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Thursday, June 21, 2012

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson



Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks in September of 2006.

A War Like No Other is classical historian Victor Davis Hanson's offering on the Peloponnesian War - the 27 year struggle between the Delian League (Athens and its allies) and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and its allies) that ran on and off again from 431 to 404 B.C.

Hanson's book is perhaps also a "book like no other" if I may borrow a phrase. Despite the prominently placed quote for the New York Times on the front cover proclaiming that it is a contemporary retelling of the war, this is not a narrative history of the war. Rather, it does exactly what the subtitle promises - it tells the reader HOW the war was fought. It analyzes the techniques, the weapons, the strategies and the tactics but it is not a history per se. The book vaguely follows the course of the war, but often shifts backwards and forwards through the decades of the war and even before and after the war.


Victor Davis Hanson
Giving this one a rating is tricky. It is well-researched and well-written. Hanson does a tremendous job of linking the events of the past with more current events, such as World War II, the Cold War and terrorism. In a way, you could say that the quote (and title of the book) from the ancient historian Thucydides was really not true, this war was not a war like no other, instead at least parts of it are like every war that followed since.

While well-written, I think that Hanson's decision to break the book up into thematic units ("Fire", "Disease", "Terror", "Armor", etc.) made the book less strong than if it had been told in more of a narrative manner. Hanson provided tons of endnotes to document his work which is a strength and indicative of the quality of work that Hanson creates, it was also quite annoying. Not the notes themselves, but the fact that they were endnotes with commentary requiring the reader to constantly flip back and forth to the end of the book and to keep two sets of bookmarks- one for the text and one for the endnotes. If a writer plans to write additional commentary in his or her notes common decency would suggest that footnotes are better for the reader. The continuity and flow of the main text is not broken by constant flipping to the back of the book. Shelby Foote did this to great effect in his gigantic 3 volume Civil War series. Tom Holland uses both in his book "Rubicon" - notes at the end, additional commentary at the bottom of the text.

As a history teacher, I found immediate uses for portions of the book in my classroom. I read to my class from Hanson's description of life on the Greek naval vessels and was able to use his information to give a brief description of the war and the experience of the soldier. I do recommend this book for serious world history teachers and any aficionados of classical ancient history.

I rate this history 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A War Like No Other.

Reviewed on October 6, 2007.

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