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Having recently read Tom Holland's excellent "Persian Fire" I was in the mood for some ...,
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This review is from: The Spartans: An Epic History (Hardcover)
Such a disappointing book. Having recently read Tom Holland's excellent "Persian Fire" I was in the mood for some extra detail on a longer period of Spartan history but this book sadly wasn't able to provide it.
Straight from the very long and rambling introduction I was a bit worried. I don't know what Paul Cartledge thinks an introduction is actually for but in my experience it's not to give a sort of précis of the entire book you're about to read, going through pretty much every major event, often with levels of detail that leave you wondering what the point of the actual chapters will be. Of course, this leads to a tremendous amount of repetition of facts in the main bulk of the book that you've already read in the introduction, but this is as of nothing compared to the repetition delivered by his "box out" biographies.
Again, I'm really not sure what Cartledge's grasp of what a book should be actually is. If he was putting together an illustrated coffee table style book on the Spartans (and many such tomes exist on periods of classical history) then he would be quite entitled to have the main flow of the text, and the main thrust of the history it contained, taking up most of each page while boxes could appear down the sides giving more information on various people being mentioned. However, what he does in this book, which is a standard text-driven publication, is to interrupt the narrative every time a new person is mentioned to give a biography of them. Seeing as it's impossible to have a box down the side in a normal text based book he instead has to just clump this right in the middle of what you're reading so that for three, four, maybe six, seven or eight pages you have to take a sidestep and read this biography.
The problem with this is that you end up with endless repetition. The reason for this is that for many of the people (and he presents a *lot* of biographies within the book) we don't know a lot about them until they actually start achieving things. Their early lives are almost always largely unknown and it is by their deeds that we remember them from the histories of people like Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. So what Cartledge does is to break up the narrative with a biography which then tells you everything that person did, often in quite a lot of detail and very often going decades into the future. Once you return to the narrative he then proceeds to tell you all the same things in only slightly greater detail that you've just read, often with the exact same phrasing!
What was he thinking? Has he ever read a book himself where this happens? Does he think that's normal? And, more to the point, what on earth was the editor thinking of? Did she just make sure there were no spelling mistakes and think she'd done her job? How can she have let all the endless repetition through and think it was okay. Some stories are told not just twice, but three times throughout the book, and not by saying, "as we saw earlier", but each time presented as if being told for the first time. And he keeps it right up to the very end with the penultimate paragraph presenting us with information he's already told us before.
All this is frustrating enough but there are many other failings with the book. Handy maps would have given a lot of context to events throughout the book but instead we get just two right at the front which are somewhat less than useless. They look as if they've been photocopied from some ancient school textbook and then reduced to about 25% of their true size so that it's virtually impossible to make out any of the writing on them.
There's a disappointing lack of detail to the early days of Sparta which is just not acceptable on a book about the history of Sparta and I found that I knew far, far more about Spartan society from Tom Holland's overview in the early chapters of "Persian Fire" where Sparta was just one of three societies (the others being Athens and the Persians/Medes) that he was trying to cover. We then get something important like a chapter on Women and Religion plonked randomly down into the second half of the book when it should have been near the start, in the set-up as it were, and, of course, it was repeating much of what he'd already told us by that stage anyway.
The lack of detail continues to envelop, surprisingly, the Persian War - surely the most famous moment in Spartan history. It's understandable that Holland would go into greater detail in his book on this but there were many key stories told by Holland that are bafflingly left out by Cartledge. Even when it comes to the two authors giving motives to the people of this time Cartledge always falls up short with Holland giving reasons for events which sound truer and which are backed up with whatever evidence he can provide. For instance, Cartledge has the 300 who fought at Thermopylae as being a mere suicide squad. This doesn't make any sense at all. In a war which they'd been anticipating for years why would the Spartans send one of their kings and 300 elite fighters to just die if, as Cartledge suggests, they had given up all hope of winning the war? Surely they would just not bother going at all and then submit to the Persians when they finally came down the Pelopennese. Holland's argument appeals more to common sense. That the Spartans led by Leonidas were a holding force to keep the Persians at bay to buy time for the religious festival (preventing the deeply pious Spartans' attendance) to end and thus their entire force could turn to Thermopylae. The small force under Leonidas with some allies was a compromise between their religious obligations and the utter necessity of holding the pass at Thermopylae at all costs. The version presented by Cartledge makes no sense at all.
Of course, the book even manages to end disappointingly by having no real ending at all. You would think that a book on the history of Sparta would show what happened to the city state after its fall from grace. But, no. Cartledge tells us about the final major battles they lost but nothing after that at all. No comment on the devastating effect the loss of their helot slave cities would have had on their economy and society. No comment on the gradual disintegration of their authority and the complete irrelevance they became (just a few years later!) under Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander. All we get is fleeting references in a few of the never-ending biographies which manage to extend events beyond what should surely have been the scope of the actual book.
All in all, the book is very surprisingly lacking in some key details and is often written in a rambling and waffling style. The endless retelling of the same stories and repeating of the same quotations lends you to think that the book just hasn't been properly edited at all. Sadly, it smacks of being of the standard of being self-published and that is a very bad reflection on Channel 4 Books and its editor. I'll continue my search for a good book on Spartan history elsewhere.