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Now in Paperback: Song of Wrath

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins

J. E. Lendon

Basic Books, 2012

The problem that arises when any historical subject becomes overwhelmingly associated with one historian is as immovable as it is unavoidable: the singer tends to become the song, and vice versa. Nowhere is this more obvious than when dealing with the twin towers of ancient Greece: the Trojan War and the Peloponnesian War. The story of Troy has been told and re-told a thousand times, but always the magnetic north of such endeavors is Homer. Likewise (but to a far lesser extent, of course, since actual real-life history is, as we all know, quite boring) the story of the great twenty-years war between the rival hegemonies of Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC: no matter how many books might be written analyzing the subject, it belongs first and always to the Greek historian Thucydides, who not only wrote about the war but participated in it (until he was exiled, that is).

University of Virginia historian J. E. Lendon (author of the superb Ghosts and Soldiers: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity), whose Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins is now out in Paperback from Basic Books, is well aware of who dominates the stage on which he’s setting foot:

Most modern students of fifth-century BC Greece have accepted Thucydides’ diagnosis of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. They have done so because Thucydides argues his point so skillfully, but also because the cause he offers fits so comfortably with contemporary expectations: our gut feeling is that fear of power is why wars break out. But this comfort is an artifact, an invisible result of the vast sway of Thucydides over later Western thought about relations between nations.

That sway runs through Western historical thinking through an eminently traceable lineage:

Thucydides, after all, influenced Thomas Hobbes, who translated him into English; and not only are Thucydides and Hobbes together the progenitors of the theoretical realism that abides in today’s universities and think tanks, but, perhaps more important, they have molded the vulgage of the age.

Lendon’s story of rival empires vying for national honor in an increasingly fraught duel of provocation and response adds some much-needed revisionist nuance to that accepted vulgate. The task he set himself, “immersing Thucydides’ narrative into the wider stream of ancient Greek thinking about foreign relations,” could easily have turned out dry as dust – dozens of Peloponnesian-themed histories in the last century have done just that. But Lendon is a master storyteller (better, it must be hazarded, than Thucydides himself) with a knack for dramatic scene-setting, and he digs into his big story with a zest that’s only sharpened by the fact that his two tussling ancient powers are fighting as much for intangibles as for anything else. His account works in curiously effective ways to restore the strangeness to these studied proceedings.

Wrath, anger, retribution – even while Lendon’s bronze-shod warriors are fighting for such things, they’re tearing apart the very patterns of the ancient world that gave them birth and validation. A new and much lesser world was in large part born of that war on the ancient sea-roads and the dusty fields of Attica, as Lendon is forced to lament:

In an ideal Greek war, the total amount of honor in the system was conserved, and the winner of the hoplite battle gained the same amount of honor as the loser lost. but the Ten Years’ War had not worked like that; much honor had been lost and little gained.

Honor might go a-begging by the time Lendon’s book winds to its fragmented ending, but Song of Wrath lacks for nothing else; it’s a powerhouse of a volume, well-deserving of its second shot at the attention of the reading public. If you missed this book during its hardcover run, snap it up now: all the pathos and glory of being human is contained in these well-written pages.