Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book review -- Expedition to Disaster

So a few weeks ago I stop in at the Barnes & Noble at Greenwood Park Mall. It was a rather surprising experience inasmuch as their history section is much bigger and better than the Barnes & Noble at Keystone at the Crossing. Much larger selection of US, world, and military history books. I walked out with a book (after paying for it, of course) I had not seen outside of Amazon -- Expedition to Disaster by Philip Matyszak.

Expedition to Disaster is about the Athenian invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War 415-413 BC. Athens and Sparta had reached the Peace of Nicias in 421, but a type of cold war had continued, with Athenian and Spartan troops and proxies continuing the fight. Many politicians in Athens, especially a Bill Clintonesque guy named Alkibiades, saw the city as flush with cash and ships, and went looking for something to do with them. When an ally in Sicily appealed for aid, Alkibiades saw a chance to add Sicily to the Athenian Empire. Now there was something to do with that cash and those ships.

The background was a little more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. Not much of a motivation for war, but as Matyszak explains, Athens didn't need much motivation. Matyszak makes clear that though Athens has a lot of great things to he said for it and that we understandably and justifiably identify with Athens and its democracy, it was in fact Athens that was the villain in this drama. Neither Syracuse, the preeminent power in Sicily and one that had Spartan sympathies, nor any of the other Greek city states in Sicily had done anything to warrant the Athenian invasion.

But Athens invaded anyway. They could not knock Syracuse out quickly, and the Syracusans got help from Sparta in the form of a general named Gylippos, who whipped the inexperienced Syracusan military into shape. Then they launched a counteroffensive that resulted in the capture of all the Athenian supplies. This particular loss pretty much doomed the entire campaign. An Athenian reinforcement and a desperate attack only got the Athenian troops and their ships trapped. They tried to flee inland, but all were either killed or captured and enslaved. The entire expedition was lost in toto, as John Drogo Montagu would say.

Matyszak goes into considerable detail as to how this expedition came about and how it was tripped up early on by a phenomenon that ultimately destroyed Athens' democracy, Rome's republic, Weimar Germany, and a few others -- and that has been increasingly affecting even the US today: politically-backed mobs. In Athens, those mobs had been eating Athens own generals, successful or otherwise. But on the eve of the expedition, there was an incident that remains unexplained: overnight, almost all of Athens' hermai or "herms" -- stone markers of Hermes that were supposed to bring good luck -- were badly damaged or even destroyed. Precisely who was responsible has never been determined, but it was pinned on Alkibiades by his enemies who used their own mob into putting Alkibiades on trial for the crime. He was recalled from Sicily for trial, but he knew the fix was in and escaped to Sparta, where he gave the Athenians' plans for Sicily -- plans that he had developed -- to the Spartans, who gave them to the Syracusans.

Expedition to Disaster is very well written. Not the dryness you expect of history books today (or at least scholarly history books), but written in an easy-going, engaging style with a dry humor that I definitely appreciate, yet containing enough information to be considered scholarly. Very similar to a style that I try for in my own writing. Perhaps it is easier to have such a combination when you are tightly focused on such a short but important campaign as the Sicilian Expedition.

Matyszak could have perhaps used some better editing. For instance, his narrative refers to the Greek Sicilian city of "Egesta," but his map calls it "Segesta." He also specifically directs you to look for the Greek landing point north of Syracuse on the map, but the map does not show it and, in fact, cannot show it because, if his explanation of the location is accurate, the landing point would be west of the area shown on the map. Finally, there are a few times where he either gets names mixed up or, perhaps, fails to introduce new characters who have names similar to characters introduced earlier (see, e.g., Diomedes and Diocledes).

But those are very, very minor quibbles. Details that really do not materially detract from an otherwise excellent narrative. The book was a quick and slick read; I got it done in a weekend and very much enjoyed and reading it. I highly recommend Expedition to Disaster.

1 comment:

  1. I saw that in a resale shop. Used my smartphone to take a pic. Your very positive review makes it easy for a return to the store. Hopefully, no one else has picked it up.