Book Review: The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece


by Jennifer T. Roberts

New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxviii, 418. Illus., maps, chron., personae, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0199996644

Fresh Light on the Peloponnesian War

Prof. Roberts (CCNY/CUNY), author of several notable works on ancient Greece, takes a deeper, more detailed look at the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). And despite the fact this is a seemingly well-covered subject, she manages to offer up some new and interesting insights, throwing fresh light on the war and on modern strategic thought that is based on Thucydides’ account of the conflict.

Roberts begins by placing the war within its deeper historical, political, and diplomatic background within the greater Hellenic world. She also covers the war’s interrelationship with and influence on commerce, social and cultural trends (e.g., on theatre), and political life across the Greek world, while looking more closely at personalities beyond the more familiar famous leaders, such as Pericles, Alcibiades, and Lysander.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Roberts carries the story of the war well beyond its traditional ending, which was essentially set by Thucydides at the fall of Athens in 404 BC. She examines the immediate aftermath of the war and its longer-term consequences. So she covers the remarkably swift Athenian revival over the decade that followed the fall of the city, considers the rise of Thebes and that of the “Second Athenian Confederacy”, on goes on through the decline and ultimate humbling of Sparta over the next three decades.

For students of modern strategy, perhaps of most value in Roberts’ work is that reminds us that the so-called “Thucydides trap”, the notion, derived from Thucydides, that a rising power must inevitably clash with an established one, pointing out that the rivalry between established Sparta and rising Athens was of lesser importance as a cause of the war than the failure of the Athenians and Spartans to control their minor allies, thus allowing themselves to be drawn into a war neither desired.

A volume in the Oxford series “Ancient Warfare and Civilization”, The Plague of War is a valuable read for any interested in ancient warfare, particularly the Peloponnesian War, and an essential one for the many pundits who invoke the “Thucydides trap”.


Note: The Plague of War is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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