Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins

Michael Scott enjoys an engaging survey of a mighty clash between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC

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Reviewed by: Michael Scott
Author: JE Lendon
Publisher: Basic Books
Price (RRP): £25

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This is a commendable book on several fronts. American historian JE Lendon picks apart the amorphous mass that is ‘the Peloponnesian War’ and reminds us of the important constituent parts of that on-going conflict, their different emphases, objectives and outcomes.

He seeks to marry the well-trodden discipline of military history, in which tactics, battles and weaponry are the focus, with the now inescapably important discipline of cultural history, where the focus is on the ancients’ world view.

The purpose, as Lendon says poetically, is “to tell Thucydides’s story as if it were told by Herodotus”. Such a twinning of military and cultural history produces a well-rounded account of a crucial period of ancient history.

Lendon begins far before the First Peloponnesian War, with portraits of Athens and Sparta, before moving on to the impact of the Persian wars in the early part of the fifth century BC as a way into a lengthy explanation of the growing rivalry between Athens and Sparta.
The book then uses this cultural framework to explain not only how the war broke out, but also its strategies, methods and goals.

The importance of this approach, for Lendon, is that it stops us thinking about this war as a battle motivated simply by economics or strategic power-play.

Set within an ancient Greek world view, the First Peloponnesian War becomes a story of the all-pervading Greek social concepts of honour, revenge and humiliation – crucial social constructs stretching back to the time of the Iliad, the epic poem that lends its (paraphrased) opening lines as Lendon’s title.

The vivid, well-paced and engaging historical analysis is supported by a full complement of footnotes and extended bibliography. More importantly, Lendon also provides a chronology of events (with a good deal of openness about the ambiguity of certain dates), a glossary of important places, people and of the untranslatable, and yet crucial, Greek cultural terms that are so important to his narrative. Coupled with this is a short section of suggestions for further reading and a useful analysis of how to approach the ancient sources.

Within this, the book gives just a few moments for pause.

Lendon’s appendix analysis of literary sources only extends to Thucydides and Diodorus of Sicily, and his consideration of inscriptions leads him to ‘rarely make much of’ the difficult-to-date inscriptions.

More serious however, is how, in his introduction, he is at pains to point out how foreign the ancient Greek world is, “a strange and alien past”, because, among other things, today’s trends “have weakened our grasp of the power of emotions in foreign affairs”. This is a claim I simply don’t buy (and Lendon seems to agree later in the book that there is more similarity than ever between the post-Cold War world and that of the Peloponnesian War).

Nor do I buy the jacket cover boast that this is “the first work of ancient Greek history for the post-Cold War generation”.

Despite these reservations, this is undoubtedly a good and important read: one which does not highlight the distance between the ancient and modern world, but which actually makes us understand better how close they are.  

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Dr Michael C Scott, University of Cambridge www.michaelcscott.com