Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens

August 5, 2010

John Hale's portrait of ancient Athens and its navy is an informative and fast-paced account that lives up to the phrase "epic story" that appears in the subtitle of its US edition. His style and approach is engaging: chapters with titles such as "Of heroes and hemlock"; bite-sized episodes centred on one individual or campaign; dramatic, powerful and evocative writing that brings the actors of the narrative to life.

At times, he drifts away from his initial idea of Athens viewed from the oar-bench in favour of giving more attention to large-scale sea battles. From the perspective of the crewmen, however, such conflicts were a rarity. Naval life consisted instead of a wearisome round of routine patrols and training exercises, irregular pay and winters away from home. The battle descriptions themselves are excellent, combining the clarity of a historian who has personally surveyed the sites with the empathy of someone who is no stranger to the oar. Hale emphasises brilliantly the skill and strength required of the men who crewed Athens' triremes, and also the fundamental unpleasantness of their task; back-breaking toil undertaken in what were essentially hot, smelly and cramped wooden tubes.

Praising the vividness of writing may imply a tacit criticism of the scholarship and hint that corners have been cut in terms of rigorous accuracy for the sake of a neater or more satisfying tale. Hale's picture of Athens is lively and engaging, and it accords well with the available evidence, but it is clearly not intended primarily as a detailed work of historical reference. At times he oversimplifies controversial issues, uncritically accepts certain questionable orthodoxies (eg Pericles was good, his successors were bad), and gives credence to some taller tales from less reliable sources. Such choices are an inherent part of this genre of historical writing, and Hale is conscientious enough to detail his sources in the bibliographical notes that follow the main text.

The central thesis is a sound one. Hale argues, contrary to the received opinion that the navy and its people were undervalued and culturally invisible, that ships and the sea permeated every facet of Athenian society, including drama, sex, religion and politics. The strength of the navy was the fundamental underpinning of the power and wealth of classical Athens, and by extension the cultural and political achievements of the so-called Golden Age.

Yet there are some major problems with Hale's treatment of the Athenian navy. He advocates the idea that the power of the poorest Athenian citizens in the democracy was a direct result of their service in the fleet. This was an idea first propagated by philosophers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC as a convenient explanation for the political arrangements of their day. Hale is far from alone in accepting this retrospective reconstruction as historical truth; it is a common and long-held misconception.

Furthermore, Hale's view of the navy is one in which virtually all the rowers (except in times of acute national emergency) were Athenian citizens. This is very doubtful. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the navy was that it represented a microcosm of all the men of the city. It was not just poor citizens rowing under the command of their wealthier neighbours: side by side with the Athenians were significant numbers of foreign mercenaries, slaves and immigrants newly settled in the city, all pulling together within the tight confines of Athens' "wooden walls". So the idea that the rowers legitimised their power in the democracy by their naval service is very difficult to maintain; many in Athens' trireme crews had no political rights at all.

Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens

By John R. Hale Gibson Square, 395pp, £17.99 ISBN 9781906142636. Published 3 April 2010

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