Paul Cartledge reviews
Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens
By John R Hale (Gibson Square 395pp £17.99)
In June 1993, to mark the notional 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, a reconstruction of an ancient Athenian warship paid a symbolic visit to the Palace of Westminster: the Mother of Democracies meets the Mother of Parliaments. Possibly. At any rate, those of us who stood that day upon Westminster Bridge could feast our eyes on an avatar of one of the ancient Greek world’s most remarkable manufactures: the trireme, or three-banked oared warship, a glorified racing eight (but with over twenty times that number of oarsmen) and guided missile ramming-machine, as reconstructed according to British plans and finance and Greek craftsmanship. It was several hundreds of these weapons, in the hands mainly of Athenian citizens, that triumphantly gored and floored a many times larger Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BC, thereby saving a pioneer version of democracy or even, on one view, Western civilisation itself. Tragedy followed much later, in defeat at sea for Athens first by the Spartans (twice over, and with Persian money…), then by some of Athens’s own allies, and finally, decisively, by the Macedonian kingdom then ruled by the immediate successors of Alexander the Great. (The reconstructed trireme is perhaps rather humiliatingly named Olympias, after Alexander’s mother.)
Despite its rather emotive title, John Hale’s debut book is a largely even-keeled retelling of Athenian naval history from 483 to 322 BC. It is based, not always quite as solidly as the author strives to suggest, on ancient literary sources such as Thucydides (but also Cornelius Nepos), on archaeological discoveries (though not, and not for the author’s want of trying, on finds of actual preserved warships), and on surveys of the islands, coasts, channels and seas in which Athenian mariners operated and fought their battles. Those battles include Cyzicus (410 BC), Arginoussai (406 BC), and Aegospotami (405 BC), to the understanding of which Hale justly claims to have made novel and independent contributions. But his book is not strictly speaking a history of the Athenian navy during that century and a half. Rather, it a history of Athenian democracy in so far (which for Hale is very far, indeed pretty much totally) as the fate of that pioneering institution was linked to the development of Athens’s navy in the momentous era when the fast trireme was the ship of the line.
The author, who hails academically from Yale, Cambridge (England) and Louisville, has a rattling good yarn to spin and is very well qualified to tell it. Given the intrinsic importance and interest of his subject, therefore, one could only wish that his book might be recommended, with confidence, to the sort of readership the author has in mind – a general lay reading public, especially that hardcore section of it perennially fascinated by matters military, and some more professionally committed students of ancient Greek and Middle Eastern history. Members of a seagirt nation such as ours, indeed, for whom the navy is the senior service, might be expected to evince a particular interest in a work of this character. But, alas, the good ship Lords of the Sea proves to be a leaky vessel, the flaws in whose design and execution constantly threaten to hole if not capsize it.
Hale’s view of classical Greek history from the rowing bench gives us the face and very much more than that of ancient naval battle. There was no rum, some sodomy, and no lash for the average trireme oarsman; but buckets of tears, sweat, and other bodily fluids poured from him as he coped with tholepin, loom and bilge water, and he was vulnerable as few others in history have been to the pains and indignities of callused palms, blistered buttocks, even anal fistulas. Yet oddly enough all this suffering in the cause of Athenian democracy and Greek freedom from Persian domination called forth nothing but contempt from superior horsey or hoplite (heavy infantry) types like Plato. Why, trireme oarsmen backwatered away from the enemy, and so far from looking him in the eye they faced away from him, and most of them wouldn’t have been able to see the enemy anyway even if they’d been facing forward, entombed and nearly blinded as they were below decks. Moreover, ordinary Athenian sailors had this unfortunate habit of thinking and behaving democratically, acting on the conceit that all Athenian citizens were created equal and equally free. Aristophanes was as quick to join in the fun of Platonic navy-baiting as the über-democrats Pericles and Demosthenes were keen to hymn Athens’s naval might. All this and more Hale brings out very well, with admirable empathy as well as sympathy.
But these merits can’t hide the too numerous cracks and fissures in his craft. These range from mere typos, other misspellings and relatively innocuous slips and blips (for some of which the publishers must take their share of the responsibility) to numerous chronological inexactitudes and some full-on screaming howlers. I counted dozens of them, including: kratos (the ancient Greek for ‘power’) misspelled kratis; a misunderstanding of ‘avatar’; the Thebans were not Dorians; there were (reportedly) 700 Thespians at Thermopylae, not 1,000; the ancient Greek for ‘weakness’ is malakia, not malaria; it was four, not six, years after the assassination of Ephialtes that the office of archonship at Athens was opened up to hoplite citizens; Aristophanes did not only ‘rarely’ prove a favourite with Athenian audiences, nor is he known to have been convicted and fined by a jury; ‘adouring’ (for ‘adoring’); Socrates was not accused of ‘heresy’; Isocrates did not teach rhetoric at the Lyceum; Alexander died aged thirty-two, not thirty-six; the Battle of Lepanto was fought in 1571, not 1471 – and so on. And then there are the oversimplified inferences from naval to other key aspects of Greek and Athenian life, and the underplaying of the fourth century BC as opposed to the fifth – in the service presumably of a certainly often gripping narrative storyline.
In short, there is still plenty of sea room for a new one-volume history of the Athenian navy in its democratic political context from 483 to 322 BC, one that not only gets its facts right (so far as they can be ascertained) but also one that deals with the mundanities of the nautical life onshore as well as on the not normally very high seas, and that places Athenian naval matters in their more proper social and political perspective. And for the time being readers will mostly be better served by consulting a combination of Barry Strauss’s exhilarating recent account of The Battle of Salamis (‘The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – and Western Civilization’) and the suitably three-oared The Athenian Trireme (‘The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship’) by J S Morrison, J F Coates and – Cambridge University Boat Club’s Oxonian nemesis – Boris Rankov.