by Timothy Lane 8/2/14
(Reprinted from FOSFAX 217) • This is interesting to review in one respect: how often does one get to review a book by a high-school classmate? John R. Hale is a historian at the University of Louisville specializing in the classical Greek era.
He researched the oracle at Delphi, according to an article in my high-school alumni magazine a few years ago, and one of his major influences at Yale was the classicist Donald R. Kagan (author of a detailed 4-volume history and an analysis of the Peloponnesian Wars). He also has experience in rowing (though not on a trireme) for sport.
The Athenian navy enabled the city-state to become a major power, a serious challenger to Persia and a dominant force in Greece, ultimately brought down by a long list of enemies and a series of major strategic blunders. It didn’t help that it was vulnerable to invasion from the land by superior forces from hostile nations. Yet, strangely, the fleet was very controversial for class-based political reasons. The wealthy preferred a focus on land defense, which emphasized heavily armed hoplites as the dominant force in the community. At the time, they armed (and armored) themselves, so the best hoplites were wealthy men who could afford good equipment. The navy, on the other hand, put a premium on paid rowers, who thus were primarily lower-income citizens. Thus, reliance on the army was good for those who preferred oligarchy and reliance on the navy for those who preferred democracy.
Hale discusses such aspects, and the navy’s effects on culture (its appearance in surviving plays, primarily). But he also gives its full military history, from its creation under Themistocles to the end of the Peloponnesian War after Aegospotami – and then its rebirth in the fourth century (ending in Macedonian dominance after a series of naval battles in 322 BC). In doing so, he discusses its initial creation with money from the Laureion silver mines, its victories at the end of the Persian War, the rise of the Athenian empire, and finally the great struggle against Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and their allies, which ultimately ended in an Athenian eclipse. But again the state rose up, built a new fleet, and created a modest empire, only to fall again to an even greater empire.
One reason the wealthy disliked the navy was its expense. A trireme had approximately 200 crewmen, mostly rowers, every one of whom had to be paid and fed while on service. This service had to include extensive training. The ships often had to be built, often by a wealthy citizen (this was, shall we say, customary), who then took command as its trierach. The wood for ships (and oars) was none too abundant in Greece, either. This is why the Delian League treasure was used up in the first few years of the Archimadian War (though there were also expenses for the army troops fighting against rebel poleis in the Khalkidike, and the Spartan ravaging of Attica didn’t help). After that, Athens had to fight its war on a shoestring budget. A few years of peace helped, but then the Syracuse expedition got rid of any remaining surplus. And then Persia intervened on the Spartan side, providing funds that Athens could never hope to match.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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