This book is sub-titled A Journey through History and that describes it exactly. It is an account of Kaplan’s journeys as a young man around the eastern Mediterranean in the 1970s. His discourse ranges over the fall of ancient Carthage in Tunisia, the stimulating mix of Islamic and Western culture in Norman Sicily, to examination of the seeds of recent Serbo-Croat divisions planted 600 years earlier.
Kaplan is interested in how history forgotten is history doomed to be repeated. For example, he compares 4th century BC Athenians ignoring warnings about Sicilian strength and sending a vast naval force to subdue it – unsuccessfully – to President Johnson’s equally ill-judged dispatch of half-a-million American troops to South Vietnam 1500 years later.
Unlike Patrick Leigh-Fermor, say, or William Dalrymple, Kaplan keeps his youthful self in the background; his journey is erudite and reflective rather than full of his youthful adventures. A fascinating read, but more intellectually than emotionally engaging.