Thomas G. Palaima
Review of Lawrence
A. Tritle, A New History of the Peloponnesian War. Malden, MA:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xxvi, 287. ISBN 978-1-4051-2250-4.
Why yet another history of the Peloponnesian War? After all,
Thucydides' classic original is a landmark in western history, much
admired for its modern-feeling scientific approach. And, too, the
ancient historian had many advantages over later writers: he was a member
of the Athenian elite, whose family came from natural resource-rich
Thrace. He had sufficient political prominence to be elected to the
board of Athenian generals (strategoi) during the war he describes.
Privy to high-level diplomatic negotiations and strategic planning,
he knew firsthand the rough-and-tumble procedures of decision-making
at Athens as well as the city-state's strengths and limitations in
manpower and finances. He well understood the critical importance of
supply routes for the timber and flax needed to build and outfit
ships and for the grain to feed a large civilian population during
decades of quasi-siege conditions.
Thucydides understood the mentalities of highly influential and
factionalized political and military leaders. He could gauge the
reliability of Delian League allies (later, subject states of the
Athenian empire) at any given moment. He also (to his cost)
experienced the vagaries of public opinion in the radical democracy
of late fifth-century Athens.
As a strategos in 424, Thucydides was charged with safeguarding the
key site of Amphipolis on the Strymon River in Thrace, an area
important for its timber and precious metals. After failing to
relieve the forces at Amphipolis fighting the army led by the
Spartan commander Brasidas, he was forced into (a twenty-year) exile
that enabled him to follow the progress of the war from a
non-Athenian (including Spartan) perspective.
Thucydides realized at its outset that the war, in its scale and
importance, would surpass even the Persian Wars of 490 and 480-479
that had been fought by citizen soldiers who were the ancient Greek
equivalent of the "greatest generation" of World War II veterans.
The Peloponnesian War in fact proved to be a protracted, all-out
conflict involving hundreds of Greek city-states and even non-Greek
participants like the Persian provincial governors (satraps) in
present-day western Turkey.
Thucydides was very much a man of his time, deeply influenced by the
new learning in medicine, rhetoric, philosophy, drama, and poetry.
Unlike his predecessor Herodotus, he eschewed mythological
explanations and cast his history as a diagnostic study of
individuals and communities under the stress of state-sponsored,
large-scale use of force. For him, human thoughts and actions, not
Homeric notions of divine envy, anger, and intervention, motivated
the decisions of city-states and the often violently competing
groups within them. Selecting telling events as test cases of
wartime behavior, Thucydides amply illustrates how the best-laid
plans and expectations may be confounded. He makes brilliant use of
speeches to crystallize "what was appropriate to the particular
occasion." A particular concern is the influence superpowers
warring factions within smaller states.
With a stark clarity, he reveals the worst that human beings can do
and bear at the behest of that harsh teacher--war.
To repeat, given all that Thucydides is, what need is there of a new
history? Lawrence Tritle (Loyola Marymount) argues convincingly that
Thucydides overwhelms modern historians who "retell Thucydides'
story but without probing his text critically or paying attention to
the traumas and anxieties people were then facing" (xxi). He sees
the Peloponnesian War not as a purely political and military
conflict, but in the totality of its social and cultural context.
By a judicious use of literary,
materials, Tritle strives to take his readers through the war
staying in the now, without recourse to the hindsight that shapes Thucydides' narrative (xxiii-xxiv).
Thus, for example, discussing the ("phony") Peace of Nicias (421
B.C.E.), he sticks to what an astute observer could say at the time:
"Aside from Athens and Sparta, there was little joy over the recent
settlement. Thucydides relates that nothing was settled and there
was little 'peace' to be found: terms prescribing the return of land
were ignored, violations of all kinds by all parties occurred (Thuc.
5.26.2)…. Corinth and Megara were denied recovery of strategic
sites; Thebes saw that peace meant an end to greater power.
Frustrated these states refused to sign the agreement" (121).
Most significantly, Tritle pays careful attention to an aspect of
the war largely ignored in modern accounts (he cites Donald Kagan,
J.F. Lazenby, Victor Hanson, N. Bagnall, and G. Hutchinson), namely
"the impact of the war's violence on society and culture" (xxii). This claim might
surprise even readers familiar only with abridged versions of
Thucydides. But such powerfully affecting events as the plague in Athens, the
debate over the execution of the male population of Mytilene, the
atrocities committed during the Corcyraean civil war, and the
collision of Machtpolitik with idealistic moral standards in the
Melian Dialogue--these episodes and others are presented so
clinically by the former Athenian general, inured as he was to war
trauma and intra-state violence, as to dampen the reader's
appreciation of the unremitting stress endured by individuals and
communities throughout the long war.
Tritle attributes such steady debilitation of the human spirit and
decline in decent public behavior to "the corrosive effect of violence
and its impact on human society" (xxiii). By contrast, modern
commentaries often reinforce the sense of abstraction in even the
most vivid particular descriptions in Thucydides' test-case
accounts, concentrating instead on general lessons that will not
disturb the peace of mind of civilian readers.
Tritle is well equipped
for the mission he sets himself. As an officer in the
Vietnam War, he witnessed the causes of the psychological
trauma analyzed by Jonathan Shay in his now-classic Achilles in
He has written insightful articles on the realities of ancient
warfare, most notably, on Xenophon's portrait of the Spartan veteran
and mercenary Clearchus as a previously unrecognized case of
post-traumatic stress disorder
and on ancient and modern cases of mutilation of corpses by
His book From Melos to My Lai
drew on the human implications of Shay's comparative psychiatric studies to enrich ancient and modern
military history in a provocative way that left plenty of room for
debate and discussion.
He has for years taught regular seminars entitled "Achilles in
Vietnam" and has sponsored conferences at his university on war and
violence and the ongoing military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here are a few of the (many) gems readers will find in this new
version of the Peloponnesian War. Tritle finally puts to rest the
dubious yet widely held idea that hoplite warfare was so ritualized
that battles like the first major land engagement of the war at
Delium in 424 lasted only minutes.
His detailed reconstruction (98-104) shows that a disaster of the
scale of Delium--the Athenians lost 1,000 men, the Boeotian League
500--would have taken much longer.
The Athenian strategy required the coordination of forces coming
from different directions, tight security over military
intelligence, and on-the-spot reactions by the commander in the
field, Hippocrates. In all three cases, this overly ambitious plan
went badly awry. In particular, an intelligence failure prevented
the arrival of a contingent of troops under Demosthenes, Athens'
most successful field officer at the time. Hippocrates should have
aborted the mission. However, perhaps fearing the displeasure of the
Athenian assembly, he stuck to his orders, dawdled in the field, and
unwisely positioned the bulk of his forces too far from himself,
where they could not see the 18,000-strong Boeotian army making for
the high ground they had vacated.
The sights and sounds of this fight--like any battle ancient or
modern--are beyond the comprehension of the inexperienced. The
battleground itself would have become, as Thucydides suggests,
littered with bodies of the wounded, dying and dead making it
difficult to walk and fight at the same time. Blood and lots of it
would have made the ground slippery and the air foul. The noise and
confusion would have been bewildering and disorienting all at once….
Killing with spears and swords is not easy--many more men would have
been wounded than killed--and with thousands of men fighting, and
pushing their way forward to replace the fallen, the duration of the
hoplite battle would have been an affair that lasted hours rather
than minutes (101-3).
Perhaps worst of all, the Thebans rightly claimed that the Athenians
had violated sacred territory and so justified their stripping the
Athenian dead of their armor and leaving the one thousand bodies
"exposed to the ravages of animals and the elements" for seventeen
Tritle also discloses treasonous activities of self-aggrandizing Greek
political leaders as they made and unmade arrangements with
like-minded figures in other communities, with no regard for the
best interests of their own city-states. For example, during the
Melian affair, the Athenian statesman Alcibiades exerted influence
through one of the two generals, Tisias, a close friend, who was
sent out in summer 416 with 3,000 soldiers from Athens, Chios, and
Lesbos. It is no surprise then to learn that Chios and Lesbos,
undoubtedly influenced by Alcibiades' conservative "friends,"
assisted him in his unprecedented entry of seven chariot
teams at the Olympics that same summer: Chios provided animals for
sacrifice and fodder for the horses, Lesbos wine and other
provisions for Alcibiades' entourage (137). Later, during the Ionian
phase of the war, Sparta, on the earlier advice of Alcibiades (while
outlawed from Athens), established a permanent base at Decelea in
Attica near the Boeotian border. Tritle astutely notes that a
delegation from Lesbos visited the Spartan king Agis II at Decelea,
while Alcibiades with the Spartan Chalcideus and a small squadron
arrived in Chios for talks with the oligarchs there.
Another strength of Tritle's analysis is his contextualizing of
Greek comedies and tragedies. Performed at major public festivals in
a period of limited literacy and no public educational system or
mass media coverage of events, these plays offered an avenue for
adult male citizens of Athens to come to terms with their own
contemporary history. Tritle offers a stimulating examination
(138-41) of Euripides' famous play The Trojan Women, which
characterizes as "a grimly pessimistic survey of a society's
religious and ethical bankruptcy, the tawdriness of its myths, the
jungle mentality governing its conduct." Tritle asks whether the
Trojan Women was in fact an anti-war play, given contemporary
moral standards. He answers "yes," Green "no," though he concurs
with Green that the tragedy is not a direct response to the actions
at Melos: the "[c]omposition of a tragic drama was a complex affair
and for Euripides to have written and staged the play in spring 415
demands that it was already in the works when the Athenians sailed
into Melos and demanded its surrender." He also thinks other,
earlier wartime atrocities at Scione, Torone, and Mycalessos
provided sufficient inspiration.
Three points need to be made. First, it is odd that the second vote
of the Athenian assembly in 427--to kill "only" a thousand
of the chief
fomenters of the revolt at Mytilene against Athens--should be left
off such lists of atrocities. Athenian soldiers executed only half
that number at Melos, a much smaller city-state. The same reduced
scale of evil likely applies to the small poleis of Torone
Second, the same arguments were used in regard to Mytilene as at
Melos: (1) that even the harshest measures will not deter desperate
men from hoping a revolt might succeed, and (2) that inflicting such
a punishment would engender a powerful incentive for vengeance
against the perpetrating polis, were its power to give out.
Third, the precedent of Mytilene over ten years earlier and no doubt
ongoing discussions of what to do about Melos even before the
denouement of the siege would have given Euripides ample grounds to
think a play on such a topic would be popular, whether or not we
classify it as specifically "anti-war."
does have some minor deficiencies: there are problems with its maps
the proofreading is imperfect;
and there is an occasional slip in chronology.
None of these lessens Tritle's primary achievement. He has produced
a major new account of the Peloponnesian War that will allow
readers of Thucydides to feel what it was actually like to be at war
and to understand the breakdown of legal, moral, and political
principles that caused prolonged human suffering on such a colossal
scale. We are in his debt.
The University of Texas
 Leading American Secretary of State George C.
Marshall, in a speech delivered at Princeton University (22 Feb
1947), to assert "I doubt seriously whether a man can think with
full wisdom and deep convictions regarding certain of the basic
international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his
mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of
Athens"--quoted in W. Robert Connor, Thucydides
(Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1984) 3.
 Including Plato, the master rhetorician
Gorgias (for a haunting picture in words of ancient Greek
veterans clearly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
or PTSD), and Plutarch, most notably his biographies of
Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander.
 See Tritle's "A Note on Sources" (243-47).
 Tritle analyzes the social significance,
mid-war, of the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae,
Polyclitus's Hera statue at the rebuilt Argive Heraeum,
the Nike of Paeonius at Olympia, and the Dying Niobid
statue vis-à-vis Euripides' Hecuba.
 E.g., Paul Woodruff's On Justice, Power,
and Human Nature: The Essence of Thucydides' History of the
Peloponnesian War (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).
 Subtitle Combat Trauma and the Undoing of
Character (NY: Scribner, 1994); see also Shay's Odysseus
in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (NY:
Scribner, 2004). Tritle embraced and supported many of Shay's
findings early on. His New History has separate
bibliographies for "Classical Studies" (263-73) and "Modern
History (including Psychology and Trauma Studies)" (273-74).
 "Xenophon's Portrait of Clearchus: A Study in
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," in C. Tuplin, ed., Xenophon
and His World (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2004) 325-39.
 "Hector's Body: Mutilation of the Dead in
Ancient Greece and Vietnam," Ancient History Bulletin 11
 Subtitle War and Survival (NY:
 In my review, "Apocalypse Now and Atrocity
Then," Times Higher Educ Suppl (16 Feb 2001) <link>, I
question the comparison between the rogue action tacitly
encouraged by senior officers in Vietnam and the slaughter at
ancient Melos mandated by a vote of the Athenian assembly.
 E.g., the Bellarmine Forum (7-13 Nov 2004) on
different aspects of social violence and the symposium "Mission
Failed? The US War in Iraq: What Now?" (10 Apr 2006).
 Victor D. Hanson, in Ripples of Battle
(NY: Anchor, 2004) 171, says "the entire sordid business" at
Delium ended "in about an hour."
 "War and Morality in Fifth-Century Athens:
The Case of Euripides' Trojan Women," Ancient History
Bulletin, 13 (1999) 97-110.
 The few maps provided are sometimes poor in
quality and the text often lacks references to maps placed
elsewhere in the book. E.g., the account of Delium (98-104)
should refer to the map of Attica and Boeotia on page
24. Clazomenae and Iasus, city-states mentioned on pages 168-69,
are omitted from the map of Ionia (166). Readers of Tritle's
book should have at hand Robert B. Strassler's profusely illustrated and
annotated Landmark Thucydides (NY: Free Press, 1996).
 Which omits works like Otto Dix's War
Cripples and Erich Maria Remarque's The Road Back,
both used to good effect in Tritle's discussion of war trauma.
 On xxiii read "effect" for "affect"; on 69
"that" for "that that"; on 74 "impediment to stand in the way"
for "impediment in stand in the way"; on 82, n. 23 "128-31" for
"12831"; on 89 "Epitadas" for "Epitadus"; on 122 "agreed to
settle the matter" for "agreed to terms settle the matter"; on
148 "Alcibiades" for "Alcibrades"; on 157 "scarce" for "scare";
on 173 "such reforms were" for "such reforms was"; on 184 "the
demos ceded" for the "the demos ceding."
 Tritle maintains that "As the disaster in
Sicily occurred sometime in September 413 (after the Panathenaea
of that year), it would not have been until next year’s
festival, that of summer 412, that news would have arrived.
Given the circumstances and the distances involved, this seems
about right" (163, n. 31). Eight or nine months for such news
to reach Athens is utterly implausible. Nicolle Hirschfeld,
per ep. elec. (10 Sep 2010), estimates that an ancient ship with a following wind could sail
from Tarentum to Corinth (c. 500 nautical miles) in about
five days. Lionel Casson reckons a round trip from Athens to
Sicily involved about two weeks at sea--The Ancient Mariners:
Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times,
2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1991) 103. And the Spartans
and their Peloponnesian and Sicilian allies had strong motives
to spread the word of the Athenian disaster in Sicily fast!