Monday, March 7, 2011


From Literary Review March 2011

Peter Jones reviews
SONG OF WRATH: The Peloponnesian War Begins,
by J.E. Lendon
(Basic Books 566pp £25)

The ‘Peloponnesian’ War (431-404 BC) was fought between two of the most powerful of ancient Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. In the summer of 424 BC, its contemporary historian, the Athenian Thucydides, recorded an Athenian assault on the town of Megara, a Spartan ally. It would have succeeded, had not the Spartan general Brasidas arrived. He was not allowed into the city, however, because ‘the Megarians were watching to see which side would win’. After some cavalry skirmishing, the two armies drew up for battle. Brasidas, on favourable ground, ‘did not have to run any risks ... and might win an unopposed victory.’ But neither side engaged. After a while the Athenians retreated, deciding that they ‘had achieved most of their objectives and did not want to run the risk of losing some of their best hoplites’, and Brasidas was at last welcomed into Megara.

It is with this story that Lendon begins his highly readable account of the first ten years of the Peloponnesian War down to the seven-year peace in 421 BC. Its purpose is to provide an example of the book’s thesis: that the war between Athens and Sparta was driven by—well, what? To read Thucydides’ account, one would naturally conclude ‘military self-interest’. Brasidas did not want to fight if he did not have to; the Athenians thought about it and decided it was not worth the candle. Who can blame them? The Spartans had the most fearsome land-army in the Greek world. So the Athenians came up with a baffling excuse about achieving their objectives and left. But this is not Lendon’s conclusion: he uses the incident to argue that it was honour that was at stake.

This strikes me as distinctly odd. If honour was indeed at stake, it is hard to see why the Athenians acted as they did: what on earth was honourable about slinking off? The fact that the Athenians justified their actions to themselves is neither here nor there. Honour is a matter, not of private or personal, but of public judgement, and if it was dishonourable to refuse battle, the Athenian view was irrelevant. Clearly, saving their skin came first. But there is another problem. Do we know how other Greeks viewed the Athenians’ retreat? The answer is ‘no’. They might well have thought it sensible. The Spartans were the most feared warriors of their day.

That is not to argue that Lendon is wrong in saying ancient Greeks put a very high value on ‘honour’. The Greek word, tîmê, means basically ‘evaluation’. For Homeric heroes it was the key to winning that immortal glory (kleos) that would result in their being remembered for ever. But it did not come at the price of one’s life. Only Romans and heroes of Germanic myth went in for suicidal gestures like that, unless one knew one’s time was up. The great exception is Achilles, who in the Iliad knows that, if he kills Trojan Hector (who killed his beloved Patroclus), he will die next. But that tells us everything about Achilles, nothing about other men.

Thucydides too is well aware of the importance of tîmê in Greek culture. But it is rare for him to highlight it; and when he does, it does not occur on its own as a definitive motive or explanation of events. In one important passage, for example, the Athenians explain that it was ‘fear most of all’, then tîmê and finally ‘self-interest’ that drove them to expand their empire. Tîmê, in other words, is just one of a number of reasons why men act as they do. When the Spartans sued for peace in 425 BC, they proposed an alliance, offering Athens virtually nothing but the chance to be equal with Sparta in tîmê. The Athenians rejected it. They had Sparta where they wanted it. Lendon argues that they were driven by the desire for even greater tîmê. But, to make a comparison, why does anyone want to win Wimbledon: the sheer pleasure of victory? Or of stuffing your opponent? The prize? Future earnings? Tîmê? How do you separate all this out? When the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan saw a chance for a maximum 147 clearance, he asked the referee if there was a prize for the feat. Informed there was not, he proceeded to clear the table, but not the final black (though he was eventually persuaded to sink it).

So the subject is not as cut and dried as Lendon often seems to make it. Nevertheless, he does admit that relations of tîmê between Greek states were not ‘neat and predictable’. Tîmê could not be measured precisely, not could one forecast what action by an enemy could be seen to threaten it and so invite a vengeful response. He agrees that Athens sometimes had more important things on its mind than how it looked to others.

After reviewing a Cambridge reprint of A.B. Cook’s monumental Zeus (1914-1940), Professor Colin Leach commented to me ‘one could disagree with every single one of his conclusions without in any way lessening the utility of the work’. That seems to me a judgement that could be well applied to Lendon. There is more to battle than strategy, technology and tactics. By foregrounding the cultural values that underpinned an ancient Greek’s mentality, Lendon offers an imaginative tool with which to examine Thucydides’ explanations for events and see whether they could not make better sense in a wider context. After all, as he points out, it was an analysis which a much later historian, the first century BC Sicilian Diodorus, deployed to explain Athens’ behaviour. It adds considerably to the value of Lendon’s account that he writes with persuasive clarity, tells a cracking story, makes some stimulating comparisons with current international politics and provides excellent glossaries, appendices and notes. So even if one has doubts about the overall thesis, this is still a book that is well worth reading and will provide a good deal of food for thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment