Tides of War

by Steven Pressfield

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The setting of Tides of War is the fateful showdown between Sparta and Athens which we know as the Peloponnesian War. The story centers on Pericles' nephew, the brilliant Athenian leader Alcibiades. Steven Pressfield uses a double-narration technique, with italicized sections by one narrator setting off an older story that has been told to him by another: the mercenary soldier Polemides, who is in the field with Alcibiades on his first campaign, suffers alongside him during the horrors of the plague that strikes Athens, fights beside him during his great naval victories, and is even there for his bloody end. But the emotional climax of the novel comes when the two are apart, with Alcibiades in exile among the Spartans while Polemides serves in the Sicilian campaign, Alcibiades' ambitious brain-child, which in his absence lurches to disaster. Pressfield captures every riveting detail of fiercely-fought battles on land and sea, the suffering of an army fighting to survive, and the savage end that faces the defeated warriors.

We get glimpses of Alcibiades the wild party boy, and learn too of his friendship with Socrates, whose looming death adds pathos to the framing story. But Pressfield's chief interest is Alcibiades' visionary imagination, the trait that made him the man most feared by Athens' enemies. The drama of the tale flows from the tension between the Athenian's genius as a commander and the wholesale death and destruction of war. The Alcibiades of Tides of War is a man cursed with too much imagination, with a unique ability to understand what could and must be done, but lacking the power to fulfill his vision. Only those of us with a special interest in the era now remember Alcibiades, but this novel shows why many more should care. (2000, 426 pages)

More about Tides of War at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository

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

Other novels in which Alcibiades appears:

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault (1956), about a student of Socrates. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Flowers of Adonis by Rosemary Sutcliff (1969). More info

Nonfiction about Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War:

Alcibiades by P.J. Rhodes (2011). More info

The Life of Alcibiades: The Idol of Athens by E.F. Benson (1929). More info

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


Plutarch's "Life of Alcibiades" at Classics.mit.edu

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