Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
on 22 January 2013
With « Warships of the Ancient World 3000-500 BC », Adrian Wood and Guiseppe Rava have managed to come up with a short but valuable overview of warships and naval warfare over a period of some 25 centuries - no mean feat in itself.
I sometimes tend to be quite critical of Osprey's little booklets, especially when the authors are faced with the rather impossible task of cramming several centuries of military history within a few dozen pages (48, 64 or 96, depending upon the collection). Here, however, the effort is very largely successful even if, of course, the book is no more than an introduction and an overview. I liked this book and found it "good" (a subjective assessment, of course, and no more than a personal opinion) for quite a few reasons.
The first has perhaps to do with the author's methods. Unlike a number of fellow-authors writing in the same collection, he mentions upfront that the contents of this book reflect "only one possible interpretation of the information" and refers readers to his bibliography for those wanting to learn about alternative explanations. While this may fall short of presenting these alternatives, it does clearly present the author's choices for what they are: one series of interpretations among a range of possibilities. A related element is that the bibliography that he refers to, while short, does contain the most important titles on the subject or, to be both more modest and more accurate, the ones I was aware of before reading this book, as well as a couple of others which I did not know about!
The second reason for both liking and enjoying this book has to do with its scope - no less than six navies (or even seven if you add in the Etruscans) covered: Egypt, Crete, the Syrian cities during the Bronze Age, the rather mysterious Sea People, the Phoenicians that inherited from them and the Greeks (from the Mycenaeans right down to 500 BC). Despite this, the author manages to show quite clearly how ship types evolved over time, the similarities and differences between the various navies and ship types, the issues they had to address and the various compromises that were struck during the period between speed, robustness and manoeuvrability.
A third reason to praise this book is that the author has clearly done his research and has a good grasp of the technical issues related to shipbuilding, seaworthiness and navigation. He also makes a number of excellent points related to geography and the availability of mineral resources and shipbuilding timber around the Mediterranean which are often passed over, despite their importance. For instance, it is the lack of both in Egypt that made the control of the areas of modern Syria/Lebanon and of Cyprus so critical for Egypt. This was true in the time of Ramses and it stayed true throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
A fourth set of reasons has to do with the pictures and illustrations in general, and those of Guiseppe Rava in particular: great, spectacular and rather gorgeous! They also made me somewhat smile (I am not being sarcastic). The "Homeric Landing" one reminded me of a similar scene at the beginning of Wolfang Petersen's "Troy" (the one with Brad Pitt in the role of Achilles, Eric Bana in the role of Hector and Orlando Bloom in the role of Paris, of course!). I also like the plates that put two types of ships in perspective, allowing for visual comparisons.
I did however have a couple of little glitches to mention. One of the problems in trying to cover half a dozen navies over a period of about 25 centuries is that it is somewhat delicate to include all or at least most of them on the same map. While having the Minoans, the Mycenians, the Egyptians, the Hittites and the Syrian cities (Ugarit in particular) on the same map is fine, adding the Sea People may be a bit problematic in terms of chronology - they may have some responsibility in the fall of the Minoans and certainly were responsible for destroying Ugarit. Having mentioned this, it is easy to see why this choice was made and the chronology of the whole period is just about shaky and controversial enough to allow the author to get away with it.
Another little glitch has to do with a paragraph quoted from Josephus (page 30 in the book), which the author has not bothered to discuss in-depth, probably because he preferred to keep the limited and valuable space that he had for something that he felt to be more important. There are a couple of issues in this paragraph retracing a naval battle between a dozen larger ships from Tyre and sixty ships from other Phoenician cities which were vassals of the Assyrian king of the time. The numbers of rowers provided for the sixty ships (800) is unlikely to have represented all the crew, or perhaps even the total of rowers. The reasons for the victory of the Tyrians are not mentioned, unlike, for instance, the reasons for the victory of the Egyptians of Ramses III over the Sea People or those for the "Cadmean" victory of the Phoceans against the Etrusco-Carthagenian alliance at the Alalia.