Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World by Owen Rees

Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World Book Cover Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World
Owen Rees
Naval History / Ancient History
Pen & Sword Military
January 10, 2019

To put is bluntly, this book is solid, well-organized, and very thorough. It doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but that’s not bad in any way and the book has many strengths to recommend it. The clear intent of the author was to concisely examine the naval battles of ancient Greece that have come to us in the historical record, and he does an admirable job of this. The discussion of each battle is first placed in the proper context to make the discussion useful, and then each battle is discussed in full. This of course includes a look at the participants, the respective states of the forces involved, etc. Then each section delves into an analysis of the battle tactics utilized and progressions of each conflict. Once the outcomes are arrived at, each battle is neatly wrapped up by a discussion of the implications for each side and how the battle fits into the greater conflict of which it was part. Where relevant, discussion includes an examination of the reliability of the ancient sources and the gaps they leave in our knowledge of past events. However, the author does quite well by filling in those gaps with the leading theories about pieces we are missing from the historical record and he does not wander into pure conjecture.

As far as the book’s organization goes, it begins with a primer of sorts that succinctly outlines the major naval tactics favored by the ancient Greeks. It then briefly examines the trireme as a ship and the strategies that were best suited to ships of that style. The main body of the book is laid out as a chronological examination of the various naval battles that make up the greater conflicts of the ancient Greeks. The three major areas of focus are, as follows:

  • Persian Conflicts (499 - 489 BCE)
  • Archidamian War (431 - 421 BCE) - first part of Peloponnesian War
  • Decelean War (413 - 404 BCE) - second part of Peloponnesian War

One of the author’s stated goals is to “bring the multitude of naval engagements, which pervade the ancient sources, into a broader modern awareness.” It’s this goal that really resonates with me, as we’ve been undertaking a similar “public awareness” campaign on the podcast here. I completely agree with the author too that many of the battles from ancient Greece seem to be pushed into the background while the land battles seem to be given the spotlight. The Battle of Salamis is of course the main exception to this rule, but what about the battles of Lade and Artemisium, which we’ve covered on our podcast already? These are generally passed right over in favor of talk about Marathon and Thermopylae. And that’s when we’re discussing only the Greco-Persian Wars! The later wars are even greater illustrations of this problem despite the reality that they contained even more naval activity than the Persian Wars did.

The bottom line is that the author’s goal is an important one, I appreciate his desire to promote the naval battles that are often overlooked. I think he’s done a marvelous job in writing a book that gives even a completely unknowledgeable reader an access point to understand the naval battles of ancient Greece in their wider context significance. I’ve personally found the book useful because it is also quite comprehensive in covering the ancient writers where our knowledge of naval battles originates. The main three are, of course, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The indication of source material and the footnotes are stellar, which is always important for me in academically oriented books, so this book will doubtless be a repeatedly referenced book for me as we continue through Greek naval history. In sum, the well-written yet concise coverage of each battle is extremely useful both to the uninitiated and to those already familiar with the battles but who may be looking for a big-picture view of where the battles fit into their time period, what exactly occurred and why, and where the ancient historians themselves discussed the battle at hand.

Highly recommended if you’d like to brush up on the naval battles of ancient Greece or even learn about them for the first time. Oh, and did I mention that each discussion contains maps! And even some diagrams to illustrate tactics and the formations for the battles where we have such information. Great stuff here, don’t hesitate to check it out at the links directly below.