Expedition to Disaster by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

Let’s open this review with a frank admission: I did not like the book, due to many aspects which would probably have been irritating if taken separately but simply disappoint when combined. The title indicates the theme of this book published by Pen & Sword military: a focus on a specific campaign in the famous Peloponnesian War which put Athens and Sparta at each other’s throats in the second half of the fifth century BCE. Short, with 167 pages including two pages and a half of endnotes and one page and a half of references, it does attempt to study this sub-conflict by providing both the context and the detail of the operations.

Unfortunately this study appears quite high-level but the information provided to the reader stays far below what one would expect from reading Thucydides in a modern edition. For example, the book has only three maps (Greece, Sicily, Syracuse) while the Landmark Thucydides edited by R. B. Strassler has about ten maps looking at the siege of Syracuse and the main battles as well as half a dozen maps showing the allies of both parties and the road taken by some of the main protagonists, such as Demosthenes, to reach the theatre of operations.

Another issue with the book is its tone, which attempts to be witty and light but mostly fails to achieve its objectives with the present reviewer. Sentences like “There existed a particular goddess whose job it was to deal with hubris.” (p.26) might sound good for a conference presentation, but not, in my opinion, on a scientific book, even one written with the general public in mind.

The will to popularize should also not be considered as an excuse for using dated terminologies or categorizations as shown by the use of the now often deprecated “BC” (before Christ) abbreviation (replaced by “BCE”, before common era, abbreviation). This is not simply academic snobbery but also a mark of respect to a part of the readership that is not using an erroneous religious element (Jesus was probably born in 4 BCE…) as a basis for its calendar.

Popularization is also done by providing the reader with ways to visualize the subject at end, supplementing the text with pictures that help its understanding. Such things can readily be seen in books like “Hellenistic and Roman Naval Wars 336-31 BC” by J. D. Grainger or, in another domain, “The Frontiers of Imperial Rome” by D. J. Breeze, both published by the same editor. Even the purely academic books do make use of illustrations to help make their point, as shown by the nice reconstructions of roman ships in M. Pitassi’s “Roman Warships”. Yet Dr. Matyszak’s book does not, for example, attempt to reconstruct the reinforced bows of later Syracusan triremes, only showing a picture of the prow of the reconstructed ship Olympias with the comment that it was the part the Syracusans reinforced.

This is to be compared to Dr. Matyszak’s own previous books “Ancient Rome on five denarii a day” and “Ancient Athens on five drachmas a day”, published by Thames and Hudson, where the use of illustrations was more thoughtful and adequate. It is also to be compared to his biography of Mithridates, published by Pen and Sword, which had many more maps, including battle maps, and some reconstruction of ancient ships labelled as hand-drawn by the author.

I will not go into a detailed listing of all the editorial issues (typos, lack of coherence between text and maps such as in the case of the city of (Segesta, etc.), or into a discussion of the intention of the author to tie the Sicilian expedition to contemporary politics, but I’ll mention that what few reviews of the book there are available on the web show that the book has been less well received than previous and subsequent publications of the author.

In conclusion, if this book is not quite an expedition to disaster, it does fall rather near it and I would recommend people interested in this campaign to either go directly for Kagan’s or Hanson’s studies of the whole conflict or simply go to the superb writing of Thucydides. While these books may lack some of the more recent theories which Dr. Matyszak does cover here, they will probably be closer to the expectations of the learned UNRV readership.

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