April 13, 2011


The Wrath of Symbols: a review of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins by Ted Lendon (A review by James Carman, Wilson Quarterly)

He argues that the first 10 years of the Peloponnesian War are best understood not as a struggle between two mighty opponents for survival, but as an often petty contest over time, "which consisted of esteem by others and others' confirmation of one's lofty impression of one's own merits," with the rest of the Greek world occupying the twin roles of audience and judge. [...]

Lendon is a gifted storyteller and military historian. His Soldiers and Ghosts (2005) is a rewarding journey through classical warfare from the Trojan War to the Roman conquests, and the ancient battles he reenacts with his University of Virginia students are regular campus spectacles. In Song of Wrath, he deftly explains how battles could turn as much on misapprehensions and chance as on bravery and superior skill. This was especially true at Pylos and Sphacteria (425 BC), where Sparta suffered its most ignoble defeat and -- almost unthinkable! -- surrendered rather than fight to the death. Lendon writes that "after that Sparta was merely playing for a draw," which it achieved after besting the Athenians in several battles.

Although most histories of the Peloponnesian War encompass the intervening decade of uneasy peace that followed and Sparta's eventual defeat of Athens at the great sea battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, Lendon ends his history with the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC, when the Athenians were up. "The Athenians won both the war itself and, no less necessary in a war of symbols, the simultaneous war to define victory and defeat," he writes. In his view, the Athenians' subsequent doom -- including their devastating loss of more than 40,000 men who were killed or taken prisoner in a risky expedition to Sicily in 415-413 BC -- was brought on only when they "began to look around for some mighty deed they could perform that would raise their rank in the eyes of the Greeks."

Athens was not, of course, the last power that would overreach and sow the seeds of its own destruction, which is one reason why the world still seeks to draw lessons from this long-ago struggle. But today, Lendon says, the Peloponnesian War's most telling insights may be about "international actors whose aims and actions the contemporary West finds it hardest to understand and manage: the wrathful ones... who seek revenge for ancient slights."

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Posted by at April 13, 2011 5:46 AM

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