Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones
By Andrew R. Novo and Jay M. Parker
Cambria Press, 2020
218 pp. $39.99 (Paperback)
Robert D. Spessert, JD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff School satellite at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War offers national security pundits a plethora of persuasive “dead man quotes.” However, they and their audiences have rarely digested, and infrequently understood, the context and history surrounding the phrases they employ. Professors Andrew Novo and Jay Parker of the National Defense University provide an insightful remedy for students of history and strategy in Restoring Thucydides.
The authors adeptly address the use and abuse of The History, claiming it is “mis-read, under-read, or unread.” They assert that students of Thucydides should consider the text as a whole, know the historical context, and perceive the consequences of the Peloponnesian War in the years following Thucydides’s death. Restoring Thucydides reveals that the application of this additional evidence permits distinguishing between necessary and sufficient causes, understanding the importance of domestic politics and its influence on foreign affairs, and challenging deterministic “conventional wisdom.”
Early chapters concisely capture the historical narrative of the Peloponnesian War and address the “polarity” trap. At the heart of the book, a chapter titled “Power and Fear” examines Thucydides’s most popularized ideas, such as that the war arose because of “the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.” Later chapters discern how allies and shifting alliances affect Great Power competition and explore the internal and external politics of the various city-states as well as offering context for the Melian Dialogue and the Sicilian expedition. Novo and Parker conclude by expounding on the dynamics of Great Power competition in the search for security and reflect on the defeat of Athens, which changed the Hellenic balance of power and permitted new challengers to usurp Sparta.
Restoring Thucydides refutes the conventional wisdom that Athens and Sparta existed in a bipolar system and that this structure created conditions in which war was inevitable. Sparta, with the largest territory in Greece, was powerful and attracted allies, but its demographics, economics, and government precluded it from becoming hegemonic. Three other entities at this time also had the ability to project power: Athens, with the largest navy; Corinth, which had the second largest navy; and the Persian Empire, with a population and land mass that surpassed Athens and Sparta combined but had failed twice to conquer Greece. Two major city-states remained neutral at the start of the war: Argos, a historical foe of Sparta; and Syracuse, which encompassed the second largest territory in the Greek world. Accordingly, the Hellenic world was actually multipolar. While Athens and Sparta displayed some hegemonic characteristics, other powerful actors populated the region and influenced the balance of power. They entered alliances, switched loyalties, and remained neutral. Persia, for instance, sought to support one to weaken the other. Novo and Parker, consequently, reject the theory that determinants within a bipolar structure made war between Athens and Sparta inevitable.
Another key and often overlooked aspect the authors underscore is the depiction in The History of leaders who considered the domestic operational environment, as they made security decisions and pursued the acquisition or retention of power, glory, wealth, and fame, whether for themselves, their families, or their factions. His depiction of speeches, debates, and deliberations emphasize that leaders had choices and retained agency. While The History focuses on state-versus-state conflict, its pages also provide evidence of internal politics, domestic strife, and civil war. Novo and Parker dial in on how these clashes shaped and propelled numerous wartime decisions that ran the spectrum from whether to support allies, initiate conflict, promote or accept peace offers, recognize treaty violations, and submit to demands. For example, in the Melian Dialogue, the oligarchs on Melos refused to permit the Athenian emissaries to present their proposal to the public. Unstated in the dialogue is that the autocrats likely sought to retain their position of power and wealth and, therefore, denied the populace an opportunity to hear Athenian demands. Perhaps they presumed the people would accept them, resulting in a loss of power. Assumptions about whether Athens would use force or if Sparta would intercede may have arisen from the desire to retain their power.
This book is a noteworthy addition to the field studying Thucydides’s work. The 1954 Penguin Classic edition of The History of the Peloponnesian War runs 648 pages and uses unfamiliar syntax and uncommon names for people and places. Novo and Parker provide extensive context to this original text, challenge classic “lessons,” and offer numerous other insights. It is also a worthy complement to those who have read Graham Allison’s Destined for War and offers greater dimension to the strategist’s favorite construct, the “Thucydides Trap.”
Restoring Thucydides serves two distinct audiences. First, it is an asset to students of history and strategy who seek a more robust understanding of the Peloponnesian War and its applicability to modern geopolitical issues. Second, this outstanding book offers those involved in national security revelations about individual agency, domestic politics, the international security environment, and strategy. It also arms readers with the evidence and background to accept or challenge how others employ the oft-quoted maxims of Thucydides.
The History of the Peloponnesian War captivates those who seek to understand contemporary geopolitical struggles. Rather than rereading the original, joint force operators, planners, practitioners, and strategists will find an exceptionally valuable and educational alternative in Restoring Thucydides. JFQ