Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.57

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.   New York:  Viking, 2009.  Pp. xxxiii, 395.  ISBN 9780670020805.  $29.95.  



Reviewed by John Lewis, classicalideals@yahoo.com (Duke University)
Word count: 1768 words

John R. Hale is an aficionado of ancient and medieval ships, with interests stretching from his rowing days as a college undergraduate into Viking longboats (his dissertation topic) and Greek triremes. His enthusiasm has colored his narrative, which is not a history of the Athenian navy but rather the story of the Athenian democracy with the pulse of its oars as its heartbeat. "Passing centuries," he writes, "washed the blood and guts, sweat and struggle, from the modern conception of Athens." Rather than the "shell of inspiring art, literature, and political ideals," he invites us to see "[a] living sea creature, all muscle and appetite and growth," in which the navy was the guts and the muscle. (xxxiii) His basic thesis is that the Athenian navy was the prime motor of the rise of Athens--and the fall of the navy was the fall of the city.

The audience for Lords of the Sea will be all those passionate about the Greeks, military history, ships and shipping--especially laymen. The beauty of the book is not to be found in any new close interpretations of text (instead of footnotes, it has short general source notes by chapter) or new reconstructions of naval engagements but rather in its grand synthesis. In Hale's view, the navy was the foundation of everything in Athens, and the history of the city is the history of its navy. "All the glory of Athens--the Parthenon, Plato's Academy, the immortal tragedies, even the revolutionary democracy--can be traced back to one public meeting, one obstinate citizen, and a speech about silver and ships." (3) This thesis stands or falls on the central causal importance of the navy to that glory.

The story begins in 483 BC, and ends in 322. Lords is structured in five parts: Freedom (483-480 BC), Democracy (479 to the mid-fifth century), Empire (446 to 413), Catastrophe (412-399), and Rebirth (397-322). In the first part (five chapters) the man of the hour is Themistocles, whose vision set Athens on the road to empire and greatness by leading Athens against the Persian invasion. Nearly a quarter of Lords is dedicated to the Persian Wars, which, like all other events in the narrative, is reconstructed primarily from ancient literary sources. Hale sets a good context for his account by discussing the specifics of building and operating a trireme, with an important emphasis on the stupendous energy required to create and maintain a military navy. He has pulled an oar and has visited the ancient sites involved; his narrative allows a reader to feel the carbuncle on a rower's backside.

But Lords also steers a problematic course by mixing sources in a way that glosses over certain problems. For instance, Cornelius Nepos is accepted uncritically as a source for the life, character, thoughts and vision of Themistocles. The scope of vision attributed to Themistocles is enormous; as Xerxes sought to achieve an empire reaching the Atlantic, so the Athenians, by leaving their land and pulling together on ships, "fulfilled Themistocles' dream" and raised Athens to one of the most powerful cities on earth. There is a certain teleological premise at work throughout: that the great men of Athens saw the city's destiny clearly into the future, and guided the city to that result.

In part two, "Democracy," the centrality of the navy to Athens' rise is set within the story of Athens' drive to victory in the Aegean Sea, the rise of Cimon (and the return of Theseus' bones to Athens among other myths), her battles in Egypt and her growing conflict with Sparta. During this time, Athens became thoroughly "'navalized' from top to bottom" under a "rule by generals" that lasted for a century (90). Chapter eight, "Mariners of the Golden Age," is a portrait of Athens during the fifth-century that highlights the social and political conditions in Athens by connecting the navy to the lives of average citizens. Naval talk that permeated everyday language (including terms for sex), naval scenes on domestic earthenware vessels, the ribald port at the Piraeus, and the democratic spirit embodied in the state trireme the "Paralos" are all built into the narrative in order to demonstrate the deep cultural and social impact of the navy on Athens.

There are some potentially misleading pitfalls here, perhaps unavoidable given the author's project of relating the story of Athens and its navy rather than reconstructing a history. For instance, in the discussion of the Battle of Tanagra (457 BC), we read that certain oligarchs in Athens invited a Spartan army, "encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica," to attack Athens and help topple the current (democratic) regime (105). But readers are told little of the context--that the Spartan army was on a mission against Phocis, that the Athenians soon defeated the Boiotians before spending a decade struggling to control the area, and that there was much more to the issue than the Athenians convincing the Spartans not to interfere with the rebuilding of Athens' long walls. A reader should bear in mind the purpose here--to relate the story of Athens' navy, not to provide a detailed history of the Athenians' political and military actions.

Part three, "Empire," focuses on Pericles, whose "four mighty pillars" were "democracy, naval power, the wealth of empire, and the rule of reason" (125). Hale does not segregate the Peloponnesian War into a distinct historical period, but, consistent with his theme, divides Athens' history between the achievement of empire and the catastrophe that followed the defeat of the Sicilian Expedition. The tribute needed to maintain the navy dictated the organization of the empire, shaped Athens' relationships with the island polities, funded the civic expression of power in matters such as public monuments and dramas, and paid its citizens. The final result of the Periclean policy was war with Sparta, pestilence, and loss of control leading to disaster. Chapter 11 is dedicated to Phormio--on whom Hale has done much work--and who almost single-handedly saved Athens in the west. But, as for all the leaders celebrated here, there is a tension between their thoughts, their actions, and the reactions of the city to them, which will reinforce, for readers not well versed in Athenian history, the tragic nature of how Athens used its muscle.

Part four, "Catastrophe," moves from the disaster at Syracuse through the Ionian War to the death of Socrates. The dominance of the sea is illustrated, for instance, in Euripides' tragedies, and the "daring and joyful rescues" at their close, which reassured the Athenians that all was not lost in the aftermath of Sicily. The chief figure in the last eight years of the war--when "the sea became the theatre for an epic conflict"--is Alcibiades, although as always the primary historical energy behind events is the navy. The defeat of the oligarchic "Four Hundred," for instance, occurred when the defeat at Eretria "exposed the impotence of the oligarchs at sea"; Sophocles' play Philoctetes refers to the return of Alcibiades to his comrades after the Battle of Cyzicus in 410 BC; Socrates' death is delayed due to a ship. Lords is strongest at this point, for the Ionian War was indeed an epic contest of naval power.

But something important has been missing from this story, and in part five this becomes most evident. The fourth century--specifically, from 397 to 322--constitutes less than a quarter of the book. Overall, Lords affords more pages to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars than to the remainder of events, as should be expected in a narrative either of Athenian naval military history or of the city's political rise and fall. But the focus on the navy as a prime engine of Athens' rise and fall demands deeper integration with the events of the non-war periods. All of chapter eighteen, "Triremes of Atlantis," is dedicated to a reading of Plato's Atlantis myth as an allegory of the city of Athens, and much time is spent elevating Demosthenes into a new Themistocles who rallies the city to its defenses; but I wondered what happened to the merchant marine that had kept the city fed for a century? Is this not part of the navy, and the democracy? What of debates in fourth-century Athens about the nature of empire, the role of the navy, and relations with allies?

We have been told, with little elaboration, that cutting the grain routes constituted the final defeat by Sparta, and that, decades later, Philip of Macedon again moved against the grain convoys coming from the Black Sea. But beyond a few such passing mentions, only one paragraph is set aside for merchant shipping--and connected to Xenophon's recommendation that the Athenians create "a new kind of navy; a merchant marine" (274). I had hoped for some acknowledgment that they had such a navy back into the fifth century--and that disrupting it was key to defeating Athens. Further, some discussion of the role of political power in an empire versus Athenian leadership in trading alliances would have better contextualized this book. Something about Athens as a maritime trading leader, about its grain contracts and legal speeches, and the city's overall character as dependent upon trade gained from the sea would have better rounded out this story. Indeed without addressing these issues, the fourth century becomes merely an echo of the fifth, which makes this less than a bold new interpretation of Athens.

Numerous questions remain open. Like all such narrative stories, Lords of the Sea must "freeze" the ambiguities, contradictions, and blank spots within the sources into a single progression of events. It must also largely dispense with controversies and disagreements about the sources, and with the rationales behind the author's choices, all of which would become distractions to the story. (The so-called Peace of Callias between Athens and Sparta, for instance, is treated as if historically unproblematic 108). The deeper question that follows is whether this is an accurate reconstruction of events. Without doubt, there are numerous controversies bypassed, contradictions in the sources ignored, and blind areas papered over, and one should not turn to this as a primary guide to such details. But, in terms of the underlying spirit of Athens' rise, Lords of the Sea may be more accurate than many critical histories. Certainly the Athenians were not the white statues remaining today--they did argue, work, sweat and fight their way to dominance. Lords of the Sea has achieved its purpose of "charting the life cycle of the animal that generated" the rise and fall of Athens, but only if one accepts the basic thesis about the overriding centrality of the military navy to the life cycle of Athens.

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