A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands

by Marc G. Desantis

Although I know the importance of Thucydides, and have even dipped into his work, I cannot claim to be a classicist. I would like to be, of course. I have just spent six months living and working in Rome, visiting the sites and enjoying learning the lessons of antiquity in my spare time, so when I saw that Pen & Sword had published a book looking specifically at the naval aspects of the Peloponnesian War I considered it a “must read.” Lessons for today must surely be in there I thought, with Athens and Sparta, democracy and oligarchy, maritime and continental approaches, and even the presence of a powerful third party from the east (Persia).
The author, Marc G Desantis, appears to be an American lawyer and part time writer. A quick search shows that he has sci-fi fiction books to his credit, but that he also has a keen interest in Greek and Roman seapower. An unusual mix, but why not? He published Rome Seizes the Trident in 2015, which considered Rome’s naval power during the Punic Wars, and now he has turned his hand to Ancient Greece. It is a brave decision, because the Peloponnesian War is one of the most avidly studied subjects in military history. It is the basis for much of our understanding of strategy, international relations and power politics. To write a book such as this as a hobby is an amazing undertaking.
However, this is not a dry, scholarly work. As is Pen & Swords style, the book is a reasonably priced, decently written narrative aimed at the general reader, and it doesn’t pretend to be any more than that. There are no startling new revelations, no deep insight into an otherwise overlooked aspect of the war. Instead, it covers much and follows a logical structure, though I thought that the Introduction, at thirty pages, was too long and should have been broken down into separate chapters. It begins by explaining the Trireme, the pre-eminent means of waging naval war in the Mediterranean in ancient times, before leading the reader through the three major phases of the war at sea.
The Archidamian War came first, with Sparta attacking by land and Athens coping well by its exploitation of the sea. Next was the Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens deployed to help their allies, but then suffered badly. Finally, the Ionian War saw Sparta more powerful on land and at sea and able to count on alliances. There is no point in elaborating any more than that, because that is what the book is for.
I must admit to a slight disappointment, however. I found myself wanting to know the strategic context in simple terms for each phase and had to resort to quick and regular internet searches to find the “bigger picture.” Perhaps this is symptomatic of my own lack of knowledge but, as stated above, the joy of Pen & Sword is normally its generalist, easy-read approach. That said, I would recommend two things. First, if any reader has an interest in the Peloponnesian War then the place to start is still Thucydides, either in the original or from one of the countless books that have followed. If a little naval focus is then required, Desantis can provide it.

Kevin Rowlands
Captain, RN