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Posted on Feb 22, 2011 in Books and Movies

Lords of the Sea – Book Review

By Douglas Sterling

Lords of the Sea; The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. John R. Hale. Penguin Books, 2010. 395 pages with 29 maps and diagrams. Paperback. $17.00.

John R. Hale, currently director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville, has written a comprehensive and engaging history of the Athenian navy from its foundation following the Persian Wars and the victory of Salamis, to the subvention of the Athenian state to the empire of Alexander the Great. Modeled to a large extent on the exhaustive study of the Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan (for my money one of the finest narrative and analytical histories of the last 50 years), Hale’s belongs beside it. Indeed, he was specifically recruited by Professor Kagan to produce a similar history, covering a broader period of time but with a narrower narrative focus. In this, he succeeds admirably.


Filling only one volume of just under 400 pages, Hale’s book, Lords of the Sea, is not of the same order as Kagan’s four volumes on the Peloponnesian War. (A more apt comparison would perhaps be Kagan’s own one-volume abridgment). But it has a similar spirit, and practice of inclusivity. Well written and fast paced, the book begins with a riveting description of the sound of a trireme as it approaches on the sea. This is one of the great strengths of the book—that it is not simply a narrative of the (fairly) well-known history of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars and the rise of Macedon. It is also a technical and cultural history of Athenian shipbuilding, seafaring, the life of the men and women involved in the organization and activities of the navy, and an analysis of the importance of seapower in the history of the Athenian state.

Technical information abounds, including in an extensive chapter on construction of Athenian triremes, which, though practical and detailed, is written in an accessible narrative style. Hale discusses how the ships were manufactured, with what kind of wood and what kind of structure, how planking was formed and joined, and how the rams were made and fitted onto the prow. From the preparation of the building site, to the laying of the keel and the running of the lines of planking, through a description of the teredo wood-consuming worm and the efforts expended in defending against its attacks on the ships, Hale is remarkably inclusive.

He also discusses the symbolic and cultural purposes of Athenian shipbuilding, fitting his description of structure and aesthetics into the cultural, religious and political imperatives of the time. He describes how ships were hung with thin slabs of marble carved and painted to look like eyes and fixed on either side of the prow—“Athenians believed that these eyes allowed the ship to find a safe passage through the sea, completing the magical creation of a living thing from inanimate materials. In Greek terminology, the projecting ends of the transverse beam above the eyes were the ship’s ears, and the yardarms were its horns; the sail and banks of oars were its wings, and the grappling hooks were its iron hands.”

These ships were, like the huge, squared beam that laid the start of a new trireme, the keel of a new state rising from the leadership role Athens took in stopping the two great Persian invasions of Greece. The stunning victory at Marathon against the forces of Darius only inspired his son, Xerxes, to try again, this time with an overwhelming force, in both warriors and ships. The leadership of Themistocles had convinced Athens to invest in a “wooden wall” of sea power to defend against the inevitable second act. At first, Themistocles’ strategic planning afforded more moral victories than real ones— Thermopylae, with the stand of the “300” and some naval victories off Euboea, did not keep Xerxes from capturing and sacking Athens. But the naval power and tactical genius of Themistocles led to the victory at Salamis and the Persians were finally chased out of Greece at the land battle of Plataea.

Hale’s account of Athenian politics contains a fine description of Pericles and the society he wishes to make, explaining his background and placing him in the context of Athenian political history. Pericles is eager to transform Athens, in a Greek Golden Age, into an imperial capital, maintaining a “delicate balance between reason and tradition.” The Periclean Age was important in the history of Athenian naval power, and Hale discusses the Parthenon, Sophocles, Herodotus and the foundations of history in assessing the importance of naval themes in Athenian society and popular culture, in how the Athenian people thought about themselves. Sea and naval terms, imagery and the supporting architectural triumphs of Athens are well covered. In this, Hale has an extended section of the building of the “Long Walls” that connected Athens to its main harbor at the Piraeus and the extensive structures at Zee Harbor.

Lords of the Sea has a strong exposition of the Peloponnesian War, and deftly handles its ebbs and flows and the disastrous military defeats—though emphasizing that through all the devastation, the plague, the disastrous Sicilian expedition, the defection of Alcibiades to Sparta, Athens was at each setback able to rebuild. He is particularly strong in taking the story past the end of the war. Modern historians generally betray too much of a Thucydidean viewpoint. We tend to forget that, even though Thucydides himself ended his narrative early and the later events were written by Xenophon, the reign of Athens on the sea did not really end with the Spartan victory at Aegospotami in 405 B.C. Though Athens was forced to accept Spartan demands, including the imposition of an oligarchy under Spartan tutelage, the reign of the Thirty Tyrants lasted just over a year, and Athens was again able to rebuild its naval and regional power.

An interesting digression of sorts, but one that creates a fascinating background for the cultural, political and philosophical context of the times, is Hale’s discussion of Plato’s story of Atlantis, and what that says about the Athenian view of its own history and the importance of the role of the sea. Plato sees Atlantis as standing “as the forerunner of all later naval powers,” and suggests its fate may be Athens’ own. According to Hale, Plato’s presumption is that “Naval power breeds hubris, and the gods punish hubris with destruction.” In his description of the physical layout of Atlantis, Hale describes the Piraeus, Athens’ principal port, by saying, “Here lay the heart of Plato’s dark vision. This was Atlantis.”

And indeed, Athens was on the road to ruin through being beset by multiple pressures. An increasingly powerful problem, which Hale points to on several occasions was that of a continual “trickle” of talent eastward, drawn by Persian gold. But leaders and potential leaders of Athens weren’t only attracted by rewards elsewhere. They were also driven off by Athenian myopia and harshness, as in the harsh treatment of the admirals after the battle of Arginusae.

But Athens was finally done in by the rising power of Macedon, which forcibly united Greece under its own rule. The Athenian leader Demosthenes, who tried to warn Athens of the danger can be seen as almost a bookend to Themistocles, (with Pericles propping up a middle post). These three were the great rational leaders, dragging a rather starry-eyed nation to empire and strength against those who would subjugate them.

Demosthenes fought hard to get Athens to see the need to prepare for war, and came up with plan to finance a new fleet by involving as many citizens as possible. He began by seeing Persia as the great enemy and made little impression on the gathered polity. When he recognized the threat of Philip he continually warned his countrymen in a “bitter and angry series” of speeches known as the Philippics. After a decade of Macedonian expansion, Demosthenes finally convinced the Athenian Assembly to declare war. But it was too late.

Weaknesses in the book are few. Hale spends less time than he could have on the societies of Athenian opponents, and how those differences played out in their relations. Sparta, Persia and Syracuse, etc. could have been brought more clearly into the story. And he does not discuss enough the downside of the empire, its subjugation of peoples, its tyranny of far-flung subjects. That’s not to say his story is all sweetness and light, but failing to spotlight these issues sometimes gives a warped impression. But these are small problems and were most likely considered outside of the scope of what the author was trying to portray. An impressive achievement, this book belongs on any bookshelf of ancient history—indeed, upon any history bookshelf.

The book also includes a chronology and glossary and an extensive note on sources.

Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II.  He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History and is currently working on an article related to the First Punic War for



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