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the battle of arginusae: a review

When I don’t know wether to buy a book, I always check the writer’s background. Debra Hamel has a solid Classical historian’s curriculum, and she’s a military historian as well. So I bought the book. Good choice.

Only half of the volume, that is the first three chapters, is directly relevant to the wargamer. The first chapter is a very quick, but brilliantly written, overview of Greek history from the invasion of Xerses up to the Arginusae. Quite useful if you are just starting on the period.

The second chapter is devoted to a general explanation of naval warfare in the classical age, including a brief but well-thought out description of battle tactics. It is a very enjoyable read, especially because it is written in a vivid style and because it focuses on the personal experience of sailors during battle (a la John Keegan), rather than on more practical but boring aspects such as logistic, materiel, etc. Much of Hamel’s ideas about a sailor’s life in battle are convincingly extrapolated from her reading of classical authors such as Diodoro or Xenophon and on the Olympia’s rowers’ experience, so it’s not all speculation, but firmly set on the most reliable sources we have. My only criticism is on a couple very specific points she makes on naval tactics. First of all, Hamel subscribes to the single-ship theory about the diekplous, which I am not convinced of (see here and here for my views on the matter). I am also not sure of her view that the kyklos should be a defence against the diekplous. It is not really explained why it should be so, and indeed her own description of a kyklos should disqualify her view. Also, I disagree with her view about the periplous, which equals with Whitehead’s (according to whom the periplous was a turning about, basically an anastrophe). But overall these are minir technical point in an otherwise excellent review.

Finally, the third chapter is about the battle itself, from the very beginning – the reasons for the battle and the raising of the Athenian fleet - to the conclusion. Here Hamel provides a very in-depth discussion of the deployment, accepting the theory that sees the Athenian fleet deployed in two wings with the Arginusar island in between. Interesting. The description of the battle is brief but effective, and based on a full reading of ancient sources. It is corredated with a very useful map.

The latest two chapters of the book are a lenghty discussion of the Athenian democracy treatment of its generals, and of the trial of those who won at Arginusae. It is surely a learned discussion, and will greatly increase your understanding of the character of Athens’ peculiar political system (will not do much for your wargaming needs, of course…).

Overall this book is incredibly pleasant, written with a lively style which keeps it interesting even when discussing judiciary matters. Much recommended for anyone having a general interest in ancient navale warfare.

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