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

Sam Choi

This is a very engaging, highly detailed book about the war between Athens and Sparta (ok, the Peloponnesian states, as many other cities were involved). I'm a bit out of my element, so I can't comment on the actual originality of the work or where it stands in relationship to the other work ... but, from a layman's perspective, I found it very informative. There is a little strain between the narrative and analysis, where he begins a narrative, but interrupts it for analysis, or vice verse. So, for someone not familiar with events, it can be a little disconcerting at times when he 1) starts on a narrative portion, 2) then stops to offer an analysis, 3) and makes use of examples in the analysis that he has not yet narrated. Finally, Hanson often makes contemporary comparisons, such as the cold war, WWII, etc. to the ancient situations, and they're often enlightening ... though, at times, I wonder if a classical scholar would agree on the accuracy of them. Still, very entertaining, and, for a non-expert, very interesting.

The American Conservative

'Now Hanson’s newest project, A War Like No Other, drags one of my heroes, the great Greek military historian Thucydides, into his seedy propaganda campaign. A War Like No Other is Hanson’s retelling of Thucydides’ great story of the Peloponnesian War, the grim 30-year struggle between Athens and Sparta. That’s a pretty conceited project, even for Hanson. After all, this is Thucydides we’re talking about, a genius who practically invented the genre of military history. Hanson retelling Thucydides’ story is like Penny Marshall trying to remake “Raging Bull.”But this book is even more confused than most of Hanson’s work. It doesn’t make sense at any level, from sentence to overall argument. What’s weird is that nobody seems to have noticed. I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book from big papers like the New York Times and they all treat Hanson like he’s beyond criticism. Seems all you have to do is sound like a professor and fill up pages and everybody thinks you’re the Xenophon of Fresno.'Read the full review, "It's All Greek to Victor Davis Hanson," on our website:http://www.theamericanconservative.co...


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.


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.


Well I liked, its easy and accessible, in short it is not Thucydides who is hard to read. While lacking some depth and perhaps rigour it is a great introductory read for the serious student a base to build upon. Which I shall be doing.The author also has a sub-text on how the lessons of history apply to the present especially the war on terror and how Athens/America fights war. While it is interesting it is also sad statement on ourselves and our so called leaders that in almost 2500 years of history those lessons have taught many times and I suspect many times in the future. Humanity obviously does not appear to pay attention to its lessons.


I dont always agree with his op-eds and hoover institution creds, but he's a good friend of one of my favorite ugrad professors - both of whom are meticulous scholars and excellent writers. This book tackles the Peloponnesian war from a unique categorization of the kinds of tactics/technology/institutions available to both sides. Thucydides serves as a guide, but the book is written in a way where the reader will not get lost in an avalanche of names and places that makes thucydides' version an instant headache. Vivid depictions of battles, individuals and societies. This book brings the classical world to life for lay readers.

Donald Luther

When I was teaching World History, the war I least understood, either in terms of causes or the ideas and issues behind the course of the fighting was the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). I daresay it is not very well understood by many who wind up teaching it, in large part because the issues seem so foreign to our sensibilities and of course the style of fighting was something we simply cannot relate to.'A War Like No Other' goes a long way to sorting out many of these problems. First, however, a word of caution: Victor Davis Hanson does not take a chronological approach to the war, and he is actually less interested in specific tactics and strategies than he is in the people who fought--and died--in this massive war. Anyone who has the responsibility to teach this cataclysm of Greek history should be familiar with this book.Hanson makes a number of critical points about the War in general. He sees it as a revolutionary war in the sense that it changed the way in which wars in the ancient world were fought. The is a function of the principal combatants: Athens--democratic, the great sea power of the fifth century BCE, the largest city-state in Greece--and Sparta--oligarchic, the most powerful hoplite force in Greece, with a much smaller population than its adversary.Hanson sees the issues behind the fighting to be the Athenian desire to spread its democratic system to the Peloponnesus (though not necessarily to Sparta herself), while Sparta was fighting to hold on to the territories and allies that had adopted its oligarchic system. The nature of fighting changed almost immediately, as a result of Athens' Long Walls, which protected the city's port and the resources that needed to be imported to sustain the city. Sparta traditionally campaigned for a few weeks during the summer, seeking hoplite battle with whomever their enemy happened to be. But both sides made it a point of military policy not to engage the enemy where he was strongest: The Athenians would not meet the Spartans on the field; the Spartans would not attack the Athenian triremes.Beginning from this point, Hanson examines the politics that shaped military decisions, the rise of Sparta's great military leaders (and the failure of Athens to produce similar leaders), the major battles (there were only two hoplite battles during the full twenty-seven years of the war), sieges, and naval confrontations (these were decisive in the last seven years of the war). In doing so, he returns to the revolutionary nature of this war by examining how armed forces moved away from hoplites and began to incorporate cavalry, peltasts (including archers and stone-slingers), and the development of siege machinery (which would become significant under Philip II and Alexander about a century after the end of this war).Hanson examines Athens' distinct disadvantage in its political system, and how Alcibiades used this system to bring about the disastrous invasion of Sicily. He compares the siege of Syracuse (by the way, a large democracy, like Athens) with other sieges and shows how inept the Greeks (particularly the Spartans) were at siege warfare.If you teach the ancient world, this is a remarkable book. There is even the hypothesis that the impact of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks world was not dissimilar to the impact of World War I. This would make for a remarkable classroom discussion.

Cliff Etters

Not your typical military history. Hanson splits from the usual historical timeline format of the genre and focuses more on a holistic view of the war with an emphasis on the themes of the conflict. I've never read any of Hanson's other works, though I'm interested in them since the general consensus is that this isn't his strongest work. That's not to say that it's a struggle to get through or that it's boring, because it's neither. It's my opinion that Hanson's use of colloquial English is what makes this work more accessible than most military histories out there. And his efforts to show there is nothing new under the sum by drawing comparisons between the Peloponnesian War and America's War On Terror (or America's "War on" d'Jour, for that matter)are elegant and alarming.


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.

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.

Erik Graff

Having enjoyed another book by Victor Davis Hanson, The Soul of Battle, I picked this one up when a copy was put up for sale at the Hayward, Wisconsin Public Library over the Memorial Day weekend. Since reading Thucydides freshman year at Grinnell College, the history of the Peloponnesian War has held interest. This account was no disappointment. Indeed, compared to others, it was original.The originality of Hanson's book is that he doesn't summarize Thucydides and the Oxyrhinchos Historian. He assumes some background on the part of the reader and proceeds instead to detail the war in terms of its practice, focusing on its innovations. Thus one learns about siegecraft, hoplite battle, trireme tactics--precisely the kinds of details that Thucydides assumed his readership familiar with. Doing so, A War Like No Other serves as a useful adjunct to the normal high school or college reading assignment.Beyond that, Hanson writes with an intention of exploring and exploding common misconceptions of the decades-long conflict between the ancient democratic imperialists of Athens and the oligarchical traditionalists of Sparta. One, of course, is the usual exaggeration of the goodness of Athens during its "golden age" from the defeat of Persia until at least the plague during the war. Although a radical democracy in ways quite different than ours, Athens was also, by the standards of its time, an imperialist superpower and bully, maintaining its far-flung commercial interests by means of tribute and an unmatched fleet. Sparta, however, while the bully of the Peloponnese, was the advocate of what today would be termed "national self-determination." A land power, it felt increasingly threatened by Athenian innovations and self-aggrandizing encroachments and became, with Thebes and Corinth, a leader of liberation movements throughout the Greek-speaking world extending from the Black Sea to Egypt to Asia Minor to Italy and Sicily. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that moralistic calculus might imply. Athens really did generally promote a kind of democracy in that its client poleis tended to favor egalitarianism while Sparta's notions of self-determination tended to mean oligarchical rule.The irony of the war is (1) that innovative, proto-capitalist Athens lost against reactionary Sparta and (2) that Sparta won by adopting many of the innovations which they, and their proponents like Plato, originally decried. The consequence of the Athenian defeat, moreover, were unintended. Sparta, long in decline, ended up becoming a virtual client of Persia before its defeat at the hands of formerly-allied Thebes and Athens, after a period of dictatorship, returned to democratic power to ally with its former Theban enemies in overthrowing oligarchies established by the Spartiates. Meanwhile, military innovations introduced by the war were perfected to the north and the whole hellenic order of things was overthrown by the Philip and his son Alexander.Hanson's focus, however, is primarily with things military and the myths he attacks are both ancient and modern. A primary one is that of hoplite warfare, a form of warfare identified with the virtues of a yeoman citizenry. In fact, as he shows, very little hoplite battle was conducted during the Peloponnesian war. Calvary, light infantry and marines were coming to the fore and the fighters were increasingly the lumpen, slaves and mercenaries. Further, as in almost all wars, the real misery, quantitatively speaking, was more from the externalities of conflict than from the direct exercise of it. Far and away the greatest dying on Athens' part occurred during its plague and resulted from the Periclean strategy of avoiding infantry contests with the invading Spartans.Hanson, a farmer himself, brings to his book much information about the ancient economics of warfare. How much did a trireme cost to build and maintain exactly? How much the hoplite panoply? How easy was it, really, for the occupying Spartans to devastate the Attic countryside? Were did the food come from?--the money?

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.


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.

E Stanton

This was an excellent history by one America's best classicists. Helps to have read Thucydides first. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys history at all, not just ancient or military history


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.

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