Book Report: Lords of the Sea: the Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. By John Hale.

Hale’s thesis in Lords of the Sea is a simple one. The Athenian lead naval conflict with the forces of Xerxes created an environment that broke down the social norms and threw the Athenian people into an interesting position. This position, seeing the break down from the usually restrict category of military service, created the situation to promote democracy as unseen before. Linked together by muscle and cadence the poor and freed slaves saw themselves in service with the upper tiers of society. The unity of the people was essential to overpower the titanic forces that threatened their very way of life. Their victory cemented this new society and saw the rise of an empire based around the connection between Athens and naval power. The connection forged by the trireme would meld hundreds of city-states together in an alliance, the Delian League, that would span decades. This time period would serve as Greece’s Golden Age. Times would again change and the curtain fell on Athenian under the pressure of the Spartan alliance.

One contemporary cited in Hale’s book is Aristotle. In his work, Politics he defines Athens as a democracy based on triremes. Aristotle also recalls a Greek politician in his work Rhetoric who called the Greek flagship Paralos “the peoples Big Stick.” The concept of projecting might through military means is alive and well in the Greek era. Aristotle lays out in a clear and linear fashion the discovery of precious ores made on a distant island owned by the city. The citizens were faced with a choice, either distribute the funds from the ores by sending half to the treasury and half evenly throughout the 30,000 Athenians, thus giving the average poor citizen enough money to buy an ox. The rich found this option unappealing as the sum was negligible. Or they could choose to go in a different direction.

This is where the character of Themistocles steps in. He advocated for the creation of a large navy to counter the growing threat from the Achaemenid Empire. He wanted enough timber and sail to outfit a fleet of 200 triremes. While the poor would see no monetary benefit, the rich would gain status and prestige by owning and outfitting individual triremes. The money would also flow through the economy stimulating the vast array of professional arts that go into the creation of a maritime power. When put to a vote the people spoke and chose to create a thalassocracy.

Timber from the countryside and imported from distances away, the fleet is built in a matter of months. We see Themistocles taking command of the naval force that he heralded. He had trained them on land, but they were still unproven in battle. The trireme had 170 oars. To fill out the ranks of necessary oarsmen in the fleet of 200 ships the city opened its arms to the lower classes. Long training sessions honed them into skilled rowers bypassing the need of property for the military prestige of being a Greek hoplite. Rich and poor alike strove in the seat of the defense of city and state. Muscles and calloused hands were the engine of combat. The barriers erected in the past had been knocked down as the drums of war beat in the distance.

Our primary sources tell of a great storm that struck off the Greek coast during September of 480BC. This storm is said to have wrecked and littered a third of Xerxes fleet throughout the sea. This miracle from the gods could not have come at a better time for Themistocles. What would rage next would be called the Battle of Salamis. The Greeks laid a trap for Xerxes forces and they fell right into it. Through superior tactics, the Athenians would prove victorious as 300 enemy triremes lay at the bottom of the sea. The win would solidify the new democracy that had been created. Xerxes would eventually be pushed out of Greece.

Next the book follows the orator and speech writer Pericles. It is with his crafting that the Delian League is created and what was once called the Greek Golden Age is now referred to as the Age of Pericles.[1] The Delian League would grow to include over 150 city states and islands and would represent an empire dominated by the naval power of Athens. One of the stated purposes of the League was to check the movement of the Persian forces and prevent another invasion. Levees were cast for funds and triremes to add to the already impressive fleet in an ever growing demand for expansion. This would last for 158 years with the Spartans launching the Peloponnesian War against their Greek counterparts. The glory and walls of the city would eventually crumble under the onslaught laid by King Phillip II of Macedonia.

Hales book is successful in its aim and worth the read even though it is specialized in its focus. The proposed thesis is proven as the reader is brought back to 480BC just as the social norms are being torn down to facilitate the survival of the now abandoned city. A large base of knowledge is established in the beginning as we follow the creation of the naval forces Athens would come to rely on. The tension created by the constantly shifting winds of war play out in the battle against Xerxes forces. A plethora of characters in history are explored. Finally, Hale injects a critical aspect of life and culture in the Greek world at the time, the playwright. Through the presentation of elements of play, the daily life comes alive off the pages.

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