To me, it always used to seem like the Peloponnesian War was forgotten between the Greek-Persian wars in the first half of the fifth century BC and the rise of Macedonia in the late fourth century. I now realize that I was a little naive. The Greek Persian wars and Alexander are perennially in other forms of media, but for so many historians (not to mention philosophers and classicists) this period is both well covered by historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, and crucial for the lives and politics of philosophers like Socrates and Plato. It was also important in the mainstream culture of the time like the plays of Euripides and Sophocles.
It’s probably the sheer scale and complexity of the war that keeps it from greater status today. There are fascinating characters – Alcibiades, Pericles, Nicias, Lysander – but few of them are involved throughout the entire war. Like the Thirty Years War two millennia later, the Peloponnesian War is really multiple wars joined together between two large alliances or empires. Complicating things too is Greek politics – each state had factions of both aristocrats/oligarchs and democrats, and it’s not as easy as we may think nowadays: the most prominent democratic state Athens behaved in a more domineering way to members of its alliance than the oligarchic Sparta, turning a once voluntary alliance into an Empire. Local disputes too make things difficult, with rival cities sometimes joining one side or the other on issues closer to home.
With a potentially unfamiliar topic that covers many decades and many twists and turns, Kagan has a writing style that strikes a good balance on detail, but can be a little short of colour (he’s not as accessible as, for example, Tom Holland). It might even be a little dry, if the events he was covering weren’t quite so explosive. With the historical sources being largely Athenian, for the most part we do get the war from an Athenian perspective; but I would not say this makes it especially sympathetic towards the democracy. Their aggression towards smaller starts, their infighting and their hubris is clear and no apologies are made for it.
The war comes in roughly four phases: in the first, the legendary statesman Pericles operates a defensive strategy; in the second the Athenians go on the offensive before being beaten back and signing a peace treaty. In the third phase, Athens embarks on a farcical invasion of Sicily, leaving it embarrassed and depleted. In the final phase, Persia joins with Sparta and after some to-ing and fro-ing defeats Athens. Kagan is sceptical about Pericles’ strategy but admits that the offensive approach may have been worse. He plays up the self serving and tragicomedic elements of the decision to invade Sicily, but he also finds ways for Athens to escape until the very end. He looks critically at the sources and tries to delve read between the lines throughout.
The book isn’t short by any means; but it is an abridged version of his original four volume history written over a few decades. I think that gets quite heavy on the sources, and would be just as focused on Athens and the same time scale, but I found myself wanting more on the aftermath for Athens as they ran through a series of short term regimes that lashed out against perceived political enemies (including the execution of Socrates). I also found myself curious about the second rank of Greek cities – Thebes, Corinth, Argos. It may be a measure of how important the period was (and how well Kagan writes on it) that such a detailed book can leave me hungry for so much more information.