Thucydides on Strategy
Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today
Athanassios G. Platias and Consantinos Koliopoulos
Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 224 pages
Book Review published on: July 5, 2019
With diligence and reflection, readers can discern relevant lessons and wisdom from Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War. Accordingly, professors of antiquity, international relations, military history, and political philosophy continue to list it on their syllabi. Athanassios Platias teaches strategy at Piraeus University and Constantinos Koliopoulos lectures at Panteion University and the Hellenic National Defense College. They successfully argue in Thucydides on Strategy: Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today that Thucydides articulates strategic concepts and contributes to strategic thought. Their collaboration resulted in an easy-to-read and scholarly text that deftly distills the strategic wisdom of Thucydides. Readers can commence Thucydides on Strategy without any prior knowledge of the history and politics of ancient Greece, or the war between Athens and Sparta that raged from 431 to 404 BC. Platias and Koliopoulos provide sufficient background for readers to recognize how concepts arise from specific historical examples. Their book consists of five chapters, averaging ninety-three endnotes each. Citations range from Thucydides source material to comments from numerous historians, political scientists, and strategists that include Plutarch, Thomas Hobbes, Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, Lenin, Liddell Hart, J. F. C. Fuller, Bernard Brodie, Kenneth Waltz, Thomas Schelling, Barton Whaley, Edward Luttwak, Colin Gray, and Donald Kagan.
The first chapter, “Grand Strategy,” introduces the concept of strategy plus a framework for analysis. The authors assert “strategy never exists in a vacuum”; it reacts to changes in the environment plus the opponent’s strategy. Platias and Koliopoulos contend that analysis of Thucydides work permits building a framework to assess the competitors. Those approaching or in conflict either: pursue policy goals that aspire to overthrow or retain the status quo; implement preconflict ways that either compel or deter, strive in conflict to annihilate or exhaust; and employ means that from an ex post facto perspective are either sufficient or insufficient. The authors then use that framework to analyze the strategies employed by Athens and Sparta in chapters three and four.
Chapter two provides an overview of the strategic rivalry between Athens and Sparta. The authors concur with Thucydides, regardless of the leaders present, the root causes of the war had structural antecedents. They describe how Athens and Sparta represented two different societies organized in two different ways with two different cultures. After the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, enterprising democratic maritime Athenian power rose relative to that of conservative autocratic land power Sparta. That growth caused fear. Sparta made demands, which Athens rejected, initiated the conflict and was the proximate cause for Sparta to initiate a preventive war to retain the status quo.
Analysis of Athenian strategy appears in chapter three. It depicts the Hellenic correlation of forces and compares policy objectives. Athens sought the continuation of existing conditions that would “allow the law of uneven growth to work in its favour.” In contrast, to retain its position of preeminence, Sparta could not permit that to occur. The authors show the logic and favorable consequences of Pericles’s original strategy: reject appeasement and Sparta’s terms to avoid war, exploit the competitive advantages of its larger navy and greater finances, refuse decisive engagement in a land battle, deter the enemy by denying any success, retaliate indirectly, and severe Sparta’s power base. Athens’s defeat arose when the successors to Pericles abandoned his strategy, expanded the war beyond Athens’s national interest, and sought to annihilate the enemy as opposed to exhaust them.
Chapter four focuses on “Spartan Grand Strategy.” The strategic question posed to the leaders of Sparta is whether and how to respond to the rise of Athenian power and it consequences for Sparta. The Spartan elders, entranced by calls to honor and glory, ignored their king’s counsel to first seek allies prior to initiating war with Athens. The authors note that Sparta commenced the war with a disparity between its lofty goals and limited means: they sought a grand political objective with a smaller navy and an effective land force neutralized by Athens’s walls. For eighteen years of warfare, the balance of power remained in favor of Athens until they expanded their political aims to increase the size of their empire. This resulted in the destruction of their expedition to Sicily. That success permitted Sparta to benefit from Persian financing, the defection of Athenian allies, and the creation of a competitive naval force.
The authors review Thucydides contribution to the study of strategy in chapter five. They evaluate the strategies proffered and employed by Athens and Sparta during various phases of the war. Both city-states misjudged the balance of power, failed to realize they had sufficient means to achieve the ends they desired, condemned their strategies by overextension or “mission creep,” and ignored when the other side offered opportunities to negotiate to secure gains or avoid further losses.
The Penguin Classics edition of The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner and first published in 1954, runs 648 pages. The translation of classical Greek into English produces a strange syntax with lengthy sentences. That, plus the uncommon place and surnames, creates challenges for readers. Thucydides on Strategy serves two distinct purposes. First, for students assigned, or those deciding, to read Thucydides it is a valuable compendium; it ensures discernment of lessons and enables seminar participation. Second, for the busy professional, Platias and Koliopoulos offer a viable option. Rather than investing time and effort reading and reflecting on Thucydides’s work, those interested in the nexus between that book and geopolitics, grand strategy, and international relations may prefer to read Thucydides on Strategy: Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert D. Spessert, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia