The Plague of War
Jennifer T Roberts
Oxford University Press
432pp, 15 black-and-white illustrations and 11 maps
Hardback, £25 ($35)

All historians of the Peloponnesian War must work in the shadow of Thucydides. All recent historians must also work in the shadow of Donald Kagan's peerless four-volume history of the war, published between 1969 and 1987, then condensed into a one-volume abridgement in 2003. In The Plague of War, Jennifer T Roberts, a lifelong student of Thucydides and an erstwhile student of Kagan, presents a lucid one-volume summary of the long Hellenic catastrophe that began in 431 BC.

Kagan's condensation was a masterpiece of clarity. The virtues of Roberts' account are brevity and freshness. She covers the period from 431 BC to 404 BC in 300 pages, instead of Kagan's longer and
admittedly more detailed 500. Intriguingly, she also pursues the story after 404 BC.

Some 50 years before the start of the war, in 480 BC, Athens and Sparta had been allies in the successful defence against Persia. Victory sowed the seeds of rivalry. Athens expanded into an empire. In 459 BC, Athens allied with Megara, obtaining a foothold on the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese. Provoked, the Spartans invaded Attica. A peace held for 30 years, but tensions rose again, with an expansive, arrogant Athens and a wary, intransigent Sparta both at fault. The 'last straw', Roberts says, was an incident unmentioned by Thucydides. In 432 BC, Athens excluded the citizens of Megara, now allies of the Spartans, from trading with the Athenian empire. The Spartans declared war, not least because their fellow Peloponnesians demanded it.

Roberts supplies the traditional three-phase narration. For a decade, the Spartans besieged Athens, while the Athenians used their maritime superiority to sustain their city and attack the Peloponnese. The plague carried off Pericles and half the people of Athens, but the Athenians defeated the Spartan alliance in the field. After a six-year truce, in the 17th year of the war, the Athenians launched the disastrous 'Sicilian Expedition' under Alcibiades. In the third phase, the Peloponnesian League attacked Attica, until in 404 BC the Athenians sought terms.

The war had drawn in the entire Greek world. Atrocities and plagues had corroded the values of Greek civilisation, and the golden 5th century had come to a disastrous close with an oligarchic revolt in a half-starved Athens. The growth of democracy was permanently stunted, and the development of autocracy encouraged. The war haunted the Greeks and, Roberts writes, subsequent strategists, too.

War, Thucydides wrote, is the 'terrible teacher'. Every generation draws its own lessons. During the Korean War, Robert Campbell reminded readers of Life magazine that the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea 'also passes through Sicily, Euboea, and the northern suburbs of Athens'.

Cold warriors liked to compare authoritarian Sparta to the Soviet Union, and democratic Athens to the United States. But in the 1960s, critics of America's war in Vietnam were reminded of the Sicilian Expedition – a parallel also evoked by America's recent expeditions in the Middle East. Roberts, reflecting the strategic uncertainty of our time, recommends that we read on past the epochal date of 404 BC, and learn from Xenophon's account of what happened next.

In 403 BC, only months after Sparta's 'seeming victory', a democratic revolt overthrew the pro-Sparta tyrants at Athens. From 395 to 387 BC, the Spartans fought an Athenian-led alliance in the Corinthian War. The Persians funded the Athenians, changed sides when they looked like winning, and established themselves and Sparta as the arbiters of power in Greece. Finally, in 371 BC Thebes' crack infantry inflicted a 'stunning' defeat on Sparta at Leuctra.

In Roberts' extended view, the eclipse of both Athens and then Sparta by Thebes is a topical lesson in imperial over-extension and wasteful belligerence.
Dominic Green

 

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