Lords of the Sea

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The traditional approach linking military service to democracy is to argue that, when ancient Greek city-states ceased to rely on cavalry and instead employed hoplites (heavily armed infantrymen fighting in a tight formation), the aristocrats had to share political power with those commoners who were able to equip themselves with armor and weapons. In Lords of the Sea, John R. Hale extends this argument to include the truly poor who rowed the triremessleek warships with three banks of oars. Triremes possessed the speed and agility to make ramming enemy vessels a superior tactic to boarding them and fighting a land battle on water.

The trireme was not a sturdy vessel. It was light, could fight only in calm water, and was so subject to destruction by the teredo worm that it had to be brought onto shore each evening to dry out. It required constant work, scraping the hull and keeping it covered with pitch (causing ancient historians and playwrights to speak of “black ships”), and the ships had to be sheltered in expensive sheds throughout the winter. Trireme crews had to be recruited, trained, and paid.

Hale’s description of all these processesincluding the development of troop carriers and horse transportssupersedes all previous efforts at producing an Athenian naval history. The illustrations and maps included in his study are first rate as well. His narrative is enthusiastic and compelling.

Naval warfare was not new in 483 b.c.e., when Themistocles persuaded the Athenians not to spend the silver from a newly found vein in a state mine but to build triremes instead. The Athenians should indeed have been expanding their navy to prepare to deal with an impending Persian invasion: All intelligent observers would have agreed on this point. However, only Themistocles and his few supporters were in this category, so Themistocles motivated the necessary buildup by turning the public’s attention to a traditional rival within sight of Attica, the flourishing city-state of Aegina. The Athenians humbled Aegina but fortunately did not destroy the cityits forty ships would be valuable only three years later when the gigantic Persian fleet encountered the Greek naval force at Salamis.

No Athenian could have forgotten the previous Persian invasion, in 490 b.c.e., that had been almost miraculously turned back by the battle at Marathon. Most probably heard of subsequent Persian fleets moving along the coast, one being destroyed in a storm, others bringing workmen to dig a canal that would allow ships to bypass the most dangerous promontory. However, the Athenians, like most democratic peoples at any time and place, preferred to ignore warning signs rather than to prepare to defend themselves. It was a combination of luck (the money being available) and genius (Themistocles) that allowed Athens to prepare for the great confrontation with the Persian king and the fantastic number of men and ships he was leading into Greece.

The story of the Spartans at Thermopylae is far better known than is the one that Hale recounts, that of the Athenians who protected the Spartan forces from the rear. Hale points out, however, that, had the navy not held the Persian fleet back until storms and combat weakened them, the Spartans would have been surrounded and destroyed much more quickly than they were. When the Persians broke through the Spartan line, there was nothing to stop them short of Athens. States lying in between joined them out of necessity or to take revenge on Athens for past offenses. The Persians captured and burned the Acropolis, then moved against the Greek fleet at Salamis.

The ensuing battle was a Greek victory, thanks to Themistocles, but Hale describes the manner in which it was fought very differently than do most texts. The difference lies in Hale’s superior understanding of the principles of trireme warfare. Themistocles’ postwar career was short after he hurriedly built the Long Walls connecting Athens to its port at Piraeus. Athenians recognized him as a rogue, useful in a crisis but dangerous to a democracy. Fittingly, he went into exile at the Persian court, advising the king on methods that could defeat the Athenians.

That was not an easy task, however, because Athens had an outstanding general (all commanders by land and sea alike were called generals) in Cimon, the son of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon. Cimon liberated all the Greek...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Archaeology 62, no. 4 (July/August, 2009): 14.

Booklist 105, no. 15 (April 1, 2009): 9.

History: Reviews of New Books 38, no. 1 (Fall, 2009): 29-30.

Library Journal 134, no. 19 (November 15, 2009): 40.

The New York Times, August 7, 2009, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 17 (April 27, 2009): 123.