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Book Review, NRJ 67.1

February 11, 2023 3:12 PM | PAUL R MITCHELL (Administrator)

Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World

Owen Rees

Owen Rees wants to restore ancient naval narratives to a proper place in the historical record: The aim of this work is to bring the multitude of naval engagements, which pervade the ancient sources, into a broader modern awareness.” He leads his readers in the right direction. His introduction concisely and usefully describes the trireme and its functions in war, emphasizing the offensive tactics of the diekplous (breaking through gaps in the enemy line) and of the less clearly attested periplous (a sailing around), which is an encirclement tactic, one aspect of which is the kuklos, a wheel formation. Rees then handles his thirteen battles in individual chapters over the four parts of the book, with each chapter subdivided formulaically, and efficiently, into Background, Forces, Battle, and Aftermath, which means over half the book treats important historical matters as necessary military and political background to these battles.

The ancient Greek world of the title is a single hundred-year epoch within the Classical Period (500-323): the battles appear in chronological order from Lade (494) to Cnidus (394). Eleven battles belong to either the Persian Conflicts (499-479) or the Peloponnesian War (divided into the Archidamian War, 432-421, and the Ionian War, 413-404). Naval tactics and technology changed throughout this period, as the Greeks learned from one another, but they acquired special importance after the Peloponnesian War. At Catane (396) the Carthaginians initially defeated the Syracusans with the newly developed quinquereme, and at Cnidus (394), Rees argues, the Greeks were split apart, turned against each other, and then had to seek the support of another strong ally.

With certain exceptions—Salamis (480) and Arginousae (406) come to mind immediately—ancient Greek naval battles are typically stepping-stones to a definitive and historically more important—"more-glorious”—land battle. For example, Aegospotami (405) is not a straightforward naval battle. The Athenians were camped in a highly vulnerable location, as Alcibiades told them. After five days of the Athenian ships tactically showing the colors and backing off, and the Spartans playing coy, the actual disaster came when the Athenians disembarked and carelessly went foraging, and the Spartans landed their force, then hunted down and massacred the Athenians in a full-on ground assault, with their ships also hindering the enemy’s flight. Significantly, Rees prefers to conceptualize such battles as joint land-sea operations.

The conclusion highlights the indispensable role of the fleet in resisting Persian aggression, providing the basis for Athenian expansionism, and, ultimately, causing Athens’ defeat after a quarter-century of warfare against the Lacedaimonians and their allies. However, an opportunity to examine Spartan naval operations more closely may have been missed, since after the Peloponnesian War Spartan hegemony (404-371) superseded Athenian naval dominance. Together the introduction and conclusion summarize the author’s principal views and indicate the author’s major themes, but if this project is to be extended long-term, a major infusion from maritime archaeology will be needed.

Rees succeeds in reaching an essential audience. His writing is lucid, informative, and engaging for the knowledgeable general reader and for students at all levels. Each chapter has a rudimentary battle map; one chapter has two. An index would have helped, but an up-to-date bibliography and numerous endnotes allow such readers to pursue topics that draw their enthusiasm.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2020
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 416 pages
  • Maps, diagrams, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. $32.95
  • ISBN: 9781473927301

Reviewed by: Frank E. Romer, East Carolina University

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