BMCR 2020.06.08

Plague of war: Athens, Sparta, and the struggle for ancient Greece

, Plague of war: Athens, Sparta, and the struggle for ancient Greece. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxviii, 416 p.. ISBN 9780190940881 $19.95 (pb).

Thucydides’ meditation on the Peloponnesian War and his innovative appeal to human nature to explain the ever-present condition of wars and conflicts has, since antiquity, mesmerized students and scholars of history alike. The book under review narrates these defining years in Western civilization described by Thucydides and is part of the series “Ancient Warfare and Civilization” which aims to explore the decisive events of the ancient world. The author, Jennifer T. Roberts, has previously published widely on Greek history,[1] and delivers in this study a tour de force through a century and a half, taking the reader from the Persian Wars to the Battle of Mantinea, allocating most of the chapters to treating the bitter struggle between Athens and Sparta in the last quarter of the fifth century. The question is whether we really need a new interpretation of a war so widely summarized and analyzed. The answer is a rather surprising yes.

The book consists of 21 chapters (including an introduction and epilogue), a timeline, a note on sources, a glossary, an index, 11 maps, 15 illustrations and a “cast of characters”. After a personal preface in which Roberts touches on both her parents’ participation in the Second World War and the modern relevance of the Peloponnesian War, she moves on to an introductory chapter where she presents Thucydides’ thesis on the inevitability of the war, i.e. the so-called ‘Thucydidean trap’, to which she will keep returning throughout the narrative. In chapters 1 and 2, Roberts situates the Peloponnesian War in its deeper historical, political and social context and quite cleverly uses Aristagoras’ request to the Greek mainland during the Ionian Revolt to introduce a conservative militaristic Sparta and a democratic naval Athens. By the end of the second chapter, we have journeyed through the Persian Wars, the Delian League and the Athenian Empire.

Chapter 3 discusses the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, beginning with Thucydides’ well-known statement that Athenian power and Spartan fear was the real cause. This is followed by a summary of the immediate causes, i.e. the Athenian involvement with Epidamnus, Corcyra, Potidaea and Corinth. Chapters 4 to 16 cover the actual war from 431 to 404. Roberts focuses on informed battle narratives and the tactical and strategical decisions, and occasionally brings in sections on cultural, philosophical and literary developments to supplement Thucydides. Especially noteworthy is Roberts’ treatment of the catastrophic Athenian expedition to Sicily, which stands out as one of the most intriguing and exciting discussions of the book. Over the course of two chapters, by closely following the superb narrative of Thucydides, Roberts shows how Athenian hubris started with hope and optimism but ended with sorrow and regret.

The expedition was the beginning of the end for Athens, which quickly found its democracy temporally overthrown by oligarchs, and we would then expect a narrative ending with the Athenian disaster at Aegospotami and the capitulation in 404. However, Roberts instead uses the final three chapters to describe the continuous conflicts between the Greeks down to the emergence of Philip II. Roberts shows that Sparta preferred to be feared rather than loved and that this approach created a new power in Boeotia that was to be the immediate cause of Sparta’s downfall. In the epilogue, Roberts concludes that these repeated armed conflicts created no winners, only losers, thus following the ending remark of Xenophon in Hellenica who found the untenable situation in 362 confusing and uncertain.

For several reasons, this book is a great read. First, Roberts alludes to the Thucydidean trap, i.e. that a rising power must clash with an established one, but argues that we should abandon any concept of determinism and instead stress the importance of chance, miscalculations and willful and uncontrollable allies (neither Sparta nor Athens wanted a war) as important factors that made the war fairly avoidable.

Second, Roberts argues that we should prolong the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Leuctra, thus regarding the years 431-371 as one long coherent military struggle that would eventually cause the downfall of not only Sparta but the entire Greek world. By not awarding the victory to Sparta and by including the Corinthian War, the King’s Peace, the Second Athenian Confederacy, the Rise of Thebes, and the battles of Leuctra and Mantinea in the same historical framework, Roberts argues that 404 was just a point in a continuum and that the Peloponnesian War in the same vein as the Second World War and the Cold War only led to further conflicts. Athens was therefore never really defeated, and Sparta was never wholly triumphant. Rather, it was, according to Roberts, the latter’s aggression in the aftermath of 404 that seriously weakened the Greeks and made it possible for Philip II to succeed at Chaeronea in 338.

Roberts’ alternate approach reminds us not to blindly follow Thucydides’ periodization, and by including thePentecontaetia and the 33 years after the Peloponnesian War, Roberts makes it easier for the reader to rethink the entire historical context and better judge the causes and consequences of the war. Nonetheless, most readers will still see the period from Archidamus’ annual invasions to the destruction of Athens’ long walls as a clearly defined and rounded military conflict, which makes it extremely important for Roberts to be even more precise on the specific rewards of this new periodization of the war. For example, if it is possible to rethink a well-established periodization set by Thucydides and Xenophon, why not push the narrative to 362 or 338? Also, even Roberts herself is not able to follow her approach consistently. She uses 14 chapters on the years 431-404 but only two chapters (18 and 19) on the subsequent years down to 371. If all the years belong to the same framework, as Roberts argues, one would also expect them to be equally prioritized. This inconsistency can also be seen on the final pages, where both Leuctra (p. 361: ‘the Peloponnesian War seemed, at last, to have ended’) and Cnidus (p. 367: ‘only now did the Peloponnesian War come to an end’) are considered the true end of the war and it is concluded that ‘the wars of the fourth century grew out of the Peloponnesian War’ (p. 368). Despite these rather mixed messages, Roberts is still to be applauded for spinning a well-known narrative in a new direction.

Third, Roberts manages to successfully interweave cultural events and milestones into the narrative as the story progresses. This includes, for example, the merits of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle, which are often placed in the end of a chapter to show how the war was reflected in contemporary tragedies, comedies or philosophical treatises (see e.g. pp. 297-319, where an entire chapter is devoted to the pre-Socratics, political thinking and the trial of Socrates, or pp. 346-354, on the schools of Isocrates, Plato and Aristotle). This approach ensures that the reader never gets tired of the bloodshed, as it slows down the narrative and it adds something more to the military narrative of Thucydides. One particular pleasure is how Roberts uses the plays of Aristophanes such as Peace (see pp. 157-9), Frogs (pp. 180-83) and Lysistrata (pp. 232-35) as a live commentary on the historical and political development of Athens while the chronological progressive military narrative proceeds.

No review is complete without some remarks on the less satisfactory elements. Roberts prefers in many chapters to paraphrase Thucydides extremely closely (see e.g. the affair at Pylos, pp. 121-128) and in such cases the student would be more rewarded by reading the primary sources directly. Her prioritization comes also at the expense of in-depth analysis of issues and problems related to the events and of deeper discussions of source-critical and historiographical issues, particularly those sources that form our basis after 411, i.e. Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus. In Roberts’ defense, there is an introductory note on the sources and she does include wider discussions of certain events, e.g. on the cause of the Athenian failure at Sicily (pp. 218-19) and the reasons why Sparta refused to destroy of the city of Athens in 404 (pp. 286-7). However, I would have preferred to have running comments on these issues placed in the text or in footnotes throughout the narrative, as seen, for example, in the way Roberts uses 16 lines in a footnote on the historiographical issues related to the number of Mytilenean deaths during their revolt in 428-7 (p. 107 n. 16).

To conclude, Roberts has written a clear and straightforward account of those formative events that created Greek supremacy but also crippled and ruined the Greek world. The chapters are clear, condensed and written with an engaging flow from start to finish. The way Roberts manages to spin the so-called ‘Thucydidean trap’ in her own favor, the prolongation of the Peloponnesian War to 371 to underline that war has no winners but only losers, and the interweaving of cultural landmarks to create an even broader framework, are but a few reasons why this book is recommendable. This book is for lay readers, students and academics seeking a tightly written account of the defining years of Greek history. The way the chapters are structured also means the book could be relevant in courses on Greek history, functioning as a textbook along with primary sources. Roberts is careful not to overwhelm the reader with too much information and begins each chapter with a brief synopsis indicating the essential events that will be covered. This helps the reader to navigate the numerous Greek names, city states and battles throughout but also underlines that the book may place itself between several types of readers: some lay readers will perhaps find it too comprehensive, some novices will likely need more historiographical analysis and experienced historians will have heard it all before. However, those seeking an enjoyable narrative based on Thucydides’ masterpiece will not be disappointed.


[1] E.g. Accountability in Athenian Government (Madison: 1982) and Athens on Trial: Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton: 1994).