BMCR 2015.05.13

Alexander the Great: The Dissolution of the Persian Naval Supremacy 334-331 B.C

, Alexander the Great: The Dissolution of the Persian Naval Supremacy 334-331 B.C. Dubai: Andreas P. Parpas, 2013. 266. ISBN 9781490414058. $25.20 (pb).

There has been, over the past decades, no shortage of books about Alexander the Great, both directed at scholarly audiences and at the general reader, but Parpas, an unabashed admirer of Alexander (p. 19), attempts an approach different from that of most general histories of the famous Macedonian. Instead of recounting, again, the accomplishments and military deeds of Alexander from beginning to end, Parpas focuses instead on the early years of the Persian campaigns, and especially on an aspect heretofore somewhat neglected, i.e. the naval campaigns against the Persian fleet. In doing so, he places a particular emphasis on the role played by the strategically located island of Cyprus and its various kingdoms.

The first chapter is thus dedicated to a brief recounting of Cyprian history, its strategic and economic importance in the eastern Mediterranean and its harbours, such as Salamis and Citium. A very brief overview sketches the policies of Cyprian kingdoms as regards their dealings with the Greek poleis on the one hand, and the Persian empire on the other.

Chapter Two is devoted entirely to describing the respective Greek, Persian and Phoenician fleets, a theme that frequently recurs in the early parts of Chapter Three. Parpas delights in hand-drawn schematics of command structures and hierarchies, of fleets and individual naval squadrons (e.g. pp. 65, 67, 69, 75), which are helpful but feel somewhat redundant. Attention is also given to individual commanders and sub-commanders, such as Memnon (pp. 73-79). While Parpas investigates in some detail (pp. 79-88) the ‘national’ components particularly of the Persian fleets (composed of Cyprian and Phoenician ships, and detachments from Asia Minor). The rest of Chapter Three is devoted to recounting individual naval campaigns during the following years. There is nothing here that is new – a conclusion that, it has to be said, must be applied to the book as a whole, which consists for the most part of paraphrases or direct quotations from ancient sources.

Chapter Four deals with what Parpas terms the “Battle of Southeastern Mediterranean” ( sic), focusing notably on the defection of the Cypro-Phoenician fleet to the camp of Alexander after his victory at Issus, the siege of Tyre, and the ensuing total naval domination. Parpas concludes by stating the somewhat obvious, namely that their defection had earned the Cyprians “favourable treatment by the new masters of the region” (p. 159). Persian efforts to turn the tide by colluding with Sparta and establishing a naval base on Crete are treated briefly, as, indeed, is the important function of the Macedonian fleet in supplying Alexander’s army during its siege of Gaza and subsequent invasion of Egypt (pp. 165-168).

Chapter Five doubles as an epilogue, wherein Parpas again emphasises, as the reader has by now come to expect, the importance of Cyprus, which, according to the author, enjoyed relative autonomy after the immediate military actions in which it was involved. Pride of place in this epilogue, however, is given to a sizeable quotation of a famous poem (“In the year 200 B.C.”) by Constantine Cavafy (pp. 176-177), which concludes with the following sentiment (the same lines also served as an introduction of sorts, p. 11): “And from this marvellous pan-Hellenic expedition, triumphant, brilliant in every way, celebrated on all sides, glorified as no other has ever been glorified, incomparable, we emerged: the great new Hellenic world.” There follow a number of Appendices on “Historians of Alexander the Great” and “The history and the art of war at sea in the classical world”, as well as endnotes, a bibliography and a general index.

What to make of this book, written by an enthusiastic autodidact (Parpas is an electrical engineer and businessman) with no formal training? The general approach is interesting, in that the naval campaigns of Alexander have rarely been studied in depth. There is something to be said for such an undertaking, in the context of general naval developments of the late Classical and early Hellenistic world.1 But, to be blunt, Parpas is not the right person to undertake such a study. Sources are handled uncritically and taken at face value, and while his use of scholarly literature is mostly workmanlike, it is also rather selective. As far as the importance of naval warfare during Alexander’s campaigns is concerned, the reader is left to his own devices. The author’s own views on what might be termed Greek ‘national’ history, though they are palpable on almost every page, are unacknowledged. Many of Parpas’ arguments are distinctly apologetic in nature, for instance in trying to absolve Alexander of responsibility for the destruction of Thebes by laying the blame for this squarely at the door of the Corinthian League (pp. 38f.), excusing Alexander’s execution of rival claimants as a necessity (p. 37), or in claiming that, prior to Philip’s victory at Chaeronea, “the whole of Greece […] was desperately in search of a ruler” (p. 29). There are constant references to Alexander’s ‘greatness’ and his “lasting and eternal” legacy (p. 175), which serve as indicators of the author’s own proclivities.

So, to conclude: does scholarship benefit from another book on Alexander? In this case, unfortunately, not. For the specialist, there is nothing here that is new and the general reader is left with a detailed knowledge of fleet compositions and naval campaigns, but with little appreciation of the real strategic import of Alexander’s fleet (or later Hellenistic ones). It must also be said that the focus on the early years of Alexander’s campaign is, in retrospect, unfortunate. A careful scholarly study on Alexander’s use of naval power, his employment of fleets and supply ships, must of necessity also include his later campaigns. In limiting himself to the first two years, Parpas has denied himself the opportunity for a broader analysis, though it allows him to focus exclusively on Alexander and on the island of Cyprus, his two obvious main interests. This is hero worship rather than scholarship.


1. See, for instance, Murray, W.M., The Age of Titans. The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies, Oxford 2012.