(Review) David Santiuste, Edward IV and the War of the Roses, (Barnsley, 2010)

It has been a while, so here is another review for you!

David Santiuste, Edward IV and the War of the Roses, (Barnsley, 2010)

With great apprehension I have spent many-a-day staring at the foreboding cover of Santiuste’s work before finally picking it up and reading it.  Edward IV is not a popular character of British history, but perhaps the author is right in his assertion that his capabilities have been neglected as a result of this.  As the cover surmises, this was to be a work of military history alone, focusing on the War of the Roses as would be expected and the less dominant topic of his military excursions into France; something only subtly insinuated by the presence of his coat of arms which lays these claims, in the guise of the Fleur-de-Lis.

The book is based chronologically rather than thematically, something that will be of great comfort to beginners but perhaps frustrating to those more experienced in his reign.  It begins with a useful, if confusing, family tree giving the reader an immediate reference point for many of the names they are soon to encounter.  This is unfortunately the only useful insertion present within the publication, with battle maps that are lacking any great detail and photos that would have greatly benefited from the use of colour.  Admittedly this would have increased the book’s costs, but without it this work has the unfortunate situation of already looking old fashioned – not good for such a new and ultimately riveting book.

The book begins with an interesting Introduction which highlights both the difficulties an historian of the period faces, as well as potential ways to overcome these problems.  He also spends a short space explaining the functional and logistical aspects of a late Medieval army such as arms and recruitment, all useful information that he will not (and does not) repeat later in the book.  This moves quickly into Edward’s upbringing and the environment he was brought up in as son to “the greatest English nobleman after the King”.  This is also our first introduction to the central character of Warwick within the narrative; someone who’s relationship with Edward is a central focus of Santiuste’s reassessment.

The book moves fast, racing through Edward’s rise to fame and accession of the Yorkist seat of power and his ‘great’ (read bloody) victory at Towton which secured him the throne of England.  On a quick aside, the account of Towton is a fine example of Santiuste’s ability to maintain the raw enthusiasm of a military historian whilst inserting the reality of the massacre that ensued.  The narrative continues with the break down in relationship between Edward and Warwick, Edward’s subsequent exile and triumphant return culminating in one of the most famous battles of the wars, the Battle of Barnet.  His pursuit of the Lancastrians is followed and Santiuste leaves us on a cliff hanger, describing the exile of the young Henry Tudor (a swift reminder that this book was about Edward and not the War of the Roses), utilising his uncanny ability to make the reader want more.  Time is taken within the Epilogue to discuss Edwards thwarted attempts in France, after finally securing his kingdom and bringing a peace to his own land.  This final discussion sits more as an apology of Edward’s lack of success and is the only area of the book that directly engages with historiography, an interesting read but it is unfortunately more academic than the dynamic narrative that has given the book the flair that a good Biography needs.

Santiuste has avoided the ultimate question that must be asked of historical biographies, “do we need another one on . . .?”.  His work shows exactly why they are vital for the subject and its engagement with all enthusiasts, novice or professional.  He incorporates new research as well as expounding new theories to retell a story that has become humdrum in its traditional biases.  Where the images have been lacking, his bibliography is perfect for those who wish to look further into the reign of Edward IV.  As Santiuste himself says “There are more questions than answers – which lie beyond the scope of this book – and readers are encouraged to explore the debate for themselves” to which his references and bibliography facilitate that perfectly.  If that isn’t the sign of a good history book, then nothing is.

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(Review) Godfrey Hutchinson, Sparta: Unfit for Empire, (Barnsley, 2014)

A review of a great book, which covers a fascinating period of ancient Spartan history: its decline.

Godfrey Hutchinson, Sparta: Unfit for Empire, (Barnsley, 2014)

The Spartan period of dominance in Greece (the hegemony c.404-371 BCE) has attracted a lot of attention recently, with a subsequent flurry of publications all dedicated to this short period of ancient Greek history. Hutchinson’s book sits within this pop-up genre and has created an easily accessible, concise, yet thorough, historical narrative of the period within which Sparta held power over Greece.

Sparta is set out in a chronological narrative which allows the story to develop in an organic matter, without the need for vast swathes of prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. Hutchinson begins with the crescendo of the Peloponnesian War in 404 and continues, beyond the traditional date of 371 for the end of the hegemony (the battle of Leuctra), into 362 and the 2nd battle of Mantinea. The book is supplemented by 7 appendices which try to offer background information, especially regarding Spartan culture and social history.

The story which Hutchinson has chosen to tell is in line with the traditional scholarly narratives, and he rightfully pays homage to the debt owed to writers like Lazenby (The Spartan Army) and Cartledge (Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta) whom he follows closely. This traditional account of the Spartan hegemony is summed up by Hutchinson’s subtitle, which forms the central thesis of the book: Sparta had power and an opportunity which it wasted due to its own failings, both socially and morally.

This core idea stems from our main, contemporary, source for the period, Xenophon, who considered the Sparta of his own day a corrupt mirage of the, almost mythical, glory days of yesteryear. This emphasis on moral discrepancies does lead the reader to some incorrect conclusions about the Spartans, who are often described as if they were a singular entity, at times. One minor example implies that the Spartans did not commit atrocities in war because it would not be in the Spartan character (p.106), yet we have strong evidence that at least one Spartan commander, Clearchus, committed horrific atrocities in the city of Byzantium toward the end of the Peloponnesian War.

Hutchinson’s chronological approach allows for the discrepancies in modern theories to come to light, this is especially true in the area where Sparta really excels – the battle narratives. Hutchinson seems most content when describing the great battles of the hegemony, which can often be a neglected area during this period (Leuctra aside). Yet he falls foul of making overarching assumptions which do not conform to his own accounts. These include the affirmation that hoplite warfare was (almost) always fought on chosen, even ground – but gives a handful of examples throughout the book which contradict this, and he asserts the innovative military genius of Epaminondas – yet some of his ‘innovations’ have already been shown at Cunaxa (Appendix 7) and he himself was defeated twice in quick succession in 362 due to bad decision making (although this is a contentious point). Perhaps the greatest assertion Hodkinson makes is that the reduction in Spartan population resulted in a drop in military standards for their army. This is in contrast to his own brilliant account of Leuctra where the Spartans are shown to be effective fighters, and wanted to go to battle the next day even after the death of their king, as well as the Spartan success in the Tearless Battle, shortly after the ‘devastating’ defeat at Leuctra, and their resolve in defending Sparta against the Theban invasions through the 360’s.

I do not want to take away from what Hutchinson has achieved with Sparta. His use of varying sources, and overt assessment of them, is laudable and of great benefit for budding Laconophiles. His emphasis on the naval situation during the period (chapter 7), and the need for Sparta to dominate the Aegean, is often neglected by historians and he makes some important points in this regard.

The book’s maps and battle plans are clear, uncluttered, and placed within the relevant text, making them easy to follow – although one battle plan is missing a phase of the battle in question (#2), and another doesn’t seem to illustrate Hutchinson’s description on the placement of cavalry (#5). Sparta also takes time to reconstruct lesser known battles such as at Sardis (395), the Long Walls of Corinth (392), and Tegyra (375), which any military history enthusiast will appreciate.

The book is complimented by a selection of black and white photos, and section of references and a short bibliography which will serve as a good starting point for anyone who may be interested. It is a must read for anyone who wants a good, traditional, and reliable account of a fascinating period in Greek and Spartan history.

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(Review) Mike Roberts, Two Deaths at Amphipolis: Cleon vs Brasidas in the Peloponnesian War, (Barnsley, 2015)

Another review for you! All about one of my favourite historical characters, Brasidas the Spartan.

Mike Roberts, Two Deaths at Amphipolis: Cleon vs Brasidas in the Peloponnesian War, (Barnsley, 2015)

Pages: 264                         ISBN: 978-1783463787 Continue reading

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Ancient PTSD Again, and again and again.

I think I should just give up and call this my Ancient PTSD blog!

It is that time of year again when someone posts an idea which links modern PTSD with ancient experiences. However, there is a growing trend that is more concerning than the intellectual mistakes or flaws that are inherent in this approach. Since the turn of the 90’s there has been a growing use of ancient ‘examples’ to justify PTSD as a concept (as a way to challenge the prevailing views of old that it was a ‘problem’ or a ‘weakness’ with the people who had it).

This use of ancient history saw the famous works of Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam, and Odysseus in America) come to the fore, and is in my opinion a good thing. Unfortunately, since the success of Shay’s work, there is a new trend which is to use ancient history to not only validate the diagnosis, but to actually justify therapies and, worse now, to present new ones. Continue reading

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(Review) Paul Archer & Johno Ellison, It’s on the Meter (Summersdale Publishing, 2016)

Another review! But, unlike my usual reviews, this one is not about a history book but, indeed, a travel/adventure/endurance book. I knew one of the authors (Paul Archer) from our schooldays together, so I was intrigued by this project of his as it grew in magnitude over the medium of social media. Hence the review here! Continue reading

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