The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War

3.9 9
by Donald Kagan

View All Available Formats & Editions

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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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

The Washington Post
Drawing on incomparable knowledge as a classicist, international relations theorist and military historian, Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale and author of a previous, four-volume study of the Peloponnesian War, now has devoted a single volume to guiding us through that epic of miscalculation, hubris and strategic overreach, supplying supplemental observations and correctives to Thucydides' classic History of the Peloponnesian War. — Douglas Porch
The Los Angeles Times
No one writing the history of the Peloponnesian War today can afford to ignore the various historical enigmas sketched here, above all those with an economic basis. Yet at the same time it remains an inescapable truth that, like it or not, our efforts will always be, to a great extent, predetermined by Thucydides' version of events. This was certainly true of the four masterly monographs, combining sharp analysis with dramatic narrative, that Kagan devoted to the war between 1969 and 1987, and from which his present account has been skillfully streamlined into one volume. He shows rather less uncritical approval for Thucydides than he once did, and a generation of scholarship has at many points modified his views; but what he gives us is still, in essence, a Thucydidean narrative, which provides the best account now available of the course of hostilities. — Peter Green
The New York Times
In his preface Kagan speaks of his intention to produce ''a readable narrative.'' One feature that makes it eminently readable is its division into short chapters, which facilitates reference and selection. It is also handsomely furnished with something essential to a history of this war: maps, over a score of them, all clearly printed and complete and situated just where you need them. It is the final element in the construction of what he aims at: ''a readable narrative in a single volume to be read by the general reader.'' — Bernard Knox
Publishers Weekly
Beginning in 1978, Kagan's publication of the four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War established him as the leading authority on that seminal period in Greek history. Despite its accessible writing style, however, the work's formidable length tended to restrict its audience to the academic community. This single volume, based on the original's scholarship but incorporating significant new dimensions, is intended for the educated general reader. Kagan, a chaired professor of classics and history at Yale, describes his intention to offer both intellectual pleasure and a source of the wisdom so many have sought by studying this war. On both aims he succeeds admirably. The war between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan Alliance, fought in the last half of the 5th century B.C., was tragedy. Fifty years earlier, the united Greek states had defeated the Persian Empire and inaugurated an era of growth and achievement seldom matched and never surpassed. The Peloponnesian War, however, inaugurated a period of brutality and destruction unprecedented in the Greek world. Like the Great War in 1914-1918, participants recognized even while the fighting went on that things were changing utterly. The contemporary history written by Thucydides is the best source for this complex story, but not the only one, and much of the value of this work lies in Kagan's brilliant contextualization of his ancient predecessor's work. The volume's ultimate worth, however, lies in the perceptive, magisterial judgment Kagan brings to his account of the war that ended the glory that was ancient Greece. Kagan gives us neither heroes and villains nor victors and victims. What infuses his pages is above all a sense of agency: men making and implementing decisions that seemed right at the time however they ended. Such lessons will not be lost on contemporary readers, who can discuss them with the author on his six-city tour. (On sale May 12) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Kagan's masterful four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, the titanic clash between the Athenians and the Spartans in the last decades of the fifth century BC, remains the definitive work on the subject. Kagan here provides a condensed version for a popular readership, telling the story as well as it can be told. Still, given the regular use of Thucydides' original chronicle of the war in contemporary commentary, it is sad that the contraction means the loss of Kagan's own comparisons with later periods, one of the more unique features of his earlier four-volume work.
Library Journal
Kagan spent decades crafting his four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War, and while it is imbued with scholarship, it is nevertheless a daunting work. With that in mind, he has written a much shorter version that nevertheless hardly suffers from comparison. In a style at once readable and pithy, Kagan (classics & history, Yale) makes fifth-century B.C.E. Greece comprehensible to all readers. Focusing on the leaders of Athens and Sparta, which contributes mightily to the flow of the text, he composes a noteworthy history of these two cities and their 30-year struggle. The division of the work's seven parts into 37 chapters and further into nearly 200 subheadings gives it a chronological and subject orientation that makes it eminently usable. Further, Kagan's sumptuous style will enthrall readers who had not imagined that they would find the topic so absorbing. This work will surely be welcomed by any library where the four-volume set seemed to be more than users demanded. Recommended for all public and academic libraries.-Clay Williams, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The tale of an ancient conflict, with ample leadership lessons for contemporary statesmen on fate and miscalculation. Debilitating and drawn-out, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.) ended a golden age of peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement in the Hellenic world. It featured Sparta, the leading army and authoritarian regime in Greece; Athens, the greatest naval power and imperial democracy; and allied city-states that frequently served as the sites of the bloodiest action. With the death of Pericles two years into the war, Athens lost firm, consistent leadership and thereafter veered between peace and expansionist factions. At the end of hostilities, both sides had abandoned their war aims and indulged in rising numbers of atrocities, among them killing captured soldiers; factional and class warfare burst out; and participants violated formerly sacred taboos. Sparta and Athens suffered staggering losses (the latter to plague as well as warfare) that ultimately weakened their ability to fight off first Persia, then Macedonia. While necessarily reliant on Thucydides’ classic account, Kagan does take issue with it at points, noting, for instance, that the ancient historian may have relied on notorious Athenian turncoat Alcibiades as a source. The author points out innovative tactics, such as the use of enormous flame-throwers to set fire to walls and drive off defenders, with the same dexterity that distinguishes his portraits of major personalities like Nicias, the Athenian politician-general who turned the modest Sicilian campaign of 415 b.c. into a massive debacle. At times, general readers may get lost as Kagan (Classics and History/Yale; On the Origins of War and thePreservation of Peace, 1995, etc.) attempts to do justice to this complicated era. But, ultimately, he justifies in painstaking detail Thucydides’ characterization of war as "a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances." Authoritative history demonstrating that, though the weaponry may have multiplied, the reactions of leaders and societies during wartime have altered little. (maps, not seen)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


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).

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"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, supplying supplemental observations and correctives to Thucydides’ classic History of the Peloponnesian War." —The Washington Post

Meet 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.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Peloponnesian War 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
mattries More than 1 year ago
Donald Kagan, one of the foremost scholars of Ancient Greek history, wrote a concise but thorough history of the Peloponnesian War for a general audience based off his four-volume academic masterpiece on the same subject. From the start Kagan brings the reader to the time period of the war with enough background information that someone not familiar at all with Ancient Greece will understand the circumstances of the beginning of the war from each side's viewpoint. Throughout the work, Kagan brings in a modern military and political view to help examine decisions of either side that the ancient sources' explain as social virtue or vice. This supplement to the ancient sources helps give a fuller view of the decisions of the Athenians, Spartans, and their respective allies. If you want to learn about Ancient Greek history beyond Marathon or Thermopylae, I fully recommend this book.
EugeneTX More than 1 year ago
Donald Kagan's rendition of this war makes one feel the blood, sweat, and tears of the men who fought the battles. Use your imagination to visualize men fighting over steep and hilly terrain either very rocky or with tons of coastal mud clinging to your feet. Imagine a battle, man on man, in which each has essentially a spear, a shield, and a sword, with little or nothing else. These were classic battles fought by the most worthy men for seemingly meaningless reasons. This is a magnificent work which should be required reading in every history class. It is money well spent to gain essential knowledge about our ancestors. These men represent the Heritage of all democracies that were to follow. Not perfect but willing to be counted.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in the struggles of the Greeks during this era, then this is an excellent choice for the lay reader. It gets into the depth of not only the politics that create the war but the actual timelines and battles themselves. Excellent source of maps and details of who is fighting who and on which side they are on as well as the outcomes and their impact on future and current events of the time/area
Guest More than 1 year ago
i have read the 4 book series that this is based on 2 times and it was great. it was very informative and made many arguments and critical analysis for and against many other critics and scholars in the field who have written on the subject. it was very thorough and written with such good description and clarity that even amateur history readers or those just interested in greek history can follow it with no problem, even though greek polotics and state workings in general were complicated and intricate and frail. to make a work that covers the whole war and all of the states involved as well as all of the major and minor figures in it was a monumental task that Kagan masterfully brings to life and also adds his own thoughs to what these figures may have been thinking or why the states were acting and the way the did during all phases of the war. and it helps us try to understand what may have been really going on back then and why things have ended the way they did. my apologies for commenting on the original 4 book series and not on the work in question but if the newer book as just a scaled down version that is more reader friendly than it has to be a great read well worth the time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of the war between Athens and Sparta is a sad and timely story of the folly of man. Kagan lays it all out in his book. I would have liked to have an appendix that would have recounted the fate of some of the main players in the war. It is not an easy read but one Americans might find timely as we engage in overseas adventures.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would argue that this book is good because it brings to life Thucydides account as well as the later acounts. It is far from scholarly, and therefore is excelent reading for those who have not the time to enjoy the classics in there true nature. It could be boring if one does not approach it properly. It is history, with a focus on accuracy. For fantasy one ought to check on other books, but the greatest and truest stories, I would argue, are those which involve the nature of humanity as we have experienced it. Therefore this is a great book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Althought the book was fast paced and fluid the book was boring. It was just recounting the battles and seiges, thought not in depth. the book is easy to read, but overall dull