397 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-1400060955
The Peloponnesian War was an extended – and vitality draining effort – over several decades between Athens and Sparta that ended with Lysander’s eventual and tragic conquest of Athens. The Athenians had created an exemplary culture, with many high achievements in the arts and sciences, and one feels, with Hansen, a certain empathy for them, even as they squander their advantages.
Pericles had imperial ambitions that rankled his fellow Greeks, and his hubris (merited or not) led to the eventual loss of freedom and autonomy of the most extraordinarily, achievement-oriented society seen on the planet to that time. I found one powerful point particularly interesting: Hansen demonstrates that the source of this great vitality had its origins, not in urban Athens, but in rural Greece, for it was here that the democratic instinct among free and successful agriculturalists first emanated. In fact, this agriculturally-founded, hoplite warrior culture, with its sturdy democratic and practical virtues, was the prior raison d'être of the Greek polis, with Athens itself being its highest expression. He further posits that it was the erosion of the original urban-rural dynamic that was, at its root, the fundamental reason for Greek decline and fall. He posits that this was not only in regard to military matters – in which Hansen’s expertise shines through – but in the practical and political issues confronting a leadership who had many peaceful options to demonstrate its cultural superiority. Yet the path chosen by Pericles was largely imperial and military, and it was his hubris which led to the inevitable tragic consequence for Athens, which Hansen so solidly relates in relation to Sparta and her allies.
It’s a marvelous and wondrous thesis, well researched, and filled me with amazement at the tremendous achievement of these vital and talented people – a people who, nonetheless, had tragic flaws. Hansen’s scholarship is wonderful and, while at times, for me, an ordinary reader, a bit thick with information, I nonetheless found it continuously fascinating. In the end, Hansen truly succeeds in bringing the reader into the minds of the Greeks. His presentation is realistic, hard hitting, nicely detailed, and tough minded, just like the ancients themselves. For those genuinely interested in history – and in ancient history in particular – this effort is very rewarding, and even exciting.