Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on October 3, 2017
Most of us know Victor Davis Hanson from his pointed commentaries in National Review and many books on contemporary issues, but he started his impressive career as a classicist. The book presently under review, 'A War Like No Other', deals with the great civil war within ancient Greece between authoritarian Sparta and democratic Athens from 431-404 BC, made famous primarily through the contemporary account by Thucydides.
The Peloponnesian War was a decades-long conflict, both epic and gruesome in its scale. As a percentage of the respective populations, as many people died in this war as in World War I. An epic stand-off between a military dictatorship and a radical democracy, the war offers obvious lessons for our present age. Athens saw itself as morally superior and wealthier, and commanded a mighty navy that firmly boosted its self-confidence; Sparta thought its opponent decadent and politically indecisive. Athens' democratic decision-making throughout the war led to follies such as the Sicilian Expedition and the occasional executions of its best military commanders after a humiliating defeat -- neither of which helped the Athenian war effort, to put it mildly. And then there's the personal history of Alcibiades, the infamous Athenian commander who defected to Sparta mid-war. As such, this subject encompasses the best and worst elements of our flawed human nature.
The Peloponnesian War had all the elements of ancient, yet also hints of modern, warfare. Traditional hoplite battles were certainly fought during the many years of the conflict. However, the unwritten rule in Greek civilization that conflicts between Greek peoples should be decided by a short fight between two professional armies on an open battlefield on a sunny afternoon, was quickly thrown out the window as the dispute escalated.
Soon, Spartan armies besieged Athens, forcing the Athenians to retreat behind their city walls. The outbreak of an (unknown) infectious and very deadly disease resulting from this siege is very vividly detailed in Mr. Hanson's book. Affected persons got fevers so bad they hurled themselves into the city's water supply, thereby further spreading the outbreak. The great Pericles himself perished from it.
The book is carved up not chronologically but thematically, with sieges, hoplite warfare, naval warfare and other subjects being highlighted in turn. Those familiar with Mr. Hanson's other writings will quickly discern an overarching pattern in 'A War Like No Other' that's present elsewhere too: His ability to bring the important subjects down to human proportions is second to none. So he will dedicate a few pages to how difficult it is, in fact, to destroy olive trees, because they don't burn easily and are remarkably resilient (Mr. Hanson is himself a farmer in California). He will elaborate on the poor rowers occupying the lower decks in the triremes, the Greek naval vessels. And he describes the fate of those in the cities suffering through sieges while desperately trying to reinforce their protective walls as the besiegers are working to break them down. Finally, the pages detailing the outbreak of disease in Athens, mentioned above, leave a lasting impression. It all makes for excellent reading.
The plethora of city names and other terms hurled at you throughout the book can make it a little intimidating and even dry at times. But Mr. Hanson's command of the subject is impressive, making the book an excellent introduction into the history of this great war. If you're looking to expand your historical scope and dip your toes into this subject, I can highly recommend this wonderful read.