BMCR 2006.03.40

A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War

, A war like no other : how the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House, 2005. xviii, 397 pages : maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 1400060958. $29.95.

Victor Hanson argues that the Peloponnesian War was “like no other” because of the number of lives lost in its battles. His book thus involves an extended body count, based on numbers Thucydides and other ancient sources report and on Hanson’s own conjectures. This highly numerate approach raises questions about the use of statistics from the ancient world, especially where the source is demonstrably prone to exaggeration. Hanson assumes, furthermore, that the ancients share modern ideas of numerical exactness. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to accept Hanson’s main thesis to enjoy this book. He writes a fluid, breezy prose, and almost every page has some arresting insight that readers may wish they had thought of themselves. Particularly notable are the many analogies Hanson draws between the Peloponnesian war and modern conflicts, particularly the American Civil War. Though readers might quibble with some of these connections, the overall effect is a refreshing opening up of the Peloponnesian war to the rest of history — ancient history often being an hermetic discipline. Hanson’s enthusiasm for ancient military history is palpable and infectious. One wonders whether he may create with this book (with its large, non-specialist publisher) a new cadre of Peloponnesian War buffs and re-enactors.

Hanson’s title adapts Thucydides’ words at the end of the Archaeology (1.23) that this war brought “unprecedented suffering to Hellas ( pathemata … tei Helladi hoia oukh hetera” (all trs. Warner). As he has done in other publications, Hanson follows the path of John Keegan’s Face of Battle (1976), emphasizing not only loss of life in this war but war’s special discomforts in the ancient world, the heaviness of metal armor in the hot sun, for example, and the need to urinate while waiting in armor before battle. Such gritty details, of course, are beneath the dignity of a Thucydides to mention, but Hanson readily supplies them.

In fact, Hanson tries to show that the Peloponnesian war was not only more terrible than previous wars but rivaled in destructiveness modern conflicts with notoriously high body counts. He cites especially the American Civil War. Thus, Hanson’s point could well be construed to be that the Peloponnesian war was not only worse than what preceded, but also worse than what followed: the most awful conflict of all time.

The architecture of Hansons’ book represents a blending of chronological and topical approaches. An initial chapter, Fear, outlines the reasons for the war and gives an overall outline and timeline of the book to come. There are several large initial sections or phases of the war. The first, on the Archidamian War (431-21), provides a diachronic account of events and also introduces some major topical themes, with chapters devoted to Fire (crop depredation), Disease (the plague), Terror (the new barbarism), Armor (the niceties of hoplite warfare and their breakdown), Walls (siegecraft and its severe limitations — plus some digressions on particular horrors), Horses (an opportunity to review the Sicilian disaster). Then comes the last phase, Ships, mostly about triremes and the climactic sea battles: Athens’ victory at Cynossema (411) and final defeat at Aegospotami (405).

Hanson’s first chapter, Fear, gives a foretaste of the kind of calculation he will use throughout the book. He compares the effect of the war on Athens to the effect of World War One on Britain, citing the post war ranting of Isocrates. As to the American Civil War, Union and Confederate troops lost 600,000 out of a population of 32 million or one in fifty lost. Athenian losses in Sicily alone, claims Hanson, were “even worse (1 lost for every 25 people)” in the Athenian empire (pp. 10-11). Actually, Hanson’s comparison should have been to the Confederacy alone (the loser in the war) with roughly 300,000 killed out of nine million or one in 27. A footnote, citing no authority, reports that the total population of the Athenian empire “perhaps numbered a million people.” Indeed, Hanson routinely uses words like “perhaps” and “probably” to qualify the large numbers he gives, but rarely explains how these numbers are arrived at — this in a book which is otherwise quite thoroughly footnoted. The figure for the Athenian empire’s population sounds low. The number of the Athenians lost in Sicily according to Hanson, “over 40,000 troops,” is also open to question. Thucydides says sententiously that the Athenian army finally retreating from Syracuse was “not less than forty thousand ( muriades. . . ouk elassous tessaron)” (7.75). The phrase occurs as the climax of a highly emotional and hyperbolic passage comparing the straggling troops to “the fleeing population of a city that has surrendered to its besiegers, and no small city at that.” Later Hanson says Athens sent “almost 40,000 allied soldiers to imprisonment and death trying to capture far-off Syracuse” (p. 17). Here the “almost” must reflect the bare admission that not all actually perished. But here and elsewhere Hanson assumes that any large casualty numbers Thucydides mentions are accurate and that the casualties died to the last man. Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable, whether the context is a modern political rally or a modern or ancient battle. Soldiers involved in combat are lead to overestimate their activities, and cannot give an exact assessment of the battle action, as both ancient and modern sources attest. N. Whately, “On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles,” JHS 84 (1964) 119-39, recounts an occasion in World War I when a group of British soldiers (“quite intelligent Territorials”) was asked, upon their return to trenches after a night patrol how many bombs they had thrown. The total reported was 21, but the actual number turned out to be 7. An officer reported on another occasion that he had fired “at least” 12 shots with his revolver and had had to reload. In fact, the man had fired only three shots and had not reloaded. Of a night battle in Sicily, Thucydides gives a brilliant description of the fog of war, displaying the frustration of an organized mind: “From this moment the Athenians fell into great disorder and did not know where to turn. Indeed it was hard to find out from either side exactly how things happened. In daylight those who take part in an action have a clearer idea of it, though even then they cannot see everything, and in fact no one knows more than what is going on around himself” (7.44).

The second chapter, Fire, covers some of the same ground as Hanson’s later-published and republished brilliant Stanford dissertation: War and Agriculture (2nd ed. 1998). There, Hanson convincingly argued that crop depredation was only a pretext for fighting, a mere gauntlet thrown down, rather than serious damage to the enemy. Here, Hanson appears to reverse himself, arguing that in the Peloponnesian war such crop destruction did cause hardship.

A word here is in order to characterize Thucydides’ general tendency to exaggerate and make unqualified statements, especially superlative statements about “his,” war, which he wants us to believe was “bigger and better” than any other. Thucydides argues in the Archaeology that the Trojan War was primitive and involved limited numbers. Early societies were unable to accumulate capital, and lack of money limited their ability to mount large enterprises. Even the Persian war only involved two sea battles and two land battles. Earlier societies lacked sufficient money to pay for wars. They possessed few walled cities to protect civilians in a long war. Another important index of military power ( dunamis) for Thucydides is the size of navies. Here, the important innovation of swift triremes in the fifth century gave the Peloponnesian war a substantial edge on its predecessors. Thucydides’ analysis of previous wars sets forth his philosophy of dunamis. To have it a polis must have money, walls, and ships, and human history has been the story of city-states acquiring more and more of these crucial advantages. He emphasizes positive growth of resources and makes no mention of the pathemata, the setbacks caused by previous wars. Thus, he is able to present his war as not only as a pinnacle of dunamis in a positive sense but as the immediate prelude to an ultimate Armageddon, in which all of the achievements of prior civilizations will be swept away. Thucydides, in other words, is here in a distinctively hyperbolic mode. A few sentences further on Thucydides remarkably includes earthquakes and eclipses of the sun among the pathemata of the war, hinting darkly that the war was attended by super-normal phenomena, a violation of his normal avoidance of any such suggestion (without a sneer of contempt for the superstitious).

Hanson’s Armor chapter offers a slightly different emphasis from his earlier excellent work on hoplites. Whereas Hanson had previously emphasized low casualties in hoplite battles, here he obviously does the opposite. Exactly why the elaborate rules for hoplite encounters should have been abandoned is not entirely clear. Thucydides may not be wrong that the war introduced a general loosening of morals. It is in any case to Thucydides alone that we owe the notion that 431 started the change in tactics.

While Hanson emphasizes the modern, horrific aspects of the Peloponnesian war, his approach overlooks the ways in which this war does in fact resemble other ancient wars more than modern ones. Modern wars are often about rival political, religious, or economic systems. In the case of the Peloponnesian war, however, it would be wrong to think that Athens wanted to convert Sparta to democracy. Hanson sometimes suggests that Athens tried to spread democracy through its empire, but regular payment of tribute seems rather to have been the chief issue. And of course Athens’ greatest military enemy, after Sparta, was democratic Syracuse. Ancient religion, moreover, was too fluid and syncretistic to be an issue in war among Greeks. There once was a tendency to seek economic motivations for ancient conflicts, but no attempts to connect ancient Greek wars directly to control of trade routes, access to natural resources, or other economic imperatives have been convincing. True, Thucydides himself does stress available excess capital as a mainstay of military power, but Sparta, with no coined money at all, defeated Athens with its Laureion silver mines.

Hanson’s pages bristle with statistics about the dollar equivalents of the cost of the Peloponnesian war. Such guesses, and they have to be guesses because Thucydides does not provide detailed balance sheets, need to be approached cautiously. By contrast a book like Austin and Vidal-Naquet’s Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece (1977) studiously avoids putting “dollar” values on ancient economies. Indeed, in the Hellenic barter economy, coined money was more for hoarding than purchasing. It is thus hard to extrapolate a few inscriptions about the expenses for restoration of temples into GNP and average daily wage estimates.

It is no wonder that Thucydides systematically gives us numbers in his book, chiefly numbers of soldiers and of triremes. Homer and Herodotus gave as many statistics, but Thucydides has a special reason for liking numbers. He has an obvious tendency to see the world in abstract terms, and numbers recommend themselves for their perfect abstraction. But can we trust Thucydides’ numbers? He makes no apologies for giving numbers, except to insert such small qualifications, e.g. “not less than,” as to give the impression that his information indeed rests upon certain knowledge. In contrast, Thucydides makes a considerable apology and explanation for his use of speeches, giving details of how he learned of speeches at which he was not present. It is fair to say, however, that despite controversy, most classicists have concluded that, despite his claims (perhaps honest claims) of having taken great pains to assure accuracy, the speeches in the History are 90% Thucydides. Ehrhardt, in “Speeches before Battle?” ( Historia 44 (1995) 120-121, goes further in denying the historicity of any encouragement speeches before battle in any historian. The speeches in Thucydides’ book are all written in the author’s own dense, antithetical style, and all reflect his own ideas and understanding of the war. Would it not be credulous to “believe in” Thucydides’ numbers while seeing in his speeches a — perhaps unconscious — attempt to manipulate the reader? C. Rubincam has closely studied numbers in Thucydides. In “Casualty Figures in the Battle Descriptions of Thucydides,” TAPA 121 (1991) 181-98 she critiques the notion of Thucydides as a tape recorder of numbers: “Many of his figures have the appearance of estimates by participants, rather than official counts” (198).

Why did Thucydides believe the war was so awful? Casualties played a role, but on a number of significant occasions it is the moral, not the physical effect of the war that he singles out for special obloquy. War, that famously harsh schoolmaster, teaches people to abandon their old customs. “To fit in with the change of events, words too had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as an act of thoughtless aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member. To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward. Any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character. … Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was legitimate self-defense” (3.82). Given the limitations of our knowledge and the unlikelihood of our ever gaining new facts, we must take Thucydides at his word.

Classicists will find much of interest in this book, even as they may disagree with it. The so-called common reader may sometimes be led astray by Hanson’s unsupported categorical statements, but this book will have done well if it attracts a new audience to Thucydides.1


1. The author if this review would like to thank Luigi Battezzato of Università del Piemonte Orientale for useful suggestions.