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Novel Brings the Destruction of Ancient Athens Vividly to Life

Book Review

TIDES OF WAR, By Steven Pressfield, Doubleday $24.95, 432 pages

April 25, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Steven Pressfield has literally bookended the golden age of classical Greece. In his best-selling novel "Gates of Fire," he told of the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae that helped ensure the independence of the Greek city-states and, indirectly, the flowering of our favorite ancient civilization, Periclean Athens. Now, in "Tides of War," he describes how that civilization was shattered by Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

The central figure of this novel is the Athenian leader Alcibiades, a wayward disciple of Socrates whose virtues and vices mirror those of his city. He is handsome, charismatic and dissolute, a political chameleon without a moral center, a brave soldier and a clear-eyed strategic thinker whose advice is valued by both sides in the war, though neither can trust him. Like the heroes of the tragedies Aeschlyus, Sophocles and Euripides were writing at the time, he is destroyed as much by his own hubris as by his enemies.

The man who actually cuts Alcibiades' throat, on Spartan and Persian orders, is the principal narrator of "Tides of War," an Athenian soldier named Pomenides who has served the whole length of the conflict. He has been an admirer of Alcibiades and even his bodyguard. But he shares the city's ambivalence toward the great man. Pomenides' brother, Lion, died a horrible death in slavery after the Athenian expedition to Sicily that Alcibiades promoted and later--in exile to escape trumped-up charges of impiety--aided the Spartans in crushing.

Ironically, Pomenides is sentenced to death for killing Alcibiades in the same year (399 BC) that Socrates is sentenced to death for having led Alcibiades and other Athenian youths astray. A prominent citizen, Jason, defends both, though he reveres Socrates and, at first, despises Pomenides. Only gradually does he come to see both men as victims of "the first modern war--unprecedented in scale and duration and distinguished beyond all previous conflicts by its debasement of that code of honor, justice and voluntary restraint by whose tenets all prior strife among Hellenes had been conducted."

Pomenides begins the war as a 19-year-old of good family. Before it ends, he has to kill his beloved sister to end her suffering in the great plague at Athens (429 BC), in which his wife and baby also die. His second wife and child are murdered. He serves as a loyal marine but also as a mercenary and an assassin. Scarred and branded, brutalized and disillusioned, he loses all faith in the ability of the world's pioneer democracy "to rule itself."

This is a more dispiriting story than Pressfield told in "Gates of Fire," and, of course, a 27-year war is harder to structure dramatically than a single battle. But he continues to excel in depth of research, humanization of antiquity and power of description. His account of the Sicilian disaster, cribbed as it is from Thucydides' (the first modern history), is unforgettably grim. And because he admires the Spartans so much, he offers a useful counterweight to our natural pro-Athenian bias.

Athens, after all, left us nearly everything: architecture and drama, science and philosophy, the word "democracy" itself. Sparta, that pioneering totalitarian state, left nothing but a legend of discipline and courage. While we concede those virtues, we feel alien to the people who practiced them. In "Tides of War," Pressfield shows how one man, a brilliant man, Alcibiades, whose fickleness, love of novelty and glory and enterprise make him a very American figure, could win the battles but lose the war to a stodgier but more determined foe.

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