Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Review: Hellenistic and Roman Naval Warfare 336BC - 31 BC, by John D. Grainger

Naval warfare in the ancient world is very often described in brief terms, and this book seeks to put the spotlight on a generally neglected aspect of classical history.

Mr. Grainger looks at naval warfare in the Mediterranean from Alexander to the Diadochi, Carthage and Rome. A number of helpful maps (especially for the Aegean) are in the front and a number of photographs, which are perhaps of slightly low quality, are also included.

I found this book interesting and unusual, particularly regarding Alexander the Great. I'm a great admirer of his, but he did seem to seriously miss a trick when it came to the potential of the fleet (not that that stopped him conquering all before him).

The history of Ptolemaic Egypt also changed my mind regarding the nature of that kingdom. I'd previously viewed it as an entirely defensive realm, with Ptolemy having a land perfectly suited, with the Nile, to defence and simply holding his own. However, the Ptolemaic sea power (until they became afflicted with complacency and a political crisis) was very much proactive and helped maintain the kingdom's security.

Following the matters in the Aegean was somewhat tricky at times simply because there are so many coastal cities and islands large and small, but the gist was quite plain.

It was also interesting to learn more of the naval aspect of the Civil War, where Pompey (and then his successors, especially in Africa) didn't seem to realise or utilise their naval supremacy. Given Caesar had to cross the Adriatic and then sail to Africa that could have changed the course of the war, had they but known it.

The book ends, fittingly, with the victory of Octavian over Mark Anthony.

I do think a bit more could have been written of the relative merits and differences between ship types. Penteconters are mentioned but not really explained and biremes are not, I think, mentioned at all.

It presented a very different prism through which to view ancient warfare than most other books, as well as tying together certain parts of history often treated separately (Alexander, the Diadochi, the Punic and Civil Wars).

Minor point: as the picture shows the word 'Wars' is in the title. However, the title and cover I saw online both have 'Warfare' instead. Not sure why this discrepancy is there.



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