Review: Sparta’s First Attic War, Paul A. Rahe

Rating: 4 out of 5

Overall, a strong continuation of the first book, ‘The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge’ where the author continues the story by following through the next thirty years. This time sees Sparta brought low by the forces of nature and rebellion and Athens’ might destroyed in follies almost to a man. As such, it’s not a one-to-govern-the-other, but rather the story of intricately shifting balances of power.

There are some stylistic choices that I don’t like: the author frequently opts for “son of Y” instead of going for “X”; this is clearly intended to make sure that “X” isn’t repeated enough, but it complicates an already colourful cast of characters much more. I also—though I can see why this was done—slightly disapprove of the long introduction and conclusion, though the conclusion is much shorter than the introduction. The introduction will feel very similar if one has read the previous (or the next, both of which I accidentally started before this one) volume in the series, because the author repeats his essential ideas there. This is not bad per se, and it does mean that an interested party can start with this book and not worry about the content of ‘The Persian Challenge’.

Regarding the content itself, I find that the author’s conclusions are generally realistic: and where these are not, he tries to emphasise when he departs from the consensus of historians. One of the benefits of this approach is that normally the reader also learns how many of the primary sources describe certain events, and in many cases Mr Rahe tries to explain why this was done by A and not by B—unless, in the odd case, all three of the major historians who covered the period (and have survived) also described the event.

For students of power, the lesson immediately following the earthquake at Sparta will prove the most interesting. That even in those circumstances, training and determination allowed the Spartiates to withstand any effort the helots could make, though with support from allies, speaks to the value of being prepared (at least in the ancient world)—though also the presence of mind of Archidamus II, even if this should be treated as apocryphal, must be noted.

In contrast, Athens’ power in this time is generally compared to her position in the Delian League and in relation to the conflict against the Achaemenids. This makes the expeditions into Egypt an interesting case study, especially in relation to the scale of losses Athens suffered there. Yet, she was able to recover to defeat the Achaemenids at Salamis (the author takes careful note to always emphasise “Cypriot Salamis” for which a non-European reader can be thankful). After this, however, Sparta’s resurgent power allowed for the defeat of Athens in the field and only negotiations saved Pericles from suffering the fate of Tolmides.

The author’s treatment of this entire period is a very good introduction into 5th century BCE Greece, and as such I can recommend it. I decided for something else to go through after this, but I am planning to continue with the book covering the Second Peloponnesian War soon.

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