Book Review: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge


by Paul Anthony Rahe

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xviii, 424. Illus., maps, notes, index. $38.00. ISBN: 030011642X

The Origins of the Spartan Way of War

This volume is the first of a three part series by Prof. Rahe (Hillsdale College) that explores the origins and evolution of Sparta’s political and military strategy. Rahe opens with opens with some background on the origins of Sparta and the formation of its unique social and military institutions. He then takes a closer look at Sparta’s response to the Persian threat, using two broad themes

In “The Crisis of Sparta’s Grand Strategy,” Rahe reviews the rise of the Persian empire with its expansion into the Greek world. This ultimately led to the Ionian Revolt, which provoked the first clashes between the mainland Greeks and the Persians, in which Sparta played only a limited role, and culminated in the Campaign of Marathon in 490 BC, in which Sparta had no role at all, but which influenced Spartan political and military strategic thought.

In the second section, “The Crisis Comes to a Head,” Rahe goes into more detail, as Sparta began to take a more central in the Graeco-Persian confrontation. He covers the events leading up to the Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479 BC, the course of the war, including the battles at Thermopylae, Artemesium, Salamis, Plataea, and to Mycale, out of which Sparta emerged with an impressive reputation. The volume ends with a short “Epilogue”,  reviewing the consequences of the Greek victories. 

While Rahe tends to offer a Spartan perspective of these events, he also looks at them from the perspective of the other participants, particularly the Athenian viewpoint. Unlike many scholars, Rahe is careful to set events within their meteorological, geographic, and oceanographic environments, which often causes events and outcomes to be viewed quite differently; e.g., the Persian withdrawal after Marathon may have had more to do with the imminent closing of the sailing season than with the fear of Grecian arms. Providing us with more than two dozen maps and using a very readable style, Rahe has given us an excellent account not only of the hows and whys of Sparta’s actions in the Persian Wars, but also a very good general treatment of these critical events.

This is a valuable read for anyone interested in ancient warfare or the evolution of strategy.


Note: A volume in the Yale Library of Military History, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge is also available as an e-book.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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