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Today, few are aware of the 70-year struggle between Athens and Sparta, known collectively as the Peloponnesian Wars. Neglected in today’s history classes, most people who know of it largely recall the last phase of the war, where Sparta conquered Athens.
Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C., by Paul A. Rahe, examines the period leading up to that phase of the Peloponnesian Wars. It examines the period when Sparta and Athens moved from allies to rivals, and finally to enemies.
The book follows the 34-year period between the end of the Second Persian invasion of Greece and the start of the five-year truce ending the first war between Sparta and Athens. Rahe traces the events of that period. These include the decline of Persia’s seapower and Athens’s subsequent growth as a naval and economic power.
The book opens with Sparta and Athens working together against Persia. Rahe shows how as Athens grows in power and arrogance and Persia withdrew from the Aegean, Athens threatened Spartan domination of the Peloponnese. Ultimately, Sparta found Athens more threatening than Persia.
The book is a delight on several levels. It’s well-written. Rahe lays out his arguments in clear and understandable language. He avoids the political correctness that poisons much of the histories written in this century. One example is in the title, where he uses B.C. rather than BCE for dating.
Also, it’s unapologetically a military history, which emphasizes grand strategy, the plane where politics and military strategy blend. The concepts of J.F.C. Fuller and Julian Corbett, two military strategists from a century ago, are blended into Rahe’s analysis.
The result is an incisive analysis of a critical period. Modern readers come away understanding the decisions made by the various Greek city-states in the context of their times. Spartan restraint against Athens, seemingly inexplicable to modern readers becomes understandable with Rahe’s analysis.
Sparta’s First Attic War provides a clear account of a neglected period of history, one critical to the development of Western Civilization. Those interested in history, especially military history, should read it.
“Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B. C.,” by Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2019, 328 pages, $38
I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.