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

John Warren

i enjoyed this book hansons observations on the war i found very helpful and his facts of the war where very useful. i loved the footnotes and the cast of characters he puts at the end of the book. never new that a war the lasted some 27 years that u had very few of the hoplite battles the greeks where so famous for. the unconventional warfare that both sides used and the sieges along with the naval battles where very interesting. it was a very strange civil war but a very intriguing.


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.


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)


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

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.

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


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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?


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.

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.

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