The Athenian Navy Revisited

Good stories bear repeating; Athenian naval history during the Persian and Peloponnese Wars is such a story. John R. Hale is a maritime archaeologist. In his book, he manages to present encyclopaedic knowledge in a riveting ongoing storyline. History doesn't need to be dry and dusty.

The Persians already owned all Greek cities east of the Bosporus when they decided to add mainland Greece to their already enormous Empire at the beginning of the fifth century BC. The Greek city states objected violently. They formed an alliance under the joint leadership of Sparta and Athens. The Spartans led operations on land while Athens did took responsibility on sea.

John R. Hale as a maritime archaeologist was destined to tell the Athens’ navy history. In his book Lords Of The Seas published by Gibson Square, he vividly brings to life the time, the docks, and the sailors on board. His retelling of the old story is masterly. The book makes you live, see, and smell the sea. Part of his job included sailing the historical waters he describes and he made use of his experiences to take his readers along for the ride.

While the Persians and Greeks bashed in each others' heads, Herodotus wrote down the deeds of the Athenians and Spartans, making sure that Themistocles and Leonidas would remain in people’s memory. Themistocles had pounded Athenian heads until they built the navy that would defeat the Persians at Salamis under his command; King Leonidas of Sparta held the passes at Thermopylae for long enough to allow the Greek cities to organize their armies.

John R. Hale’s writing is highly biased in favor of the Athenians while he takes you through the Persian invasion and through the following war between Sparta and Athens for hegemony in Greece. I found myself disagreeing with many of his conclusions, but it is his bias that makes the book interesting and riveting. In fact, it is more entertaining than many a historical novel and, as he has all the right information at his fingertips, vastly more instructive.

John R. Hale’s bias induces him to claim that the sea battle of Salamis was the turning point in the Persian war. Others might make the same claim for the victory on land in Plataea. He subscribes unreservedly to the Athenian view that culture and knowledge were invented by Athenians, while most inventors were living in Greek cities under Persian rule. While, as I said, I disagree with his views, his bias makes old history more actual and present than a dry recounting of facts.

While his main theme is the naval history of Athens, he follows Athenian politics as a sideline. This part of his retelling shows that democracy wasn't an invention of the Athenians (an invention takes thought); it was something that evolved out of the situation while Athens reeled from crisis to crisis like a drunken sailor. The combination of external threats with internal social upheaval brought forth this unique form of government. At the same time, it was showing up the shortcomings of the system in the likes of Pericles and Demosthenes.

If you like reading historical fiction, then this book will hold you captivated from beginning to end as well as any invented novel. Historical fiction can be annoying when authors show a weakness in their knowledge of historical facts (knowledge that is too often quite abysmally bad). This book is all about historical facts made into an interesting story.