Bob Carruthers (ed.), War in Ancient Greece (Albright)

Bob Carruthers (ed.)

War in Ancient Greece

(Pen & Sword, 2012) 576 pp. $19.99


Readers of this book will likely be somewhat surprised that the most notable aspects of this massive book, nearly 600 pages, is what is missing rather than what is present. There is no lengthy historical introduction from the editor placing Thucydides in his context as a historian and as a participant in the Peloponnesian War, there is no note discussing the fragmentary nature of the text, no scholarly footnotes or endnotes, no index, no bibliography, no acknowledgement of the translation used for this particular book. Indeed, the title of the book does not even acknowledge the contents of the book at all, leaving the reader either to decipher the back cover of the book or take a look inside to realize that there is little original content to the book at all, which consists essentially of Thucydides’ famous work, including even some elegant maps that also appear, like the text, to be taken without attribution from the public domain. This particular work is stated as being edited and introduced by Bob Carruthers, but he does not make it very clear what editing he has done, and his introduction consists of two pages of material without any sort of references or citations to other works, like the classic work by Kagan on the subject.

Given the lack of scholarly apparatus of any kind, it is unclear exactly what audience this book is being aimed at. Even students reading this book on high school or undergraduate level will likely not find enough material here to make it worthwhile as a source of research. The editor’s lack of transparency about his own editing of the work, the absence of information about the source he edited, and the lack the information about translation and the artist responsible for the maps all make this book difficult to appreciate on a scholarly level. Yet it is unlikely that there will be a large market for a book that is nearly 600 pages in length but lacks any sort of suggestion for further reading or any substantial placing of this immensely important text in the context of Greek historiography as a whole. Those readers willing to take on the substance of Thucydides’ work would be better advised to seek better translations with more substantial supporting material, as there are likely to be few readers content merely to read a lightly, if at all, edited version of a public domain translation that can be obtained far cheaper than this book’s price via alternate means.

Considering the paucity of original writing by the editor of this work, it is worthwhile to comment on what sort of material is added. Carruthers’ introduction of the course and origins of the Peloponnesian War reads as follows: “The rise of Athens and Sparta as pre-eminent powers during this conflict [with Persia] led directly to the Peloponnesian War, which saw further development of the nature of warfare, strategy, and tactics. Fought between leagues of cities dominated by Athens and Sparta, the increased manpower and financial resources increased the scale, and allowed the diversification of warfare. Set-piece battles during the Peloponnesian War proved indecisive and instead there was increased reliance on attritionary strategies, naval battle and blockades and sieges. These changes greatly increased the number of casualties and the disruption of Greek society (5).” There is little in this introduction that someone could not find out by reading an article on Wikipedia or in any accessible encyclopedia.

This criticism of the book as it is presented to the reader ought not to lead to any sort of misunderstanding that the work of Thucydides or the original unacknowledged translator of the material, both of whom do fine work. Whatever the failures of the editor to properly adorn this venerable and classic Greek text for the contemporary reader, including the vague title this volume is given, the translation itself is a good one and Thucydides is a remarkable observer of the epic clash between Athens and Sparta for supremacy in Greece. The book itself reads, rather appropriately, like a Greek tragedy, with prophecies referenced, with lengthy dialogues where people tell exactly what is going to happen if a particular course of action is taken but that is unable to convince the decision-makers involved, whether the citizens of Athens or Sparta or other cities, to take the most appropriate action in a given situation. There is so much irony to be found here, including the fact that Thucydides was himself an Athenian commander whose loss of Amphipolis led to his dismissal and exile, leading him to become instead a world-famous historian. We are the better for this, even if Athens likely was not better for the fact that he was not a great commander.

What does this ultimately mean for the reader? There are better and less expensive ways for readers to obtain the classic writing of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. This book is not essential and offers nothing of value at an inflated price, with a vague and misleading title and a total absence of the context that makes this book an entrance into historical study and research. The book gives no credit on its title page or throughout most of its contents to the people who deserve credit for having translated this work from its original Greek and for providing thoughtful maps of the territory and campaigns of the war that give a geographical context to the excellent history within. It is a shame that one of the great books of history has been appropriated, given a misleading title from an editor that shows very little effort in presenting this book in a worthwhile way, and sold at marked up prices to gullible readers unaware of just how little this book offers in comparison to other presentations. Caveat lector.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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