The Last Greek (Commander)

Written by Christian Cameron
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

210 BCE. The Achaean League, an alliance of Greek City States originally founded for mutual protection against encircling Spartans, Macedons and Romans, is fragmenting. Our hero, Philopoemen, is determined to create a fighting force capable of taking on the League’s enemies. This is a richly detailed book, and I soon lost the thread of what, exactly, was happening, and became confused about who was who – though I liked the disdainful aristocrat turned traitor, who came good; nevertheless, Cameron’s skill held me enthralled throughout the long-extended battle scenes, forced marches, ambushes, treachery and stupendous bravery, and I was quite unable to put the book down. What gripped me was Philopoemen’s behind the scenes’ work, his attention to detail: the planning, timing, and training for the various campaigns was hugely important in ensuring victory. Success depended on the prosaic necessity of having enough horses, mules, oxen even, and keeping them healthy, fed and watered; arms, armour and weapons, too, were essential; casualties would need proper attention, and men had to be paid as well as fed and billeted.

I found the details of how inexperienced men and horses were trained for war, fascinating – especially as many of the men were initially reluctant soldiers. Greece is a mountainous country, and coaxing one’s horse along a precipitous path over rocky terrain was not for the faint-hearted. And, if the battle went against them, the troops had to know how to retreat in good order. Philopoemen is helped by his friend, the priest and healer, Alexanor, whose medical experience with complicated war wounds was obviously carefully researched and I found that most interesting, too. I also particularly enjoyed seeing women actively taking part in the campaigns and their skills being valued, rather than just being decorative and/or victimized. It made a pleasant change. Good, gripping stuff.