A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War

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A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War. By Marc G. DeSantis. Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by Darin MacDonald

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The Peloponnesian War, as told in the ancient Greek texts of Plutarch, Xenophon and Thucydides, offers the student of strategy and military history timeless insights into the nature of war and the human condition. These histories illuminate events of our own era and educate the mind to recognise those conditions that are shared with the Ancient world and those that are unique to our own times. In “A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War’, Marc G. DeSantis thoroughly explores these and other texts, focusing on the maritime aspects of this important and tragic conflict. In doing so, he creates a convincing narrative that suggests the Peloponnesian War defies a thorough understanding without a solid grasp of its maritime components. 

DeSantis boldly states his argument upfront declaring that “…the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC was by and large fought, and certainly decided, at sea.” He outlines the geographic and social construct of the rival Greek city-states, Sparta and Athens, and their associated empires to provide some of the geopolitical context necessary to understand the motivations and strategic decision-making of both parties. In the case of Athens, DeSantis illuminates the reader to some simple demographic pressures facing their polity in order to understand the Athenian expansionist maritime policy. With a growing population and little by way of arable land around Athens itself, the Athenians were required to import food and other resources. Their growing empire required an ever-larger fleet of transports and triremes to enforce the system of tribute and protect the grain shipments from the Black Sea region, lifeblood of the empire. More ships required more sailors, and higher maintenance costs as competition for skilled labour to support and operate the fleet drove wage inflation. Increasing costs had to be absorbed by taxation of the empire. Focusing on this cycle, DeSantis illuminates how the growing empire, and the naval and transport fleets required to run it, became both the primary source of Athenian wealth and power as well as its greatest expense and strategic vulnerability. One of the enduring insights gained by a study of the Peloponnesian War is the cost-benefit tension of maintaining a powerful fleet as the backbone of a maritime empire. 

DeSantis spends the next few chapters familiarising the reader with the intricacies of ancient galley warfare at sea and draws the connection between the difficulty of these tactical manoeuvres and the demand for highly trained and experienced crews. Moreover, he illuminates the degree to which the costs of sustaining a powerful fleet accelerated as the conflict between Athens and Sparta expanded and escalated, and as the effects of attrition took its toll on both warring fleets. Importantly, this cost was not solely carried by the state; most triremes were the private property of the aristocratic classes of Athens and they funded the construction, sustainment, manning and training of the trireme and her crew. Defeated fleets at sea therefore came at a very high political and personal cost to the most powerful factions within the city. 

As the conflict plays out, DeSantis examines the maritime aspects of the three distinct periods of the war; the Archidamian War, the Sicilian Expedition, and the Ionian War. In each of these distinct periods, DeSantis highlights how maritime power and the ability to establish and use sea control, as one recognises it today, enabled the projection of force to strike at the enemy’s vulnerable points. There is considerable effort expended in studying virtually every naval conflict and amphibious expedition to continually reinforce the point that naval power enabled manoeuvre warfare, as well as sustainment of land forces, and was therefore an important arbiter of victory or defeat in all of the major operations and campaigns. The degree of detail and effort expended by DeSantis in this manner is impressive, but often makes for seemingly repetitive narration involving a large array of characters and place names that makes it difficult for the casual reader of Hellenic history to digest. Unfortunately, this degree of detail and repetitive narration detracts from some of the more critical analysis and insight offered by DeSantis. His more poignant analysis surrounds the degree of political power gained by the skilled mariners of Ancient Greece as a result of the increasing demand for their skills.

DeSantis follows an interesting line of argument, first made by Plutarch, about the relationship between skilled seamen and the rise of democratic rule in Athens. In his work, Plutarch suggested, “..control of policy now passed into the hands of sailors and boatswains and pilots.” In the process of building and operating a highly trained fleet, the skilled mariners required to maintain supremacy amongst the competing navies of the Aegean became a social class in their own right, able to extract concessions in the form of wages and taxes from the Athenian government. DeSantis often revisits the implications that this strained relationship between the policies and strategy of the ruling aristocracy and the requisite demands of the naval classes presented for Athens throughout the Peloponnesian War. 

Equally, DeSantis highlights how mercenary practices developed as demand for skilled labour increased, showing in multiple cases where Persian backed financing allowed the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta to poach the most skilled oarsmen from Athens into their own fleet. With the advent of such mercenary practices, DeSantis points to the importance of specie as the ultimate arbiter of victory over a long and protracted war fought throughout a sizeable theatre. In his conclusion, DeSantis states, “Athens could not sustain its seapower indefinitely in the face of an enemy that had access to enough money to continually replace lost oarsmen and ships.” The implications of this reality for the Indo-Pacific in the 21st century are all too evident.

“A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War” is not for the faint-hearted. A solid grounding in the major actors, places and politics that shaped this conflict are recommended before diving into this book. Alternatively, reading this analysis of the maritime aspects of this war alongside Strassler’s “The Landmark Thucydides”, which includes glossaries, margin notes, maps and detailed annexes, is highly recommended. DeSantis’ book suffers from the extensive amount of detailed narration and re-telling of the Peloponnesian War, yet it makes a number of important points about the enduring nature of maritime conflict, its relationship to politics and strategy, and the impact of navies on the social structures of maritime nations. It is a very worthwhile read for those interested in the enduring manner in which navies shape our economies, our politics and our wars in the modern world. 

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