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Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Book Review: Lords of the Sea by John R. Hale

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale 

“I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.” – Themistocles

Nautical archaeologist Dr. John R. Hale, an expert on bronze age shipbuilding and seafaring, has written a delightful and robust popular history of the navy of ancient Athens, but more importantly, a poignant political history of the Athenian navy’s  intrinsic relationship to radical Democracy and Empire.  A page turner with enough detail about triremes and warfare in the Aegean to leave you crying “The Sea! The Sea!”,  Lords of the Sea will be enjoyed by naval buffs and philo-Hellenes alike.

As you would expect, there is much in Lords of the Sea about the design, construction and care of triremes, Piraeus and the Long Walls, the shipsheds at Zea Harbor, the financing of the Athenian navy, trierarchy, naval tactics, rowers and rowing, superstitions of Athenian sailors on campaign, the deforestation of Athens for ship timber, comparisons with Spartan, Persian and Macedonian naval prowess and the great sea battles of the ancient world. Plenty, in fact, to keep naval aficionados happy while reading Lords of the Sea and all of which I am spectacularly unqualified to comment upon. I can say that in regard to ancient navies, I learned much that was new to me.

What was of greater relevance to me was Hale’s major theme of the political nature of the Athenian navy. That the imperial glory and thalassocracy was irrevocably bound up with democracy itself and bitterly opposed by the wealthy, would-be, oligarchs who consistently preferred a much diminished Athens they controlled as Sparta’s vassals to a democratic Athenian empire where they shared power with the people:

….The resumption of work on the Long Walls jolted Athens’ oligarchs into action. A small group of upper-class citizens still hoped to destroy the radical democracy. These men feared that once Athens was permanently and inseparably linked to its navy by the Long Walls, the common people would never be unseated from their rule. Before the walls had been completed, the oligarchs sent secret messages to a Spartan army that was at that moment encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica. The oligarchs invited the Spartans to attack Athens, promising to assist in the overthrow of the current regime. In their own minds, these men were patriots, pledged to restore the ancestral consitution.

Traitors are always heroic in their own minds.

Hale was a student of Donald Kagan, whom he credits with inspiring him toward an investigation of the naval prowess of Athens, however in covering the history of Athens, including the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Hale is more evenhanded in his assessments than Kagan. The  faction of oligarchs come off quite badly, except for the rising to the occasion of the Areopagus, patriotism and sacrifice is to be found  by Hale primarily in the demos, especially the thetes and newly freed and enfranchised slaves who rose to the call to defend the city in the hours of Athens’ maximum  danger. However, the demos in the Assembly were not without fault; rule by the people also proved to be impetuous, arrogant, capricious toward Athenian generals and cruel toward allies and enemies alike. The Athenian empire was, in short,  afflicted with hubris and this caused their downfall.

Hale ties both democracy and Athens’ unparalleled cultural creativity to thalassocracy. When the political will to maintain Athenian naval dominance and independence as a power faded among the Athenian upper-classes, the spirit of oligarchy ignominiously surrendered Athens to a foreign king, despite a mighty navy and eagerly betrayed their own countrymen:

….The Assembly sent Phocion and Demades and Xenocrates, the head of the Academy, to ask Antipater [ Alexander the Great”s regent and successor ]  about terms: a war hero, an orator, and a philosopher to negotiate the fate of a once-great city. Antipater demanded a payment of indemnity equal to the full cost of the war, the handing over of Demosthenes and other enemies of Macedon, and the evacuation of Samos. The thetes of the demos, defined as all citizens with a net worth of less than two thousand drachmas, were to be expelled from Athens. The wealthier citizens who remained must surrender the fort on Munychia Hill in the Piraeus to a Macedonian garrison.

…..So the Athenian envoys returned to Athens with the terms of surrender that gave up Athenian independence and, for all practical purposes, Athenian identity. The incredible had happened. Almost three-fifths of the citizens – 12,000 out of 21,000 – failed to pass Antiper’s test of wealth. They were the rabble, the mob, the radical democrats who were everywhere blamed for all the crimes of restless, ambitious, and expansionist Athens. They were now to be banished for the good of all, not merely from Athens but for the most part from Greece itself

The Athenian Assembly would have been far better off keeping Demosthenes, executing the trierachs who had cravenly surrendered to Cleitus the White and his Macedonian fleet, ostracizing Phocion, Demades and Xenocrates and resuming the war. From this defeat, there was no recovery for Athens, nor did the new oligarchy, secure in their power now, seek any. Without the thetes there were no crews to man the ships or skilled laborers to build them at Zea. Athens was broken as a power and a polis forever.

Strongly recommended.


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