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Setting the war in its context

The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece - Jennifer T. Roberts

The Peloponnesian War is one of those subjects which, whenever a new book is published about it, begs the question, "do we really need another book on it?" This is understandable considering that 1) having been written about for nearly 2,500 years it has been one of the most worked-over events in human history, 2) the first of these books, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks as one of the foundational texts of Western historiography and in many respects will never be bettered, and 3) recently (i.e. within the past half-century) Donald Kagan wrote both a four-volume history of the war AND a single-volume condensed version which are difficult to top as a modern account for the conflict. With all of these books, is there space for another?

 

The answer, as Jennifer Roberts proves, is a clear yes. She demonstrates this by fitting the conflict within the context of Greek city-state relations in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By widening her focus, she shows the war not as the culmination of inter-city-state rivalry as it has sometimes been presented, but as one of a series of conflicts which neither began nor ended with the war itself. This is not a novel revelation (anybody who has more than a passing familiarity with Hellenic Greek history understands this), but by adopting this approach Roberts makes several more obscure points clearer, foremost among them being that Sparta was not so much the ultimate victor as merely temporarily ascendant among the city-states, with their defeat of Athens setting the stage for their own downfall a generation later.

Roberts's approach offers one of the best assessments of the impact of the war upon ancient Greece. While lacking the immediacy of the ancient sources or the thoroughness of Kagan, she draws upon both sources as well as others to provide a clear-eyed understanding of its true significance. It makes for an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand a conflict which became one of the great referential points of Western history, because while it may have been only one of many wars the Greeks fought with each other, it has endured in the popular imagination in ways which make it relevant even today.