Two Deaths at Amphipolis by Mike Roberts

Book Review by centurion (Martin Holmes)

The Peloponnesian War (414-404 BC) was one of the most important conflicts ever witnessed in the ancient world. A gargantuan struggle that spanned decades and involved almost the entire Greek world, it was first and foremost a war between the two great superpowers of the age: Athens and Sparta. These two powers were the polar opposites of one another, with Athens being a democracy, asserting its hegemony through its powerful navy, and the reclusive oligarchy of Sparta which dedicated itself to martial prowess and possessed the most feared army in the Greek world. There was only one way in which they were similar, and that was their yearning for power, influence and domination of their rivals.

In the Peloponnesian War the craving for power erupted into a violent fight that raged on both water and land, stretching from the barbarian lands of Thrace in the north, throughout the Aegean, and as far as Sicily and the Italian mainland. After decades of conflicts on multiple fronts and with defeats and victories for both sides Athens was defeated, leading to its annihilation as an imperial power and the rise of Sparta, which kept power until its own defeat a few decades later. Due to the scope of the war as well as its wide ranging consequences it stands alongside the Greco-Persian Wars and the campaigns of Alexander as one of the great conflicts of the classical era, and has rightly been described as a watershed of history. Whether your interest is political or military history, classical Greece or even the ancient world in general, the Peloponnesian War is something you need to know about.

Mike Roberts’s recent book Two Deaths at Amphipolis: Cleon VS Brasidas in the Peloponnesian War looks at the military aspect of the war, focusing on two key participants in particular: Brasidas and Cleon. Brasidas was a Spartan soldier who distinguished himself during the early stages of the war, rising through the ranks to become a Spartan general whose influence was as much political as it was military. Cleon was an Athenian statesman who also rose to prominence during the war, becoming a general in the Athenian armed forces. With both armies facing stalemate by 424 BC, and with the losses and difficulties of the war mounting each year, Brasidas headed to Thrace with an army in an attempt to open a ‘northern front’ that would put pressure on Athens and ensure a Spartan victory. Cleon was one of the Athenian commanders sent to combat Brasidas’s northern incursion and keep the region under Athenian control. There the two armies clashed at the Battle of Amphipolis – one of the key battles of the war – which was hard-fought and led to both Cleon and Brasidas dying on the field of battle.

Although Roberts makes clear that his book is not a double biography (there is simply not enough information to do this) and also that it is a popular history rather than an academic work, Two Deaths at Amphipolis offers a fresh account of the war that is both valuable and enjoyable. It is fresh because although the Peloponnesian War has been well documented there is a curious lack of detailed study about Cleon, Brasidas and even the Battle of Amphipolis itself. Because Cleon and Brasidas were pivotal players in the war, present not only at Amphipolis but also at other key battles such as Methone, Corcyra and Sphacteria, and also because they were prominent politicians influencing strategy at the highest levels, this book serves as a worthy introduction to the Peloponnesian War.

It is not a complete study since the battle raged on two decades after the Battle of Amphipolis, but it is helpful until this point. In the first few chapters Roberts provides context, explaining the situation of the Greek world at the time, and exploring how and why the war began. After this he launches into the war itself, describing the military aspect of the conflict in-depth, and slowly introduces and focuses his study around his two main subjects, all of which culminates in the Battle of Amphipolis (which is narrated in great detail) and the almost poetic death of Cleon and Brasidas on the field of battle.

While Two Deaths at Amphipolis is an excellent work, there were some difficulties I found with it, the most prominent of which was the editing. There were far too many spelling and grammar mistakes – far more than appropriate – so much so that at times it felt more like a final draft than a finished book. If a second edition is published, it would benefit from a thorough spell check. In addition, I found the maps provided at the front of the book inadequate because they provide ‘snapshots’ rather than a full map of the Greek world. Because of the scope of the war a full map of Greece, the Aegean and Ionia is needed to follow the different campaigns and battle manoeuvres. Because there was not a full map, important places discussed in Two Deaths at Amphipolis such as Naxos are left out. Although these issues did not seriously detract from the content of the book they were irritating simply because they were problems that could have been solved so easily.

In conclusion, Mike Roberts’s Two Deaths at Amphipolis is a wonderful book about the Peloponnesian War. By focusing on the key commanders Brasidas and Cleon readers learn about the origins of the war, the political agendas of both sides, their military strategy and especially the battles themselves. All things considered it is a solid introduction to the first part of the Peloponnesian War. Although it suffers from some issues, notably a number of grammatical and spelling errors, it is readable, interesting and most of all informative. Considering that it is Roberts’s first solo book, he has done very well indeed.

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