- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

Historian Barry Strauss teaches at Cornell University and is an expert on ancient warfare — and it’s clear to see from this lovingly told tale of the great sea battle in 480 B.C. — that he relishes every moment of this clash of fleets. He is the author of The Battle of Salamis (Simon & Schuster, $25, 294 pages).

In fact Mr. Strauss writes as if he were a motion picture director shooting and then linking up the scenes to make them digestible to our eyes. But like the tour guide who loves his subject too well, Mr. Strauss takes such a long time to unwind his story of how an invading Persian fleet was destroyed by a polyglot ad hoc bunch of Greek seamen that much of the tension is diluted. We know the gallant Greeks are going to win, we just wish they would get on with it.

True to the tradition of historic nonfiction as it is practiced, Mr. Strauss can be forgiven for inserting his own thoughts and theories into the minds, the mouths and the motions of the heroes on both sides. With only the short summary provided by Herodotus as a basis, elaboration becomes a necessity.

With a mile wide strait near the present seaport of Piraeus as a backdrop, more than 200,000 men battled in two fleets of wooden, oar-propelled ships. “The world had never seen a battle like it,” writes Mr. Stauss. On one side coming from the north having conquered much of Greece was the huge Persian fleet, estimated at 650 warships. On the other, an uneasy alliance of traditional enemies Greece and Sparta plus allies from other city-states could muster 368 ships.

The conflict was elemental. On every level, religious, cultural, racial, Persian and Greek feared and despised each other, with resounding echoes to the emotional conflict now playing out in the Mideast. The scene was set for the clash of these unequal forces. The Persians, under Xerxes, were victorious over the Spartans at Thermopolae. They had already conquered Athens, whose population had fled to the island of Salamis.

The Persian fleet had settled at the Bay of Phaleron, blocking the Greek fleet in a narrow channel. In one sense the Greeks were trapped; Xerxes calculated he had only to slowly squeeze them before surrender or slaughter occurred. But Themistocles, the Greek warrior who rallied the Greeks knew how men could fight with their backs to the wall. He reasoned that attack was the only tactic, because it was so unreasonable.

The rest is well known history: How the Greek fleet, aided by expert sailors, stout vessels, and a favorable wind, cut through the Persians, leaving 300 ships sunk with a loss of only 40 of their own. And how Xerxes, checked for the first time in his dream of conquest, chose to look elsewhere for victories to restore Persian prestige.

Mr. Strauss, who uses his complete command of every detail to a surfeit, sometimes confusing the reader, paints all in glowing colors. Compared to the dry stuff of the usual military history, it is compelling, vivid and complete. One quibble is the publisher’s hype about saving Western Civilization, words that don’t sound like Mr. Strauss’ careful scholarship. In fact the Greeks went straight back to their family feuding as soon as the wreckage was cleared, as was the norm. And Xerxes, like many military geniuses without a political plan, decided to leave the troublesome peninsula alone.

Was Salamis the most important battle in history? “Defeat at Salamis would not have deprived the world of Greece’s glory, but of its guile and greed,” Mr. Strauss concludes. The Greeks went on and became imperial, forgoing their democratic ideals. It might have been better, he says, if they had lost.

This charming, disarming book by Charles G. Davis, Around Cape Horn: A Maritime Artist-Historian’s Account of His 1892 Voyage (Down East, $15.95, 216 pages) about a young man’s first voyage in the days of sail has one immediate sister work, R.H. Dana’s classic “Two Years Before the Mast.”

It stands up well to the test, though slighter in both time and length; it has the wonderful freshness that only the eyes of youth can give to experience. Reading these pages, long buried as a forgotten manuscript until unearthed by the author’s grandson, is like getting letters from another world.

Davis, who wrote other books of a technical nature, recorded a daily journal of his voyage, at the age of 22, from New York around Cape Horn to Chilean ports with a cargo of barrel staves, oil and cube sugar. The year was 1892. Davis was a 19th century type — a successful young man from a good family (he was working as a draftsman for a successful yacht designer) — who is advised to go to sea as a cure for “eye strain.” In the days of sail a long sea voyage was a panacea for ills as different as misplaced affection and asthma.

But the time was dramatic. Dana sailed to California in the 1840s while sail had a firm grip on the world’s commerce, but Davis’ voyage in 1892 was at the end of the sailing era. Sail ships like the James A. Wright, a 15-year-old square rigged bark, were fighting for their lives against steel hulled, motor driven or assisted ships. As a result crews were small, economies severe, cargoes scarce. Davis, a keen observer to whom all is new, describes the day to day life of the square rigged sailor with immediacy and detail that is utterly convincing.

It was neither a logbook, nor a diary. Davis, who later would become a well-known marine artist (his pencil sketches throughout are superb) had the sense to leave out the long days when nothing much happens. Some of his descriptions are simply awesome, as when he tells of venturing out to the ship’s bowsprit to retrieve fish the second mate has caught, how if he fell, he “would fall, sack and all, under the bow of the bark, which was cutting through the green seas, sometimes throwing her forefoot out to expose the clear, yellow-copper sheathing, and then again plunging until her hawse pipes came down into the roll of white froth she was turning off. Just under the surface of the water I could see several Bonito close to the bow, in front of which went a-skipping the mate’s hook with a piece of white muslin tied on it.”

Through gales and calms shipboard adventures and the struggle to become a man among seamen, Davis gets to Chile, and there decides to desert the bark, sick of the poor food and overwork. But he and his friends are soon rounded up, jailed and returned to the custody of the James A. Wright, having lost their clothes, their money and their knives. Exchanging cargoes, back they sail toward the Atlantic.

There is something dramatically different from artful sea stories about this book. It was never meant for publication. Davis suffers none of the self-consciousness of the writer who knows other eyes will judge his work, nor is there the self-justification of an autobiography. “Around Cape Horn” is bare and true, simple and ever fresh with youth, a unique story told in a unique way.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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