Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins
by J.E. Lendon, Basic Books, 2010, $35
For more than a generation Peloponnesian War studies have been an educational staple for diplomats and soldiers alike. Readers of Thucydides’ account of the “Great War of the Greeks” have discovered in this three-decade conflict many uncanny parallels to the modern era. This was particularly true during the Cold War, when many viewed the conflict between Athens and Sparta as a near-perfect analogy for the American-Soviet standoff. Now, however, comes J.E Lendon, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, to inform us that much of what we thought we knew about the Peloponnesian War is wrong.
In Song of Wrath Lendon presents a dramatically new construct of the war. Gone are many of the elements underpinning the realist view of the world. Replacing them is a new emphasis on how such concepts as honor and revenge drove Greek decision making at all levels of society and politics. Lendon presents Greek warfare as less the result of calculated strategic thinking than as a product of a never-ending quest for timé (“honor”). Whenever a city-state found its timé violated by some insult—an act of hybris—it had two choices: ignore it, thereby deeming the insulting city unworthy of notice, or seek revenge. Lendon dismisses Thucydides’ claim that the war was inevitable due to the growth of Athenian power and the “fear that this caused in Sparta.” Rather, he argues it was Athens’ quest for status and additional timé through repeated acts of hybris on Sparta that led to the war.
To support this radical interpretation, Lendon contends that Sparta had successfully dealt with rising Athenian power since the end of the Greco-Persian Wars. Moreover, it had little to fear from any further Athenian gains, as their spheres of influence did not overlap in any way that made Athens an existential threat to Sparta. What did concern Sparta were Athens’ claims to timé equal to Sparta’s own. In Sparta’s view its premier rank among other Greek city-states was not only its just due, but also the key to holding together its alliances and maintaining its grip on power in the Peloponnesus. Maintaining its rank among the other Greek city-states required the humbling of Athens. Accordingly, Athens’ refusal to submit to even the most meaningless Spartan demand, and thereby admit its inferiority, brought on war. Through this lens Lendon is able to explain almost every major decision of the war as a result of the cyclic interaction of timé, hybris and revenge— reducing strategic planning to a minor concern.
Remarkably, Lendon’s revisionist analysis works, for it explains many of the conflict’s seemingly senseless military decisions and operations that have long befuddled historians. Lendon may have gone a bit too far in his dismissal of active strategic thinking, but no student of the Peloponnesian War can ignore his often compelling arguments.
Just as important, Lendon’s clear writing style and ability to tell a story make Song of Wrath an easy and often fascinating read. The narrative is lively, informative and, best of all, provocative. Song of Wrath is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand ancient Greek warfare as the Greeks themselves understood it. This book is a must-read and propels Lendon into the front rank of the community of ancient warfare historians. Hopefully, he has increased his timé without anyone else seeing it as an act of hybris.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.