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Great Battles of the Hellenistic World by Pietrykowski Joseph

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

As all at UNRV know, I`m more of a philhellene than a romanophile even though I did study both civilizations during my studies and had more courses on the latter than on the former. I did also concentrate on warfare, a topic which of course would lead to some cross-civilization studies, especially around the 2nd and 1st century B.C. In the book currently under review this experiences is quite helpful because it does examine, among other, fights which happened between the two cultures, be it the campaigns of Pyrrhos of Epeiros or the battles against the Macedonian and Seleucid forces.

Indeed the book describes itself as a book where Joseph Pietrykowski explores the struggles that shook the ancient world and shaped history. From the structure and composition of the opposing armies, to the strategy of their campaigns, to the leadership decisions and tactics that decided the engagements, Great Battles of the Hellenistic World examines seventeen landmark conflicts from Chaironeia to Pydna over the course of 170 years of bloody warfare. All seems to be said in this brief description, and we shall now try to see if the goals set by the author are indeed reached at the end of the 256 pages of this hardback book published by Pen & Swords books.

Well, I must say that the reviewer is split on how to consider this book. Too shallow on many points, not really good at taking into account warfare in its entirety, it`s not a bad book either for its content shows a lot of researches and it comes lavishly furnished with maps of the battles phases (but no map of the ancient world to show where those battles happened...). Seventeen chapters, divided between five main parts, try to tell the story of the Macedonian phalanx as devised by Philip II of Macedonia and latter wielded to such effect by his son Alexander IV the Great and his spiritual heirs. Five battles of Philip and Alexander are studied in the first part, four battles of the Successors being then studied before three fights of Pyrrhos. Two battles of the latter Hellenistic period (Sellasia and Raphia) are then studied before the fifth part opens on Kynoskephalai, the first of three battles fought between Roman and Hellenistic forces, after which a small conclusion closes the book, being followed by the traditional notes, bibliography and index.

Each part has a small introduction to give an idea of the political activity of the period and each battle is studied under the same model, with a number of themes: The campaign, the battlefield, the armies and their leaders, the battle, its aftermath. As much precisions as available are given on the ground on which the battle was fought, and the battles' descriptions themselves attempt to be lively, closer to what is found in novels than the usual dry descriptions one may find in the typical scholarly books of the 19th and early 20th century, grand period of l`histoire bataille (expression one might translate as "the study of history through battles").

But is that enough to make a good book? Yes the read is entertaining, but what of hard facts? What may one get from stories of battles taken almost entirely out of their context, with no information on logistics, no real details on equipment or training and, more disturbing, no real explanations on why choosing those battles and not others? Also the main narrative makes almost no direct reference to the ancient sources and neither Quellenforschung nor Quellenkritik appears, except sometimes in the notes. Yet the ancient authors were not impartial and often show strong bias in their accounts, thus a supplementary theme for each battle called "how do we know what we know" would have been better.

The notes of the book are mainly references of ancient sources and explain some choices of the author between conflicting accounts or those he made when confronted by the ancient texts' silence. But they are unfortunately altogether after the main text, instead of under it, making the reading of those notes an exercise in not losing one`s page, especially difficult when standing in the subway... The bibliography of the book, some three pages long, is also telling. While many modern books (including some by Goldsworthy and Matyszak) are present, no non-English source is given (or when, by chance, a source like the old Hans Delbrück is given it is in translation, in this case a 1975 English edition of a book first published in German more than 50 years before).

So, what to say in the end? Well a fun book, rather well written, but unfortunately it won`t satisfy the academic or the knowledgeable amateur due to its lack of depth. As some readers have written at Amazon, "This is an excellent introduction to the battles of the Hellenistic world for wargamers and younger readers.", Some even go so far as to say: "I would not be surprised if the author is not a frustrated wargamer of the period..." Anyway we`ll be looking out for his forthcoming book on battles of classical Greece.

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Book Review of Great Battles of the Hellenistic World - Related Topic: Achaea


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