BMCR 2020.09.02

Sparta’s first Attic War: the grand strategy of classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C.

, Sparta's first Attic War: the grand strategy of classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 328 p.. ISBN9780300242614 $38.00.

The so-called pentekontaetia (‘fifty-year-period’) is a challenge for any Greek historian; a difficult period in which the structure of events in unclear and source material sparse and poor. However, Paul Rahe, in his third volume (p. 2) on The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, approaches the period undaunted seeking to situate the history of Sparta within the concept of ‘grand strategy’. With previous volumes on the Persian Wars and Spartan domestic history, this volume covers the settlement after the Persian Wars down to the Thirty Years Peace. As I will outline, the book is something of a traditionalist outlier in the field of Spartan studies and there are significant critical reservations which should temper the book’s fluid reconstruction of this difficult period.

The work is structured chronologically; Part I (‘Yokefellows’) discusses the conclusion of the Persian Wars with sub-sections on the inter-polis settlement of Greece, the dynamics of the Persian Empire, and the changing situation around the time of the Battle of Eurymedon. Part II (‘Yokefellows No More’) discusses the events of the ‘First Peloponnesian War’ and the settlement of the Thirty Years’ Peace. Primarily reliant on the available literary testimony, occasional reference is made to epigraphy and topography (such as Pikoulas’ work on the Laconian road network, pp. 103-5). Rahe’s aim is to understand ‘the grand strategy pursued by the Lacedaemonians, the logic underpinning it, and the principle challenge to which, in this period, it was exposed’. (p. 4). The term ‘grand strategy’ is taken from J. F. C. Fuller’s The Reformation of War (1923) and refers to the twin consideration of military and economic resources and of ‘the moral characteristics of his [i.e. the grand strategist’s] countrymen’, which here refers to institutions, history, and social customs (p. 6). Whilst this term is taken to describe the totality of historical societies, grand strategy is most easily understood by its advocates in the person of the ‘grand strategist’, a term which seems to be strongly identified with the historical ‘Great Man’.[1] As Rahe himself writes ‘the great statesmen of the past…were all grand strategists’ (p. 7). There is therefore a certain circularity in Rahe’s approach; the applicability of ‘grand strategy’ lies in the ease with which it describes the actions of ‘great men’. This is not so much a positive argument for its use but rather a blunt assertion of its credulity. In truth, though sufficiently described in the introduction, the concept of ‘grand strategy’ does not form a meaningful part of the foregoing discussion.[2] The development of a ‘grand strategy’ appears to necessitate a much larger political apparatus than ever existed in any Greek polis, ethnos, or koinon, and ancient polities seem to have been fundamentally reactive. Rahe does not demonstrate any specific cases in which poleis demonstrated any policy foresight beyond reacting to events or very general aims and goals (e.g. such as ‘Cimonian’ policy as described at Plut. Cim. 16.10 = Ion of Chios, FGrH 392 F14). However, aside from the notion of ‘grand strategy’ there are other critical reservations around the approach adopted.

First, as noted already, the book is primarily based on literary evidence with occasional reference to supporting material. The author’s familiarity with the sources cannot be faulted, yet the approach may be too optimistic for some. Since its publication, Spartan scholarship has been informed to a lesser or greater extent by François Ollier’s two-volume work Le mirage Spartiate, in which he first described the intense ideological manipulation involved in understanding Spartan history. This sort of ideological production is situated not just in Athenian and other Greek authors writing about Sparta, but also deliberate Spartan engagement with this manipulation (as with their politeia).[3] Rahe’s approach is more conventional, and makes liberal use of Hellenistic and Roman evidence (such as Plutarch’s Lives) which has been received much more critically in other quarters.[4] This inclusion is based on a simple assertion of a source’s trustworthiness, as when the author writes ‘there is every reason to suppose that Plutarch knew what he was talking about’ (p. 132, cf. p. 138; p. 165). This degree of optimism should be questioned especially when applied to more dubious material, such as the ‘Letters of Themistocles’ (p. 108); it perhaps tests the limits of credulity to think that this epistolary collection (dated to the second or third century AD) provides any genuine reflection of interpersonal politics in the mid-fifth century. The author sees the literary evidence as faithful reportage which is easy to cohere into a chronologically fluid account with limited appreciation of literary context. Considering the narrative structure of Rahe’s work this is perhaps understandable, yet some absences are somewhat surprising. There is for example no extended discussion of the structure and purpose of Thucydides’ pentekontaetia, despite being the main (and an exceptionally challenging) source for the period under discussion. It is surely uncontroversial to suggest that one’s appreciation of the ‘inter-war’ period is dependent upon one’s understanding of the narrative structure and purpose of this Thucydidean passage. What is left omitted and what is emphasised? To what extent might we, as historians, be reproducing the agenda and interests of our ancient sources? How do later sources, such as the Themistoclean Letters, relate to or rely upon Thucydides’ account?

Second, despite the title, the Spartan perspective is somewhat lost. The author’s intention is ‘to reenvisage Greek history from a Spartan perspective’ (p. 5) through an appreciation of Spartan ‘grand strategy’ in part through the understanding of competing strategies in Athens, Corinth, Argos, and Persia (p. 7). However, significant attention is given over to the individual careers of Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles, as well as the domestic situation in other poleis, especially Athens (e.g. ‘Periclean’ programs in Athens, pp. 202-16). The risk of such an approach is that rather than clarifying Spartan aims it may simply dilute the issue, and certainly falls well short of a purely Spartan perspective. The focus on ‘great men’ as outlined above also undermines this aim, for in Rahe’s schema the ‘grand strategy can only be formulated by the ‘grand strategist’, who ‘approached the question of war and peace from a broad perspective…and it is this that explains the consistency and coherence of these polities’ conduct in the intercommunal arena’ (p. 7).[5] Even when significant attention is devoted to the Spartan regent Pausanias (based largely on Thuc. 1.128-138), one might validly question the extent to which this exceptional career is reflective of wider Spartan aims and goals. Furthermore, aspects of the period which can be less easily cohered into an individualistic model of history are minimised. The Spartan intervention in Doris, for example, is interpreted by Rahe as an excuse for more extensive strategic engagement in Phocis and Boeotia (pp. 164-65), whilst he briefly acknowledges that it was Doris which afforded Sparta voting rights in the Delphic Amphictyony (p. 163). Yet considering the outbreak of the Second Sacred War (c. 458/7) a few years later, fought over influence at Delphi, it would have been judicious perhaps to point towards this alternative model.[6] Indeed, the timeless strategic logic with which Rahe analyses ancient polities understates the extent to which Greek communities were motivated by wildly different concerns. In short, what seems to emerge is a general and oddly traditional history of early Classical Greece with a tendency towards Athenocentrism.

Finally, the audience of the book is somewhat unclear. Rahe clearly sees ‘grand strategy’ as a useful way of interpreting both Spartan and Greek history. However, all of the primary source references and secondary literature are confined to the book’s extensive endnotes (pp. 237-285), which will no doubt be frustrating to the specialist. The prose style and narrative fluidity of the work also seems to point towards a more general audience, though Rahe is by no means consistent in his tone. Greek terms regularly appear transliterated but without explanation, leaving the reader to infer their meaning from context (pp. 31, 40-1, 131). That said, to any reader the book’s bibliography and exhaustive primary references will be a valuable resource. The book is proof-read and formatted to a high standard and there are very few if any typographical errors. However, the retention of gendered pronouns for polis toponyms, though defended by the author (p. 7), will no doubt be jarring to some readers.


[1] E. Luttwak (1976), The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third (Baltimore); though Luttwak’s formulation of the term appears less individualistic, he still allots an important position to the person of the Emperor.

[2] For a defence of ‘grand strategy’ in the Roman imperial context, see K. Kagan (2006), ‘Redefining Roman Grand Strategy’. Journal of Military History 70 (2): 333-362.

[3] For this issue see S. Hodkinson (2005), ‘The Imaginary Spartan Politeia’, in The Imaginary Polis, Symposium, January 7-10 2004, edited by M. H. Hansen, 222-281 (Copenhagen); D. Tober (2010), ‘Politeia and Local Spartan History’. Historia 59 (4): 412-431.

[4] See N. M. Kenell (1995), The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

[5] For a refreshing tonic to this sort of interpretation, and an argument that the concept of a ‘great man’ is itself rooted in Greek political discourse, see S. Brown Ferrario (2014), Historical Agency and the ‘Great Man’ in Classical Greece (Cambridge).

[6] See also studies which have suggested that Greek warfare was a fundamentally sacred enterprise, e.g. W. R. Connor (1988), ‘Early Greek Land Warfare as Symbolic Expression’. Past & Present 119 (1): 3-29; H. van Wees (2004), Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (London).