Thucydides has long been heralded as the father of realism, owing to his classic account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404/3 BCE. For Thucydides, the ultimate cause of the war was not the ideological differences between the two city-states but simply “the growth of Athenian power and Spartan fear of it.” Athens had refused to abdicate its leadership of the Greek alliance after the Greco-Persian Wars, and its imperial ambitions made Sparta increasingly uneasy. Thucydides’ realist mode of analysis has been applied to countless conflicts between states throughout history (most recently in a 2017 book asking whether the U.S. and China are inevitably stuck in the “Thucydides trap”).
In his five-volume series on the history of classical Sparta, historian Paul Rahe takes direct aim at the application of this realist paradigm to interpreting Greek history. He proposes a paradigm of “grand strategy” instead. States, he argues, are motivated not merely by narrow security concerns but by a combination of domestic policy, cultural idiosyncrasies, and moral imperatives. In the third and latest volume in this series, Sparta’s First Attic War, Rahe covers Sparta’s grand strategy from the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars in 478 to the end of the first Peloponnesian War—or the Attic War, as Rahe has renamed it—in 446 BCE (Thucydides wrote only briefly about this war as precursor to the second one in 431 BCE). In doing so, Rahe faces two challenges with the source material, which he has to address in a way that satisfies his grand strategy paradigm.
The first challenge Rahe faces is inherent in his focus on Sparta: the lack of any extant writing from Spartans themselves. Most of the surviving writing is from Athenians, who were often biased and wrote well after the events they described, making it difficult to avoid casting Greek history in an Atheno-centric light. Rahe does his best to squeeze out as much as he can about Sparta in this period, but he cannot help but focus on Athens and other states just as much, because there is simply not enough information on Sparta. This should not be counted as a fatal flaw: The book still offers non-classicists a thoughtful and detailed narrative of this oft-neglected period of Greek history, even as it struggles against the odds in its mission to reenvisage Greek history from a Spartan perspective.
The second challenge is that this volume covers a portion of the Pentecontaetia, the 50 years between the Persian War and the second Peloponnesian War, a period for which the historical record is spotty. Thucydides briefly covers the period as a prelude to his main narrative of the second Peloponnesian War, carefully selecting events that illustrate the growth of Athenian power and ignoring much else. Thus, the picture he paints is incomplete. Unfortunately, Thucydides is still the only fifth-century writer from whom we have a continuous narrative of this period. To reconstruct his narrative, Rahe supplements Thucydides with other, much later writers such as Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus, as well as a lot of his own conjecture.
Rahe manages to turn the scant source material to his advantage. He is at his best when he supplements the often-brief accounts of events found in the sources with his own geopolitical analysis, drawing on his long career in political and military history. He begins his volume in 479 BCE with the disbanding of the Hellenic army at the close of the Greco-Persian Wars. The Greek city-states had managed to coalesce with unprecedented unity and to defeat the more powerful Persian Empire. Rahe sets the scene of the new geopolitical environment with a quotation from Churchill: “[G]reat battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new mood, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform.”
In this new post-war environment, the Athenians came out on top. They took command of the Greek alliance that became known as the Delian League. The purpose of the league, according to Thucydides, was to bring the war to Persian territory to avenge the suffering of the Greeks, although Rahe speculates that its “unspoken” purpose was to defend against future Persian invasions. To manage the alliance, the Athenians constructed a powerful navy. The general Themistocles contrived to rebuild the defensive walls around Athens, despite strong objections from the Spartans. With their new maritime supremacy, they were able to defeat the resurgent force of Persians at the Battle of Eurymedon.
This is followed by the “cease-fire” between the Athenians and the Persians, the historically contentious Peace of Callias. In departure from most historians, Rahe dates the Peace to 468/7 BCE. Many argue that, if it took place at all, it must have occurred in 449 BCE (Rahe deals with this conundrum by arguing that it must have been renewed in 449 BCE). Moreover, some historians go so far as to doubt whether the Peace actually existed, since it is not mentioned by any fifth-century authors. In defending its existence, Rahe argues that the Peace must have been more of an executive agreement that both sides wanted to keep secret, hence the lack of mention in contemporary sources. In moments such as this, when the historical record is particularly scant, Rahe employs the grand strategy paradigm to fill the gaps. He contemplates the distinct political and cultural motives the Athenians and Persians would have to conceal the Peace. In the case of Athenians, Rahe gives plausible motives: They needed the semblance of a looming Persian threat to justify maintaining the Delian League, on which they depended for tribute and manpower. But in the case of the Persians, Rahe stretches the source material too thin. He makes an uncomfortable comparison of the Achaemenid Persian Emperor Xerxes to Muslim caliphates in order to illustrate some sort of metaphorical, if not literal, continuity in this Near Eastern “political theology.” In this “holy war,” Xerxes could never publicly admit to treating with another power. Here one wonders why Rahe has not heeded his own sage advice not to impose modern ideologies onto the political struggles of the ancient world.
Whether or not the Peace of Callias existed, it is clear from Rahe’s analysis that in the early and mid 460s, the Persian threat temporarily subsided (though only to return by the end of the decade). In its absence, we already begin to see tensions building between Athens and Sparta. Themistocles, who had been ostracized, took refuge at Argos, the arch-rival of Sparta, and there he probably encouraged an alliance between Argos and Tegea that was hostile to Sparta. And in 465 BCE, the island of Thasos rebelled against the Athenians, whose leadership no longer seemed necessary now that Greece no longer faced an external threat. According to Thucydides, the Spartans secretly promised to support the Thasians and invade Attica.
The Spartans, however, never followed up on this promise, tied down by their own domestic problems. In 464 BCE, Laconia was struck with an earthquake. This was devastating in its own right, but it also gave the Helots, Sparta’s enslaved population, an opportunity to revolt. The revolt, known as the Third Messenian War, became an existential crisis for Sparta, since the Helot underclass was an integral part of its political and economic structure.
The events following the earthquake are especially hard to reconstruct because of discrepancies across the available sources. These differences offer a case study in the difficulties of Rahe’s approach, as he tends to accept what the ancient historical sources say at face value. Classicists use the term “positivist” for those who assume the perfect veracity of sources, and many of them today emphasize the literary and rhetorical intentions of authors like Thucydides and Plutarch, who often spun events—and in the case of some authors, confabulated them—to fit the goals of their narrative. Non-classicist readers should at least be aware of this trend in classics, lest they fail to appreciate how unreliable certain authors can be. Rahe vividly describes the event and its consequences, but he does not acknowledge how, in all the surviving accounts, the authors have shaped the event to fit their particular rhetorical purposes. For comparison, in the 2017 monograph The Lame Hegemony, which covers the same historical period, classicist Matteo Zaccarini shows how different traditions of recounting the Ithome revolt circulated throughout the late fifth century BCE. Thucydides describes how the Spartans refused help from the Athenians under the leadership of Cimon; in doing so, he is projecting the enmity between Athens and Spartans that was manifest in his own time onto an event that had occurred 50 years earlier. Aristophanes, meanwhile, says that the Spartans did accept Cimon’s help, emphasizing the friendship between the two polities characteristic of his own time. The various agendas of the authors from these periods greatly complicate the historical reconstruction of this period, especially when it comes to Rahe’s goal of ascertaining the grand strategies of Sparta and Athens.
However hostile the two city-states were at the time of the Third Messenian War, there is no doubt that in the following years, Athens’ relationship with Sparta deteriorated. Cimon, who had advocated a policy of cooperation with Sparta, was ostracized from Athens, which was subsequently subsumed by anti-Spartan sentiment. Fighting broke out between them in 461 BCE (according to Rahe’s dating) at the alleged Battle of Oenoe, in which the Athenians and the Argives together defeated the Spartans. The occurrence of this battle, too, is contested by modern scholars, who point out that it is mentioned only by the geographer Pausanias, writing half a millennium later. Rahe nevertheless takes Pausanias at his word, and dates that point as the beginning of the First Peloponnesian (Attic) War.
Occupying the last two of the book’s chapters, fighting occurs in two theaters—mainland Greece and the Aegean Sea on the one hand, and the Eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and Cyprus, on the other. In the former theater, the Athenians made a strategic alliance with the Megarians, which prompted the Corinthians, allies of Sparta, to invade Megara. The Spartans themselves made their first aggressive move in 457 BCE, leading up to the Battle of Tanagra, where they indecisively defeated an Athenian-Argive coalition. At the same time, the Athenians sent a sizable force to Egypt to aid the Libyan Prince Inaros in his rebellion against the Persian Empire. This proved disastrous to the Athenians, who, in 454 BCE, lost much of their navy and manpower there. Too much happens in the 450s BCE to mention everything, but Rahe does a great job painting a coherent picture of what might otherwise be a confusing array of battles spread across time and space, even when, on occasion, the average reader might struggle to keep track of all the details.
After the debacle in Egypt, the Athenians could no longer maintain the war against Sparta, and they feared a resurgent Persia. They entered into a five-year truce with the Spartans, who in return demanded that they break their alliance with Argos. A large part of the subsequent narrative focuses on Athens and its Delian League, which fought Persia at Cyprus and underwent its own internal changes. After making an enduring peace with Persia in 449 BCE —a renewal of the Peace of Callias, according to Rahe—Athens resumed fighting with Sparta. It took a serious blow to its power when the Boeotians successfully revolted from the Delian League at the Battle of Coronea in 447 BCE. This triggered other revolts, which weakened Athens to the point of needing to seek a truce with Sparta. Known as the Thirty Years Peace, this truce, in Rahe’s words, “reflected the enduring balance of power. It acknowledged the facts and left the Spartans and their allies supreme on land and the Athenians supreme at sea. In the aftermath, neither was in the position to strike the other.”
With a tremendous number of pages devoted to Athens, one walks away from Sparta’s First Attic War still unsure what Sparta’s grand strategy actually was. Rahe offers a brief recapitulation at the end, characterizing Spartan policy with the Greek phrase mēdèn ágan—“nothing too much.” This refers to Sparta’s stance of moderation, first formulated by the ephor Chilon in the sixth century BCE, in being content with maintaining hegemony in the Peloponnese instead of embarking on new imperial conquests. But these two paragraphs are hardly enough to justify the framing of the book. Given how little we know about the inner-workings of Spartan society and politics—and the difficulty in separating the historical Sparta from the idealized, semi-mythological one described by later non-Spartan authors—we simply lack the evidence for how each of Sparta’s actions contributed to its grand strategy in this period.
Still, other historians have had success in describing Sparta’s actions without recourse to the grand strategy paradigm. For example, in his classic article “Sparta’s Role in the First Peloponnesian War,” A.J. Holliday argues that Sparta was not really committed to the First Peloponnesian War. In his view, Sparta’s primary motive during these years was to maintain a co-hegemony with Athens over Greece, but it was reluctantly dragged into various conflicts by Athenian aggression. Rahe’s mēdèn ágan seems to be getting at this point, but that is hardly a coherent policy—it is more a lack of policy. What is certain, however, is that Sparta and Athens, despite their cultural differences, were allies in the face of the common Persian threat. Once this threat receded, the primary security concern that the two states faced was one another. This motivated Athens to take increasingly aggressive stances against Sparta, eventually leading to the outbreak of the first Peloponnesian War. Without any further sources in the historical record, there is a paradigm that adequately explains this kind of behavior: realism.