Oxford University Press, 2017
Two and a half millennia ago, on the tiny Greek island of Sphacteria, something unthinkable happened. In the spring of 425 B.C., a small garrison of Athenian hoplites (heavily-armored spearmen who provided the staple of Greek fighting forces) landed on the sandy promontory of Pylos in the southern Peloponnese, and promptly began setting up camp for a long-term occupation. Their objective was to build a raiding base against the mighty Peloponnesian city of Sparta, against whom the Athenians had been waging war for six consecutive years, but the presence of an Athenian army within arm’s length of the Spartan homeland drew a swift response. Soon, a Spartan army was marching out to lay siege to Pylos. To block the entrance to the harbor, and prevent food and supplies from reaching the beleaguered fort, 420 Spartans took up position on the wooded island of Sphacteria just offshore. As Athenian stomachs grumbled, the Spartans settled in for certain victory.
But the they had made a dreadful miscalculation. The Athenians were the mightiest sea power of the ancient world, with a vastly larger and more experienced navy than the landlubbing Peloponnesians. Within days, a fleet of Athenian triremes had seized control of the harbor and encircled the tiny force of soldiers on Sphacteria. Now it was the Spartans’ turn to starve. For several weeks, intrepid smugglers supplied the stranded Sphacteria with food and water, tying waterproof sacks to the backs of helot slaves, who darted between Athenian patrol ships. But they could only buy so much time, and when a freak forest fire cleared the island of foliage and revealed clearly the position of the Spartans, it was the Athenians’ cue to launch an all-out assault on the haggard troops. True to form, the Spartans fought bravely, attempting to bring their enemy into open combat. But the Athenians were wily, sending archers and rock-throwers against the Spartans’ flanks, dodging into the hills when chased, steadily and painfully pressing the Spartans closer to the shore. At last, the jig was up: the Spartan commander sent a message to the capital, begging instruction or relief. The unhelpful answer returned: “The Spartans order you to make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonourable.” And so, the hungry soldiers of Sphacteria did something that no Spartan army had done in living memory: they surrendered themselves alive.
That story, told in the ancient account of the writer and general Thucydides, has provided a perfect set piece for historians ever since, not only for its dramatic twists, but because it seemed to embody the very spirit of two diametrically opposed antagonists. Here were the Spartans — brave, hardy, immune to complaint in their suffering, but also a bit dense and hidebound in their ways — brought to heel by the crafty, scheming men of Athens. These were no mere cities, but the yin and yang of Greek society, each representing the antithesis of the other: no wonder, Thucydides implies, they were destined to wage an epic war that would bring the Greek world crashing down around them.
That grueling conflict is the subject of Jennifer T. Roberts’ gripping, concise, and effortlessly readable account, The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece. Roberts sees the battle between Athens and Sparta as the great crux of classical Greek history, and her narrative encompasses not only the catastrophic, 27-year Peloponnesian War (the subject of Thucydides’ account), but an entire century and a half of warfare, rival alliances, and diplomatic backbiting that would eventually drag an entire political system into catastrophe.
The long book review end with following paragraph
“Jennifer Roberts surely did not intend to write a parable for the modern age, having begun her book some time before America unhappily made way for a Critias of its own. Nevertheless, in telling a story of men who uprooted a vibrant and dynamic society, and of norms and institutions that were ultimately powerless to stop them, that is precisely what she has done. Time and again, Roberts argues against a deterministic theory of history: the notion that wars and coups were all necessitated by the forces of history. Rather, she reminds us, it was the choices of individual actors that made the difference.”
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