Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen: Review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (Viking, 2009)

Oct 11, 2009 10:42 pm

Jim Cullen: Review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (Viking, 2009)

[Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History.He blogs at American History Now.]

When it comes to works of history published for a popular audience -- a phrase hard not to consider a contradiction in terms these days -- it often appears that authors are constantly rehashing the same old stories. The fact that there's very little new information about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, or Hitler's ascension to power doesn't seem to stop new versions from coming with the regularity new models of toaster ovens or lawn mowers, to cite two comparably dowdy examples of consumer products that manufacturers tweak slightly from time to time but which remain essentially the same.

This sense of repackaging seems all the more inevitable when dealing with ancient history, where primary sources are scarce and truly new findings are scarcer still. Perhaps more than more contemporary history, though, an act of generational translation -- very often the result of fresh literal translation -- leads to new accents of interpretation. A distinguished academic scholar will occasionally synthesize a body of literature in such a way that it compels professional and amateur attention alike, as did Donald Kagan's one-volume distillation of his four-part study The Peloponnesian War (2003). But that book is exceptional, in more ways than one.

John R. Hale was an undergraduate student of Kagan's at Yale, though he's an archeologist, not a historian, and his publication record runs as much toward Scandinavian maritime history as it does the ancient world. In Lords of the Sea, he tells a familiar story of the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire through the relatively novel lens of naval power and its decisive impact on shaping the democratic character of Athenian society in the Golden Age. This is a substantial work of historical scholarship, deeply grounded in its sources and marked by nuances that will likely escape generalist readers. But there are three reasons why it is an appealing book for such readers.

The first is its the scope. Hale begins, as so many accounts do, with the rise of collective Greek power in checking the expansion of the Persian Empire. He vividly evokes the vision of Themistocles, the Athenian visionary who viewed naval power as the key to Athenian ascendancy in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This naval orientation leads Hale to shave the fabled battle of Marathon in 490 BC (a victory of land-based hoplites) from of his narrative. It also leads him to shift his gaze from the heroics of the Spartan general Leonidas at Thermopylae a decade later (recently mythologized again in the 2007 film 300) to focus more intently on its Athenian naval prologue at Artimesium and the subsequent Athenian naval triumph at Salamis, the battle that sealed Persian defeat. As one would expect, Hale proceeds to sketch out the Periclean Golden Age that followed, as well as the turmoil of the decades-long Peloponnesian War, which occupies much of this 300 page account. Yet Hale does not end his story there, pushing it story forward to chart Athenian revival before the final collapse of its hegemony in the rise of Macedonian power in the last quarter of the fourth century BC. So there's simultaneously something comprehensive, and pleasingly off-center, in the not-quite conventional framing of this history. It's interesting, for example, to see King Phillip of Macedon as an active military strategist with his son Alexander as a relative footnote, rather than the other way around.

The second asset of Lords of the Sea is Hale's palpable enthusiasm and authority on maritime culture in greater ancient Attica. An internationally recognized expert in the field of underwater searches for sunken warships, he describes the evolution of the Greek trireme in such a way that this arcane corner of military history comes to life in descriptive and often graceful prose. Though his detailed accounts of multiple battles can at times grow a little tedious, he's nevertheless able to evoke the role of weather, daylight, and deeply human factors like hubris or anxiety and their often decisive consequences on the course of engagements and wars.

Finally, Lords of the Sea is a notably well published book. Again, part of that is the writing, as in Hale's extended metaphor of the Athenian navy as a mollusk that we know only through its shell ("A living sea creature, all muscle and appetite and growth, generated the glistening shell of inspiring art, literature, and political ideals," he notes in his introduction."Today we admire the shell for its own beauty, but it cannot be fully understood without charting the life cycle of the animal that generated it.") Part of doing so involves great care and acuity in pointing out the role of maritime themes and metaphors in great Athenian dramatists like Euripides and philosophers like Plato. One senses a strong editorial hand behind Hale that is present and welcome. And so are the wealth of documentation, the extensive timeline and glossary, the neatly segmented chapters, and, especially, the wonderful maps and diagrams, done by the unsung Jeffrey Ward, whose work graces so many fine works of history. Having just finished a military history Afghanistan with insufficient and sketchy maps, I was especially appreciative of handsome ones here.

My chief reservation about Lords of the Sea is what I regard as an under-developed analysis of what Athenian democracy actually meant. Hale tends to celebrate it without really engaging its tensions, in particular the relationship between democracy and empire, the way Athenian freedom depended upon the tribute it coerced, even extorted, from vassal states. And it is only late in the book, in seeming admiration of the Athenian decision to deal with the need for more military manpower by expanding citizenship even to slaves, where we begin to implicitly grasp just how narrow the scope of its democracy really was. At the very end of the story, Hale does suggest that old and new client states of Athens did get exasperated with its imperial style, even as critics of democracy (Plato among them) struggled with some success to get the upper hand in Athenian politics. This might have been a theme to wrestle with more directly. Of course, it would be foolish to uncritically measure Athenian democracy by the standards of American democracy (which, as we know, has its own issues regarding an expansive sense of empire and a narrowing sense of citizenship). But it equally foolish to invoke democracy as what made Athens glorious without a clear sense of its limits, much less its alternatives. Lords of the sea are not democrats of the sea.

Still, this is an engaging, useful, volume that's likely to prove durable. Students of ancient history, broadly construed, will find Lords of the Sea to be a pleasurable, and edifying, experience.

comments powered by Disqus