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For three decades in the fifth century b.c. the ancient world was torn apart bya conflict that was as dramatic, divisive, and destructive as the world wars of the twentieth century: the Peloponnesian War. Donald Kagan, one of the world’s most respected classical, political, and military historians, here presents a new account of this vicious war of Greek against Greek, Athenian against Spartan. The Peloponnesian War is a magisterial work of history written for general readers, offering a fresh examination of a pivotal moment in Western civilization. With a lively, readable narrative that conveys a richly
detailed portrait of a vanished world while honoring its timeless relevance, The Peloponnesian War is a chronicle of the rise and fall of a great empire and of a dark time whose lessons still resonate today.

Review

"The best account [of the Peloponnesian War] now available." — Los Angeles Times Book Review

"A fresh, clear and fast-moving account... for general readers." —The New York Times Book Review

"Drawing on incomparable knowledge as a classicist, international relations theorist and military historian, Donald Kagan... has devoted a single volume to guiding us through that epic of miscalculation, hubris and strategic overreach, supplyingsupplemental observations and correctives to Thucydides’ classic History of the Peloponnesian War." —The Washington Post

About the Author

Donald Kagan is Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. His four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War is the leading scholarly work on the subject. He is also the author of many books on ancient and modern topics.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

INTRODUCTION

For almost three decades at the end of the fifth century b.c. the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance in a terrible war that changed the Greek world and its civilization forever. Only a half-century before its outbreak the united Greeks, led by Sparta and Athens, had fought off an assault by the mighty Persian Empire, preserving their independence by driving Persia''s armies and navies out of Europe and recovering the Greek cities on the coasts of Asia Minor from its grasp.

This astonishing victory opened a proud era of growth, prosperity, and confidence in Greece. The Athenians, especially, flourished, increasing in population and establishing an empire that brought them wealth and glory. Their young democracy came to maturity, bringing political participation, opportunity, and political power even to the lowest class of citizens, and their novel constitution went on to take root in other Greek cities. It was a time of extraordinary cultural achievement, as well, probably unmatched in originality and richness in all of human history. Dramatic poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes raised tragedy and comedy to a level never surpassed. The architects and sculptors who created the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, at Olympia, and all over the Greek world powerfully influenced the course of Western art and still do so today. Natural philosophers like Anaxagoras and Democritus used unaided human reason to seek an understanding of the physical world, and such pioneers of moral and political philosophy as Protagoras and Socrates did the same in the realm of human affairs. Hippocrates and his school made great advances in medical science, and Herodotus invented historiography as we understand it today.

The Peloponnesian War not only brought this remarkable period to an end, but was recognized as a critical turning point even by those who fought it. The great historian Thucydides tells us that he undertook his history as the war began,

in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before, inferring this from the fact that both powers were then at their best in preparedness for war in every way, and seeing the rest of the Hellenic people taking sides with one side or the other, some at once, others planning to do so. For this was the greatest upheaval that had ever shaken the Hellenes, extending also to some part of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of mankind. (1.1.2)1

From the perspective of the fifth-century Greeks the Peloponnesian War was legitimately perceived as a world war, causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside. It also reversed the tendency toward the growth of democracy. When Athens was powerful and successful, its democratic constitution had a magnetic effect on other states, but its defeat was decisive in the political development of Greece, sending it in the direction of oligarchy.

The Peloponnesian War was also a conflict of unprecedented brutality, violating even the harsh code that had previously governed Greek warfare and breaking through the thin line that separates civilization from savagery. Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance increased as the fighting dragged on, resulting in a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents; throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure; and hurling them into the sea to drown. Bands of marauders murdered innocent children. Entire cities were destroyed, their men killed, their women and children sold as slaves. On the island of Corcyra, now called Corfu, the victorious faction in a civil war brought on by the larger struggle butchered their fellow citizens for a full week: "Sons were killed by their father, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it" (3.81.2-5).

As the violence spread it brought a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life. The meanings of words changed to suit the bellicosity: "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness." Religion lost its restraining power, "but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation." Truth and honor disappeared, "and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow" (3.82.1, 8; 3.83.1). Such was the conflict that inspired Thucydides'' mordant observations on the character of war as "a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances" (3.82.2).

Although the Peloponnesian War ended more than twenty-four hundred years ago it has continued to fascinate readers of every subsequent age. Writers have used it to illuminate the First World War, most frequently to help explain its causes, but its greatest influence as an analytical tool may have come during the Cold War, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, and which likewise witnessed a world divided into two great power blocs, each under a powerful leader. Generals, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars alike have compared the conditions that led to the Greek war with the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

But the story of what actually took place two and a half millennia in the past, and its deeper meaning, are ultimately not easy to grasp. By far the most important source of our knowledge is the history written by the war''s contemporary and participant Thucydides. His work is justly admired as a masterpiece of historical writing and hailed for its wisdom about the nature of war, international relations, and mass psychology. It has also come to be regarded as a foundation stone of historical method and political philosophy. It is not, however, completely satisfactory as a chronicle of the war and all that the war can teach us. Its most obvious shortcoming is that it is incomplete, stopping in midsentence seven years before the war''s end. For an account of the final part of the conflict we must rely on writers of much less talent and with little or no direct knowledge of events. At the very least, a modern treatment of accessible scope is needed to make sense of the conclusion of the war.

But even the period treated by Thucydides requires illumination if the modern reader is to have the fullest understanding of its military, political, and social complexities. The works of other ancient writers and contemporary inscriptions discovered and studied in the last two centuries have filled gaps and have sometimes raised questions about the story as Thucydides tells it. Finally, any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself. His was an extraordinary and original mind, and more than any other historian in antiquity he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity. We must not forget, however, that he was also a human being with human emotions and foibles. In the original Greek his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is by necessity an interpretation. The very fact that he was a participant in the events, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that must be prudently evaluated. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be as limiting as accepting without question Winston Churchill''s histories and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so important a role.

In this book I attempt a new history of the Peloponnesian War designed to meet the needs of readers in the twenty-first century. It is based on the scholarship employed in my four volumes on the war aimed chiefly at a scholarly audience,2 but my goal here is a readable narrative in a single volume to be read by the general reader for pleasure and to gain the wisdom that so many have sought in studying this war. I have avoided making comparisons between events in it and those in later history, although many leap to mind, in the hope that an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

I undertake this project after so many years because I believe, more than ever, that the story of the Peloponnesian War is a powerful tale that may be read as an extraordinary human tragedy, recounting the rise and fall of a great empire, the clash between two very different societies and ways of life, the interplay of intelligence and chance in human affairs, and the role of brilliantly gifted individuals, as well as masses of people in determining the course of events while subject to the limitations imposed upon them by nature, by fortune, and by one another. I hope to demonstrate, also, that a study of the Peloponnesian War is a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife, and about the potentialities of leadership and the limits within which it must inevitably operate.

1Adapted from the translation of Richard Crawley (Modern Library, New York, 1951). Throughout, references are to Thucydides'' history of the Peloponnesian War unless otherwise indicated. The numbers refer to the traditional divisions by book, chapter, and section.
2These have been published by the Cornell University Press. Their titles are The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1969), The Archidamian War (1974), The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (1981), and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (1987).

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John P. Jones III
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
From a fuzzy metaphor to the stark and agonizing reality…
Reviewed in the United States on February 24, 2017
Soldiers of Salamis is a novel by Javier Cercas. The title conveys a central theme. The Battle of Salamis, between the Greek and Persian navies, took place in 480 BC. To all too many of today’s Spaniards, the events of their own Civil War, of which a few... See more
Soldiers of Salamis is a novel by Javier Cercas. The title conveys a central theme. The Battle of Salamis, between the Greek and Persian navies, took place in 480 BC. To all too many of today’s Spaniards, the events of their own Civil War, of which a few participants are still living, are as remote as those that occurred at Salamis. The Peloponnesian War commenced a half century after the Battle of Salamis. It would also be a Civil War, Greek upon Greek. It was a war that I knew little about, but would feel comfortable using as a metaphor for wars of long ago, even though some of the participants of those wars were still living. I knew that it was a war between Athens and Sparta, but I was not even sure who won. (And how many Americans know who won the Spanish Civil War?)

Donald Kagan’s book (finally!) ended the darkness of not knowing about one of the best documented of ancient conflicts, and a prototype for so many subsequent ones. He has produced a very well-written dense, scholarly work that relies on several ancient texts, most notably one written by a participant, Thucydides. He brings a modern sense of judgment to the historical record, balancing what is written with the most likely scenarios possible, based on his overall knowledge of this time period. There are 29 excellent maps, spaced appropriately throughout the book, that provide the visual basis for understanding the narrative of the battles, and geopolitical landscape.

Athens and Sparta. A long term rivalry. Two rather different systems of government, with the Athenians famously having a democratic form. Both had united to beat the Persians, a half century earlier. Neither really wanted war, fearful of the expense and consequences. But entangling alliances, and some “damnable conflict in the Balkans” which were the motive forces that commenced the First World War were operative in commencing the Peloponnesian one also. Athens was the naval superpower of the time, dominating (in general) the sea. Sparta was the land power, and could simple march into the Athenian territory of Attica at the beginning of the war, and start devastating their farms and agriculture.

The war raged over the entirety of modern day Greece, the islands in the Aegean Sea, the western coast of modern day Turkey, including the two straits leading to the Black Sea, as well as the coast of southern Italy and Sicily. The war would last for almost three decades, with one significant truce of several years that was frequently violated. Athens had its sea-based empire; Sparta had numerous land-based allies, such as Corinth and Thebes. Athens and Sparta both experienced revolts in their empires. Cities would change sides. Each side also experienced class conflicts, essentially the eternal ones, between the elites and the plebs. And naturally the elites themselves had many a conflict, as egos jockeyed for power. Most impressively, somehow Donald Kagan makes these complex events of almost two and a half millennium ago understandable to the modern reader, by identifying five or ten key causative factors to significant events, and then providing balanced, reasonable judgments.

A small sampling of what I learned. The fighting in Sicily was a disaster for Athens. It was initiated by a bluff that was called; the Athenian leader did NOT want to go there… thought he would overestimate what was required, and his bluff was called, not once, but twice, when he asked for reinforcement. The defeat in Sicily should have been the KO punch for Athens, but the war dragged on for another decade. Both sides ran to their former adversary, the Persian Empire, and sought aid and an alliance; rather amazing for two city-states proclaiming the importance of Greek independence. Alcibiades was one slippery character. He was Athenian, went over to the side of Sparta, cuckolded Sparta’s king, then ingratiated himself with Cyrus, the 17 year old son of King Darius of Persia, and made himself out to be the critical and decisive factor behind the great Athenian navel victory at Cyzicus. And as the dragged on, the savagery, brutality, and atrocities increased, which included the execution of their own generals and leaders.

And there was much that I did not learn, but certainly do not fault Kagan for it. He covered well enough complex material. How, for example, given the difficulty in transportation, and with only rudimentary hand-tools, and a population devastated by war and the plague, was Athens (as well as Sparta) able to build (and maintain) so many triremes. Athens was dependent on wheat from the Black Sea area. Where exactly, and what were the terms of trade. And why was Sparta not?

Finally, the time-worn adage that history is written by the winners appears NOT to be true about the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian, and they were the losers…at least for a while. 6-stars for Kagan’s excellent account.
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E. Montalban
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Better than fiction - Can''t wait for Kindle version
Reviewed in the United States on May 8, 2014
This book is amazing. The story underlying it is amazing, and the writing is superb - clear, flowing, and with appropriate detail and connections drawn. If you appreciate history you may be amazed at some of the events that are so epic, morally significant, and... See more
This book is amazing. The story underlying it is amazing, and the writing is superb - clear, flowing, and with appropriate detail and connections drawn.

If you appreciate history you may be amazed at some of the events that are so epic, morally significant, and poetic as to sound far-fetched. The plot is quite thick at times. If you really can only read non-stop action pulp fiction, you probably aren''t reading this review anyway, but this may come as close as you can get in non-fiction.

I wish someone would make a movie with the same sensibility, it would be an instant classic. I also wish this book would come out on Kindle so one could search and highlight it. There are a lot of classic elements to this story, in every sense of the word. It''s so good I want to read his four-volume treatment to see what I missed.
14 people found this helpful
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Howard Schulman
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An excellent overview of the war
Reviewed in the United States on November 29, 2010
It was a treat reading Donald Kagan''s book on the Peloponnesian War. As you may know, he had previously written a 4-book series on the war, each one focusing on a different phase of the war. This book was meant to be a one-book consolidation. The rub, for me, came in... See more
It was a treat reading Donald Kagan''s book on the Peloponnesian War. As you may know, he had previously written a 4-book series on the war, each one focusing on a different phase of the war. This book was meant to be a one-book consolidation. The rub, for me, came in deciding whether or not to read the 4 separate books that delve deeper or just satisfy myself with 500 pages on the topic and move on.

Kagan is one of the leading scholars on the war and writes extremely well. The book reads quickly and painlessly. I did feel slightly let down, however, because Kagan seems, in large part, to be simply retelling Thucydides, without scholarly inquiry or questioning.

I especially appreciated Fagan''s integration of quotes and information from Plutarch in the Thucydides'' section and wished there had been more, perhaps information on what the battle scenes look like today or more background information on the city-states involved or areas Thucydides'' account is deficient or contested. The post-Thucydides section at the end was more of a mish-mash of sources and quoted Xenophon''s Hellenica surprisingly infrequently.

If you''re not sure which book to read in order to learn about the Peloponnesian War, I would definitely read Kagan''s one book. If you''re interested in anything much more than the storyline, you may want to look into Kagan''s four books or other books or even try to slog through Thucydides (good luck!).
13 people found this helpful
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EP
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good read
Reviewed in the United States on February 5, 2019
I enjoyed this book as a history major, it was very good at the way the Athenians and Spartans go on about warfare, honestly to the modern sense it is insane. Gets into the political systems that influenced the war and the good and some really bad decisions made to lead to... See more
I enjoyed this book as a history major, it was very good at the way the Athenians and Spartans go on about warfare, honestly to the modern sense it is insane. Gets into the political systems that influenced the war and the good and some really bad decisions made to lead to the wars conclusion.
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Marco Antonio Abarca
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Tour de Force
Reviewed in the United States on January 18, 2010
Professor Donald Kagan built his reputation as his generation''s foremost scholar of Ancient Greece based upon his four volume history of the Peloponnesian War that was published between 1969-87. His friend John Hale of "Lords of the Sea" fame, convinced him to write a... See more
Professor Donald Kagan built his reputation as his generation''s foremost scholar of Ancient Greece based upon his four volume history of the Peloponnesian War that was published between 1969-87. His friend John Hale of "Lords of the Sea" fame, convinced him to write a single volume history of the Peloponnesian War for non-specialists. The resulting book "The Peloponnesian War" has become a modern classic. Kagan''s book has become the standard text of this conflict and it will have to be an extraordinary book that displaces it from this position.

"The Peloponnesian War" is the very model of a classic work. Donald Kagan is a gifted writer with the narrative gift to bring alive a 2,400 year old war. However, it takes more than good writing to make a classic book. It is the clearness of Kagan''s vision which sets this book apart. Through his close reading of the ancient texts, Kagan is able to fill in the historical blank spots. For over two thousand years, readers have been able to thrill over the exploits of Thucydides, Pericles, Alcibiades and Lysander. Kagan''s great contribution has been to make these great men more human by filling in the lost details. This is a great book and I highly recommend it.
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David
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A way to read Thucydides without reading Thucydides.
Reviewed in the United States on June 29, 2020
Not the most striking prose ever committed to paper, but the author does a good job of laying out the overall narrative and speculating (not too wildly) on the motivation of the prominent persons. Gets a tad mundane in spots; can read more like a book report on Thucydides.... See more
Not the most striking prose ever committed to paper, but the author does a good job of laying out the overall narrative and speculating (not too wildly) on the motivation of the prominent persons. Gets a tad mundane in spots; can read more like a book report on Thucydides. But overall, a solid read and probably the best way for a modern reader to access Thucydides without actually wading through his ancient tome.
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R. Williams
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Politics and War in the Ancient Aegean
Reviewed in the United States on February 26, 2014
This book provides a lot of maps of Greece, and you need them to keep up with the shifting politics and wars. It seems that politicians and military leaders never really have an accurate picture of what is going to happen when you go to war and the price you are going to... See more
This book provides a lot of maps of Greece, and you need them to keep up with the shifting politics and wars. It seems that politicians and military leaders never really have an accurate picture of what is going to happen when you go to war and the price you are going to pay. A good review of the decline and fall of Athens.
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J Zulu
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
For the Classicist and the lay person.
Reviewed in the United States on November 20, 2018
Kagan id''s a premier historian. This work is of seminal importance. Written for the historian and the lay person. You don''t have to be a classicist to appreciate this incredible work.
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Top reviews from other countries

Les
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Five Stars
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 3, 2017
enlightening
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Tim Stevens
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Superb
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 16, 2012
One of the best history books I''ve ever read. Clear, concise explanations of the causes, politics, military strategies, outcomes and consequences of the Peloponnesian conflict, the book is pitched just right for the interested student of ancient Greek warfare but without...See more
One of the best history books I''ve ever read. Clear, concise explanations of the causes, politics, military strategies, outcomes and consequences of the Peloponnesian conflict, the book is pitched just right for the interested student of ancient Greek warfare but without the requirement to be a military or historical scholar. Extremely enjoyable and informative.
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Dexter
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A must read
Reviewed in Canada on February 21, 2015
Riveting prose. There is a lack of casual reading for this period in Greek and world history and it is great to see Don Kagan bring his authoritative study of the war and the diplomacy around the polis of the period into a single narrative book. Students of modern...See more
Riveting prose. There is a lack of casual reading for this period in Greek and world history and it is great to see Don Kagan bring his authoritative study of the war and the diplomacy around the polis of the period into a single narrative book. Students of modern geopolitical wranglings would be wise to read this book as the lessons of the Peloponnesian war still applies to the era of proxy wars, spheres of influence and alliances.
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Political Econ Reader
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Quite good but weirdly divided on Thucydides
Reviewed in Germany on February 16, 2019
Obviously the product of a lifetime’s research, and useful as an overview of the conflict, but Kagan can’t seem to settle on a stable understanding of Thucydides’ objectivity/grasp of the facts/ relevance etc. There’s a lot of to & fro about Thucydides’ “revisionism” that...See more
Obviously the product of a lifetime’s research, and useful as an overview of the conflict, but Kagan can’t seem to settle on a stable understanding of Thucydides’ objectivity/grasp of the facts/ relevance etc. There’s a lot of to & fro about Thucydides’ “revisionism” that doesn’t add up to much. The book really soars however when Kagan turns his mind to the strategic thinking of the major players. Worth reading for that aspect alone I guess
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Mr. S. Garcia Camargo
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Entertaining
Reviewed in Canada on May 28, 2014
I bought this book after listening to Donald Kagan''s wonderful ancient greek history podcast on iTunes. This book is easy to read, never boring and quite complete. Donald Kagan is not shy about sharing his own insights and opinions about the war, much in Thucydides'' style...See more
I bought this book after listening to Donald Kagan''s wonderful ancient greek history podcast on iTunes. This book is easy to read, never boring and quite complete. Donald Kagan is not shy about sharing his own insights and opinions about the war, much in Thucydides'' style ;).
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