Posts Tagged ‘War’

Books briefly noted: ancient and medieval

January 31, 2020

Today, quick notes on a few books that crossed my bed-stand lately:

Making Medieval Manuscripts
Christopher de Hamel
(Bodleian, 2018)
176 p.

Here is a wonderful book for those with an interest in things medieval. I have quite a few books on or about medieval manuscripts — mostly coffee table books on illuminated manuscripts — but here is the first book I have seen devoted to explaining how those manuscripts were made. Christopher de Hamel is a Cambridge fellow with long experience working with these manuscripts, and recently won wide praise for his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, a great, thick book that I borrowed from the library but returned unread on account of its great thickness. The present volume, however, which is a re-working of his 1992 book Scribes and Illuminators, is invitingly thin and generously ornamented with pictures. It was a quick and fascinating read.

Hamel starts at the beginning — with dead sheep — and explains the process by which parchment was made from the skins. He gives the recipes for medieval ink, and talks about the process of planning the layout of books, as well as the arduous task of actually writing or copying them. We learn a little about the economics of book production. The central section of the book is devoted to the art of illumination: how drawings were planned, how pigments were made, the order in which pictures were coloured, the process by which gold leaf was produced and laid onto the page. Finally he describes how pages were sewn together and bound into codices. The book gives one a renewed appreciation not only for the beauty of the finished books, but also simply for the many volumes which we have inherited from ancient and medieval times, each one of which was produced with great labour. Hamel writing is clear and genial, and his obvious affection for his subject is evident. The book is handsomely produced on glossy paper and filled, as already mentioned, with beautiful and instructive pictures.


Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts
Pamela Porter
(British Library, 2000)
128 p.

While I would stop short of claiming to have a positive desire to fight in a medieval war, I think it is still legitimate to point out that a certain romance attaches to the figure of the medieval warrior: the armour, the banners, the tents, the parlays, the horses, the valour, and the heraldry must, in justice, be considered alongside the spear in the torso and the arrow in the eye for a fully rounded picture. This little book provides a brief overview of the conditions and tactics of medieval warfare. We learn about knights and the chivalric tradition, military training, weapons and armour, siege tactics, battle formations, and, in the later middle ages, technological advances such as gun-powdered weapons that sufficiently altered military affairs that a new age of warfare could be said to have begun.

But only, by my estimate, one-quarter of the book is text. The rest is filled out with manuscript illuminations depicting one or another aspect of warfare, and these pictures are the principal attraction of the book, for they are wonderful — all the more so after reading Hamel’s book above and having, therefore, a fresh appreciation for the difficulty with which those illuminations were made. A preponderance of the pictures appear to have been taken from English and French manuscripts — at least, it is very often that the two armies depicted are the English and the French — which makes sense given that they were curated from the British Library’s collection. Although the book is not large (just 6 inches on a side, roughly) the reproductions are of high quality and the colours are vivid. Recommended to students of military history and lovers of medieval art.


Practical Theology
Spiritual Direction from St Thomas Aquinas
Peter Kreeft
(Ignatius, 2014)
400 p.

Kreeft had a good idea: highlight within St Thomas’ voluminous writings a set of topics that could be of interest to ordinary (non-philosopher) Christians, add commentary to explain or elaborate Thomas’ points, and then staple them all together. The book includes over 350 of these topics, typically one per page. They range from broadly pastoral topics (“Why God doesn’t give us enough grace to overcome sin”) to moral reflections (“How unbelief is a sin”; “Why wealth can’t make you happy”) to catechesis (“What the Eucharist signifies”). There is plenty of philosophy too (“Knowing God by analogy”; “The importance of reason in morality”). Each treatment is short enough that the book could serve as a kind of daily devotional reader, and this was how I approached it. St Thomas’ writings are incredibly rich, seeming sometimes to be a reservoir for the accumulated wisdom of our whole religious and cultural tradition, and Kreeft’s selections are judicious, even if the treatments are sometimes cursory.


Ancient Warfare
A Very Short Introduction
Harry Sidebottom
(Oxford, 2004)
165 p.

By ‘ancient’ is meant, for the most part, Greco-Roman. Sidebottom casts quite a wide net for a short book: war in ancient art, war as a metaphor and conceptual framework in ancient society, motives and justifications for war, and techniques for waging war. He includes an interesting though brief discussion of the development of our just war tradition: Greeks made limited contributions, but Cicero in his Republic specified basic conditions for commencing a war, while some Stoics (Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom) denied that any war could be just, even when fought in self-defence. Soldiery was frowned on by early Christians, not only because soldiers were the pointy-end of the Imperial stick wielded against them, but because soldiers were obligated to uphold the cult of the Emperor; it is telling that in early Christianity the image of the spiritual athlete predominates over that of the spiritual soldier.

The most interesting chapter to me was on the conditions of ancient warfare “on the ground”: what soldiers wore and carried, how they fought in formation, how commands were given, the basic shape of naval warfare, the techniques of siege warfare. Least interesting were the author’s occasional nods at matters in academic vogue (“war was strongly gendered in classical antiquity”). The book as a whole advances an argument about the nature of “the Western way of war”; generally I think that brief, introductory volumes meant for beginners are poor venues for proposing pet theories, but perhaps the publisher thought differently.

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.


The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.


Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.


Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.


They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.


The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.

Caesar: The Gallic Wars

October 20, 2018

The Gallic Wars
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2017) [c.50 BC]
306 p.

In 59 BC Caesar had convinced Pompey and Crassus to form an alliance with him for power in the staggering Roman Republic, and had been awarded governorship of the province of Transalpine Gaul (that is, the south of modern France). The next year he departed to wage what turned out to be a decade-long contest to conquer the whole of Gaul — roughly, the area bordered on the south by the Pyrenees and in the northeast by the Rhine — and bring it under the governance of Rome. His success had the effect of nearly doubling the geographical size of Roman territory. He himself wrote this account of the campaign (with a slight caveat, below).

Caesar’s motive in undertaking the war is partly obscure. His stated reasons were that several peoples of northern Gaul had appealed to him for assistance as they faced violent incursions from Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. He defended them and established Roman authority to maintain peace. But historians have not failed to notice that Caesar began the war deeply in debt and emerged immensely wealthy, and there is some natural suspicion that this prospect formed part of his motivation as well.


The war followed a fairly predictable pattern, year on year. Because the armies involved were immense (tens of thousands of men) and because, as always in ancient warfare, they survived by foraging from the lands through which they passed, they could fight only when food could be had. Thus they would begin in around June and wrap up by October; for the remainder of the year the army would hunker down in winter quarters, making weapons or building boats, while Caesar himself would cross southwards over the Alps to mind his other duties.

In the early years of the campaign the Romans enjoyed a marked military advantage. Their opponents had never seen discipline, technology, and expertise such as Rome possessed. A Gallic army might occupy a hill town — not a bad tactic against a near peer enemy — but the Romans, instead of charging uphill in a wild assault, would build a massive circumvallation to prevent any traffic in or out; they would dig great trenches filled with water; they would construct siege towers and massive earthworks by which to breach the enemy’s walls. It was no contest.

But, to the credit of the Gauls, they learned quickly, and by the midpoint of the decade the technological advantage of Caesar’s forces was less obvious. Countermeasures like fiery projectiles and collapsing tunnels were used against Caesar, and the Gauls adopted siege warfare tactics as opportunity allowed. Caesar does not stint to praise the ingenuity of his foes when, in his eyes, they earned it.

Still, the number of Roman defeats was small. Late in 57 part of the army was ambushed in the Alps and had to flee for safety. The winter quarters were attacked in 54, with many Romans killed. The following year the main supply camp, left on minimal manning while the main army was elsewhere, was surprised by a Gallic attack and routed. But these were exceptional; the Romans faced greater or lesser resistance, but mostly prevailed.


The campaign included several famous episodes. In 55 Caesar, keen to demonstrate Roman power to the Germanic tribes harrassing his Gallic allies, did what had been thought impossible: in just 10 days his engineers built a bridge across the Rhine strong enough to march his entire army across. The methods were quite amazing: footings were driven into the river bottom using dropped weights, stabilized against the current by being placed at angles, and the bridge surface was extended from footing to footing until the crossing was complete. They even built deflecting barriers upstream of the footings to prevent logs floated down by the Germans from causing damage. The feat was repeated in 53 at a different location. Once across, Caesar didn’t do much; this was military theatre with a message: don’t think you’re safe just because this paltry creek runs between us.

The other very famous episode, also in 55, and of special interest to English speakers, was Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel into Britain. He embarked in September with a relatively small force, mostly, it seems, from curiosity to see the island which was, in the Roman imagination, the very end of the earth. They first encountered the cliffs of Dover, and, being unable to land, sailed northeast up the coast until they found a beach (probably near modern Walmer). Naturally, the Britons were not overjoyed to see them, and opposed their landing. Nonetheless the Romans were able to establish a small camp, where they remained for about a week before attempting to return to Gaul. En route some of the Roman ships were forced back to Britain by a storm, and this contingent, including Caesar, was attacked again by the Britons, who were resisted only with great difficulty. Finally gaining the upper hand, Caesar imposed on the Britons an obligation to send hostages (a standard penalty for those whom he defeated), and departed. Apparently only one tribe did send hostages, the rest, presumably, hoping that they would never see the Romans again.

But this was wishful thinking. Caesar’s men spent the winter building boats, and in July of 54 he crossed the Channel again, this time with more than 600 vessels in his fleet. Astonished, the Britons failed to even contest his landing. Several conflicts ensued, as Caesar marched his men approximately 100 km inland over the course of a campaign lasting 2-3 months. On those whom he defeated he imposed financial penalties on the understanding — still a pretense, but soon enough a reality — that Britain was now under Roman control. It was Caesar’s last British hurrah; once departed, he never returned to Britain.


The overall arc of the Gallic Wars was of escalating conflict against progressively better organized foes. When first Caesar came to Gaul it was divided into many small tribes, but as the scale of the Roman threat became more evident the Gauls organized into larger groups to increase their chances of success. This resistance culminated in 52 with the formation of a pan-Gallic force led by Vercingetorix. He conceived a new strategy: scorched earth. Attempting to use the size of the Roman army against it, he directed that the Gauls burn their fields, farms, and towns in order to deprive the Romans of supplies. But this tack was only partly successful; yes, it made things harder for Caesar, but he simply foraged farther afield. Eventually he cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Avaricum (near modern Bourges). A difficult siege ensued, but the Romans eventually breached the walls.

Vercingetorix, however, escaped and took shelter in Alesia (modern Alise-Sainte-Reine), where the culminating battle of the Gallic Wars took place. The city was situated on a hill, with strong fortifications. A sizable Gallic army was inside, and another was outside at some distance. Standard procedure was to lay siege to fortified cities, but the presence of the second Gallic army, roaming about, complicated things. Caesar’s response was to make a double-facing circumvallation of the city: walls, towers, trenches, and booby traps facing both toward Alesia and away. Though he had few men to staff such an extensive fortification, the obstacles he installed allowed him time to concentrate his men where the attacks took place. Eventually, their hand forced by hunger, the Gauls broke out of Alesia and attacked, and the second army also assaulted the Romans in a co-ordinated effort. But Caesar and his men proved too strong. Vercingetorix was captured, and surrendered along with all the forces at his command. The conquest of Gaul was, more or less, complete.

More or less, because although Caesar’s own account of the campaign concludes after the siege of Alesia, one Aulus Hirtius appended an eighth and final book in which he recounts the events of the years 52-50, bridging the gap between Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s account of the Roman civil wars (which I hope to read sometime soon). In these years, we learn, there were a variety of smaller skirmishes against pockets of resistance. But they have the feeling of being an aftermath, or a mopping up operation, and it is perhaps for those reasons that Caesar did not take the trouble to write about them himself.


As in most accounts of ancient warfare, the methods employed by Caesar (and his opponents) can be shocking to us. Even so standard a tactic as siege warfare, involving, as it does, civilians alongside soldiers, fails to meet ethical standards of modern warfare. There were rare occasions when Caesar was especially brutal — as at the siege of Uxellodenum, when he had the hands of the defeated soldiers cut off — and, as was standard, he gloried in reporting how many foes had been killed (often, modern historians suspect, greatly exaggerating the numbers). It is possible that a million Gauls lost their lives in the decade-long fight against Rome, so this was war on a large scale, and, we must admit, despite that fact that Caesar acquired in his own time a reputation for clemency, he would by modern standards be guilty of war crimes. The same, of course, could be said of other Roman generals, and of Persians, Greeks, and Gauls.

The people of Rome, though, had few qualms about Caesar’s methods or aims. Caesar would send back reports, and he tells us, with pride, that he was on several occasions awarded lengthy public celebrations in Rome that outstripped in lavishness and duration those of any previous military commander. When he did finally return to Rome in 49, it was, of course, an epoch-making (or, to be more specific, a Rubicon-crossing) event. His fame and power had waxed greatly, and although he faced powerful opponents, especially in the person of Pompey, it was clear that he was a man with whom the Roman Republic could not avoid a reckoning.


This was a tremendously enjoyable book. Being one of the few ancient accounts of a military campaign written by the responsible military commander, it has special historical value, but the importance of the story it tells has made it attractive to a wide swath of readers. Indeed, The Gallic Wars was for centuries one of the standard books that students of Latin would read in the course of their education, admired for the clarity of its style in addition to the interest of the story it tells.

I read a new edition published in the Landmark series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The text is enriched by a generous helping of maps, paragraph summaries, timelines, many explanatory notes, an excellent introduction, and a daunting set of essays on various aspects of Roman warfare, economics, and politics. An immense amount of work went into it, and we, the readers, benefit. It deserves to win every pertinent publishing award, and maybe a few others besides.

Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War

July 8, 2012

The Peloponnesian War
(Free Press, 2008) [c.400 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Richard Crawley
752 p.

Thucydides’ history of the decades-long war between Athens and Sparta is generally considered to be the first great masterpiece of historical writing in the Western tradition. He wrote only a few decades after Herodotus, but his conception of what constituted specifically historical writing had sharpened up considerably in the meantime. Thucydides gives us very little in the way of anecdote or local colour; he is focused, detailed, and concise. His attention is focused on military affairs and politics, principally. Thucydides was himself an Athenian naval general, and he appears at several points in the narrative.

The Peloponnesian War was a messy affair. The principal opponents were Athens and Sparta, but over its 27 years the war drew the entire Greek-speaking world, and more, into its orbit. The history of the war turned on a long and complicated series of shifting allegiances between the principal powers and the lesser: Corinth, Argos, and the various island peoples scattered throughout the Aegean. Thucydides attributes the cause of the war to Spartan concern over the rising power of Athens, who had, in the wake of the defeat of the Persian invasion (recounted by Herodotus) built an extensive empire around the rim of the Aegean Sea. These far-flung holdings became a major problem for Athens as the war progressed, for subject peoples saw the war as an occasion for revolt, sometimes with Spartan support, against a weakened authority.

Thucydides made use of a novel technique to effectively present the factors and arguments that, in his judgement, most affected the progress of the war. At crucial junctures, he had important figures deliver speeches. By his own admission, these speeches were not “historical”; there was no transcript from which he could draw. Instead, his speeches were imaginative reconstructions of what he thought the figure “should have said” in his specific circumstances. Obviously, this is a respect in which Thucydides’ conventions of historical writing are not identical to ours, but, in his defence, the speeches make terrific reading.

One gains much from reading Thucydides: first of all, exposure to certain great men — Pericles, who counselled the Athenian assembly against war in the first place; the bold and tenacious Athenian general Nicias; the enterprising and scheming Alcibiades; the conquering Spartan Brasidas, to name a few; an appreciation for the uncontainable consequences of war, for who could have foreseen the tortured path this conflict would take?; many portraits, presented especially through the speeches, of the human side of war; a certain sad awareness of the plight of mankind, subject to so many forces and prone to make poor decisions (something that also, and perhaps especially, afflicts democracies); and a lively sense of the art of military strategy. It really is one of the great books.

As is well known, Thucydides did not finish his history, for the book covers only 21 of the 27 years of the conflict. I suppose I don’t give anything away by saying that eventually it was the Athenians who were defeated, largely because the Spartans were able to forge an alliance with the Persians. What happened after the war, with the March of the Ten Thousand, and the gradual decline of Greek power, and then the rise, some seventy years later, of a Macedonian power that would rival even the Persians in ambition and achievement — well, that is a story for another time.

I read The Landmark Thucydides edition of The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert Strassler. It has all of the virtues that I enumerated when I wrote about The Landmark Herodotus some time ago: many maps to keep the reader oriented geographically, marginal summaries, parallel timelines for the various theatres of operation, a thorough glossary, a detailed index, and numerous appendices to fill out the historical background. It is a beautiful piece of work. Were it not available one would obviously struggle through anyhow, but since it is available I cannot imagine reading Thucydides without it.


Related reading: Steven Pressfield — The Tides of War