Our Imagination of Power

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The New York Sun

Of all the golden ages in history, the one enjoyed by Athens in the fifth century B.C. remains the most awe-inspiring. With a population of around 200,000 — equivalent to a Manhattan zip code or two — Athens produced men like Pericles and Socrates, created the tragic drama, built the Parthenon, instituted the West’s first democracy, and dominated the Greek world. Yet this moment of supremacy only lasted about 70 years, short enough for a single lifetime to encompass Athens’s rise and fall. Worse still, Athenian power was not simply lost; it was recklessly squandered, in the decades-long contest with Sparta known as the Peloponnesian War. After 404 B.C., when the city finally surrendered and agreed to tear down its fortifications, Athens would remain a cultural center — the age of Plato was just around the corner — but it would never again rule Greece.

The world has been studying the Peloponnesian War ever since, and not simply because of its momentous consequences for Western history. It continues to fascinate historians, above all, because it was the subject of the first work of modern historiography. Thucydides, an Athenian general who played a significant (and rather inglorious) role in the conflict, became the father of history-writing with his “The Peloponnesian War.” Unlike Herodotus, his greatest predecessor, Thucydides refused to base his account on colorful legends or venerable hearsay.

“With reference to the narrative of events,” he declares, “far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible.” At the same time, Thucydides provided his dramatis personae with speeches that, if not verbatim transcripts, brilliantly evoked the significance of the events they were living through. Pericles’s funeral oration, which boasts of the glories of Athenian democracy, and the Melian dialogue, in which the Athenians set out the iron laws of power politics, still help to shape our imagination of power.

The latest modern historian to drink from the Thucydidean spring is Sir Nigel Bagnall, whose study of another classic conflict, the Punic Wars, appeared in America last year. Bagnall, who died in 2002, ended his long military career as Chief of the General Staff of the British Army, and he brings to the study of ancient wars a unique breadth of modern experience. In “The Peloponnesian War” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 318 pages, $29.95), he does not set out to challenge the traditional story with any shocking new theories or evidence. Rather, he reads the ancient sources — Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch — with the eye of a professional soldier, and digests them into a clear, accessible survey.

The resulting book is an excellent introduction to the subject, helping to make sense of the incredibly complex military and diplomatic maneuvers that determined the war’s outcome. Bagnall divides the war into four major theaters: the Central Theater of mainland Greece, where Athens and Sparta began the war in 431 B.C.; the Western Theater of Sicily, where the Athenians mounted a disastrous expedition in 415 B.C.; the Eastern Theater of Asia Minor, where the mighty presence of the Persian Empire helped to alter the balance of forces in Sparta’s favor; and the largely peripheral Northern Theater of Thrace and Macedonia. Beginning the book with a catalog of the major cities and islands that took part in the war, Bagnall proceeds to narrate the military campaigns in considerable detail, turning from one theater to the next as events dictate.

The origins of the Peloponnesian War lay in a still earlier conflict, the Persian War, to which Bagnall devotes his first chapters. If the Peloponnesian War is a sordid tale of internecine struggle, the Persian War is easier to idealize — a desperate struggle for survival in which the whole Greek world joined together. At the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and then at the naval battle of Salamis 10 years later, the Greek coalition, led by Athens, fended off a massive Persian invasion, which could well have extinguished the first sparks of Western civilization. That triumph that gave Athens its dominant position in the Aegean, allowing her to unite many of the Greek cities in an alliance known as the Delian League.

In the following decades, however, as Athenian power and pretensions grew, the Delian League morphed into something more like an Athenian Empire. Instead of allies, the minor Greek states were treated like subjects, forced to pay tribute in money or ships. This set the stage for a conflict with Sparta, the other major Greek power, whose intense system of military training made her army as invincible on land as the Athenian fleet was at sea. After a series of proxy conflicts, the tension between Athens and Sparta broke into open war in 431 B.C., continuing without a decision until a truce was reached in 421 B.C.

Hostilities were reopened six years later, when the Athenians recklessly embarked on the invasion of Sicily. This adventure, urged on by the charismatic and unscrupulous politician Alcibiades, ended in a crushing defeat for Athens, which in turn gave Sparta an unprecedented opportunity. With Athens’s allies in open revolt, and the Persians brought into the conflict on the Spartan side, the Spartan admiral Lysander could finally achieve naval supremacy. When the Athenians finally surrendered, in 404 B.C., they feared they would end up like some of the cities they themselves had conquered — the men exterminated, the women and children sold into slavery, the temples razed to the ground. In the event, the Spartans agreed to moderate terms, allowing Athens to resume its cultural life, if never to regain its military supremacy.

In analyzing the campaigns and battles, blunders and treacheries, which constitute the Peloponnesian War, Bagnall always keeps in mind the three levels on which every war is fought. These are strategy, “the definition of strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy”; operations, “the planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives”; and tactics, “the planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim.” What doomed the Athenians, he concludes, was their confused strategic aims and their undisciplined operational approach. Unable to decide exactly what it wanted out of the war, or where to concentrate its forces, Athens could not capitalize on its ability to win battles. Bagnall’s experience of command, and his clear, unpretentious style, allow him to draw this and many other conclusions about the nature of warfare. Even today, he shows, the Peloponnesian War remains fascinatingly and alarmingly relevant.

The New York Sun

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