A Time For War

Review of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins, by J.E. Lendon (Basic Books, New York, 2010)

J.E. Lendon's Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins excellently blends popular narrative with historical insight. Weaving together cultural and military history, Lendon seeks to explain what the ancient historian Thucydides could not: the role of timê (glory, honor, and worth) in the various aspects of ancient Greek life, particularly the Peloponnesian War.

Cover of Song of Wrath The Peloponnesian War Begins by J. E. Lendon
Cover of Song of Wrath The Peloponnesian War Begins
by J. E. Lendon.

Thucydides was so enveloped in this concept, argues Lendon, because it was a such a natural part of existence, that he did not feel the need to explain timê. Thucydides wanted his history to be a "possession for all time," but he assumed that "all time" would be inhabited by the ancient Greeks, taking for granted that his reader would always bring those Greek assumptions to his work.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each dealing with important aspects of the Ten Years' War. Chapter one examines the origins of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta followed in chapter two by the motivations and actions that led to the coming of the Ten Years' War. In chapter three, Lendon discusses how the war began as a war of revenge, fueling his study of timê, and continues in chapters four through eight discussing various campaigns within the larger war, concluding with the march for peace in chapter nine.

Before delving into the particulars of military and diplomatic history, Lendon provides his readers with an extensive explanation of timê using the Iliad as an example. The strife between Agamemnon and Achilles, where Agamemnon claimed higher timê than Achilles, led to the Trojan War. The biggest danger lay, Lendon argues, in the political dimension. If one Greek state gave a command to another, this usually implied that the commanded was inferior to the commander.

Yet if the state did not accept its role as inferior, they saw the command as an insult, an attempt by the commanding state to deprive them of their timê. This insult was termed hybris which the Greeks saw as giving rise to much of human conflict.

The only way to react to an act of hybris and regain timê was an overwhelming sense of wrath followed by exacting revenge. Only when revenge had been achieved, the Greeks believed, could the imbalance of timê be restored and only then would wrath abate and peace be reached.

Lendon sees timê, hybris, wrath and revenge as playing a parallel role in relations between the states of classical Greece since the Greeks often saw the cities as gigantic, conglomerate personalities. These ranks, he argues, may seem to be neat and predictable, but were far from it. Rather, states usually evaluated their own rank based on military prowess and strength as well as historical significance leaving much room for conflict.

Lendon examines these concepts of timê, hybris, wrath and revenge by providing the reader with a brief narrative of the two great antagonists in Greece, Athens and Sparta. Lendon surveys the military and diplomatic campaigns of the Peloponnesian War from 480 BC when Xerxes, King of Persia, invades Greece, through the end of the Ten Years' War in 421 BC with the Peace of Nicias.

He is primarily concerned with the origins and course of what Thucydides had dubbed the "Ten Years' War," the conflict from 431 to 421 BC, which the Greeks had called the Archidamian War. For Lendon, this particular series of battles best encapsulates how "the causes of a war manifested themselves in that war's execution" and provides the best opportunity to understand the role of timê, especially in foreign affairs. (pg. 15)

The goal of the antagonists, he claims, was not merely to conquer, but rather humiliate the enemy since this particular war was about timê. By understanding the war from this perspective, Thucydides' narrative is expanded, providing a compelling explanation for the logic behind the states' decisions and motivations.

Lendon includes a series of maps in conjunction with rich explanations of these motivating forces which help the reader follow the military decisions and responses of the Greek states. He concludes his study with the recounting of Athens' triumphal march, the humiliation of Sparta, and Athens' later defeat. These cyclic battles, Lendon contends, only concluded when Athens was willing to admit equality in rank with Sparta, thus bringing peace to the area. Lendon provides important insights to Thucydides' classic work, immersing Thucydides' narrative into "the wider stream of ancient Greek thinking about foreign relations…lends refinement to our understanding" of Thucydides' realism.

Lendon also provides the reader with an extensive chronology of events and glossary of the people, places and things discussed throughout the book in his appendices which are perhaps key to any historian hoping to follow and understand the Peloponnesian War. Lendon's book is a rich detailed addition to the vast literature on the Peloponnesian War. He provides important insights and a grand reinterpretation into this extensively studied war.