J. E.


Honor, furious emotion, strategy, statesmanship—and literary history

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Most of the nutshells in this book end up broken: there is much fighting. Song of Wrath tells the story of the origins and course of the Archidamian War between Athens and Sparta (431 BC-421 BC), the first of the several wars that made up ancient Greece’s great Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

The subject of the book is strategy and statesmanship, and my purpose is to show that these are grounded in culture—that different societies pursue different objectives in their foreign relations, and pursue them, including in war, in idiosyncratic ways.

The lesson of the book is that culture gets people killed. And some of the aspects of culture that got people killed in ancient Greece are very similar to those that that drive modern states and individuals to violence, especially in Asia and the Middle East.

No less important, Song of Wrath aspires to tell its story well. I intended the book to be literary history as it was known before history became the property of college professors. Song of Wrath was a pleasure to write, and I hope it will be a pleasure to read.

“Culture gets people killed. And some of the aspects of culture that got people killed in ancient Greece are very similar to those that that drive modern states and individuals to violence.”

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.

January 5, 2011

A close-up

Mount Helicon, sacred to the muses, looked down upon the great marsh of Copaïs, graveyard of cities. In heroic times men had cleared the limestone caverns that drained Copaïs to the sea, and tilled her smiling bottomlands, and built their dwellings there. But with the passing of the heroes, and the silting of the ways, as the water carried in by the rivers Cephisus and Melas failed of escape, the cities were drowned, and Copaïs became a mere—a sea of reeds, the haunt of waterfowl, rich pasture for lowing cattle and questing pigs. To her neighbors, the Boeotians, Copaïs gave their comfortable things: herbs and rushes, plump ducks and woodcocks, and above all, tasty eels, grown fat from nibbling beneath the green-brown waters upon the inundated works of forgotten men.

Sweating porters bore the eels from the huts of their snigglers to rich fanciers as far as Athens, fifty miles to the south, to be roasted over coals in beet leaves. But nearer by far were the epicures of Thebes, lords of the Boeotian plain, their character, it is nice to think, formed over centuries by the very qualities of this writhing delicacy: strong, cunning, voracious.

This passage introduces the eel motif, which twines itself about the narrative of the book (leaving aside the literary use to which eels are put, by virtue of my Japanese childhood I’m quite addicted to unagi). I’ve also tried very hard in the book to give the modern reader a sense of place about the locations where the story unfolds, and that mission often involves descriptions of this nature or accounts of local myths (or, more exactly, what were recounted as local myths to Roman-period collectors of the same).

But the passage also represents for me a tiny, rare, but intensely gratifying, literary victory. The process of my writing runs like this. I write passages like the one above. My brother, who kindly reads all my longer work and much of my shorter, makes it even more like that—this is the process we call “bedizening.” Then most of the purple gets stripped out again by my agent, academic friends I impose upon to read the manuscript, the press’ editor and copy-editor, and my gimlet-eyed colleague and partner Elizabeth Meyer, who, when her own moral suasion fails, calls in my mother, an English teacher of the old Hemingway-admiring school.

I don’t deny for a moment that all this editing is necessary, and I am abjectly grateful for being saved from myself. But the result is that stylistically my work is usually a stricken field, the battlefield of Waterloo the day after the fighting. Very rarely can I look at a passage and say, “mine! all mine!”

The eel snigglers of Copaïs are all mine.

“Like many historians trained to write analytical history, I found, as I got older, that I wanted to tell a story. A story well told both delights and elevates its reader.”


The reader of Song of Wrath should depart delighted by a good read, and with interest piqued in the ancient Greeks. The reader of Song of Wrath should depart excited at the prospect of reading Thucydides, the ancient master upon whose work Song of Wrath is based. And finally, the reader of Song of Wrath should depart with a new set of paradigms for understanding relations between states—a system grounded in national honor and furious emotion—alien to the contemporary West, but extremely useful for understanding the often-puzzling behavior of modern states like China, North Korea, and Iran, and the motivations of individuals like Osama Bin Laden.

© 2010 J. E. Lendon
J. E. Lendon Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins Basic Books 566 pages, 9 1/4 x 6 1/8 inches ISBN 978 0465015061

J. E. Lendon had a very curious upbringing””a Canadian, he was born in Lebanon and grew up in Japan””the memory of which he has tried to obliterate with a quite conventional academic career: he got his B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale, began teaching at MIT, and is now a Professor of History at The University of Virginia. He is the author of Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, and Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins, featured in his Rorotoko interview. All of which is to show, in different ways, how futile his attempts have been to escape his exotic childhood.

Cover Interview of
January 5, 2011