The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

918836To me, it always used to seem like the Peloponnesian War was forgotten between the Greek-Persian wars in the first half of the fifth century BC and the rise of Macedonia in the late fourth century.  I now realize that I was a little naive.  The Greek Persian wars and Alexander are perennially in other forms of media, but for so many historians (not to mention philosophers and classicists) this period is both well covered by historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, and crucial for the lives and politics of philosophers like Socrates and Plato.  It was also important in the mainstream culture of the time like the plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

It’s probably the sheer scale and complexity of the war that keeps it from greater status today.  There are fascinating characters – Alcibiades, Pericles, Nicias, Lysander – but few of them are involved throughout the entire war.  Like the Thirty Years War two millennia later, the Peloponnesian War is really multiple wars joined together between two large alliances or empires.  Complicating things too is Greek politics – each state had factions of both aristocrats/oligarchs and democrats, and it’s not as easy as we may think nowadays: the most prominent democratic state Athens behaved in a more domineering way to members of its alliance than the oligarchic Sparta, turning a once voluntary alliance into an Empire.  Local disputes too make things difficult, with rival cities sometimes joining one side or the other on issues closer to home.

With a potentially unfamiliar topic that covers many decades and many twists and turns, Kagan has a writing style that strikes a good balance on detail, but can be a little short of colour (he’s not as accessible as, for example, Tom Holland).  It might even be a little dry, if the events he was covering weren’t quite so explosive.  With the historical sources being largely Athenian, for the most part we do get the war from an Athenian perspective; but I would not say this makes it especially sympathetic towards the democracy.  Their aggression towards smaller starts, their infighting and their hubris is clear and no apologies are made for it.

The war comes in roughly four phases: in the first, the legendary statesman Pericles operates a defensive strategy; in the second the Athenians go on the offensive before being beaten back and signing a peace treaty.  In the third phase, Athens embarks on a farcical invasion of Sicily, leaving it embarrassed and depleted.  In the final phase, Persia joins with Sparta and after some to-ing and fro-ing defeats Athens.  Kagan is sceptical about Pericles’ strategy but admits that the offensive approach may have been worse.  He plays up the self serving and tragicomedic elements of the decision to invade Sicily, but he also finds ways for Athens to escape until the very end.  He looks critically at the sources and tries to delve read between the lines throughout.

The book isn’t short by any means; but it is an abridged version of his original four volume history written over a few decades.  I think that gets quite heavy on the sources, and would be just as focused on Athens and the same time scale, but I found myself wanting more on the aftermath for Athens as they ran through a series of short term regimes that lashed out against perceived political enemies (including the execution of Socrates).  I also found myself curious about the second rank of Greek cities – Thebes, Corinth, Argos.  It may be a measure of how important the period was (and how well Kagan writes on it) that such a detailed book can leave me hungry for so much more information.


Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

51-hmkcphel-_sx322_bo1204203200_Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece.  The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia.  A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades.  It is the story in these scrolls that we read.

If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts.  Thankfully the book is far more than this twist.  For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe.  From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.

As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed.  Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon.  For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic.  It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

4fec67c0-c5cf-4e87-838c-7c330bae3192img400The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods.  As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“.  Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.

In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction.  For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer.  Inevitably the gods win.  It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.

Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief.  In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.

Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!).  Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians.  The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.

This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself.  Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized.  It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.


Taken At The Flood by Robin Waterfield

21517671Way back at the start of this blog, I read and reviewed his book Dividing the Spoils.  In that he charted the growth of the successor kingdoms to the empire of Alexander the Great.  I guess this book covers the fall of one of those kingdoms, Macedonia.  More than that, it covers the end of hellenistic Greece.  Ultimately though, it’s a book about Roman imperialism.  Waterfield is open about this from the preface, he believes Rome’s conquest was deliberate, cynical and self serving: no accidental empire or well meaning peace keeping.

I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).

Don’t worry – this is no polemic.  Waterfield offers a fairly balanced account of Rome’s policy in Greece from the First Illyrian war in 229BC to the Achaean War in 146BC.  In brief, we find Rome challenging the existing hegemony of the Macedonian and Seleucid kings.  The Greeks get to know the Romans, finding them greedy and brutal.  The Romans get to know the Greeks, finding them an extravagant but tempting influence.  The Roman attitude shifts from the soft approach (the greek loving Titus Quinctus Flamininus who “liberated” the cities from the Macedonians), to the hard (the looting of Lucius Aemilius Paullus).  Finally, after almost a century of dividing and conquering, the kingdom of Macedonia fell and the Romans squashed any chance of other Greek states taking its place.

The book has had its share of criticism.  Waterfield presents Rome as unusually brutal, but doesn’t really explain how their hegemony and coercion differs from the coercion of states closer to home.  When Rome goes to war it’s belligerent, when Macedonia does it’s the done thing for a Hellenistic king.  The Roman destruction of Corinth was shocking, but so was Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes.  On the plus side, this is a period of history that often gets missed over in favour of the second and third punic wars during the same period.  Just like Dividing The Spoils, Waterfield writes accessibly and brings to life the main characters and sources.  Correctly balanced or not, the insights into the Roman methods of “remote control” are fascinating.  The wars with Carthage are still going to be the best place to start with second century Rome, but this is well worth reading for a look beyond that.


Campaigns of Alexander

As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently.  Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up.  It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history.  It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.

I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source.   Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome.  As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).

There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour.  Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.

What else is there to add?  The story of Alexander is a classic.  There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures.  In either form, it’s very enjoyable.


Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.


Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘.  This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.

With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered.  Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds.  As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough.  Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on.  Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.

Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north.  Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since.  Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice.  Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland.  As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb.  The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.

The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful!  It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.

We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation.  It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.