The great rivalry between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta developed into a war of unprecedented brutality that lasted from 431-404 B.C.. The conflict not only caused widespread death and destruction of property but also reversed the growth of democracy in Athens and other states under its influence, bringing about the collapse of what human beings have regarded as the foundations of civilization. For centuries, scholars, military leaders and diplomats have studied the complex series of machinations employed to keep the struggle going and have used them to illuminate events in their own time. Classical scholar Donald Kagan, a noted authority on the subject, shares his vast knowledge and insight in The Peloponnesian War, a magnificent new book based on the four-volume history of the war he published in 1978.

Much of what we know about the war comes from the masterly contemporary account of Thucydides, an Athenian naval commander who was particularly concerned with objectivity and accuracy. But his account stops seven years before the war's end. Kagan's history gives us the broad sweep of the entire war along with astute analysis and commentary. Of particular interest is his discussion of the loss of Amphipolis, which the Athenians blamed on Thucydides; the commander was tried, found guilty, and sent to live in exile for 20 years.

Kagan introduces us to many of the leaders on both sides. He disagrees with Thucydides' statement that, in the time of Pericles, Athens was a democracy in name only, arguing that Pericles "was that rare political leader in a democratic state who told the people the truth." Another prominent leader was Nicias, whose weaknesses led to major catastrophe for his state and himself. Thucydides praises Nicias, saying "he had led his life in accordance with virtue." There is much to keep track of in this book but the effort is well worth it. The reader comes away with a much clearer understanding of the rise and fall of a great empire while gaining wisdom that may help us better understand events in our own time. Roger Bishop is a longtime contributor to BookPage.

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