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Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by caldrail

Just before lunchtime I settled down on a park bench to read a book in the warm mid-day sun. It seemed somehow appropriate that I should digest the story of the Roman conquest of the Greek city states on such a fine day.

Polybius was right. The decline and defeat of one the most influential societies of all time by another isn't something to be ignored. There seriously are lessons for the modern world buried in those tales. I have to confess my knowledge of these events was somewhat lacking. All the more reason to lean back and enjoy this work.

Before it arrived on my doorstep I had an inkling it might be a modest volume, and so it was, running to little more than 180 pages. You should never judge a book by its cover. Nor should you judge it by size. Nor, as a reviewer, should you judge it by the author. That said, Philip Matyszak has been putting out a steady supply of titles in recent years and some of them I refer to on a regular basis. I set about my read in a relaxed mood.

It was quickly apparent this was not a book to be taken lightly. The story begins at the very beginning with the prehistoric origins of the region, the geography, the people, the nature of each city state involved in events of the time. A cavalcade of dramatic individuals leap from the pages in frantic succession, echoing their often short-lived careers, and since this book is focused on a specific conflict, the author wisely avoids getting bogged down in emphasising the better known characters like Alexander The Great. Rome emerges as a spectator and soon becomes embroiled in the argumentative politics of the Greeks. Along with the ghosts of the Roman senate, this book dragged me in as well.

Rather like an interlude in some complex foreign film with subtitles, I discovered the colour illustrations in the middle of the book. They were, I must say, a welcome breather from the relentless pace of the text. No, I'll go further than that. The illustrations are good quality and their relative scarcity makes them all the more valuable. You get a few hints about the terrain, the landscape, the clothes and appearance of warriors of the days in which Rome was discovering the self confidence and success that would make it a world superpower of the ancient world. That's not to say I only look at the pictures, rather that you can't help feeling there should have been more. The brevity with which the author describes this conflict and the current trend in visual publishing combine to create this mood and any similar book would be the same.

I find myself in a quandary about Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. On the one hand this is a well written summary of historical events. It condenses the relevant detail admirably. There's even a few traces of Philip Matyszak's trademark dry humour. On the other hand, I didn't find this to be light reading. It isn't a book to read in one sitting and put away to gather dust. It demands concentration. It demands attention. Not, I must say, due to any failing of the author, but simply because the period was so intense as nations jostled for dominance. Since the city-states were all individual nations in their own right it would be hardly fair to view them as a homogenous whole for the sake of an easy read. They were after all of different character and ambition and that is something clearly defined at every stage.

On balance I think I will be referring to this book again and again as I get to grips with history during the rise of the Roman Republic. Lacking the overall knowledge of the period, I find this summary a very useful guide that allows me to avoid complete reliance on such biased writers as Polybius, and since I'm something of a 'humanist' in learning about history, I enjoy the feel of sitting on a fence watching the armies go by. Philip Matyszak has undertaken no simple task in presenting such an outline of the turmoil and embittered diplomacy of the period. The question is whether he's managed to maintain his usual standard in the face of such complexity. He succeeds by something of a literary photo finish.

You know what? He's done it again.

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