Yale (2020) h/b 408pp £30.00 (ISBN 9780300242621)
In this, the latest in his multivolume exploration of ancient Sparta, R. turns his attention to the years between the uneasy peace with Athens initiated in 446 BC and the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, a turning point in Sparta’s ‘grand strategy’, when, he argues, with Athens’ threat to her well-being and security eliminated, her aim shifted from containing and restraining Athenian dominion to destroying and replacing it.
For students of the period, much of the ground is well-trodden, and, while early on R. extends ‘an invitation to re-envisage Greek history from a Spartan perspective’, like every other modern historian, he is hampered by the fact that much of our available literary evidence derives from Athenocentric sources. Chief among them is, of course, Thucydides, about whose authorial intentions many today are rightly cautious. Nonetheless, while stating frequently that his manuscript was left unfinished, R. tends to accept that Thucydides strove for accuracy, that his records of speeches are intrinsically accurate, and that ‘his goal is to educate citizens and statesmen, not automatons, and so he leaves his readers with a host of puzzles on which to ruminate’—or, as he puts it elsewhere, ‘he supposed divulging his thinking pedagogically counterproductive’. This is not the only area in which some readers may find themselves at odds with R.’s interpretations (for example regarding Alcibiades’ apparently cavalier treatment of Spartan ambassadors to Athens), while some may find his frequent employment of the patronymic—presumably for the sake of variety—confusing, and his constant use of phrases such as ‘what we now call the Chalcidice’ repetitive.
Such cavils aside, however, this is a thoroughly engrossing book, engagingly written in an authoritative yet accessible style, communicating a deep understanding of realpolitik as well as of the political and military landscape of fifth-century BC Greece, and benefiting greatly from a first-hand knowledge of the relevant topography. Shifting alliances are clearly documented, character sketches are succinct and convincing, and discussions of the implication of Spartan, Corinthian and Argive policy within the Peloponnese are vigorously compelling. While no historical account of the period can truly be written from a Spartan perspective, R. succeeds brilliantly in his mission to present these years as much in the context of the Spartan (and Peloponnesian) ‘grand strategy’ as the Athenian, and his reminders of the pressures faced by Spartan leaders—internal constraints such as the hostility of helots, or the hot-blooded militarism of young homoioi, or the jealousies of rivals towards successful generals such as Brasidas, and external considerations such as the brooding menace of Argos or the need to appear strong and in control to members of her own allied league—are at all times salutary.
The general reader will find the narrative stimulating, while, even if scholars disagree with some of R.’s conclusions, they will find them provocative, intriguing and cogently argued. In short, this volume—with 25 useful maps, 5 photographs, detailed endnotes and a comprehensive index—is to be highly recommended, and this reviewer, for one, looks forward greatly to the next instalment and the looming Battle of Leuctra.