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    They love, and hate, and cannot do without him.
        -Aristophanes on the relationship of Athenians to Alcibiades

I very much liked Steven Pressfield's earlier historical novel Gates of Fire (see Orrin's review), which told the thrilling story of the small band of Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae against Persian invaders in 480 B.C.  Tides of War advances the action to 430 B.C. with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, which saw Sparta and the other city-states of Greece try to reign in the power of Athens.  His story focusses on the fortunes of Alcibiades (451-404 B.C.), the most gifted, though mercurial, leader of his day.  Alcibiades was adopted as a boy by Pericles, the great democratic leader of Athens.  By all accounts, the boy was physically beautiful, intellectually gifted and moraly unscrupulous.  He became a great disciple of Socrates, with whom he campaigned in Potidaea, but contrary to the great philosophers teachings, determined to try his hand at politics.  He became the worst kind of populist, opportunistic, demagogue--ultimately fighting for Athens three different times, but also joining the Spartans and even the Persians during periods when he had been exiled from Athens.  He was the driving force behind the ill-advised decision to try to conquer Syracuse (415-13 B.C.), which may have been the single most significant factor contributing to Athen's eventual downfall, as the Expedition proved to be a disastrous drain on men and materiel.

Once again, Pressfield turns in an impressive performance.  He's working on a broader canvas here, but demonstrates an admirable command of history, customs, battle tactics, and multiple other subjects.  He is especially good at depicting battle scenes, with all their inextricable twining of confusion, brutality and heroism.

I did find the narrative structure of the book to be awkward.  A grandson relates the tale that his grandfather heard from one of the men who was tried for assassinating Alcibiades.  This results in three separate narrative tracks, indicated by italics and brackets and the whole thing takes on the nature of a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Having the entire story told in the first person also makes the author's linguistic choices more noticeable, which seems like a bad idea.  Even if you're eager to suspend disbelief, you end up noticing the uneasy fit between passages that seem as if they are meant to sound somewhat archaic and others that sound like film noir banter.  It just doesn't seem like the immediacy of a first person narrator is worth all the hoops it forces author and reader to leap through.

There is also a significant problem with the dramatic structure of the story.  For all his undeniable talent and charisma, at the end of the day Alcibiades is merely another tyrant, who put his own fortunes ahead of those of his country.  Moreover, his various plots and stratagems were responsible for the decline and fall of the world's first great democracy.  I suppose most everyone goes through a phase in youth where the Napoleons of the world seem like romantic figures--men who restore order out of chaos and bend the world to their will, however briefly.  Perhaps it's simply a sign of age that I no longer find such men sympathetic, now they just strike me as trumped up bureaucrats who think they know better than anyone else how the world should work.  I think the term that Pressfield uses is "necessity", which I guess he derives from the historical record, Alcibiades always thinks he knows what is necessary at any given moment.  If the intervening 2400 years have taught us anything, it is that one man, or group of men, never know what is necessary; they merely impose their own vision on a typically unwilling populace with predictably disastrous results, as here.

In fact, I found the story most effective as a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in depending on charismatic leadership and of trying to make direct democracy work.  In I. F. Stone's book The Trial of Socrates (see Orrin's review), he tries to reconcile his own veneration of Athenian-style democracy with the, to him, inexplicable decision to execute the great philosopher.   But the great lesson of that episode and of the career of Alcibiades is that the polity of such a democracy is "a beast needing to be fed", driven by emotion and envy, not an enlightened and rational body.  The unfettered citizenry of Athens is really pretty scary and men like Alcibiades, who would exploit the baser instincts (in particular, the imperial pretensions) of the beast for personal gain, can in no wise be considered heroes, however bold and fascinating they may be.

Despite these concerns, I do strongly recommend the book.  One of the great deficits of the modern education is how little we learn of Greek and Roman Civilization.  Books like this one, which help to fill the gaps, and do it in a lively and accessible way, are invaluable.  I don't much like Alcibiades, but I certainly enjoyed reading about him.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Steven Pressfield (6 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Steven Pressfield Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Steven Pressfield
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Steven Pressfield (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel (Random House)
    -VIDEO: Mini Documentary on Killing Rommel (YouTube)
    -ARTICLE: Bruckheimer Adapting Pressfield’s Killing Rommel (BeyondHollywood, 9/03/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Pressfield (Hugh Hewitt Show)
    -PODCAST: Steven Pressfield on the Artist as Warrior: In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast (First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing , July 12, 2021, LitHub)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Tribalism is the real enemy in Iraq (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, 6/18/06, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY: Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East (Steven Pressfield, September 11, 2006, ABC News)
    -ESSAY: Theme and Character in the Historical Novel (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, Historical Novel Society)
    -INTERVIEW: The art of the art of war (Steven Martinovich, November 15, 2004, Enter Stage Right)
    -INTERVIEW: Gates Of Fire: Richard Lee talks to Steven Pressfield about his new novel (Historical Novel Society)
    -ARCHIVES: "steven pressfield" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (Ray Palen, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Tony Perry, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steven D. Laib, Intellectual Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Chet Edwards, Defense and National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Paul Katx, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steve Terjeson, Ezine)
    -REVIEW: of Killng Rommel (Norm Goldman, American Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Andrew Lubin, Military Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Mary Ann Smyth, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jeff Valentine, Bella)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (John Boyd, Kliat)
    -REVIEW: of Kiliing Rommel (Michael Lee, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan War ( Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Scott Oden)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign ( N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War (Helen South,
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War(Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interes)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great expectations: Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him (Rory Stewart, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -CHAT: A Review of Steven Pressfield's "Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War" (Classics-L)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (SUSAN HALL-BALDUF - Knight Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (Newt Gingrich, Newt,org)
    -REVIEWS: of Tides of War (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of GATES OF FIRE By Steven Pressfield (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Mary Lefkowitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Denver Post Wire Services)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Curled Up)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEWS: of Gates of Fire (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Steven Zoraster)
    -REVIEW: of THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE Golf and the Game of Life. By Steven Pressfield. (Dave Kindred, NY Times Book Review)

    -Alcibiades (The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000)
    -AN INTRODUCTION TO ATHENS IN 403 B.C.E.: DEMOCRACY AT THE  CROSSROADS (Reacting to the Past, Barnard College)
    -ETEXT: Alcibiades   By Plutarch
    -SHORT BIO: alcibiades (Plato and his dialogues)
    -ETEXT: ALCIBIADES  by Plato  Translated by Sanderson Beck
    -LINKS: Alcibiades
    -ESSAY: Alcibiades and the Politics of Rumor (C. D. C. Reeve)
    -ESSAY: "Boring from Within: Reading the Speech of Alcibiades as Attack on the Agenda of Definition" ( J.W. Powell)
    -REVIEW: of David Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (David M. Johnson, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 99.11.12 )
    -REVIEW: of THE GREEKS AND GREEK CIVILIZATION By Jacob Burckhardt. Translated by Sheila Stern (Garry Wills, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Bernard Knox: The Theater of Ethics, NY Review of Books
       The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha C. Nussbaum

    -EMPIRES: The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (PBS)
    -Peloponnesian War  (The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000)
    -The Peloponnesian War (History of Western Civilization by Dr. Ellis L. Knox, Boise State University)
    -ESSAY:  Was the Plague of Athens Really Ebola? (ANTHONY RAMIREZ, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE HONEY AND THE HEMLOCK Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America. By Eli Sagan (Mary Lefkowitz, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : The Second Fall of Rome :  Have the past two centuries of Western culture been one long saga of lionizing Greece while disparaging the cultural prestige and classical values of ancient Rome? (Michael Lind, Wilson Quarterly)
    -Historical Novel Society

If you liked Tides of War, try:

Green, Peter
    -Alexander of Macedon 356-323 B. C. : A Historical Biography

Kagan, Donald
    -Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

Thucydides (ed. Robert Srassler)
    -The Landmark Thucydides : A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War