Review: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Paul A. Rahe

Rating: 3 out of 5

It is difficult not to appreciate the struggle of the Hellenes against Achaemenid Persia: the sheer might available on one side against a small number of independent polis on the other side. Yet, as we know, in a series of engagements—Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—the Greeks broke the will of the Persians to fight in Hellas or against the Greeks. Mr Rahe’s investigation promises to explain how Sparta positioned herself in this fight against a giant.

Now, to be fair to the author, he does achieve this aim. However, the vast majority of the book focusses on Athens and her actions. Beyond a relatively short section that describes the way of life in Sparta, the study quickly hones in on the Athenians. I appreciate that this is partially due to the sources that we have available, and also that in the later books (on the Attic wars), the author explains his choice in more depth: essentially, he wanted to build the story of both cities such that the reader would understand how their cooperation developed into antagonism. However, it is still slightly disappointing to see this book be titled an investigation into Sparta when in reality Sparta’s motives form a relatively short (and always a comparative) issue.

On the other hand, the author’s descriptions of Marathon and the other engagements, especially that of Plataea, are very good indeed. Marathon and Salamis are slightly more popular in the public mind, but I found the overview of Plataea especially strong. Further, the author has the good grace of bringing up what other scholars think and how he disagrees (if he does so!)—he also proves to believe more of the word-by-word narration of the ancient authors, especially Herodotus, than the majority of today’s historians as well as explain why he does so. These choices endeared the author’s style to me.

One of the (relatively minor) drawbacks was the tendency to always note every single village the armies may have passed by. These, without handy references, made the progress of the campaigning sides much more difficult to imagine than a simple directional description. This related to my own wish to not spend time poring over maps of the area to clarify the matter further for myself: if I would have wanted to do this, I definitely could have done so.

In the end, a solid overview but the title is a bit misleading: the author focusses as much, if not more, on Athens as he does on Sparta, but the overview is solid in all respects and may even include a few too many details.

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