The Peloponnesian War

Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Greece

by Nigel Bagnall

Thomas Dunne, 336 pp., $29.95

In the year 2002 there died, full of years and sherry, Field Marshal Sir Nigel Bagnall, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, recipient of the Military Cross and Bar.

"Ginge," as this distinguished soldier was known, for the British Army marches on its nicknames, was a fearless red-haired hero of the Malayan troubles, and rose to be chief of the General Staff. He was a good shot (he bagged a high-ranking Communist official) but a bad driver (he bagged a bicyclist as well). Tone deaf--his subordinates had to nudge him when it was time to salute during the national anthem--he was a keen gardener and an enthusiastic breeder of colorful ducks.

He joined his father's regiment at 18 and so was denied a university education: Of all the honors with which he was laden--so many weighed down his uniform that he called them his "f--g jewelry"--he was proudest of his honorary fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, a testimony not only to his eminence in the British Establishment, but also, one suspects, to his inexhaustible fund of good stories.

Field Marshal Bagnall was an intellectual soldier and a lover of military history. In retirement he published a good, bluff, commonsensical military history of the Punic Wars, and just before his death he had, it seems, finished a draft of a manuscript about the military history of Greece during 500-404 B.C., the period of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars.

This draft was far from perfect: The end, his account of the Peloponnesian War, was relatively polished; but as one moved towards the beginning, to his descriptions of the ways of the Greeks and the earlier Persian Wars, things got rather murky. There were many careless errors of detail--of the kind any author cleans up in the process of revision. And the manuscript began with a pair of glossaries: a short one of people, and another very, very long one of places which the author, judging by the cross-references ("as we have already seen"), evidently imagined that the reader would read straight through as if it were a normal part of the book.

If Bagnall had lived, he would have cleaned up the errors of fact (which are far fewer in The Punic Wars) and his editor would have pointed out that starting the book with a gigantic glossary of places, and telling so many of the best stories in that glossary, would both perplex the reader and require constant reference back, or repetition later in the text. In the process of rewriting, the good and useful stories would have been removed to their proper place in the body of the book, and the glossary diminished and stuck in the back, where such things belong.

But that is not what happened. His publishers, no doubt confident that their author's name would guarantee good sales whatever the state of the book, appear simply to have published the manuscript as it was when its author's pen fell forever still, so inflicting upon Bagnall a fate similar to that of Thucydides, whose unfinished work is our main source for the Peloponnesian War. A hundred pounds sterling would have hired a graduate student to correct the errors of history; little more would have bought an editor to fix the broken structure of the book with its 40-page monstrosity of a glossary stuck on the front like a palsied elephant's trunk.

Perhaps a conscientious copy editor complained that there were actual contradictions between statements in different parts of the manuscript, and that some anecdotes and aphorisms were repeated: for example, that the strategic principle klotzen nicht kleckern (whack, don't dribble), however drolly expressed, did not need to be thus expressed three times. If so, her pleas were ignored. Rather than a valedictory monument to a great soldier, this is a mournful testimonial to the idleness of publishers, and a salutary reminder to all writers of eminence to include in their wills strict instructions that anything not yet in proofs be destroyed.

Yet despite the mess, there is much of interest here. Professional soldiers make good historians, because they seek to draw practical lessons from history, and to draw lessons they need to know what actually happened. Classicists--that is, professors of Greek who read Thucydides, and so interest themselves in the Peloponnesian War--consider figuring out what actually happened beneath them, preferring to study the mind of the author. Academic historians are happy to throw up their hands at historical puzzles--or worse, to pursue the puzzles for their own sake, seeking them out for the joy of combat with their colleagues.

But a soldier marching through the text of Thucydides asks again and again, "What happened?" And when there is conflicting evidence, or no good evidence, he makes an educated guess. Soldiers are brave in their writing, just as they were on the battlefield. They also have a good sense of what historical soldiers can and cannot accomplish, physically and morally, and they have more common sense than professors.

What they lack is that sympathy with the people of the past that long study of the past should bring. Again and again Bagnall is amazed that the Greeks believed in their religion, and allowed religious scruples (refusing to march during the Olympic games, for example, even as the Persians drew near) to interfere with their strategy. In fact, culture--both your culture and the enemy's culture--guides and constrains strategy just as much as weapons and logistics and terrain, as American soldiers discover day after day in Iraq.

We miss that dimension in Bagnall's book. And along with it we may miss a grasp of the ultimate strategies of the contenders in the Peloponnesian War. Their ravaging fields and raiding coastlines, plans which Bagnall mocks as futile because of the small economic and diplomatic damage they inflicted, had a different significance to ancient Greeks, who thought in terms of insult and honor, and not of bushels of wheat burned and allies detached. Still, within the limits this book imposes upon itself, the reader learns a great deal about why the fighting developed as it did, and especially about the possible plans and hopes in the minds of the leaders on both sides, with whose quandaries Bagnall has, naturally, a great deal of empathy.

Bagnall is well supplied with historical and contemporary parallels, some moving and many enjoyable, and his particular talent is for imagining the options available to the commanders but (sometimes unwisely) not chosen, a kind of imaginative history that an academic author, being closer to the text of Thucydides and more a prisoner of Thucydides' interpretations, might fail at, or never imagine was wanted.

Thucydides himself would be pleased with this book, because he wrote his, in part, as a guidebook for generals, and that is how Bagnall has used it. And that a modern officer can find so much useful in a book written 2,400 years ago reminds us that Thucydides was a thinker and historian as deep as the sky.

So Bagnall's time was not wasted, nor is the reader's, if he begins to read at about page 130, after the worst of the muddle. As for the wretched publishers, I would consign them to the tender mercies of the youthful Bagnall's nemesis, "the classicist, battle-scarred headmaster, with his connoisseur's collection of assorted canes."

J.E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently, of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.

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