Review: Sparta’s Second Attic War, Paul A. Rahe

Rating: 4 out of 5

I clearly got carried away with Mr Rahe’s books on Sparta’s grand strategy, having finished this one in short succession to the previous two instalments. This was as good as the previous books, and it similarly carried on the same annoying stylistic devices that I did not quite appreciate. Nevertheless, as an overview of the period and the time, it is a very good book!

The balance of the story is, on the whole, on Athens. The title and the attempt to focus on Sparta are clearly constrained by the vast majority of evidence coming to us from Athens (Thucydides), but even so I would have expected more of a tack on what Sparta wanted—instead, Sparta’s goals are nearly always presented as the opposite of what Athens wanted or at least in terms of comparison to Athens. While there is certain logic to this, I feel that the author’s emphasis should have been declared to be either the wars in the Peloponnesos or Athens herself. I also think that the political circumstance of any of the anti-Athenian cities could be discussed in more depth and more continuously, but that of course means that the reader should have the background knowledge to be able to read such a text.

As previously, some of the stylistic devices—especially the use of “son of X” to refer to someone instead of their name—were rather poor. I was also discouraged by the author’s very frequent usage of “the area that we now call Chalcidice” which perhaps occur about twenty or thirty times across only a few pages. I appreciate that the use of anachronistic terms is something that most historian authors would prefer to avoid, but in this case the intense repetition that Mr Rahe used to bypass this limitation while still using a relatively compact geographical term was undone by the extreme verbosity of his solution.

The story itself was, however, readable and flowed nicely. The beginning of the book covers much of the previous conclusions, making sure that the reader has the correct base to be able to appreciate the 430’s and 420’s up until the failed peace of Nicias and indeed how war flared up again afterwards. I thought we would be able to pass to Athens’ near-final destruction and restoration of oligarchy—but this wasn’t even close, especially with the many adventures in Sicily yet to be described. The amount of detail, therefore, is definitely a positive and as an account of the wars in 5th century BC Greece, this book must stand as one of the top options for someone to pick up.

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