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The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece    by Nigel Bagnall order for
Peloponnesian War
by Nigel Bagnall
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

If you were to begin talking about the Golden Age of ancient Greece, you would inevitably need to talk about the monumental personalities: Pisistratus and Pericles; Socrates and Plato; Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; and the list would go on to include many other political and cultural figures. You would also have to acknowledge the singular significance of the physical structures and cultural institutions including (but certainly not limited to) the Acropolis and the Parthenon, the magnificent hillside Theatre and the nearby Temple of Dionysus, the Athenian Assembly and the Council of Five Hundred, and - perhaps most significantly (and certainly too often romanticized and misinterpreted) - the birth of democracy.

However, if you were not to focus fully upon one other very important factor - the Peloponnesian War - your perspective on this era of ancient Greek history might be erroneous and would certainly be incomplete. In fact, the Peloponnesian War is quite unique in that it is one of those remarkable events in history, and a familiarity with and understanding of that war is absolutely indispensable to anyone who wishes also to have an accurate and more complete understanding of the culture in which it occurred. If you do not acknowledge and understand this long and brutal conflict between neighboring city-states and regions, you cannot really understand the rise and fall of ancient Athens.

With that being acknowledged, if you want to read an accessible history and analysis of the Peloponnesian War, you will want to find a copy of Sir Nigel Bagnall's compact and focused study, The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece. In the prefatory materials, Bagnall begins by including an introduction to the principal personalities of the era, a brief historical survey of the period, and several indispensable maps. Bagnall then goes on to talk about the Greeks and their backgrounds (including their very important military engagements with and ultimate victory over the Persians).

With that as prologue, the author continues by focusing on the 27-year civil war between Athens and Sparta (a war that began in 431 B.C.); the Peloponnesian War (as it was later labeled by historians) 'began a violent and destructive period never before seen in the Greek world' and 'ended in Athens's loss to Sparta and the depletion of material and intellectual wealth.' Bagnall's rhetorical focus is built upon three levels of analysis: the strategic ('the definition of strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy'), the operational ('the planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives'), and the tactical ('the planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim').

Yes, you can find other versions of the transformative war's history in many other places. For example, you can take on the political subjectivity and dense prose of Thucydides and Herodotus, or you can wade into one or two of the several other notable histories included in Bagnall's suggestions for 'Selected Further Reading.' However, for a condensed, straightforward, and (admittedly) rhetorically focused presentation (because of the author's strict focus upon military history), you can significantly enrich your understanding of ancient Greek history simply by reading Bagnall's history of the epic war that signaled the end of the Golden Age of Greece.

The author, Sir Nigel Bagnall (1927-2002), also wrote The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean. Born in India, Bagnall joined the British Army in 1945 and served in Palestine, Malaya, Borneo, the Canal Zone, Cyprus, Singapore, and Germany. He ended his distinguished military career as Chief of the General Staff in London. He was an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.

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