Monday, November 1, 2010


A review of Sir Nigel Bagnall's The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Greece (2004)

(Rating: 3 of 5)

Sir Nigel Bagnall was a British military officer during the mid-to late twentieth century rising to become Chief of the General Staff. After an extraordinary military career, he began a second career as a writer during which he wrote two volumes in ancient military history. This work was his last book which was published posthumously. His first work, The Punic Wars, which will be reviewed later, focused on the war between Rome and Carthage; this work focuses on the even earlier conflict, the Peloponnesian War. This famous conflict between the two most famous city-states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, is a conflict that is at best really confusing, and unfortunately this book does not succeed in making it less confusing. As a historian telling a tale, one must decide if he or she is to proceed chronologically or categorically, most historians do some of both but Bagnall leans a little too heavily with a categorical focus.

The first forty-five pages of the book are historical notes that deal with all the Greek cities that participated in the conflict. In doing this he should have limited these brief histories up to the start of the rest of the book instead of the roles that each city played during the conflict. Sir Nigel might have been better served scraping the whole forty-five pages and instead give us a one-page timeline in bullet points in order to give a clear picture to his reader about how this whole event happened. Also, we do not arrive to the actual Peloponnesian War into chapter 6 starting on page 131! The earlier Greek wars with Persia dominated the first four chapters, I understand how a historian might feel that one event cannot be explained without really explaining an earlier event, but in doing so he over explains somethings and under explains others. For example, an explanation into the forming of the Delian League and how Athens itself became corrupted with power transforming the League it into an Athenian Empire that was ruthless—to say the least—to dissenters, is confusing. How central figures played role in the war and the events leading up to it deserves more attention than it gets. I realize that Bagnall was a military historian and not a political one, but his take on Pericles is so choppy and out of order that at times it is difficult to put into context.

One of the strengths in the book is how Bagnall uses his own knowledge of military history, plus what he saw in his own career to help compare and contrast the Peloponnesian War to more commonly understood historical events, such as World War II or the Cold War, to increase the readers understanding of this ancient conflict.

This is an okay book but it is more suited for someone who understands a good deal of the material already, such as a person with a focus of study on ancient or military history. I would not recommend it for the average reader wanting to learn about ancient Greece for the first time since public school.

{Video posted by phenomenos on YouTube}

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