We look into history from motives of two kinds. There is curiosity about the past, what happened, who did what, and why; and there is the hope to understand the present, how to place and interpret our own times, experiences, and hopes for the future. The world of classical antiquity is one of the best instruments we have for both purposes. There is a good deal of evidence, much of it exceptionally interesting and sophisticated, for a world that existed and developed for more than a thousand years, and produced memorable works of art and literature. It is a world, as it happens, that is connected with our own by links much closer and more pervasive than those between us and, for example, ancient China (too far away from the West, and consequently in its formative period almost unknown to it).
Some have liked to dream of ancient Greece as a place of serenity and repose, with the “noble simplicity” that Winckelmann praised in Greek art; but the reality was very different. Between the ferociously independent city-states war was endemic, and defeat could mean the destruction of a city, the death of its fighting men, and the sale of its women and children into slavery. The greatest war in Greek history, between 431 and 404 BCE, was that between classical Athens and its empire on the one side and Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies on the other. Viewing it from the Athenian side, we call it the Peloponnesian War.
Athens was a democracy, the first in history. That portentous innovation had unleashed an explosion of energy. The city had acquired an empire, and it had become a magnet for artists and intellectuals. It could boast of being the home of the tragic poets, and of the comic poet Aristophanes, and of the philosopher Socrates and his disciple Plato, and of the supreme historian Thucydides, and of the unrivaled buildings and statues on the Acropolis.
In Sparta the Athenians faced a grimmer society which regularly expelled foreigners, and which prided itself on subordinating the individual to the state. The Spartan economy was based on the subjection to serfdom of a native Greek people, the Helots, on whom each group of annually elected magistrates, on taking office, formally declared war. The state existed permanently on the defensive. It had been a stranger, for a hundred years past, to literature and the arts. The great war dragged on for nearly thirty years. It proved disastrous for Greece, ruining its cities, bringing in an atmosphere of violent class hatred and unprecedented atrocities and massacres, and fatally setting back the arts not only of Greece but of the subsequent West.
Donald Kagan, of Yale, is the author of an extensive and widely praised four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, aimed at specialists. He has now condensed it into a narrative “for the non-professional reader.” That reader is offered a detailed account of the military history of the period. Leaning heavily, as he must, on Thucydides …