Friday, March 18, 2011

The Cackling of the Furies

"Song of Wrath - The Peloponnesian War Begins", by J. E. Lendon (also the author of "Soldiers and Ghosts: A history of Battle in Classical Antiquity") - a new history of the first ten years of the war that tore the Ancient Greek world apart - opens with a relatively minor event from that conflict.  The city of Megara, which up until then had been a Spartan ally, also had a democratic faction that wanted to turn the city over to the Athenians.  Megara's port of Nisaea was connected to the main city by a pair of long wars which had been occupied by the Athenians, while an isolated Spartan garrison was holed up in the port itself.  After the Athenians failed in an attempt in collaboration with the pro-democratic faction to seize Megara, a Spartan force commanded by the talented general Brasidas arrived to relieve the Nisaea garrison.  What happened next had an outcome that was obvious to the Ancient Greeks, requiring no further explanation, but leaves us moderns scratching our heads in bewilderment.  With the Spartan army deployed before the walls of Megara, and the Athenians also there facing them, Lendon describes the scene as follows:

"To us, the climatic encounter between Brasidas and the Athenians on the plains of Megara seems as strange as a confrontation between tribes of hooting apes or a standoff between feathered savages in a faded documentary.  Its logic was not that of a modern war, in all its glistening lethality, but that of drunks in a bar, eyes locked on eyes, shouting 'What you looking at?' and inching closer to each other, knuckles gleaming, until one drops his gaze and yields the victory.  Under rapt observation of the Megarians, watching from the walls of their city, Brasidas led out his army, arraying it for battle facing the port of Megara.  Out came the host of the Athenians, deploying for battle opposite Brasidas. Time passed. Each side stood regarding the other.  Then, finally, the Athenians filed back within the walls of the port.  Brasidas led his army back to camp.  And so it was that the Megarians opened their gates to Brasidas and the Peloponnesians.  For Brasidas had recovered the loyalty of Megara."

Lendon goes on from there, chronicling the origins of the great war and then its convulsive history of sieges, raids, ravishments, ambushes, trireme battles, and even a great description of the climatic hoplite clash at Delium.  The book is rich with military and cultural history, but almost ground-breakingly takes an anthropological approach to the conflict in an attempt to put the reader into the minds of the Ancient Greeks themselves, and into the cultural context of their world.  This approach is particularly enlightening, especially for us moderns who get flabbergasted by Thucydides' narrative at times, making the inscrutable motives of the Ancients much more understandable.  Lendon reveals that the Peloponnesian War wasn't fought over resources or wealth, like modern wars almost always are, but instead was a war over honor, status, and prestige, originally marked by almost ritualistic warfare and by tit-for-tat revenge taking, but that eventually escalated into a form of total, all-out war.  Another especially revealing theme of the book concerns the way the Greeks anthropomorphized their city-states, actually considering them like collective human beings that could feel humiliations, rejoice in triumphs, and to be prideful of their past historical accomplishments.

The book is easy to read, witty, entertaining, and informative.  It includes many illustrations and a lavish number of maps that make it a breeze to follow the geographic course of the fighting.  I especially enjoyed Lendon's account of the Battle of Delium - his description of the hoplite fighting, the push of shields (othismos), makes use of the work of Philip Sabin, Victor Davis Hanson, and even the analysis of film footage of the crowd mechanics evident in Japanese and Korean political riots of the last quarter of the last century.  All-in-all, one hell of a read, and even if one doesn't agree with all of Lendon's premises, the book is fun and informative - a must-have in the library of any Ancient History amateur or professional scholar or hobbyist.

At first I thought the military motivations of the Ancients were completely alien to our more recent and 'sophisticated' culture, but the more I thought about how the Greeks became possessed by revenge taking, and the more I also thought about the history of our own wars over the last 250 years or so, the more I thought we have more in common with our ancestors than is immediately evident.  Lendon describes the closing acts in his war in this manner:

"Characters in tragedy carry out revenge as if they were operating under remote control, wretched and fully aware of the doom they are bringing to themselves and all about them but unable to resist fate, the gods, or the simple, overwhelming logic of vengeance." 

It appears that whenever the dogs of war are unleashed, and the combatants have heard the cackling of the Furies, it is difficult for the fighting to stop until complete victory is achieved or both sides face mutual exhaustion.  Certainly read this book - you will come away with a much deeper understanding of the Ancients than you probably had before.


  1. Very intriguing indeed. I think it will be part of my library soon.
    Have you read Greek Warfare Myths and Realities by H. von Wees?

  2. No - I haven't read that book. Have you? If so, do you recommend it?