Song of Wrath

For years now I have wondered how many books actually get published.  In the Christian book world every year, for example, more books on prayer, grace, parenting, and so on tumble off the shelves.  Those I glance at sound almost exactly the same.  Of course it’s no business of mine, but nonetheless, I am surprised.

The same phenomena exists in the world of history as well, perhaps especially in ancient history. Here we deal with limited sources and unsure timelines, and so it seems that one can say only so much.  When dealing with the Peloponnesian War I thought that we had reached our limit.  The advent of archaeology and the concomitant renewed interest in the ancient world in the late 19th century begot groundbreaking history on ancient Greece. This all culminated, I thought, with Donald Kagan’s masterful four-volume work published in the 1960’s-70’s.  Having read portions of those books, I thought that the final word had been uttered.  Victor Davis Hanson’s disappointing A War Like No Other, and Nigel Bagnall’s  even more disappointing book on the conflict proved to me that indeed Kagan had the last word. Now saying anything else would put one in an awkward position . . .

Or so I thought.

After all, in any field we should encourage new books because we have to encourage new ways of thinking.  Maybe 90% of what gets published never need see the light of day but that 90% might be needed to get the 10% that shines new light just where it’s needed.

Enter J.E. Lendon, Virginia’s own spirited iconoclast, and his new book Song of Wrath.

Every student of the Peloponnesian War rightly begins with Thucydides, and he impresses immediately with his penetrating analysis and fluid arguments.  He talks little about what would be for us, the curiosities of ancient life (commonplaces to them of course), and instead focuses on what moderns would tend to appreciate.  For Thucydides, practical power politics and universal psychological principles explained the war.  But Lendon points out that the very fact that Thucydides has to argue for his point of view shows that he departed from traditional ways the Greeks understood conflict.  He did not reflect, then, a typical Greek understanding of the war.  This does not mean he was wrong, but it means that we must wonder if this great authority spoke rightly.  In the end, Lendon admirably challenges some of Thucydides’ key beliefs and conclusions.

Lendon begins his work by discussing Achilles.  The Iliad begins with a seemingly petty dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over who has the right to a captured slave-girl.  Agamemnon pulls rank on Achilles and takes Achilles’ woman which leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting altogether.  Most every modern reader inevitably views Achilles as a total heel, a petulant jerk who would rather see his companions die than accept Agamemnon’s decision, however unfair it may be.  And yet Achilles, not Agamemnon or Odysseus, remained for centuries a revered hero of the Greeks, nearly worshipped by such luminaries as Alexander the Great.

How can this be?

Lendon uses this as a window into what the Greeks valued and how they structured their world.  Once we see the great value they placed on rank and honor, we understand the reasons for the war, and the reasons for certain strategies pursued by both sides much more clearly.  Achilles earned his reputation by sacrificing all to the Greek concept of honor.  We know that he sacrificed long life for glory in battle for starters, but he also willingly defies his king and his friends to preserve his honor.  He reenters the conflict not when his honor receives satisfaction, but when his friend Patroclus dies.  When Achilles fights  he does so not for Agamemnon, but to revenge Patroclus, another key Greek concept.  After slaying Hector, Achilles goes too far and succumbs to hybris.  He drags around Hector’s body and initially refuses burial.  For this, he suffers ignominious retribution in the form of an arrow from spineless Paris. But — he had a magnificent run before he ran aground, and that’s what mattered most.

If we understand honor, revenge, and hybris, Lendon argues, we will understand the Peloponnesian War.

Some might suppose this to be a mere gimmick, but I found this lens suddenly made sense of things that had always puzzled me.  Take the strategy of Pericles the Athenian in the wars earliest days.  Thucydides records Pericles arguing that,

[Sparta’s] greatest difficulty will be want of money, which they can only provide slowly; delay will thus occur, and war waits for no man. Further, no fortified place which they can raise against us is to be feared any more than their navy. As to the first, even in time of peace it would be hard for them to build a city able to compete with Athens; and how much more so when they are in an enemy’s country, and our walls will be a menace to them quite as much as theirs to us! Or, again, if they simply raise a fort in our territory, they may do mischief to some part of our lands by sallies, and the slaves may desert to them; but that will not prevent us from sailing to the Peloponnese and there raising forts against them, and defending ourselves there by the help of our navy, which is our strong arm. For we have gained more experience of fighting on land from warfare at sea than they of naval affairs from warfare on land. And they will not easily acquire the art of seamanship; even you yourselves, who have been practising ever since the Persian War, are not yet perfect. How can they, who are not sailors, but tillers of the soil, do much? They will not even be permitted to practise, because a large fleet will constantly be lying in wait for them. If they were watched by a few ships only, they might run the risk, trusting to their numbers and forgetting their inexperience; but if they are kept off the sea by our superior strength, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times; it is jealous of any other pursuit which distracts the mind for an instant from itself.

The Athenians, Thucydides, and the ancients who commented on the war all approved of Pericles’ strategy, which the above quote outlines in bare detail.  Essentially Pericles wanted to make Athens an island by bringing the population within its walls and refusing to fight the Spartans on land.  Then, with their superior navy they could ravage the Peloponnesian coasts.  Most moderns, on the other hand (myself included) have thought little of his approach.  At best it appears a recipe to avoid losing rather than actually winning.  At worst, it’s a passive strategy guaranteed to give all the advantages to the other side.

Lendon argues that we misunderstand the strategy because we misunderstand the Athens’ war aims.  Athens did not care about imposing their will on Sparta, or finding their “center of gravity” (a la Clauswitz) so much as they desired equal rank with Sparta.  Sparta had the rank of “hegemon” in the Peloponnese, Athens sought hegemon status in Attica and thus, equal status with Sparta in the Greek world.  Sparta will ravage our lands, but we can ravage theirs as well.  We don’t need a “shock and awe” response because we strive not to prove our absolute superiority, but our equality.  Besides, the Athenians would wish to avoid the hybris of seeking something beyond their station. They contented themselves with equality, follow the unspoken rules of war, and avoid the wrath of the gods.*

Armed with this perspective, suddenly other aspects of the war made sense to me. Before I criticized Athenian coastal raids for wasting time and resources to achieve purely symbolic results. This led me to make broader conclusions about the vacillating nature of democracies at war.

Lendon argues of course, that honor and rank have everything to do with symbolism. The Athenian coastal raids had nothing to do with “imposing their will” or tactical advantage, and everything to do with displaying status.  So Lendon’s work not only entertained me, it has forced me to reconsider most of my lesson plans for teaching the war.  Grudgingly . . . I give Lendon my thanks.

Does any of this new analysis have a modern application in war?  Some have suggested that 3rd-world warfare resembles many of these “traditional” concepts of honor and symbolism, and that we must abandon all the Cold-War principles that guided our statecraft.  Some argue that acts of terrorism have a lot more to do with symbols of honor than tactical advantage.^ I cannot comment on this as I lack the knowledge to do so.  But I do think we see a lot of the same principles in our modern political scene.  Democrats and Republicans both press for legislation that will give them “honor” in their districts or with their national following, and often this legislation has mere symbolic value.  Both sides too can obstruct purely for reasons of status, or to refuse honor to the other side.  Some might argue that this is part and parcel of any democracy.  If so, we will need to redefine our definition of democracy, and accept that at least in its modern context, it has little to do with Christianity. It may bear much more direct similarity to our pagan democratic ancestors, and to the song of wrath sung in ancient times . . .

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

*In Kagan’s great work he comes close to understanding this.  He addresses the modern puzzlement over Pericles’ strategy by pointing out that the Athenians essentially voted for it on multiple occasions and kept it going even after a plague struck their city  In other words, he points out that the strategy surely made sense to them and they must have thought it effective for their purposes.  Lendon argues that after a few years, Athens could have made a legitimate argument that they had won and proved themselves.  The problem with such conflicts lie in that they need interpreted, and Sparta did not interpret events as the Athenians did.  So the war continued, and in time ended with defeat for Athens in a way no one could misconstrue.

^The tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo led to a massive and inspiring show of solidarity from the French public.  I applaud them, and to us it appears as a striking rebuke to terrorists.  Part of me wonders, however, if the terrorists derived a sense of satisfaction from it all, i.e. “Look at what we made them do!  Clearly we touched a nerve, which is what we really care about.”  Did they gain status and honor from such a demonstration?

I hope not.  But if the answer is “yes,” the show of solidarity for the side of freedom is worth it regardless of how it gets interpreted by radicals.

This response is also very exciting.