I bought this book because I wanted to read and learn more about the tyrants of Syracuse. I did learn a lot and the book was a reasonably good survey. Some times, it turned into a summary of the history of Ancient Sicily and, in particular, of the military history of Syracuse from 480 to 367 BC, which is not quite the same thing. During about 70 years, Syracuse was not in fact ruled by a Tyrant. This democratic period (meaning democratic according to Ancient Greek standards) includes the siege of the city by the Athenians, which, on its own, makes up close to 40% of the book so that the title of this volume (a second one is under way for the rest of the period until the fall of Syracuse to the Romans) is a bit of a misnomer. The problem here is that, given space limitations - Pen and Sword books generally do not exceed 200 to 250 pages - this has left less space to discuss the book's core topic: that of tyrants. In fact, one can't help wondering what is exactly the topic (or topics) that are being covered: is it tyrants of Syracuse only? A military history of Sicily? A history of Syracuse? It seems in fact that it is a bit of all three, as the book's subtitle (War in Ancient Sicily) tends to suggest.
However, I'm afraid that I have a few of other issues. I certainly enjoyed reading this book and have already ordered Volume 2. I also appreciate how difficult it must have been for Jeff Champion to come up with a narrative of this very rich and complex period in only 224 pages and target it to the general public. I also liked his maps very much and found them very useful. Having said all this, the book could have been much better. Unfortunately, and at least for me, the book was spoilt by three types of problems:
- one relates to a number of what I would call "careless mistakes". These could have been avoided if the book had been subject to adequate proof-reading. The most glaring example is that of the helmet portrayed on the book's and photographed as on the second page of illustrations (which, apart from this one, are very interesting). This is presented as a "hoplite helmet of the Corinthian style", which is not at all the case. Since I expect the author to know the difference between a Corinthian helmet and what rather seems to be an Attic helmet, I can only ascribe this mistake to poor or non-existent proof-reading. Another example is on page 181, chapter 19, when the author seeks to explain the differences between a trireme (three banks of oars to a side, one rower per oar), a quadrirème and a quinquerème. The distinction between the two latter suffers from a typo. The quadrirème had two banks of oars to a side (just like a birème from which it was derived) with two rowers per oar (unlike the birème, who only had one). The quinquerème had three banks per side (just like the trirème from which it derived) but had two rowers per oar for the two top rows and only one for the lower row. There a few other mistakes like that throughout the book
- a second type of problem is the author's attempts to compare events that happened 24 centuries ago with those of modern days. I was rather put off by his comparison between the rise to power of Dionysios and that of Hitler, for instance. I also did not find it necessary or even useful to compare Sicilian Greek leaders' attitudes to Australian Prime Ministers, whatever you may think about either bunch. In fact, these anachronisms are the "cardinal sin" for a historian.
- another type of problem is that some of the author's statements are simplifications or simply incorrect. The Athenians' 100 trirèmes initially sent out to Syracuse did not made up "the largest naval expedition that the city had ever sent out and the best-equipped". The expeditions to Egypt in the 460s and the Athenian contingents that fought at Eurymedon or Mycale were very probably larger. AS to whether they were better equiped or not, this is, of course, totally unverifiable. What Jeff Champion probably meant was that this fleet was the largest - in number of ships - sent out in one go since the beginning of the war against Sparta. This, of course, is not the same thing.
- Some of the author's other statements are somewhat questionable, not explained, contradictory and\or not back-up by a convincing discussion. In some cases, it seems that the author has simply taken whatever his preferred source (Thucydides, for instance, for the expedition to Sicily) states, without any critical examination. One of the main examples of this is, again, the first Athenian fleet sent to attack Syracuse. Out of the 100 Athenian trirèmes, only 40 was fitted out as warships, the rest were fitted out as troop transports, which meant that they were decked and lacked at least part - if not all - of their rowers. The allies provided 34 trièmes so that the fighting fleet was only 74 trirèmes, of which Athens only provided slightly more than half. The same goes for the troops: out of 5100 hoplites, only 2200 were Athenians, less than 40% of the total. So the statement that this was a huge undertaking on the part of Athens needs to be somewhat qualified. Regardless of how Thucidides chose to portray the fleet's departure, Athens effort seems in fact to have been somewhat half-hearted. Somewhere else in these chapters, Champion provides the most likely explanation but fails to link the two elements: both Nikeas and Alcibiades, and the Athenians more generally, regularly underestimated the Syracusans. This is, of course, something that you would not expect Thucydides to admit to or event to mention.
If you want to read a more complete (and also in most respects more accurate) story on the Sicilian expedition, read Donal Kagan's "The Peace of Niceas and the Sicilian Expdition" which is excellent, even if not targeted at the general reader
Another less than fully convincing presentation is that of Dionysios the First. While Champion does show that he was not a madman and was also not necessarily as paranoïd as one might believe at first, he does not, in my view, provide a convincing explanation for his rise to power and his dictorship other than to state that he loved power for power's sake. This is possible, of course, but presenting Dyonisius as cynical and only driven by self-interest right from the beginning seems a bit excessive. Anyway, it is an unsubstantiated statement which comes directly from the hostile sources and which the author seems to uphold in a rather surprisingly uncritical way. In a similar vein, his brother Leptines is presented as a rash, rather foolish but honoroble commander. This seems also to be a bit of a caricature, driven by the same hostile sources. Personnally, I much prefer the way the two characters are presented by Massimo Manfredi in his historical novel "Tyrant", a book I would highly recommend for anyone interesting in Dionysos (and which is historically accurate, as far as I can tell at least, with Manfredi being a historian). There are at least a couple of other works on Dionysios which are listed in Champion's (very short) bibliography but I haven't read these and cannot comment on them.
Finally, one thing also somewhat put me off was the author's tendency to "recycle" paragraphs (or at least paraphrase them) and bit and pieces between his biography of Pyrrhus (which I finished just after this book) and this one. While it is understable that the same author is likely to present the same views in two books written in two consecutive years and which touch on the same topics, at times, it did leave me with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, especially since I would not have realized it, had I not read the two books one after the other...