the trireme, the three-tiered rowing vessel. The impasse between the two powers ended when Alcibiades, rejected by Athens, persuaded the Spartans that only by becoming a sea power could they defeat Athens. The defeat at Syracuse pointed the way. The trireme depended mostly on slaves, up to 200 per vessel in three banks of rowers. A rammed trireme could quickly sink with the likely death of all. This happened to 170 of 180 triremes of the Athenians at Aegospotami.

The fall of Athens resulted from a variety of unforeseen errors. Pericles was an unparalleled leader, but with no able successor. Alcibiades was brilliant but never trusted, and often absent at key moments. The Sicilian venture spelled the beginning of the end, depleting both manpower and treasury. The Athenians ignored Alicibiades, once again on their side, exposing themselves to surprise attack at Aegospotami.

Hanson traces the errors that arise from both hubris and the “fog of war.” These wars, like many were filled with folly. The protracted conflict inevitably deteriorated to greater and greater brutality. Mediocre leadership cost the lives of thousands. The inadequacies of the technology of war led to innovation and more effective ways of killing. Alliances end up feeding the allies. Eventually both Persia and Thebes become the real threat.

It all began with the decision of Sparta to challenge the growth of Athenian power. A venture intended to last a few months turned into a 27 year conflict. Such are often the illusions of war. Hanson uses the lens of one protracted war to challenge us to ask the same questions about war in our own day.

One thought on “Review: A War Like No Other

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2021 | Bob on Books

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