17 Oct 19
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands

In 2016 historian and writer Owen Rees published a book on the great land battles of the classical Greek world.  Since then he has come to realise, as members of the Naval Review would undoubtedly know, that an understanding of the campaigns, strategies, politics and outcomes of any war are incomplete without an appreciation of the maritime dimension.  Thankfully, he has now tried to set the record straight with Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World.

In this book Rees provides pithy, concise histories of thirteen naval battles that helped to shape the ancient Mediterranean world.  Divided into four parts, he takes the reader from the early Persian conflicts through the first and second Peloponnesian wars to the Hegemony period.  From start to finish it is the partly-connected story of a hundred years of war at sea, from 494 BC (the Battle of Lade) to 394 BC (the Battle of Cnidus).  Each battle has a dedicated chapter of its own, and each chapter follows a simple but effective format.  The background context is given, then an assessment of the opposing forces, then a narrative of the battle itself, and finally a short analysis of the aftermath. This isn’t the stuff of detailed academic research, but it is a worthy primer for the interested amateur classicist.

The stories themselves have colour and pace, which shouldn’t be surprising because much of the source material comes from the great writers of the ancient world.  Rees tells us at the start of each chapter exactly where his information comes from.  His account of the Battle of Salamis, for example, is based on the histories of Herodotus, Diodorus and Plutarch. We hear of the Great King Xerxes of Persia, the bravery of the Greek warriors, and the guile of the outstanding female naval commander Artemisia. Knowing what was happening at sea as Xerxes faced Leonidas at Thermopylae is an invaluable piece of the jigsaw. At times the reader yearn for more, and there is a bibliography to explore further.

This reviewer does have one or two criticisms, however.  More maps would have been extremely helpful; placing locations and timings of battles in the context of the overall campaign is much easier to do with a simple visual aid. In addition, despite the presence of a glossary the non-classicist may become confused by the language, terminology and names used (I did).  For an armchair reader of a book presumably aimed at a general audience, a little more plain English would not have gone amiss. Finally, the balance between narrative account and subjective assessment could have been shifted a little to give greater prominence to the latter.  A single post-script paragraph at the end of each chapter on what it really meant isn’t quite enough.

That said, Rees does try to enlighten the reader as to what is going on.  His introductory section gives an excellent explanation of the ships of the day, particularly the trireme, and he outlines some of the tactics used, including the diekplous (breaking through enemy lines and attacking from the rear) and the kyklos (forming a circle with sterns together and bows pointing outwards).  Every day is a school day. All in all, this is a very worthwhile addition to any bookshelf, and its price should not put anyone off.  Having only recently returned from a short battlefield tour of the Normandy beaches, reading Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World made this reviewer want to pop across to the Aegean to see the terrain for himself.