Book Review: Roman Conquests, Macedonia and Greece
Using a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, several weeks ago I ordered Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, published in 2009. I finished reading Friday afternoon and decided to type up a quick review for the blog and for anyone interested in the history. Doctor Matyszak ranks among my favorite contemporary historians on Ancient Greece and Rome (perhaps second only to Adrian Goldsworthy) and is author of such texts as Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. I’ve long been curious about the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia if for no other reason than that these are so often glossed over in comparison to other Roman conquests like Carthage, Gaul, and Britannia. While I’ve read bits and pieces of these campaigns in Plutarch and Livy, as well as modern historians such as Goldsworthy, this is the first volume I’ve encountered that dealt specifically and solely with the wars against Macedon and the more classical Greek city-states.
One trait I genuinely appreciate in Matyszak’s writing, in this book as well as his previous texts I’ve read, is that he has a very effective style of narration. It has the feel of someone telling a story, rather than some formal, academic style. He writes like someone who wants to create interest in his topic, rather than some academic who is writing strictly for an academic audience. The language is relaxed and accessible, making it easy to follow for folks outside the history field. In addition, Doctor Matyszak isn’t afraid to make light of the historical figures, cultures, or fighting styles with occasional pithy comments, observations, and comparisons. More than once he calls out various generals and statesmen on both sides of the conflict for treachery, miscommunications, bad decisions, or plain incompetence. He early on refers to Greek politics as a “snake pit” and gives constant examples throughout the book to reinforce the analogy. Indeed, the deliciously underhanded infighting amongst the many factions involved in this conflict was likely my favorite aspect of the book. Back-biting political f***ery at it’s finest.
In terms of scholarship, I greatly appreciate Doctor Matyszak’s fairly neutral stance on the right and wrong of these Roman conquests. At no point does he attempt to justify the battles, death, and conquest in terms of pro- or anti-imperialist sentiment as so many scholars have done since Edward Gibbon. Nor does Matyszak attempt to impose the framework of modern, Judeo-Christian morality upon a people who existed before Christianity. When he does explain possible reasons for the brutal actions of the Romans or Macedonians, he does so on their terms. Yes, the Romans were a brutal people. But it was a brutal reality in which they existed. Yes, the took slaves. Yes, they murdered surrendering soldiers. Yes, they burned cities and killed innocents. But guess what: so did everyone else for thousands of years before them.
If I have any issue with Macedonia and Greece—and this is entirely a personal preference—I’d have liked to see more maps. The text does include seven maps of the areas of interest within Macedon and Greece at the beginning, as well as a section of full-color visuals in the center. But when reading and researching military campaigns, I prefer to have visuals spread throughout the text, especially maps of the terrain and diagrams of significant battles. Additionally, I’d have liked somewhat more detailed descriptions of some of the battles that Matyszak glossed over in his efforts to focus on the politics and the effects of these battles. But, again, this is more of a preference than an actual objection.
All in all, I found Doctor Matyszak’s book to be well written and well researched. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient or military history.