J. E. Lendon


On his book Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins

Cover Interview of January 04, 2011

The wide angle

It was as a child living in Japan that I first began to wonder about the connection between culture and foreign affairs.  In the 70s and 80s China kept exploding in fury over trivial slights—calling the Japanese capitalist running dogs, as was their quaint custom in those days—and Japan would humble itself and apologize, with deep, indeed horizontal, bowing on the part of the Japanese Prime Minister.  And then things would go on as before.  Why did the Chinese get so mad?  Why was it so easy to placate them?  Why all the bowing?  The English-language newspapers my parents read, even when their reporters were based in East Asia, did not really own the necessary mental toolbox to understand the relationship between Japan and China.

Then, in the early years of the new century, the Japanese suddenly stopped apologizing.  This was the strange business of Yasukuni Shrine, and China’s fulminations when Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan went there to pay his respects to the Japanese war dead (some of whom had behaved rather badly in China during the war).  Because Koizumi kept on and refused to apologize (under pressure he issued equivocal communiqués accompanied by bows of insolent cursoriness—hardly more than nods), that dispute ran for years, no less to the bafflement of Western observers than Japan’s previous humble behavior had been.

In the meantime, the child who had been curious about China and Japan in the seventies and eighties had gone to college in the States and become a historian of ancient Greece and Rome—not least because they seemed comfortably alien to his own background.

But that Asian rearing had nevertheless made me hypersensitive to the role of respect and deference in historical societies.  I had predictably become interested in the way cities in the Roman Empire were ranked by relative prestige, and how the Roman emperor manipulated that ranking to work his will among his subjects (this was a major theme of my dissertation and first book, Empire of Honour).

A town might boast that it was “most brilliant, most glorious, and greatest by imperial decree!”  And if the town failed to feed the emperor’s soldiers generously when they passed by, the imperial decree that conveyed those valued titles might be followed by one that withdrew them.  This taught me to think of ancient states in terms of a ranking, a pecking order—from Rome in first place, all the way down through the 2000-some cities in the Roman empire.

One day, reading in the newspaper about the on-going fuss about Yasukuni Shrine, I put the ranking of cities in the Roman Empire and the odd relations between Japan and China together: and they fit.

With its threats and rages, China, it seemed to me, was not seeking a practical advantage over Japan, but rather asserting (and trying to compel Japan to acknowledge) a superior position in an imagined hierarchy of states.  So the idea could be applied to foreign relations!  How about to the free states of Classical Greece?

That worked too, and I became interested how states, in the absence of a Roman emperor to adjust their rankings, decided who ranked higher than whom: it was a matter of fame in myth, but also of war, and of insult that drove down the rankings of other states, and of revenge for insult, which restored threatened rank.  The example of China hinted to me also that national rank and threat to rank were not the subject of calm calculation, but powerfully emotional:  rank threatened inspired just the same feelings of anger among the Greeks as among the Chinese.

Having trained in the first place as an historian of Rome, my natural impulse was to apply this sort of thinking to Roman foreign relations.  But my friend Susan Mattern got there first, with her splendid Rome and the Enemy.  And I’m glad.  For that would not have been a fun book to write, inasmuch as the evidence about Rome is very bitty, a glimpse here, a glimpse there—all necessarily having to come together into a very analytical book.

I didn’t want to write another one of those.  Like many historians trained to write analytical history—five page thesis-proving papers in high school; seven page thesis-proving papers in college; fifteen-page thesis-proving papers in graduate school; three-hundred-page thesis-proving dissertation—I found, as I got older, that I wanted to tell a story.  (My exemplar in this is my friend Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture and Ratification.)  A story well told both delights and elevates its reader, and, if the author has a point to make, that point slides home in the reader’s soul far more easily if the way is smoothed by joy.

But I was about as well trained in writing stories as I am in string theory: not at all.  I had to teach myself.  I knew that novelists traditionally developed the necessary muscles by writing short stories.  So first I decided to write a book of historical short stories.  This was my Soldiers and Ghosts:  A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, where I was able cast each of the chapters as a separate little tale.

People—and not only academics—enjoyed it; I was particularly pleased by the enthusiastic reception of the book among members of the armed forces.  After Soldiers and Ghosts, I finally felt confident enough to attempt a novel-length book of history.

But for what episode of ancient diplomatic and military history was the evidence thick enough to write a continuous narrative, without having to stop every two sentences for a maunder about problems with the evidence?  Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War was the natural choice.