Victor Davis Hanson: The irony of his new book

Historians in the News

WHY should a distinguished classical scholar like Victor Davis Hanson provide us with yet another book about the Peloponnesian War? He is in no doubt: he is writing a tract for the times. "Perhaps never," he insists, "has the Peloponnesian War been more relevant to Americans than to us of the present age."

This Greek civil war, between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies, lasted 27 years, from 431 to 404 B.C., and ended with the capitulation of Athens and its occupation by Sparta. Its interest for Hanson is in comparing Athens to the United States. At the outset of the war, Athens was the richest city in the world and, within Greece, the sole superpower, with an omnipotent navy. Athens was also a democracy, anxious to export her political system and way of life throughout the Greek world, if necessary by force. The war was fought because Sparta, a military oligarchy, feared Athenian imperialism and cultural dominance, and persuaded other Greek cities to join with it in an attempt to cut Athens down to size. Hanson sees the United States as sharing Athenian hubris and inviting nemesis by trying to export democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that Hanson himself supports American policy gives his book an ironic twist.

My old tutor at Oxford, A. J. P. Taylor, always insisted, "The only lesson of history is that there are no lessons of history." He would have laughed at Hanson's book: "Such learned nonsense!" But Taylor was, characteristically, exaggerating. History has many lessons to teach, provided we don't push the comparisons too far. In the 19th century, the English ruling classes, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, were obliged to study Athens in detail, in the original Greek texts, to discover what lessons could be learned in the management of Britain's enormous world empire, and indeed in the conduct of the parliamentary democracy. There were some, even in the 18th century, who foresaw America's greatness and drew parallels with fifth-century B.C. Greece even then. Hanson quotes Thomas Paine: "What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude."...

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