Friday, 7 August 2020

Homer against realpolitik. On JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins

JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins is an excellent account, elegantly written, of the first 10 years of the Peloponnesian war (431-421 BC), which questions Thucydides’ renowned assertion that the ‘truest cause of the war between Athens and Sparta was the growing greatness of the Athenians and the fear that this inspired, which compelled the Lacedaemonians to go to war’.

Thucydides’ ‘realpolitik’ Lendon points out, has informed analyses of conflict for centuries and has held particular sway over modern American strategists and international relations gurus.

However, Lendon believes that in order to understand the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war it is necessary to go beyond ‘realist’ doctrines and insist on the centrality of Homeric values to the motivations of fifth century Greeks – with the emphasis on rank, honour, prestige, competitiveness, vengeance and shaming.

Reasserting Homer not only presents us with a more compelling portrait of classical Greek culture, self-perception and psychology, but also provides us with a valuable paradigm for appreciating the motivations behind all wars and conflict.

Wars are often fought, if we follow Lendon (and Homer), not for pragmatic reasons, in struggles over power, resources or conflicting interests, but for the sake of reputation, national self-esteem, pride and out of wrath and revenge, the latter for perceived injustices that may have been inflicted decades or even centuries ago.

Furthermore, by rescuing the Peloponnesian war from ‘realist’American scholars, who regard the conflict as a ‘power struggle’ between democratic Athens and totalitarian Sparta – and want, in the process, to identify dynamic, open American society with Athens and depict its enemies as embodying grim and stolid Sparta – Lendon asks us to reconsider the modern tendency to extol the virtues of Athens and denigrate or caricature the Lacedaemonian way of life.

For Lendon, the Peloponnesian war was a conflict the Spartans were reluctant to fight and sought to resolve at every opportunity, while charges of war-mongering, brutality, hubris and arrogance stick more to Athens. The noblest and most sympathetic character of the period was not the paradigmatically democratic Athenian leader Pericles but the moderate king of Sparta, Archidamus.

Above is a podcast of JE Lendon in conversation with Bill Buschel ( regarding Song of Wrath. The show was first broadcast on Hellenic Public Radio in New York in 2011.

And for more discussion emanating from Song of Wrath, go here.