Donald Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War” is a mammoth tome on arguably one of the most devastating periods in Hellenic history—the war between the Athenian Empire and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League (431-404 BC).
What began as a civil war in Epidamnus sparked a colonial war between Corcyra and Corinth. When Athens agreed to assist Corcyra in its war against Corinth, Athens violated the Thirty Year Peace by engaging in battle with Corinth, an ally of the Peloponnesian League led by powerful Sparta. Corinth, in turn, broke the Peace by aiding a rebellion in Potidaea. Athens’s economic blockade of Megara further contributed to the breakdown of the Peace. According to Kagan, the Spartans opposed a war with Athens, and the Spartan King Archidamus II spoke out against declaring war. But Sparta’s allies requested an assembly of the Peloponnesian League, where the Corinthians condemned Spartan passivity and threatened that if Sparta failed to come to the aid of its allies, it would be left outflanked and without allies. Fear of the breakdown of the Peloponnesian League and being left exposed to Athenian, Persian, or other threats, Kagan argues, forced Sparta to enter the war against Athens, thus sparking a Greek World War. However, since Sparta had superiority on land and Athens superiority on the sea, the two sides fought each other to a stalemate. Achaemenid support for Sparta finally brought victory to the latter after 27 years of war.
As other reviewers have written, Kagan assumes the reader is familiar with ancient Greek history. Kagan leaves many blanks for the reader, such as how sieges were conducted before the invention of siege weapons or why Athens had superior naval power besides “better training” for their rowers. Moreover, the book is unnecessarily long (544 pages) and filled with much back-and-forth subjective analysis that is tiresome to read and doesn’t offer much to the reader.