LORDS OF THE SEA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE ATHENIAN NAVY AND THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY
By John R. Hale
Viking, $29.95, 316 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Robert F. Dunn
John R. Hale’s “Lords of the Sea” packs into a small volume a wide sweep of knowledge. It includes ancient Athenian history, Greek naval equipment and tactics with a smattering of classical culture.
The book ranges from the first Persian attempts to invade Attica to the end of Athenian naval power with the destruction of its fleet by the Macedonian predecessors of Alexander the Great. It describes the construction and manning of triremes and how they were used in battle, and it reviews for the reader a bit about such Athenian cultural icons as Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and more. In sum, it’s a good survey.
Unfortunately, many readers will find Greek names and Greek geography difficult. The author tries to ease those difficulties with a chronology, a glossary and extensive notes, but it’s still easy to get lost. Only with frequent page turning can the reader stay oriented. A list of characters and a pull-out map would have been of immeasurable help. Nevertheless, it’s worth a read if for no other reason than to learn how much we are like the ancients and how prone to the same mistakes.
Historically, one learns that after the first Persian invasion was thwarted, it remained obvious they would try again. To be prepared, Themistocles, in the face of great political opposition, urged the building of an Athenian navy. When Xerxes did come, he was defeated by Athens’ naval power in the historic Battle of Salamis. After that, Athens was the dominant sea power. Athens’ trade and hegemony eventually ran from the Black Sea to Egypt and from Cyprus to Sicily, and the forward defense thus afforded the growth of Athenian democracy and prosperity. Pericles described the Golden Age that followed as built upon four mighty pillars - democracy, naval power, wealth of empire and the rule of reason. It did not last forever, however.
Not content to let well enough alone, the Athenians began to exact tribute from their allies and interfered in their internal affairs. When Athens showed her vulnerability in a naval disaster in the Nile, Corinth and Sparta organized an alliance against her. Thus began the Peloponnesian Wars.
At the outset, it was Athens’ sea power against the land power of Sparta and allies. Both alliances remained in constant flux, with city-states shifting sides at each and every opportunity. Each group dealt on occasion with Persia, and then at other times combined against Persia. One character, Alcibiades, switched sides from the Athenians to the Spartans to the Persians, back to the Athenians and then, yet again, back to the Persians. How he escaped the usual fates is a story in itself. Normally, military and naval leaders were feted in victory then made to drink hemlock in defeat. Even the victors sometimes drank hemlock if the Assembly was unhappy with some aspect of their performance.
As the war dragged on, Sparta and her allies acquired respectable navies themselves and soon proved equal to Athens at sea. Then, in a debacle at Syracuse, Athens lost almost its entire fleet.
Yet once more, the Athenians rallied, rebuilt their fleet and sailed to re-establish their maritime dominion. It wasn’t to be. The Spartans prevailed once again and dictated terms. Athenian democracy was ended and a government of oligarchs dictated by Sparta was established. Even the speakers’ platform where the Assembly formerly met was turned around to face inland, away from the sea. “The Lords of the Sea” were lords of it no more.
Yet, as Sparta’s interests turned inward, Athens was able to restore its democracy, and once again, she found allies. This time, Athens did not levy onerous taxes, and the Aegean city-states once more began to prosper. It was short-lived, however. When Philip of Macedon closed off the Bosporus, Athens’ lifeline into the Black Sea for grain, a mighty battle ensued. The Athenians and their allies lost and the way was opened for Philip’s son, Alexander, to cross into Asia.
As for ships and tactics, the story within the story, triremes were vessels with three banks of oars manned by Athenian citizens. The oarsmen positioned themselves on personal cushions over hard, fixed, wooden seats, not seats on slides as with modern racing shells. They rowed for long hours whenever there was no wind, and always during battle. A general was usually in charge of fleets of triremes and, as one would expect, usually attempted to take an advantageous position close-in to a shoreline, using terrain much as a land army might. However, it was the individual captains and steersmen who were the real tacticians. In battle, they would attempt to either ram the enemy vessels or slide alongside in such a way as to shear off the enemies’ oars. After that, when close aboard, embarked marines would leap to the enemy ship and strive to finish the job.
Athenian poets and playwrights too were taken up with the importance of sea power. Mr. Hale comments on several including Aeschylus’ “Persians,” Aristophanes’ “Frogs and Horsemen,” and Sophocles’ “Philoctetes.”
The book leaves us with no list of lessons learned, but many are embedded.
For any nation surrounded - or nearly surrounded - by the sea, there is no substitute for sea power. Only the sea provides the universal sovereign territory from which a maritime nation can defend itself and support its allies.
A powerful nation will remain powerful only so long as it avoids the arrogance that often comes with power.
Although sometimes tough to get through, with something for almost everyone, “Lords of the Sea” tells an important story and imparts to him who wants to learn important lessons. It’s well worth the read.
Robert F. Dunn is a retired vice admiral of the United States Navy and president of the Naval Historical Foundation.