Saturday, December 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Lawrence A. Tritle, A New History of the Peloponnesian War. Malden, MA/Oxford/Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xxvi, 287. ISBN 9781405122511. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Kirsty Mason, University of Kent


Tritle’s A New History of the Peloponnesian War gives a comprehensive overview of the conflict between the Athenian Empire and the Peleponnesian League during the fifth century BC. Beginning with a brief narrative of the Persian invasion and concluding with the expedition of Cyrus the Younger, Tritle aims to make his reader understand the causes of the war, actions of the participants and consequences for the Greek states. Tritle approaches his investigation of the war largely by discussing the impact it had on society rather than simply providing a sequence of battles and events.

Tritle prefaces his first chapter with a brief overview of the change in relationship between Athens and Sparta, after the Persian invasion. He then swiftly moves on to his first chapter, which deals with the Pentecontaetia and the First Peloponnesian war in greater detail. He concludes this chapter with the relationship between Athens and Corinth at the end of the Samian War. Chapter two discusses specifically the causes and outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian war and gives fuller details of the politics involved. He pays especial attention to notions of arbitration in the classical world at that time. Chapters three and four deal with the first years of the war, bringing the reader to the Spartan disaster at Sphacteria in chapter five. In these chapters Tritle introduces Greek sources other than Thucydides, such as Sophocles and Euripides, and, after introducing them, he draws parallels with actions in the works of these playwrights and actions that occurred contemporaneously during the war. For example Tritle sees a parallel with the massacre and razing of Plataea and the context and content of Euripides’ Andromache. Tritle comments on the hostility towards Sparta in the play, e.g. Andr. 445-54 re the behaviour of Menelaus and Andr. 594-606, re the behaviour of Helen and Hermione. He also notes the inclusion of extremes of violence, e.g. Andr. 1118-20, 1149-55, the killing and mutilation of Neoptolemus. Tritle concludes chapter five with the Athenian loss of Amphipolis. Chapter 6, concluding the Athenian defeat at Amphipolis and the death of Cleon, discusses the Peace of Nicias and briefly synopsises Aristophanes’ Peace (p. 114), which preceded the Peace of Nicias by “eight or nine months”. Tritle also draws parallels with the Spartan victory at Mantinea and Euripides’ Heracles (p. 127) comparing Heracles’ killing of his wife and sons and post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered by many soldiers on their return from war. Chapters seven and eight look at the Melian dialogue and the fall of Melos and then move on to the Athenians' planning of, and defeat in, their Sicilian expedition. Chapters nine and ten deal with the Greek world after Sicily and discuss the impact of Persian involvement in the war. Tritle briefly deals with the change in the Athenian constitution and the influences of both Alcibiades and Tissaphernes. By chapter ten Tritle has arrived at the Athenian victories in the Hellespont and the involvement of Cyrus, finishing this chapter at the Athenian defeat at Notion.

The final two chapters, eleven and twelve, deal with the fall of Athens, and the aftermath, and then progress to Sparta’s leadership of Greece and the campaign of Cyrus. Tritle introduces his reader to the subject of Xenophon’s Anabasis but invites the reader to investigate the work independently.

Tritle concludes his book with three appendices, aimed at helping the understanding of the new student, which are (a) a note on the sources, (b) a who’s who reference for the Peloponnesian war, and (c) a glossary of terms. He also includes a timetable of events before the preface and uses maps and pictures throughout to help guide his reader through the events he discusses and illustrate his arguments.

Throughout his work Tritle does not question the narrative of Thucydides but accepts what he says is fact. Although the history is brief Tritle seeks, in a variety of ways, to make his reader understand the social impact of the war, as is his aim given in his preface. His chief method is to integrate contemporary literature with Thucydides and also to consider what we can learn from architectural projects during the different phases of the war. A notable feature of the work is Tritle’s drawing on his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and his interpretation of this period of history through the perspective of a former soldier. Tritle’s humanising of the main protagonists enables him to offer what he believes are the motives behind their actions. He frequently draws parallels from modern history to help his reader understand the context of actions during the conflict; for example he likens the period before war is declared to that at the armistice of 1919 in France. By making his audience aware of other events which are taking place during the war he helps the reader understand the social context of the actions of the war.

Another common theme throughout his book is Tritle’s examination of the effects of war on the common soldier, especially the psychological effect, and how the war led to further extremes in violent behaviour. This examination culminates in Tritle’s contention that the ten thousand Greek mercenaries who marched under Cyrus had become so accustomed to war that they voluntarily sought it. Tritle’s references to modern psychoanalysis, and his application of it to this period, are both informative and interesting and give a different slant to this interpretation of the war.

It is in these areas that Tritle makes the most contribution to our understanding of this period. Tritle’s overall aim is to make the content and context of the Peloponnesian War more accessible to those unfamiliar with classics, and on the whole I believe he succeeds. His tone throughout is quite relaxed, although in some places it may be considered too familiar (cf. p. 206 “fucking with the sea”, a rendering of moich┼Źnta that Tritle justifies in his n. 8) But for those unfamiliar with classical Greek history and/or the Peloponnesian war Tritle’s book is a good starting place.

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