Fragmented Book Reviews: Part Five

[Note: This post is part of my series of book reviews on books that are too short to have their own blog post, because I have enough blog review posts as it is.]

Sparta’s Shame: The Battle of Sphacteria And Pylos, by Charles R. King

With all of the myth-making that goes on about the power and grandeur of the ancient Spartans, this particular essay provides some useful historical tonic by looking at a little-known battle in the Peloponnesian War that had immense consequences in the first phase of the war. Although the battles that ended Spartan hegemony occurred later on in the 370s, when Theban arms freed the Messenian helots and ended Spartan hegenomy over southern Greece, this battle was the first one where Spartans had willingly surrendered, leading to the loss of 10% of the free male population of the city, an immense loss that led to the end of the first phase of the Peloponnesian War in favor of Athens. A small book as this one is is certainly worthwhile for such an important incident.

Most of the book discusses the tactics and strategy to what led to the development of an Athenian base that threatened the security of Sparta, making it rather shocking that Sparta did not take the threat seriously at first, then sought to overwhelm the small Athenian garrison, which was able to conduct a shoreline defense to preserve the position, and then counterattack to besiege and take over the Spartan base on the opposite shore. Although these two battles were distinct, they were part of the same campaign and were in close geographical distance, so it makes sense that they would be discussed here. This is an excellent account, and a short one as well, for those who are interested in the subject matter but do not want to hunt for it in Thucydides. The only knock against the book I would have is that about half of it is taken up by the author trying to sell his other books. Oh well.

A Guide To The Greek And Persian Wars 499-386 BC, by Dr. Philip de Souza

Like the Osprey guides to various wars in general, this book is a solid and excellent resource to provide a reader with a thoughtful but brief examination of a particular conflict. This book fits into that realm, looking at the causes of Persian and Greek conflict in the desire of Greek cities on the Ionian coast to be free from Persian-supported client rulers, to have a degree of autonomy with local democracies, actions which were supported by Athens and that led to uprisings against Persian rule and the attack of mighty Persian armies in both 490 and 480 BC to put down the Greek cities, espeically Athens and Sparta. The book has some explanatory text, and a few maps, but it is a pretty straightforward account without a large amount of elaboration except in the major set piece battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea that led to the successful defense of Greece.

Yet this book, even if it is short, reminds us that Persia was not that far from a smashing success against Greece, and that the war between Greece and Persia was fought not only in Greece (where most of the attention is focused, largely because the Greeks were the most successful in their home territory), but in Ionia (where the Greeks were unsuccessful), Cyprus, and Egypt. This book does not spend much time on the last two theaters, but it is clear that the Greeks were canny in seeking to divide Persian attention in multiple theaters to ensure their own relative security. The book also contains some biographical sketches and a look at such aspects of culture as the portrayal of Persians in Greek theater as well as Persian imperial architecture. These little elaborations add a human element to the story, showing the cruelty of Spartan culture towards even those who were ordered not to fight and so avoided the sort of heroic death that would make their families proud and punctures the claims about an Athenian desire for freedom that was imperialistic, puncturing the same sort of rhetoric that other republics occasionally engage in, forgetting that they too like to rule over others.

Incredible Facts About Ukraine That Few People Know, by Oksana Vitruk

This is a short book that is mostly filled with provocative commentary as well as information that is available from wikipedia and other public sources, but unlike other books, this one shows some creativity. That is not to say that everyone will be pleased with this book–it was clearly written before the troubles this year with Russia, but it demonstrates the mindset of a pro-European Ukrainian citizen with a passionate love for her homeland, and a desire to point out the massive horrors and losses that resulted from the 20th century misrule of the Communists (even if one disagrees with her belief that there were more Ukrainians than Russians in the early Soviet Union). Also of interest is the fact that she claims many of Russia’s great literary and artistic figures with Ukrainian people whose names were changed due to policies of Russianization, which is a common way that imperial regimes seek to co-opt the creativity of subject peoples.

Despite the fact that this book does have some provocative claims that would appear to demand better evidence than is provided, this book provided an interesting conversation topic for me today, when after my afternoon break I had a conversation about some of the information in this book (the geographic center of Europe, the Ukrainian national anthem, for example) with an IT specialist at my company who was born in Ukraine. This is a little book that will likely be very popular with those who are passionate Ukrainian nationalists, and at least moderately interesting to a wide variety of other people, except for those that feel the need to defend Russia from its various sins as an imperial power. Pro-Russian readers are not likely to appreciate this particular book, as it shows some depth of fierce historical grievance exists for some Ukrainian citizens that will likely only be more serious after this year.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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