J. E. Lendon
One of the pleasures of being an eclectic reader is discovering that one book throws an unexpected light on another.
Song of Wrath is not a simple newspaper-style account of the Peloponnesian War. Rather, it's an attempt to explain why the war began, why it progressed the way it did, and what it meant to those who fought it. Lendon makes a pretty good case that the war between Athens and Sparta was triggered by values and ideas that were as familiar to the ancient Greeks as they are foreign to us. Sparta had long been the leading Greek city by virtue of superior timē--a hard-to-translate and impossible-to-measure concept that combines historical/mythological glory, victory in battle, prestige, and honor. The rising city of Athens became less and less inclined to defer to the Spartans, more and more inclined to consider themselves equal in timē. And the war came: not (in its first ten years, at least) a war for material power, or a war for resources, or a war of democracy against absolutism, but a war for esteem.
In Lendon's narrative, understanding the war as a contest for timē--a kind of currency, in that it could be transferred, spent, and accumulated--makes sense of both the causes and the strategies of the two sides. The Spartans ravaged Athenian lands to assert their superior rank; the Athenians ravaged Sparta's coasts to assert that they were unintimidated and equal in dignity. A straight-out battle transferred timē from the loser to the winner. But so did a superior display of mētis--cunning.
It's a fine book on its own merits--readable, vivid, and well-argued. Lendon deliberately tries for an archaic, even poetic style. He writes about people and places as the ancient Greeks would have thought of them. He doesn't speak of modern ethnographic or linguistic research, but of the wanderings of the Sons of Herakles, the patrimony of Agamemnon, the place where Apollo slew the great serpent Python. It wouldn't work for a book about Hoboken, but I generally liked it here.
Really, the only flaw I'd single out is that Lendon occasionally gets imbrangled in trying to make sense the impossibly convoluted feuds, alliances, betrayals, humiliations, skirmishes, sieges, sulks, revolts, and general soap opera of far to many city-states. It's too much for any one mind to make sense of without some kind of chart, probably four-dimensional.
Which leads me back to The Sleepwalkers--another ambitiously complex attempt to explain a war that sometimes seems inexplicable. World War I fools us, because the Atlantic world of 1914 was modern in all of its essentials. We half-consciously assume that the governments and statesmen of that era were modern in their thinking as well. But these men lived in a world where Germany could feel itself slighted because it had fewer overseas colonies than France or Britain; where France could feel itself honor-bound to avenge its territorial losses, much as Sparta and Argos sparred repeatedly over the strip of land called Thyrea that lay between them; where, if Austria-Hungary took over an insignificant pile of rocks in the Balkans, France would feel compelled to lay claim to an equally insignificant pile of rocks somewhere in the Aegean, or else feel the shame that Athens felt when she lost her little ally Plataea.
No doubt the Spartans would have understood.