Politics & Policy

The New Command

Leadership and culture.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War has recently been released by Random House. This week National Review Online is excerpting Chapter 10 of the book. Below is the fourth installment; the first can be read here and the second here; the third here. Check back tomorrow for the final installment and click on Amazon to purchase A War Like No Other here.

Before the Peloponnesian War it was rare for Greeks to entrust too much power to the hands of any one commander. It was neither a Spartan nor an Athenian trait but a Panhellenic custom that most generals led the army or fleet from the first rank and so frequently died in battle, a fact that precluded both long military careers and evolving tactical innovation. The old ideal was perhaps best reflected in the seventh-century poet Archilochus’ encomium to the hoplite brawling leader: “short and bandy-legged, firmly set on his feet, full of heart and courage.”

But throughout the three-decades-long war, commanders discovered that a general could do more to kill large numbers of their enemies than by merely wielding a spear on the right wing of the phalanx, displaying the cardinal virtues of sobriety and self-control (sophrosynê). Armies were no longer the glue that held together the consensual government of the old polis but became simply military assets that carried no particular civic or political weight. Personalities such as Alcibiades, Cleon, Demosthenes, Thrasybulus, Brasidas, Lysander, and Gylippus were not anonymous warriors but leaders who were expected to exercise intellectual options that might achieve victory by superior logistics, tactics, finance, or public relations. A man like Brasidas or Lysander (each of questionable background) was seen as a valuable asset in his own right, whose worth was almost impossible to calculate but now appreciated as never before.

Pagondas, for example, was more responsible for the victory at Delium than was the strength of his Theban agrarian infantry, in the same manner that Sphacteria and Pylos were Athenian victories due largely to the vision of Cleon and Demosthenes. Without Alcibiades and Lysander, Sparta would never have successfully built a large ?eet. Only Gylippus’arrival at Syracuse saved Sicily. To marshal the new diverse forces of mercenaries, slaves, and combined arms, thinkers, not just warriors, were needed.

A veritable revolution in the idea of generalship unfolded in the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, especially in the hysterical reactions to it, as philosophers and rhetoricians debated the proper credentials for military leadership. Before the war generals were considered regular folk; afterward they often appeared publicly as mounted horsemen and were feared and worshipped. The careers of Epaminondas and Alexander the Great are testament to the idea that single men could galvanize an entire state–democratic or otherwise–and through sheer brilliance and audacity raise sophisticated armies of invasion.

Whatever the controversy, immediately following the defeat of Athens there appeared an entire genre of military literature for the specialist. Some itinerant sophists, like the Dionysodoros of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, promised that they could teach one “how to be a general.” In the war’s aftermath, veterans often enlisted as mercenary commanders–men, for example, like Phalinos of Boeotia, who claimed that he was an “expert on tactics and arms-drill.” Fourth-century utopian literature stressed the new need for professionalization, specialization, and careful training.

At Athens an entire array of mercenary captains, such as Iphicrates, Timotheos, Chabrias, and Chares, took over the military in a way undreamed of in the prior fifth century, when Nicias and Alcibiades had debated as politicians first and generals second. One of the great mysteries of the Peloponnesian War is why inward and blinkered states like Sparta and Thebes produced brilliant strategists and tacticians like Brasidas, Gylippus, Lysander, and Pagondas, while liberal, freethinking Athens entrusted so many of its critical commands to timid dullards like Nicias; inspired but often reckless entrepreneurs such as Alcibiades, Cleon, and Demosthenes; or anonymous functionaries whose names are known only by reason of their death in defeat, such as the otherwise obscure Hippocrates or Laches. Perhaps it was the intrusion of the assembly into military decision making, a factor inherent in the radical democracy at Athens, or a naval tradition that great commanders of the past–like Themistocles, Pericles, and Phormio–were admirals, not infantry generals. In any case, the Peloponnesians, not Athens, produced the better military minds. At key junctures–Sicily and Aegospotami stand out–the outcome of the war itself hinged on just such superior leadership.


Not all the legacies of the Peloponnesian War were material, social, or political. There was ideological and philosophical fallout as well. Much of Greek literature both before and after the Peloponnesian War, whether the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus’ dictum that “War is the father of us all” or Plato’s postbellum appraisal in his Lawsthat war is a more natural phenomenon than peace, envisioned war as tragedy, but not therein necessarily evil. Rather, the moral landscape of the times–who fought whom, why, how, and with what result?–determined the ethical appraisal of wars that had been mostly short and economical.

Again, the growth of such a Greek tragic acceptance of war, so common from Homer to Sophocles, was also predicated on two more practical realities. Most wars of the eighth to fifth centuries between Greeks had probably been both short and seasonal. The rare cosmic struggles for national survival, such as the Persian conflicts between 490 and 479 were conducted exclusively against foreigners and still ended with a single climactic pitched battle.

The Peloponnesian War was different. When the Greek world tore itself apart in national suicide for almost three decades, some Greek thinkers–in the manner of the postwar 1920s generation, who recoiled at the trenches of World War I–began to associate their own dissatisfaction over the conduct of this particular war with the nature of war itself. Thus, wartime plays such as Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata, as well as Euripides’ Andromache, Helen, Hecuba, and Trojan Women, while they betray no love for the Spartans, seem to offer a new wrinkle in Greek attitudes toward war: such conflicts themselves are awful human experiences that transcend the reasons for hostilities. The farmers and women of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Peace,and Lysistrata, like the captured and suffering civilians of Euripides’ Hecuba, Trojan Women, and Andromache, reveal that everyday Greeks found shared experiences across the battle line. Thus the playwrights offer the idea that there is something wrong with war per se–not just with the Spartans.

While the totality of postbellum thought never became therapeutic, much less pacifist or utopian, the Peloponnesian War at least introduced into Western philosophy the comprehensive idea that war was not always noble or patriotic but often nonsensical, suicidal, and perhaps intrinsically wrong, especially when it lasted twenty-seven years, not a few hours on a summer day. Homer, of course, had questioned the morality and logic of motives and sacrifices of unthinking warriors in the Iliad, but Achilles did not doubt the nobility and heroism inherent in armed con?ict.

Fourth-century Greeks, however, realized that the Peloponnesian War had been something uniquely awful in the Hellenic experience. It destroyed the idealism and spirit of Panhellenic unity that was so critical in the defense of Greece against the Persian invader. The war left in its wake the more self-interested idea that Greeks, if they were going to kill so savagely, should at least kill Persians, the mantra that Philip and Alexander would soon so brilliantly manipulate. In any case, to win the war the Spartans had used Persia to destroy Athens–a strategy brilliant in the short term but calamitous in the conflict’s aftermath, when Spartan hoplites were stationed in Asia Minor to check the Persian resurgence in Ionia that they had ensured by earlier bringing the satraps into the war effort.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.


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