Victor Davis Hanson: The Spartan Truth

Historians in the News

In America, where fame and controversy are often sides of the same coin, Victor Davis Hanson is that near-oxymoron, a celebrity classicist. A scholar of great insight and originality, he has also cast himself as the modern Machiavelli, offering advice to his country's leaders that is drawn unabashedly from the ancient past.

Before September 11, 2001, Hanson launched charges against his fellow classicists for their failure "to explain the importance of Greek thought and values in an age of electronic information, mass entertainment and crass materialism''. After September 11, he emerged as one of the most readable columnists in the American media, robustly - indeed militantly - in favour of the war in Iraq. So effectively did his talk of Greek civic virtues contribute to the political weather that he was even summoned to the White House to sup with President Bush. Having insisted to his colleagues in classics departments that the ancient world could be made relevant to those far beyond the universities, even his enemies - who are legion - can hardly deny that Hanson has triumphantly proved his case.

All of which will make his new book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, of great interest to those concerned with modern America as well as with ancient Greece. Its subject is the Peloponnesian War, the savage three decade-long struggle between Athens and Sparta that ended with the ruin of Athenian imperial greatness, and which did indeed appear, to those who lived through it, a calamity without parallel. Yet there is simultaneously a knowing irony about the title, for in warfare, as in so much else, the Greeks set the pattern for the West's future - a notion that Hanson has explored with great brilliance throughout his work. As he points out, it was the stated goal of Thucydides, the great historian of the conflict, to make his theme "serve as a lesson for what can happen to any people in any war in any age''. So it was, during the last century, that Thucydides's narrative of universal war, of newspeak and class hatred, of terrorism, revolution and genocide, appeared all too bleakly contemporary. So it is too, in a new century, and amid the raging of a new war, that Thucydides still haunts the corridors of power in America.

As well he might. There is no doubt in Hanson's mind with which city in the Peloponnesian War his own country should be identified - and it is not the winner. "We, like the Athenians,'' he writes, "are all-powerful, but insecure, professedly pacifist yet nearly always in some sort of conflict, often more desirous of being liked than being respected, and proud of our arts and letters even as we are more adept at war.''

This equation of Athenian civilisation with American is not one that Hanson harps upon, but it is a shadow that lies across his whole book, and it gives to his prose a vivid and unsettling immediacy.

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Lorraine Paul - 1/4/2006

If this classicist has any influence with the 'corridors of power' one can only hope that he will use it to convince those who walk them to pull back from attempts to create an empire.