The Isle of Stone

by Nicholas Nicastro

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Isle of Stone tackles a key episode from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War: an Athenian naval force probing the coast of the Peloponnese set up a base that was surrounded and attacked by Spartans and then surprisingly managed to turn the tables on their foes. The Athenian victory led to a promising pause in the fruitless war between Athens and Sparta, a truce Athens herself would end by embarking on a fatal expedition to Syracuse. The novel opens decades earlier with an account of the disastrous earthquake that struck Sparta in 464 B.C., then for a long time flashes back and forth between the childhood struggles of two brothers born to a Spartan survivor of that disaster, and to the later catastrophe they face on the island of Sphacteria in 425 B.C.

Nicastro's story reveals some unpleasant truths about the Spartan system from the viewpoint of characters raised in that system and capable only of a few cloudy intuitions about its flaws. But he tries to tell a story without benefit of a main character who is truly sympathetic. That's a tricky task, and Nicastro lacks the literary skill that might have led to full success. The result is a novel that's impossible to recommend for the general reader who wants a well-crafted tale with a fair share of likeable characters. It also lacks the authorial voice and command necessary to produce real tragedy.

But if you care enough about the Spartans, The Isle of Stone may still be the book for you. With its savage portrayal of the traditional upbringing and its chilling images of helot oppression, the novel joins John Gardiner's The Wreckage of Agathon in arguing that the vices of the Spartan system far outweighed its virtues. The Isle of Stone falls short of its ambitions, but if you want to probe the Spartan myth while learning about a crucial moment in their long war with Athens, it's worth a go. (2005, 366 pages)

More about The Isle of Stone at or The Book Depository

The Isle of Stone appears on the list of The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History

Other novels set during the Peloponnesian War:

The Tides of War by Steven Pressfield (2000), about the Athenian general Alcibiades and the land and sea battles he fought during the Peloponnesian War. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior by Ellen Gilchrist (1994), about a slave girl seeking freedom during the Peloponnesian War. More info

The Walled Orchard by Tom Holt (1997), a darkly comic novel set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War; originally published as two novels, Goatsong (1989) and The Walled Orchard (1990). More info

Nonfiction about the Peloponnesian War:

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (5th century B.C.). More info

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan (2003). More info

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson (2005). More info


Peloponnesian War at, with links to videos

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