A War Like No Other: How the Athenians & Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War

ISBN: 0812969707
ISBN 13: 9780812969702
By: Victor Davis Hanson

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About this book

Provocative military historian Victor Davis Hanson has given painstakingly researched & pathbreaking accounts of wars ranging from classical antiquity to the 21st century. Now he juxtaposes an ancient conflict with modern concerns to create his most engrossing work to date, A War Like No Other. Over the course of a generation, the Hellenic poleis of Athens & Sparta fought a bloody conflict that resulted in the collapse of Athens & the end of its golden age. Thucydides wrote the standard history of the Peloponnesian War, which has given readers throughout the ages a vivid & authoritative narrative. But Hanson offers something new: a complete chronological account that reflects the political background of the time, the strategic thinking of the combatants, the misery of battle in multifaceted theaters & insight into how these events echo in the present. He compellingly portrays the ways Athens & Sparta fought on land & sea, in city & countryside, & details their employment of the full scope of conventional & nonconventional tactics, from sieges to targeted assassinations, torture & terrorism. He also assesses the crucial roles played by warriors such as Pericles & Lysander, artists, among them Aristophanes, & thinkers including Sophocles & Plato. Hanson’s perceptive analysis of events & personalities raises many thought-provoking questions: Were Athens & Sparta like America & Russia, two superpowers battling to the death? Is the Peloponnesian War echoed in the endless, frustrating conflicts of Vietnam, Northern Ireland & the current Middle East? Or was it more like America’s own Civil War, a brutal rift that rent the fabric of a glorious society, or even this century’s “red state—blue state” schism between liberals & conservatives, a cultural war that manifestly controls military policies? Hanson daringly brings the facts to life & unearths the often surprising ways in which the past informs the present. Brilliantly researched, dynamically written, A War Like No Other is like no other history of this important war.

Reader's Thoughts


I started this book under the impression that this would be a conservative's take on the Juan Cole Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East model of history- an extended analysis of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told through the lens of another historical incident. Despite signaling in this direction in his first chapter, Hanson actually hews closely to the historical material at hand. The organization of the narrative by common war experiences (fire, disease, armor, horses, walls, ships) served very well at the beginning although it did make the end a bit of a slog as characters and battles discussed previously would be dredged through again under the framework of a following chapter. Hanson is a strong writer who makes the life of an average Athenian or Spartan surprisingly accessible given the intervening years.


A thematic overview of the 30-year long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Hoplites and triremes galore. VDH writes good stuff about ancient Greek warfare and, while this one is not quite up to the same level of visceral detail as his books purely about hoplite battle, it's pretty good. But a tip: it helps to know your Thucydides before you read this (although it's unlikely that anyone who doesn't know their Thucydides would want to read this). 3.5/5


This is a great book on the Peloponnesian War, because it is different than other texts. Most texts approach the war from a chronological perspective. This one instead approaches it from the perspective of military technology and tactics and effectively leverages modern analogies to similar issues. It covers how the ancient greeks employed infantry, cavalry, fortified and besieged cities, used terror tactics and fought asymmetrical war, triremes. One thing from the infantry chapter that was helpful was a very detailed description of how hoplite warfare in a phalanx was really like and how it was intimately tied to civic virtues: discipline to stay in formation and trusting your neighbors to protect you. Thucydides has been studied by generals and heads of state for 1000's of years and the lessons appear to be eternal. This is a nice companion to reading Thucydides.


As an enthusiast of ancient history, I was excited to start this book, that being said, it wasn't in a style that I enjoyed. Hanson broke down the war, not into stages, or years, but into the different styles of warfare. A lot of back and forth through history, and at times repetitive. I found Hanson's analysis of the political situations behind the military operations to be cursory and left much to be desired.


One of the author's goals in this book was to talk about the war from a top-level perspective, skipping the chronology of the battles or events. My eyes glazed over these lists of random facts or situations. I apparently need the structure of chronology in a history book because I much preferred the parts that were explained in sequence (e.g., the siege of Syracuse or Plataea). So while the information presented was interesting, I did not enjoy the format of this book.

Bookmarks Magazine

Victor Davis Hanson, military historian turned Op-Ed rabble-rouser, holds firm to his belief that there are important lessons to be learned from the past. He has written extensively on the subject (The Western Way of War; Carnage and Culture; Between War and Peace). As a "modern Machiavelli" (Daily Telegraph), he has bent the ears of policy makers all the way up to the West Wing. Critics are impressed by Hanson's ability to bring all the machinations of the Greeks alive in his thematic chapters. They are equally intrigued by his cogent theory that finds similar strains of pride, militarism, and democratic evangelicalism in both the Athenians and Americans.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

Bryan Reed

Rather than a straightforward history of the Peloponnesian War, Hanson breaks the book down into sections based on different facets of the war. Moving from the Long Wall of Athens and the horrible plague during the Spartan invasion of Attica to the few massed hoplite battles and finally to Athens' downfall in the naval battles in the Aegean the history, politics and technology of the war are discussed in great detail. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about this unique bit of history.


Hanson has crafted a history of the Peloponnesian War which breaks form the traditional, chronological storyline. Instead, Hanson has broken down the conflict into the types of warfare and the whole book is essentially detailing the evolution of Greek warfare into the tactical juggernauts of Thebes and later, Macedon. Basically, Hanson contends that the Peloponnesian War exerted such stress on the Greek city-states, over twenty-seven years, that the old politics of pitched hoplite battles and open sea engagements, a la the Persian Wars, were too ineffective and inefficient. Sparta's armies were preeminent on the field of battle and Athens' fleets ruled the seas without equal, until the final stages of the war. Because of their absolute dominance in their respective fields, the real fighting took place elsewhere: in nightfighting, sieges, the novel use of auxiliaries who attacked with ranged weapons (javelins, bows, slings), a newfound appreciation for the cavalry wing and the impact of the plague on Athens. Hanson's book falls short of the elusive 5-stars because his style sometimes dragged. However, this is a clear, concise, well-researched and well-written analysis of a war that changed everything in the eastern mediterranean, opening the power vacuum for Thebes and Macedon.

Jared Nolen

This is a fantastic work by Victor Davis Hanson. Word to the wise: read a chronological history of the Peloponnesian War before you pick this up. I made that mistake and at many times was lost as VDH jumped back and forth.This book is an examination of how the war was fought and is divided accordingly. Each chapter examines another element of the war (Walls, Ships, etc.) and its impact. It is also an engrossing read for any student of the classics. VDH caught me completely by surprise when his examination of the times and events carefully examined the works of various Classical Greek playwrites and how their work was impacted by the trajectory of the 27 year war. Greek culture was severely impacted and VDH lays it out beautifully.

David Donnelly

Military themes such as guerrilla warfare, etc used as a device to show development of the art of war during the wars between Athens and Sparta. Though the book follows a timeline narrative within the aforementioned themes, it may be helpful to start with one of Kagan's more traditionally structured narrative works before diving into this much breezier account. There appears to be a corpus of work built up around Athenian topics in the last couple of decades. There was a great deal of interest from Neo Conservatives, as Athens came to be regarded as a model for America's role in the world as we embarked on our various misadventures in the Middle East.


This book brilliantly threads the line of popular history, avoiding being either too scholarly (with name-checking of the sort, "As Heyman Roberts brilliantly explicated in his influential study of Greek horses...") or too pandering (with invented scenes like, "Brasius's eyes widened in terror as he spied the dreaded red plumes of the Spartan infantry.") Instead, it is a thoughtful, intelligent look at how "the first civil war in Western history" radically transformed Greek society and the culture of warfare generally.Hanson's decision to tell the history of the war thematically rather than chronologically keeps the focus on what the war was like. (This book is definitely focused on the strategic instead of the tactical, and major events like an Athenian coup are mentioned only in passing.) You learn how infantry fought and how armadas fought, and also why there were so few infantry battles (two in the entire 27 year history of the war) and how projecting naval force could bankrupt a city-state. You get a feeling for how primitive Greek warfare was at the beginning of the conflict, and how it became ripe for a major arms race by the end. Hanson peppers the book with analogies to other conflicts throughout history, making it clear how the Peloponnesian War influenced Western warfare for centuries.The only flaw with the book, which cost it a star for me, is how repetitive Hanson can be. Sometimes that benefits a non-chronological telling: by always calling it "the disaster at Sicily" rather than "the Sicilian campaign", he makes it clear he's talking about the same campaign (but from different angles) in different chapters. But sometimes it's totally gratuitous: do we really need to be told 5 times that Plato was an arch-conservative who hated the rise of the Athenian Navy? But that's a relatively minor quibble in a fascinating and surprisingly engrossing work.


I enjoy reading classical Greek and Latin literature of all sorts: drama, poetry, and history, as well as books about these topics. So it was with the anticipation of something good that I sat down to read Hanson’s “A War Like No Other”. Hanson is a noted author, historian and classicist, so what could be more interesting than his take on the Peloponnesian war? A lot of things, actually.Not that “A War Like No Other” is bad. Hanson, as has been noted in many reviews, departs from the typical linear presentation of the war, taking instead a topical approach. In each chapter he examines the war as a whole through the lens of a particular aspect of the war. In “Armor”, he focuses on the life of the Greek Hoplite soldier, the main Hoplite battles, and how the nature of those battles changed radically from the opening to the closing of the war. Likewise in “Walls” he investigates the ancient Greek practice of siege warfare. Naval battles are discussed in “Ships”, cavalry in “Horses”, and so on. As he examines these topics in detail he also touches on several recurring themes, chief among them the cost of the war in material treasure, human lives, and the way the Peloponnesian war changed Western concepts of war forever. All of this is fascinating.The issue I had was not with the information presented, but how it was presented. The topical approach simply did not work for me. It was too fragmented and disjoint. I felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. True, each chapter varied from the last in topic, but too many of the events and characters were repeated. The narrative thread provided by a linear history was disrupted as those characters and events lost their normal place in a timeline. It did not help that this was my first reading of a book on the Peloponnesian war. Perhaps if I had already read Thucydides, “A War Like No Other” would have been more accessible. On the whole, Hanson’s book is worthwhile, but I cannot recommend it to a newcomer to the war between Athens and Sparta. Start with Thucydides. I intend to make him my next stop.


One of the most interesting and informative books I have read in a long while, it covers the weapons, strategies, policies, politics, personalities and events of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in 5th Century BCE Greece. In addition to creating a well written and well researched work concerning that time period, the author draws useful comparisons to more modern conflicts. The narrative also reveals why Thucydides (and other historians) are timeless in their ability to inform military thinking. The only potential drawback is that the book does not stick to a straightforward, linear telling of the events of the War. Therefore, it would be useful to do some basic research into the main events of the war prior to reading.


Ancient Greece never seemed to be a cohesive, united lot as each city-state focused on its own objectives. Alas, this led to the eventual end of the Golden Age of Athens, which always puzzled me. The Spartans were also intriguing, a society built around masculinity and warfare and the complete opposite of its sibling neighbour of Athens. Why did these two giants fight and what were the consequences?Hanson provides a full chronology of the issues leading to battles won and lost and he also does a good job of helping the reader understand the politics behind it all. Athens, with all her liberality and genius, produced conformists as military leaders while Sparta, so closed within itself, bred generals of brilliance. As the Peloponnesian War progressed, Athenian citizens became mercenary and seemingly unaware they were no longer the center of the universe. In a sense, it's a civil war which led to Alexander's Macedonian dominance and the future empire of Rome. The strong point of this book is how the author relates this ancient war to modern times. Are we re-living the same experience with different combatants today? Perhaps. It's a good read for those with an interest in ancient Greece and the politics that lead to conflict.Perhaps war really is the father of us all.Book Season = Autumn (squirrels vs. acorns)

Santiago Árraga

Una historia épica hasta hoy. La guerra entre la primer democracia y el estado totalitario más aguerrido de la antigüedad. Entre la primer potencia marítima y comercial, y la primitiva agricultura rústica espartana. Los primeros comandos detrás de líneas enemigas. La guerra sucia. Las masacres de estados no afiliados. La lucha de clases entre los dueños de la tierra y los pobres urbanos. La pestilencia de la guerra. Limpieza étnica. Todo está allí, con armas y corazas de bronce, en lugar de aviones modernos. Pero nada nuevo hay bajo el sol.

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