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The Fall of the Athenian Empire (A New History of the Peloponnesian War) Paperback – July 23, 1991
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"The fourth volume in Kagan's history of ancient Athens, which has been called one of the major achievements of modern historical scholarship, begins with the ill-fated Sicilian expedition of 413 B.C. and ends with the surrender of Athens to Sparta in 404 B.C. Richly documented, precise in detail, it is also extremely well-written, linking it to a tradition of historical narrative that has become rare in our time."―Virginia Quarterly Review
"With its three predecessors, this volume will long stand as the definitive work on the Peloponnesian War and the nature of the Athenian empire."―American Historical Review
"Kagan offers political history at its best. He does a masterful job of laying out the strategic choices confronting ancient Greek statesmen and generals, then explaining why events took the course they did. . . . Kagan shows a remarkable gift for drawing analogies to more recent wars to illuminate this struggle between ancient great powers. These insightful analogies also help us understand better the imperial rivalries and wars of our own troubled century."―Orbis
"A profound analysis of the relation of strategy to politics, a sympathetic but searching critique of Thucydides' masterpiece, and a trenchant assessment of the voluminous modern literature on the war."―Bernard Knox, The Atlantic Monthly (reviewing the four-volume series)
"The temptation to acclaim Kagan's four volumes as the foremost work of history produced in North America in the twentieth century is vivid. . . . Here is an achievement that not only honors the criteria of dispassion and of unstinting scruple which mark the best of modern historicism but honors its readers. To read Kagan's 'History of the Peloponnesian War' at the present hour is to be almost unbearably tested."―George Steiner, The New Yorker (reviewing the four-volume series)
From the Back Cover
This is the last volume of a history of the Peloponnesian War.
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This volume is as good as the others, if not better. For all students in the period, and for anyone wanting to learn what happened and how and why Athens lost, this is the reference. It is to be preferred to Kagan's one volume book covering the whole of the war and which is essentially a condensed version directed to the general reader who may have only a passing interest in the subject.
The skills of Kagan are multifold. They are on display yet again and they may be even more apparent here than in some of the previous volumes. One reason is that, contrary to some of the earlier periods, there is no longer a single or a dominant source (Thucydides) but 5 sources, of which Thucydides is only one, and an incmplete one at that (he breaks of about 6 years before the end of the war. Two of the other sources (Diodoros and Plutarch) wrote several centuries after the events, although they based their narratives on earlier sources. As Kagan mentions, when some of these sources contradict each other, it is at best difficult to determine which one is correct.
In addition to Kagan's masterful grasp of the sources and of the secondary litterature, his ability to write in a clear style about a complicated set of diplomatic, political and military events is also quite exceptional. He also manages to present each side's situation, reconstructs in a convincing way what may have been their respective objectives and show how important Persian policies (and their changes) became by the end of the war. Last, but nost least, the book includes a complete set of maps and diagrams illustrating the main campaigns and describing the main battles.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Kagan's analysis of Thucydides judgements and the extent to which these were true or reflected his preconceptions. This is certainly one of the most valuable parts of the book (similar pieces can be found in the other three tomes) because, thanks to careful and dispassionate analysis, Kagan shows to what extent some of our views are preconceived and influenced by our sources and mainly by Thucydides himself whose wonderful story telling was tainted by his political biases. Here are some of the main points he makes:
- the strategy of Pericles was in fact flawed, as opposed to the winning strategy that Thucydides has managed to make us think it was
- the Athenian defensive strategy had major weaknesses: it concentrated on not losing the war by avoiding land battles, as opposed to concentrating on winning it
- despite Thucydides allegations that civil strife in general, and the ultra-democratic faction (to which he was bitterly opposed and which had exiled him) was respoponsible for losing the war, the democrats in fact prosecuted the war far more actively and more successfully after 410 BC than had the oligarchs just before
- nevertheless, and even after the disastrous Sicilian expedition (and contrary to what I always used to believe, for instance), Athens was not doomed and could have won the war, so it was not doomed from the beginning and its surrender was not pre-determined.
I will NOT, however, discuss the core point of the book (why did Athens lose?) to avoid any spoilers. There is no single and simple explanation (there are several, in fact) and the answers are discussed in-depth throughout the book.
Anyway, to cut a long review short, this is an example of history telling at its very best. Although perhaps not "the gold-standard in Ancient Greek History", as another put it, it is certainly among - say - the top 10 books in this field. It has, however, remained the "gold standard" on the Peloponnisian War, although this volume is now a quarter of a century old and the previous ones are even older. This is not to say that no other volume on the same topic is good. At least some of them are. However, these four tomes, and this one in particular, are still unmatched in terms of scholarship, comprehensiveness and clarity of the narrative and discussions.
I found it so good and so convincing that it took me a while to realize that the points that the author was making should be viewed as his thesis, rather than "the truth".
In place of a fairly simple conflict between Sparta and its allies and the Athenians, this phase was a many-sided, with Persian satraps intervening on one side or the other, Persian money used to supply the side currently in favour and the complex machinations of Alcibiades, playing Spartans and Persians off against each other, at first an enemy of Athens, later one of its leaders and finally no-one's friend. Athenian politics were also complex. The previous moves from limited democracy to a fuller version were reversed, and first a strict an pro-Spartan oligarchy was imposed at Athens. A milder oligarchy followed, but the Athenian fleet based at Samos remained democratic and eventually managed a restoration of democracy in Athens.
On the military front, although weakened by the Sicilian debacle, Athens managed to recover and fight on. However, with less manpower and diminished financial resources and suffering from internal strife, Athens' path was gradually downwards towards defeat. This defeat was not inevitable, but once the Peloponnesian league managed to build a credible fleet with Persian money, Athens could only survive if it remained united, mobilised its allies and kept on winning, whilst the Peloponnesians could fight a war of attrition despite defeats and losses of manpower on the way, as long as they remained determined to defeat Athens.
Kagan's conclusion makes it clear that Athens was not the only loser. Sparta suffered from the erosion of its conservative values though growing corruption and personal ambition once its leaders were exposed to money and power. The number of its full citizens declined sharply and it gained little gratitude from its allies. Many Peloponnesian cities lost population and wealth and some places like Platea and Melos were devastated by the war. The only real winners were Persia and, ultimately, Macedon.
Throughout his four books, Kagan subjects Thucydides to detailed scrutiny, and in his conclusion gives his considered judgement. Thucydides was a political writer with an agenda that was against more the extreme forms of democracy and in favour of a broad oligarchy, as shown by his support for Pericles and loathing of Cleon. His analyses of the causes of the war, its inevitability and support for Pericles' strategy are all questioned by Kagan and found wanting.
All four books of the series are excellent, and this maintains the standard.
Thucydides Peloponnesian War should be required reading in public school, as its lessons for any democracy that would go to war or claim any sort of empire are still instructive today. For any student of philosophy, it provides the context in which Socrates taught, and the aftermath that so influenced Plato and Aristotle.
Kagan's 4 volumes, which should really only be read after Thucydides, go deeper than Thucydides, synthesizing all ancient sources on the war analyzed by a military mind at both the strategic and tactical level. Kagan had produced the definitive modern account of the war, from which any analysis that disagrees with him must start.
In this, The fourth and final installment of Kagan's history of the Peloponnesian War. Kagan skillfully rounds out the set and the war itself. These books come in and out of circulation, so best to get ahold of them while they're available. Again, Kagan's work is superb
For the historian, or avid history buff (however you might self-identify), these works are a necessary addition to your library. The more casual reader might, however, consider purchasing Kagan's abridged work entitled simply "The Peloponnesian War." It includes the main thrust of the narrative, but with markedly less analysis of the political motivations included in these volumes.