A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War – Ships, Men and Money in the War at Sea, 431-404 BC – Marc G DeSantis – Review

Apart from reading Great Battles of the Classical Greek World by Owen Rees, at the same time I was also reading A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War – Ships, Men and Money in the War at Sea, 431-404 BC published by Pen & Sword Maritime in 2017, ISBN 978 1 47386 158 9.

The book is the result of DeSantis’s research for his previous book, Rome Seizes the Trident, where he looked at Rome’s eventual defeat of Carthage at sea by the application of simple tactics against a more skillful opponent along with steadfast resolve. The Athenian fleet (skillful mariners) were brought low by Syracusan blunt force, prow-to-prow tactics.

The Peloponnesian War was largely decided by battles and a strategy at sea. When Athens’ control of the sea crumbled, so did its empire. The classical sources used for the book are Thucydides, Plutarch, Diodorus and Xenophon.

The Naval History of the Peloponnesian War commences with a number of maps of the area of operations as well as a map of the Battle of Arginusae. The book is then divided into 5 main parts parts 3 to 5 consisting of the usual split of the war:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Trireme
  3. The Archidamian War
  4. The Sicilian Expedition
  5. The Ionian War

There are also a Preface, Conclusions, Notes, Bibliography and Index. The itself book covers the naval history of the 27 years of conflict that was the Peloponnesian War.

DeSantis outlines the struggle in the Introduction, noting that Sparta supported by Persian gold eventually overcame Athens although it was the loss of the Athenian fleet at Syracuse that signaled the end for Athens rather than any action of Sparta.

DeSantis traces the war from the sources, first looking at the causes of the war presented by Thucydides as he saw it and he mostly relies on Thucydides’s narrative to 411 BC. Xenophon picks up the tale from then along with Diodorus of Siculus. Plutarch of Chaeronea writing some 500 years or so later in his Parallel Lives looks at the biographies of the Athenians Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, and Alcibiades along with the Spartan Lysander. Lastly the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia also mentions wartime events including the Athenian seaborne campaign in Asia Minor in 409 BC and the Battle of Notium in 406 BC. These then are the classical references used by DeSantis.

DeSantis covers the economics of the naval build-up of Athens, noting that the 100 talents (600,000 drachmae) in silver extracted from the Laurium silver mines was sufficient to build 200 triremes. He then notes that Pericles estimated the same cost for each year of war against Sparta.

In the second section the author examines the trireme (triers in Greek) with Thucydides identifying Corinth as the first to construct a trireme although there is a competing theory that the trireme may have actually originated in the east with the Sidonian of Phoenicia (trikrotis naus) or the Phoenicans themselves constructing the first such vessels.

The construction of the triremes of Athens is covered including details of where the wood and pitch was sourced from along with the number of men required to move a trireme up the 1 in 10 ramp into its shed (140) as well as take it back into the water (110). One thing that had not occurred to me before but perhaps should of is that there were different quality triremes. The best were known as exairetoi (selects) while others were identified as first, seconds or thirds. Old vessels were converted for troop transport – with a converted trireme able to transport 85 soldiers.

Tactics are covered with discussions of sailing with the wind and under the power of oars. Masts and sails were generally taken down before battle and preferably left on shore to lighten the load in the trireme prior to battle. The main battle manoeuvres are described, being the diekplous and the periplous. Less skillful fleets relied on coming alongside and boarding the enemy.

Rounding out his review of the trireme, DeSantis covers shipboard fighting, funding a fleet, the officers on board, payment on campaign, and propulsion.

DeSantis then moves on the Archidamian War which started when Corcyra and Corinth came to blows over Epidamnus. He looks at:

  • The Battle of Sybota
  • Potidaea
  • The Athenian empire and rival coalitions
  • The Battle of Chalcis
  • The Battle of Naupachus
  • The Attack on Piraeus
  • The Revolt at Lesbos
  • The Second Battle of Sybota
  • Pylos and Sphacteria
  • Strait of Messana engagements
  • Expeditions to Corinth and Corcyra
  • Attack on Nisaea
  • Delium
  • Brasidas’s campaign
  • Amphipolis
  • Meude
  • The Peace of Nicias
  • The Fate of Melos

The next part covers the whole hubristic disaster for Athens that was the Sicilian Expedition.

Lastly the Ionian War is examined. After the defeat in Sicily, the Athenians were spurred on to lock down their Ionian allies, and ensure Euboea in particular remained within the empire. The author looks at:

  • Alcibiades’s seduction of Timaea, the wife of King Agis
  • Alcibiades’s undermining Persian efforts to assist the Peloponnesians
  • The Battle of Cynossema
  • The Battle of Abydos
  • The Battle of Cyzicus
  • Alcibiades and the Athenian plundering expeditions
  • Action off Mytilene
  • The Battle of Arginusae
  • The Battle of Aegospotami

DeSantis concludes with the eventual defeat of the Athenian Empire.

While there were many land battles throughout the Peloponnesian War, it was at sea that Athens was at first strong, then later faltered.

I very much enjoyed this book, especially as I was reading it at the same time as Great Battles of the Classical Greek World. There was some overlap between the two books so taking an alternate view on some matters was a benefit.

If you are a naval tragic like me, and an ancient history addict as well, this book will serve well as an overview of the Peloponnesian War from the naval perspective. Thucydides and Xenophon are still the main sources to read but DeSantis’s book is both easy to read and factual.

This is a good book providing a good amount of detail and covering one the more exciting stories from Ancient Greece. I am now looking for my copy of Thucydides to read further into this conflict again, one that I have not looked at for about 30 years. Recommended.


Great Battles of the Classical Greek World – Review

A book I received some time ago and have been slowly reading is Great Battles of the Classical Greek World by Owen Rees, published by Pen & Sword Military in 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 729 5. The book is divided into four familiar main subject areas and a conclusion. Each of the parts are then split into between three and six Chapters covering various significant battles:

  1. The Peloponnesian War
    • The Battle of Olpae (426/5 BC)
    • The Battle of Delium (424 BC)
    • The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)
    • The First Battle of Mantinea (418 BC)
  2. The Spartan Hegemony
    • Battle of the Nemea (394 BC)
    • Battle of Coronea (394 BC)
    • The Battle of the Long Walls of Corinth (392 BC)
    • The Battle of Lechaeum (390 BC)
    • The Battle of Leuctra (371 BC)
    • The Second Battle of Mantinea (362 BC)
  3. Siege Warfare
    • The Siege of Plataea (429-427 BC)
    • The Sieges of Pylos and Sphacteria (425 BC)
    • The Siege of Syracuse (415-413 BC)
    • The Siege of Drilae (400 BC)
  4. Greco-Persian conflicts
    • The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
    • The Battle of Plataea (479 BC)
    • The Battle of Cunaxa (401 BC)
  5. Conclusions

I have run across some of Owen Rees’s writing before in the Ancient Warfare magazine. Rees’s narrative style makes this book easy to read with discrete footnoting at key points through each chapter. The footnotes are presented as endnotes and so do not distract from the narrative but still enable the reader to check source material or other references at leisure.

The first two parts of the book examine battles in two key areas of Classical Greek military history – the Peloponnesian War and the Rise and Fall of Sparta. The third part examines Greek Siege Warfare whilst the fourth section deals with the Greco-Persian conflicts. Including this the fourth section was a decision by Rees because it is clear that “the Greeks did not fight the Persians in the same manner in which they fought one another, but placing this conflict at the beginning allows a false image to arise concerning Greek battle, and Greek tactics in turn” (Rees, 2016, p. xvi). Rees therefore covers the internal conflicts of the Greeks first to develop an image of Greek warfare before dealing with their interaction with the Persians.

The structure of each of the chapters is consistent with the first section being the background and identifying the classical sources used for that battle. This is then followed by a description and location (where possible) of the battlefield. The armies are then examined followed by a description of the battle itself, with specific references to the sources as well as maps outlining the probably deployment of the forces present. The last section is the aftermath of the battle.

For example, chapter 3 deals with the Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC). The Background identifies the sources for this battle as Thucydides, (IV.70, 78-88, 102-V.3) and Diodorus (XII.67.3-68.6, 72-3). The Battlefield is identified as outside the walls of Amphipolis and Amphipolis is located by Rees in a U-Bend of the River Strymon. The armies are discussed and any assumptions about troops presented. So for the Battle of Amphipolis, Brasidas’s army is noted as a conglomerate force of allies under his command, some 6,500 men strong. The size of Cleon’s army is not known but it appears that his force was roughly the same size, or a little larger.

The battle itself is then described with the references for that being Thucydides V.6-11 and Diodorus XII-74. The battle description includes three maps representing the three phases of the battle. The Aftermath of the battle is then discussed:

After Brasidas fell in battle, he was dragged back into the walls of Amphipolis where he held on to life, waiting to hear news from the battlefield. A messenger was sent to inform the city of the Athenian rout and, with victory ringing in his ears, Brasidas was able to release his final breath in the knowledge that his legend had been cemented in the history of his beloved Sparta.

Clearidas brought the army back into Amphipolis and, in full armaments, they buried their commander in a tomb at the front of the agora. This spot became the focus of a hero-cult dedicated to the man the Amphipolitans appointed their new founder of the city – replacing the true founder, Hagnon the Athenian.

For Athens, the defeat, alongside the defeat at Delium, was too much for them to consider continuing the war. Similarly the Spartans were still trying to recover from their embarrassing defeat at Pylos and no amount of success in Chalcidice was enough to compensate for this. A ten-year peace was finally agreed and, although in fact it only lasted seven years, this gave both sides time to recover from their tragic losses (Rees, 2016, p. 40).

Apart from the five parts mentioned above, the book also contains a glossary covering technical words from the book, a section of Notes (endnotes) from each chapter, a bibliography, an index and six useful URLs for further research.

Overall, Rees’s book is well supported with tactical diagrams through each chapter. Rees is also willing to challenge popularly held beliefs, such as the invincibility of the Spartans.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to those interested in Classical Greek Warfare or the development of Hoplite tactics. The short chapters make the book the perfect companion with a fine coffee and a spare 20 minutes. The book itself has inspired me to look further into Greek warfare again and to start a collection of Ancient Greek armies to wargame these battles.

More Upcoming Pieces

I did another review of the search results for Thomo’s Hole again and some interesting ones turned up this time too. So, apart from the 19th Century naval engagements mentioned in a previous post, the search results for the last two days have revealed searches on the following terms:

Term Searches Results
HMS Devastation 2 1
American Civil War 1 12
Battle of Sluys 1 0
empire seraph 1 0
hms seraph 1 0
kazakhstan 1 11
Naval battle during the Siege of Fort Zeelandia 1 0
norwegian cuisine 1 6
pre dreadnoughts 1 4
tugboats 1 0

Now, I can say that the search on Kazakhstan was me – but all the rest are from readers. So, things people were looking for but which are missing – more naval items I see such as the Battle of Sluys (was that you Doyle?), empire and HMS Seraph (there is no ship called empire Seraph that I know of but two HMSs Seraph, one an S-class submarine and the other an S-class destroyer).

Tugboats is too general a term for a piece here in the future, unless I come across and relate the tales of some of the more famous tugs (and I’ll freely admit that I will have to chase those down as I know of none off the top of my head).

Lastly, there was the search for the Naval battle during the Siege of Fort Zeelandia. Now that seems like an interesting one as well and again, I think I will have something done for this in the not too distant future as well. Fort Zeelandia was in Formosa (modern Taiwan) and a Dutch outpost. This seems rather an interesting piece of research so standby for this in the future as well.