What Ancient History Tells Us about the War

Sunday, April 30, 2006
Illustration by Taylor Jones for Hoover Digest

Why would we want to study the long civil war between Athens and Sparta—something that happened 2,500 years ago? After all, Greece was only 50,000 square miles in size. It had no more than a million-and-a-half people. What in the world could it tell us, not only about war in general but about conflict in the present age?

I think there are three reasons that it’s valuable to look at that particular war so long past. First, there was this clear antithesis: on one side, a democracy, Athens; on the other, an oligarchy, Sparta. Athens was a liberal cosmopolitan society; Sparta was a parochial, inward, and rural society. Athens was a great sea power with an overseas empire; Sparta was poor and had a nonmonetary economy, with a great army.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for Hoover Digest

The second reason to study this war is that, fortunately for us, unlike the Persian wars or even the Punic wars, a great philosopher—Thucydides— was embedded as a reporter (not by desire but by exile, for purportedly arriving too late to save an Athenian garrison). Thucydides’ exile prompted him to go among the troops on both sides and write this history. Although a lot of ancient battles are tedious to read about—written by authors such as Xenophon or Diodorus—Thucydides’ are not. He was above all a philosopher who used this war to reflect on a higher theme of culture versus barbarity, which I think is very important at this time. We, as products of the Enlightenment, especially under the influence of the French Enlightenment (and Rousseau’s romantic notion of a noble savage), believe that modern man is born into the world near perfect and then burdened with hang-ups by the family, religion, and society. Thucydides argues just the opposite: we are innately all savage; what keeps us civilized each day is what he might call the thin veneer of civilization. If Thucydides wrote about a plague, a revolution, an ethnic cleansing, he expanded on that theme to show—at Corfu or Athens or Mytilene—what people are capable of in extremis. And when you see something like Katrina, the Pakistan earthquake, or the Islamists’ murdering in Iraq, it’s really Thucydidean to the core. Civilization is so precious that we all must guard it very carefully, even hourly—because it can be lost in a minute.

Thucydides said that age-old engines drive us toward war: envy,jealousy,self-interest,pride,and honor.He suggested that people always allege formal grievances but that those grievances usually hide real hurt that is more emotional than rational.

The third reason for the war’s relevance, of course, is that Athens lost. That, to us, was not supposed to happen. It was a dynamic democratic society. It was sophisticated. It was self-critical, even skeptical. It was often cynical, sometimes nihilistic in its excesses. It was powerful, wealthy, often like America (our Founding Fathers, for example, said we were the new Athens). But it lost.


War broke out in 431 when Sparta preemptively invaded and crossed the boundaries of Attica. The question was posed: How does a sea power defeat such a land power? It could not—because Athens would not fight on land and Sparta was incapable of fighting at that time on the sea. You’d think somebody would have thought of that before the war, but neither side apparently did.

So, as is true of all asymmetrical wars, they fought at cross-purposes: Sparta marched around and tried to get the Athenians to come out of their walls. They wouldn’t. The Athenians tried to sail around the Peloponnese and conduct seaborne raids, and of course the Spartans wouldn’t come out to fight by sea. But, like all wars—and this unpredictability still rings true in 2006—things happen that nobody anticipates. If you had imagined three years ago that improvised explosive devices were going to kill 50–60 percent of all American soldiers in Iraq, nobody would have believed that such an apparently primitive device could prove so complex and lethal.

Civilization is so precious that we all must guard it carefully, even hourly—because it can be lost in a minute.

So as the Spartans began to invade, the Athenians chose not to fight them but instead went into their massive fortifications, thinking they would ride out the invasion. That idea of nonagression on land was the policy of Pericles, a democratic leader who led the Athenian empire in its greatest age. He had enjoyed 30 years of magnificent leadership before coming up with the controversial idea of just waiting the Spartans out. Of course, he did not anticipate that a city designed for 100,000 might not be inhabitable for 300,000. As a consequence, a terrible plague—either typhoid or (more likely) a form of smallpox—broke out and killed 80,000 Athenians.

For the next five years, the weakened Athenians depended on their overseas allies to bring them food, supply tribute, and provide ships. Then, as Thucydides says is true of democracies, they rebounded, put down revolts, and weakened Sparta at home. They got back their nerve. They fielded audacious commanders. They stalemated the Spartans and went on to obtain a peace—what in Roman history might be called a bellum interruptum (things return to their status before the war as both sides seek a time-out). Both sides were exhausted. For seven years, from 421 to 415 BC. there was peace.

The new Athenian politicians (Pericles had died during the plague) argued, “The Spartans wouldn’t want a peace unless they were weak. Let’s attack neutral Sicily to find advantage without fighting Sparta directly.” Yet Syracuse, the capital of Sicily, was larger than Athens. So Athens sent 40,000 people 800 miles to attack this neutral democracy—with catastrophic results. Thucydides offered an apologia that could be summarized as follows: “For all the problems, they could have pulled it off and it would have worked, if they just hadn’t fought and stabbed the troops in the back at home.”

Finally, Sparta grasped that the only way to beat Athens was to build a fleet. The Persians, the enemy they used to fear and fought to the death at Thermopylae, had the money. So Sparta adopted the strategy of “We can lose three ships to their two, and exhaust Athens.” This was the sort of strategy Ulysses S. Grant employed in the summer of 1864 in Northern Virginia. Sparta followed this policy of annihilation at sea, and Athens was finally defeated in 405 B.C. at the Battle of Aegospotami, losing its entire fleet. After 27 years of fighting, the Spartan fleet sailed victoriously into Piraeus. They tore down the long walls, according to Xenophon, to the music of flute players and the acclaim of the Greek world.

What does all that distant fighting teach us today? Some of Thucydides’ observations might apply to our present ordeal.


Why do wars start? Osama bin Laden told us in his infamous 1998 fatwa that he was declaring open season on Americans for two reasons: the U.N. embargo we supported against Iraqi children and the stationing of U.S. troops in the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Well, the troops are not there anymore and the U.N. embargo has been replaced by $87 billion pledged to rebuild Iraq, yet there’s still a war with bin Laden. What happened?

War broke out between Athens and Sparta because Athens failed to maintain a credible deterrent.

The answer is a word that Thucydides favored in the Greek language: prophasis, meaning “perceived grievance” or maybe “pretext.” Sparta said that it had to attack Athens because Athens had besieged Potidea. Athens had hurt the Megarians. Athens had connived against Corinth—yet these were all perceptions, pretexts, perceived grievances. Thucydides said the “real” reason Sparta fought was fear (phobos). Sparta had a phobia of sorts about Athens. Athens was cosmopolitan, growing, and powerful; it excited what Thucydides said were the age-old engines that drive us: envy, jealousy, self-interest, pride, and honor. Thucydides suggested that people always allege formal grievances but that those grievances usually hide real hurt that is more emotional than rational.

Consider that the population of Germany today is more than 80 million, yet Germany is almost 10 percent smaller than it was in 1939. Why aren’t the Germans saying, “If we don’t have Lebensraum, we will starve”? Because that wasn’t Hitler’s real grievance. His angst was about pride and a sense of inferiority. And is the war in the West Bank really about 93, 95, or 97 percent control of the land there? More likely it concerns a prosperous, competent Western society plopped right down alongside a failed Palestinian society, which in Thucydidean fashion has transfixed all its frustrations and sense of failure on its confident neighbor.

As Thucydides teaches us, such passions explain how most wars start. Those appetites of emotion, which are encouraged by demogogues, drive them. The Spartans didn’t need the Athenian empire to survive, but a society of Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Pheidias, and the Parthenon was attractive to others in a way Sparta was not. Sparta didn’t have anything to offer non-Spartans. It was a parochial society.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad needs to know that there is a red line he cannot cross.

In the run-up to the present phase of the Islamic war against the West, we have suffered the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the attack on the Beirut embassies and the Beirut annex (the murder of 241 U.S. Marines), the first World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, the East African embassies, and the USS Cole. Thucydides might warn us of something called lost deterrence that explains such a series of assaults. Bin Laden said after Mogadishu that Americans will not or cannot do anything about insurgent forces who are willing to die to kill us. If I had been Thucydides in 1998, I would have feared that bin Laden was going to do something terrible to the United States very soon, given his belief there was much to gain and nothing really to lose.

The Athenians apparently didn’t realize that, when you lose deterrence, you always can resort to the logic of appeasement or passivity to suggest you haven’t really lost. No one told Pericles, “You have no mechanism to punish the Spartans if they set foot one inch into your land. And when they cross your borders, even though they can’t cut down all of your olive trees, they can send a message to your allies that you cannot or will not stop enemies’ being right outside your walls.” The Athenians unknowingly abandoned a policy of deterrence, and the war began once Sparta grasped that Attica was not inviolate.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest

Once you understand that Thucydidean concept, the world becomes easier to figure out. Why did Leopoldo Galtieri, the dictator/general of Argentina, invade the Falklands? Money? Oil? Lebensraum? Because a British minesweeper had left the islands and the new prime minister was a woman, Margaret Thatcher, deemed a natural pushover by a machismo caudillo. General Galtieri thought Britain had lost deterrence. I supported the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza for strategic military reasons, but I was not naive enough to think that part of the Israelis’ ongoing problem was—after the 39 Scuds hit Tel Aviv in the first Gulf War, their generous offer at Camp David of 95 percent of the West Bank, and the unilateral earlier withdrawal from Lebanon—they were sending the message that this new generation of Israel can’t or won’t defend itself. That was an absolutely wrong perception, yet a dangerous perception nonetheless that had led to the Intifadas before Ariel Sharon restored the lost sense of Israeli deterence.

Thucydides teaches us that war broke out because Athens, like both Israel and America, gave the wrong messages. During peace, it’s very dangerous not to warn that anyone who starts a war will pay a terrible price. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, needs to know that, at a certain point, if intelligence suggests he’s going the wrong way, then there is a red line he cannot cross without real consequences. Otherwise, we’ve lost deterrence and will be stuck with a nightmare of another unending war with no resolution. We may have a bad choice now, but we’re going to have a worse one to come.

If you believe that human nature remains fundamentally unchanged, then study the wars of the past for diagnostic purposes.

Almost everything we see today had a rough counterpart during the Athens-Sparta 27-year war. Consider ethnic cleansing. The Athenians often cleansed states that were not Ionic or democratic. The Spartans and Athenians assassinated targeted political leaders and kidnapped diplomats. Combatants threw others over the side of triremes (warships), lopped off limbs, burned people in their houses, and butchered children at school. It’s all there. Why did Thucydides include all that mayhem? Because he wanted his history to be of some value to the future: “As long as the nature of man remains unchanged.”

If you believe that we’re not in some compressed Darwinian cycle where our brain chemistry is changing due to technology or improved diet or some such new stimuli—that more education, more money, more therapy can change human nature—then study the wars of the past for diagnostic purposes. For every tactic, there’s a reaction, and they’re all known from the past since we have not changed but, despite radical new technology, still function on the same very human premises.


What about peace? We hear a lot about peace in the Middle East. Bin Laden himself, after all, offered us a truce not long ago.

In 421 B.C., both sides were exhausted. Something called the “Peace of Nicias” ended the first section of war, called the Archidamian War. That armistice did not last. Why? The causes of the war in 431 had still not been addressed.

Like the years of the Peloponnesian War,many of our current struggles are chronic.

If the reasons that the war started have not been removed, then why won’t the war break out again? The American Civil War is over today because chattel slavery is over. The people who vilified Lincoln in the summer of 1864, similar to our own present-day copperheads, wanted an armistice and were willing to allow chattel slavery in the North American continent. If you look at the countries that President Bush included in his “Axis of Evil,” Germany was not there because Nazism doesn’t exist. Japan is our great ally. Even Vietnam didn’t make the list. (I think that we won that war militarily but lost it politically, but the issue of a viable noncommunist South is long over.) Who, then, is in the Axis of Evil? North Korea, because that was a bellum interruptum of sorts—in 1952 the decision was made not to go past the 38th parallel, and we bequeathed a war to our grandchildren that will be an ungodly disaster if North Korea uses nuclear weapons. Iran is also in the Axis of Evil. War started there in 1979 and has not been resolved because Iran’s theocratic, fascistic government is still pledged to destroy Israel and the United States. Until that changes, whether through peaceful or violent means, we will be in a de facto war with Iran. Iraq was included because Saddam Hussein escaped punishment in 1991. We didn’t go to Baghdad in the first Gulf War. A second Gulf War, called the “no-fly zones,” went on for 12 years. Then we had the three-week war in 2003; for the first time, we removed Saddam, and Iraq is no longer in the Axis of Evil. The issue of his bellicosity is resolved.

How did Thucydides’ war end? It had to terminate in one of two ways: either Athens had to physically go down to Sparta, free all the serfs who farmed and provided food for the Spartan army, and destroy the Spartan army itself in a pitched battle. Or Sparta had to go on the seas, blockade Athens so it couldn’t import food, station troops out in Attica so Athenians couldn’t farm their own fields, and destroy the Athenian navy. Once that happened, the Spartans could impose their will on the Athenians, in effect saying, “The Athenian empire is over. You have 12 triremes. You might even have back your democracy some day. But no longer are you going to be the cultural renaissance of the ancient world, much less the leader of the Greek Aegean.” And that’s precisely what they did in 404 and 403.

That was the end of the Athenian empire and Pericles’ dream as well. Sparta and Athens eventually went on to become friends in the fourth century, just as we are today with Japan and Germany, because the issue that had once divided them—expansionary Athenian imperialism and culture— was long past.

For history’s lessons to have any value for us, we need to see that many of our current struggles have been, like the years of the Peloponnesian War, repeated and chronic. If you look at Israel in 1947, 1956, 1967, and 1973, you see a disturbing pattern. After aggression on the part of the Arab neighbors who surround Israel, Israel reacts; by, say, day six or seven an American diplomat is negotiating with his Russian counterpart, then in turn calling his Israeli counterpart, saying, “Hurry up, I can only give you two or three more days.” A nuclear deterrent on both sides explained this curious arrangement. Those wars were never allowed to finish with a defeated and humiliated enemy, even though that fact alone might have led to a lasting peace.

So today we don’t confront a Soviet deterrent, but we have the Arab and Islamic worlds scrambling as fast as they can to find a nuclear one. Why does Iran want a bomb? Why did Saddam want a bomb? I think the answer is—in addition to all the national pride that accrues and the attention of European diplomats and the blackmail money and the effect on oil prices— that for anti-American regimes it’s a replacement for the Soviet nuclear deterrent. It may allow Israel’s enemies in the Middle East to resume their aggressions without having to pay the price. Remember, since the fall of the Soviet Union, no sovereign Arab country has invaded Israel, perhaps because there’s no Gromyko or Brezhnev to call us up and warn us to restrain Israel before it levels its attackers.

Presently, those in the Islamic world have no deterrent to save themselves when their conventional aggression fails, so they’re desperately seeking a surrogate Soviet bomb. They understand better than we do that wars end for good only when one side wins and one side loses—a frightening thought indeed.

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