by Paul A. Rahe
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. Pp. xx, 384.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.90. ISBN: 030024262X
The First Phase of the Great Peloponnesian War
Nearly five years ago, with The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy, Prof. Rahe (Hillsdale College) began a study of Spartan grand strategy which was followed by The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge and Sparta's First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C. This latest volume in the series covers events from the end of the “First Peloponnesian War” through the end of the Archidamian War (431-421 BC), the first half of what is usually called the Peloponnesian War.
Rahe’s principal object is to show how the Spartans perceived their situation and needs and acted on those perceptions within the complex political, economic, and military environment of their times. But while elucidating that, he also tackles the contentious question of whether the ancients had a concept of grand strategy. And Rahe makes an excellent case that “There is . . . nothing of lasting significance known by grand strategists today that figures such as Thucydides and the statesmen he most admired had not already ascertained.” (p. xvi).
Rahe demonstrates that the principal leaders of the numerous polities generally understood the underpinnings of “national” power and usually acted in accordance with “national” interests. In Sparta’s case that meant keeping the helots down to supply the economic resources that freed the Spartiates to become professional soldiers, safeguarding the surprisingly small number of those troops, and maintaining dominance of the Peloponnesus. Other entities – from Persia’s absolute monarchy to the Athenians’ democracy and everyone else – were also usually led by men attuned to their resources and the factors of power underpinning them.
Of course states could make bad choices. In the case of Athens, visionary leaders such as Themistocles or Pericles or charismatic ones such as Alcibiades could served the state well, but if they passed from the scene, things could quickly go awry. In contrast, Sparta’s conservative, collective leadership made fewer mistakes, perhaps had fewer seemingly brilliant successes, but prevailed in the long haul.
Another interesting insight is the surprising role of relatively small states – such as Corcyra, Tegea, Plataea, Potidaea, or Troezen – many of which clearly acted with a firm grasp of their assets and limitations, while some did not, in either case often influencing events all out of proportion to their seeming importance.
An outstanding treatment of this second phase of the generational conflict between Athens and Sparta, Sparta's Second Attic War, a volume in the “Yale Library of Military History”, is also a very good read for anyone interested in the idea of grand strategy.
Note: Sparta's Second Attic War is also available in audio- and e-editions.
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