J. E. Lendon’s history of the Peloponnesian War differs from the usual treatments in two ways: First, instead of tackling the entire 27-year period, he (after pointing out that the “Peloponnesian War” is really four different wars traditionally grouped together) only covers the first ten years, from the outbreak of hostilities to the treaty between Athens and Sparta in 421 BC (he calls this the Ten Years War, whereas others call it the Archidamian War). And second, he challenges the traditional view of what the war was fought over (first put forward by Thucydides) in favor of one based on a study of Ancient Greek culture.

He starts with an overview of honor/glory/worth, or timē, which is how ancient Greeks ranked and competed among themselves, and by extension how the intensely competitive city-states measured themselves against each other. To have timē was to be of importance, to have importance, to have other cities look to you; to be the hegemon. Status for cities was a mix of current strength and past glories, and Sparta stood tall in both in the fifth century BC, allowing it to lead an alliance (to be the hegemon) of many of the Greek states against the Persians.

Athens’ past was not considered nearly so glorious, but in the aftermath of the Persian Wars she became the head (hegemon) of the Delian League; a collection of overseas territories in the Aegean that banded together for protection against Persia. Athens slowly converted this mutual defense league into more of an empire, taking money tribute instead of the loan of naval forces, and establishing a firmer say in the internal affairs of its members. Thucydides (and most everyone follows his lead) claims that the Pelopennesian War started because of Sparta’s fear of Athens’ growing power.

Lendon points out that this was a controversial argument at the time, which is why Thucydides spends so much time elaborating and defending it. He believes that the war actually stemmed from an argument more readily understood by the Ancient Greeks, but more obscure to us. Athens now considered itself to be Sparta’s equal in timē, and wanted Sparta to admit it (without which, convincing anyone else would be difficult).

The bulk of the rest of the book is Lendon playing connect-the-dots with what we know of the events of the Ten Years War, and interpreting them in terms of timē. He constantly refers back to this theme, as if afraid it might go somewhere without him. But since it is, at best, a very nebulous concept, this is essential, though it might have been better handled.

The major weakness of the thesis and book is that since timē is all in the minds of the people involved, it is very hard to prove that it really had the bearing on events he says it does. Even worse is the fact that it is more of a ‘groupthink’; a collection of what the entire Greek world thought of the relative standings of Sparta and Athens. But, towards the end, he finally brings forth his answer to that problem. If Athens (who is the city with something to prove) can get Sparta to act like Athens is proving its point, then the rest of the Greek world will tend to follow the line of the two principles.

Despite the fact that the book is inevitably nebulous in some particulars, it really is a convincing reconstruction of events based on what we know of the culture, and I highly recommend it.