THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece, by Nigel Bagnall
, May 21, 2005
Lessons from historyTHE PELOPONNESIAN WAR: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece
By Nigel Bagnall
London: Pimlico. Paperback RRP: $40.00To the modern ear, the Peloponnesian War is little more than the name of an ancient conflict. However, past generations of students used to study closely Thucydides' account of this fascinating conflict between the two major Greek city states, Athens and Sparta, which lasted from 431 to 404 BC.
This war was perhaps as significant in Greek history as World War I was in 20th-century history.
Bagnall's account begins with the Persian Wars. Against incredible odds, the Greek states were able to unite and, through the adoption of clear strategic aims, to defeat the superior aggressor.
The defeat of the Persians in 480/479 BC set the stage for Athens's growth. In the following decades, she embarked on an expansionist phase, largely through subordinating the Delian league of states to her control.
The major threat to Athens's hegemony was her rival, Sparta, which feared Athens's power. Skirmishes in the years preceding 431 resulted in Sparta issuing an ultimatum that directly challenged Athens.
Given the differing methods of fighting, a quick decisive victory was not possible and, instead, a stalemate ensued. Sparta, whose strength lay in its land-based army, attempted to subdue Athens during the annual fighting season by attacking and destroying farms in Attica.
The Athenians, however, merely retreated into the city of Athens. Impregnable walls protected not only the city but also the road from Athens to the port of Piraeus. Thus, the Spartan incursions were of limited impact.
As Athens had a powerful navy, she was able to import food. However, in the conflict's early years, it seems that Athens's strategy was largely a defensive one. It used its navy mainly to protect its supply lines and prevent subject states from revolting. Having an army inferior to Sparta's, the Athenians were able to do little more to Sparta than launch raids on the Peloponnesian coast.
The major engagements in the war therefore became actions in other theatres. Both sides achieved success in the first decade of the war. However, in 421 BC, exhausted by the struggle, they reached an uneasy peace, which was never fully adhered to by either side.
In 415, Athens launched a "make or break" campaign by attacking Sicily and cutting off the supply lines of Sparta and her allies (such as Corinth) in the hope of forcing Sparta to surrender.
Sparta responded by improving her naval capability. Her navy blockaded the Athenian navy and then defeated it in battle. However, it was not until the Spartan leader, Lysander, seized the initiative that he was able, with Persian support, to attack and cut off Athens's food supply, then blockade Athens and starve it into surrender.
Despite the objections of Sparta's allies, Sparta wisely offered a moderate peace settlement. While Athenian hegemony was dissolved, Sparta, fearing a power vacuum, did not critically weaken Athens.
In his epilogue, Bagnall concludes that the study of ancient wars, such as the Peloponnesian War, is still relevant. While the weaponry may have changed, many of the factors determining the outcome of a conflict are universal.
For example, he emphasises that Athens's critical mistake was its failure to establish a clear and consistent aim from the start and ensure that it was supported by the necessary resources.
Bagnall discusses these strategic aspects throughout his work, but at times his dry retelling of the events detracts from the narrative.