Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

I decided to read Tides of War by Steven Pressfield when I heard Dr. Larry Arne and Hugh Hewitt discussing it on Hewitt’s radio show. They mentioned it was a great book on the Greek hero, Alcibiades. Since I had never heard of Alcibiades and they spoke of him as if everyone who considers themselves educated would have understood the reference, I had to get the book so as not to embarrass myself in educated company.

Little did I know, it was actually a fact-based fictional account of the man. Since his life spanned most of the 4th century B.C., the events he is a part of weave in and out of the most memorable of ancient Greek history. Therefore, this fun, quick read helped me to put other actual historical accounts into one narrative. 

The story is told by an old man to his grandson who is fascinated with Grandpa’s stories. After describing all the great men he has encountered in his life, his grandson asks if one in particular haunted him. In fact, the grandfather replies, the story of one client in particular kept returning to him lately. It is the story of Polemides, the man who assassinated Alcibiades.

The story weaves the grandfather’s words with those of Polemides. It is a wonderful conceit as the story moves from modern day to the old days. 

Polemides describes his love/hate relationship with the marvelous Alcibiades. In the context of the story, we focus mainly on the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens for control of the Greek city-states. 

Alcibiades is an unstoppable, charismatic warrior and therefore strikes terror into the hearts of the power-hungry ruling elite of Athens. He is a master strategist, and in a bold, unconventional move, convinces the Athenians to attack the Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is a dangerous and complicated maneuver for hegemony over Greece. Once the attack is launched, Athens has cold-feet and abandons the effort and Alcibiades is recalled home for trial for treasonous and reckless behavior. 

He escapes into the waiting arms of his enemy, Sparta. From here on, he fights for the Spartans against his beloved, and in his view, corrupt, Athens. Polemides, however is left to torture and rot in Syracuse until his “friend” Alcibiades plucks him free. 

After years of battle with Athens, Alcibiades double-crosses the Spartans and with Polemides returns as a hero in Athens. 

Once again, Alcibiades is consumed with an another audacious scheme - attack the Persians, after allying themselves with Sparta. Alcibiades’ plan is to win in Persia and then turn on the Spartans. The whole enterprise is once again cut short by the power-protecting Athenian leadership.

Now both Sparta and Athens want Alcibiades dead. Polemides has suffered terribly as he has followed Alcibiades through thick and thin. Finally, he is hired by the Spartans to kill Alcibiades. Although he doesn’t actually kill the man, he is there at his death. 

I feel like I have a much greater feel for the political and military history of ancient Greece after reading this novel. I’ll have to see if he has any other fact-based fictional accounts.

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