Book Review: Lords of the Sea

LordsOfSeaThumbby 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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13 Responses to Book Review: Lords of the Sea

  1. Anniel says:

    Timothy, after reading Victor Davis Hanson’s blog for years, and the remarks you men post on stubbornthings, I’ve wondered what it is about the Peloponnisean Wars that excites so many men, and women, mostly, just look blank. Your review is making me rethink the matter, there might be more to this than meets the feminine eye.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, I’m an Army brat, so military history in general interests me. One of my father’s posts was serving as Assistant Army Attache to Greece, so classical Greek history interests me in particular (helped by a 6th grade teacher who really pushed the Greek myths on her students, that being my last year in Greece). And, of course, that posting placed us in the Athens metro area (we actually lived in the nearby resort town of Kifissia in the foothills of Mount Penteli). Other people no doubt have other reasons for their interest.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ve wondered what it is about the Peloponnisean Wars that excites so many men, and women, mostly, just look blank.

      I’m still trying to figure out why so many guys go absolutely goo-goo-eyed over the movie, “300.” I mean, it’s okay, but mostly it’s your typical mindless disembowelment movie.

      I found this book to be fairly readable. And like Mr. Kung says, part of the draw concerning Greece and her wars is that they were fighting with the most advanced weapons of their time, and they were quite deadly…and expensive.

      I was just watching a documentary on Netflix about the B-29 missions over Japan in WWII. (No, I don’t have to spell out “WWII” to you, since I know that you know that they didn’t fly B-29’s during the first world war, but hopefully we have a few readers from Rio Linda and they might need clarification on this).

      Much like the triremes, the B-29’s were very expensive. And just the sheer excess of it is cool, especially to a conservative, and especially in these times when the fatuous libtards can’t even build a stupid (and much-needed) pipeline. Civilization may be gone sooner than we think if these fools remain in power.

      But I digress. I’m not really all that gripped by the Peloponnesian War. And I have no idea why VDH and others are. I’m certainly not a Peloponnesian War geek. And from reading this book, I didn’t get the clear picture of what happened and why that Timothy did. Nor was it clear to me why Macedonia became preeminent. I thought this book left a lot of gaps.

      But certainly there is the attraction of seeing the human spirit burning brightly in the Athenians. And they would typically burn that candle at both ends and flame out because of bouts of hubris. They didn’t find the kind of “sustainable” empire that the Romans eventually did (although nothing in this world lasts forever).

      I’m now reading a book on the Phoenicians called Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by Richard Miles. So far it mixes interesting background material with dull, dull, dull information about trade aspects and other details that I doubt would have interested even the Phoenicians. I’ll stay with it for a while and see if it becomes a little more engaging. The first 50 pages or so were very. And then it got dull like a high school social studies class naming lots of names, dates, and crap I could care less about. But then it will pick up with some interesting background material again. We’ll see.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I’ve wondered what it is about the Peloponnisean Wars that excites so many men

    At the most basic level and in somewhat simplified terms:

    1. The wars were between the two dominant Greek city states of the time. These city states represented the extremes in Greek political thought and governance, i.e. the idea of a democratic entity in which the individual had worth outside of the state and something like national socialism in which the state or “folk” left little room for individual worth. Since the mid-nineteenth century as democracy/free market capitalism and socialism grew as competing political systems I believe modern readers are drawn to make comparisons.
    2. The wars were waged during the height of Greek civilization and helped weaken the Greek city states for their eventual fall to Macedonia which brought about the victory of Hellenic culture, which the Romans later absorbed, to a large degree.
    3. The wars were waged during a time when the Greek city states probably had the most sophisticated military weapons and tactics in the world.
    4. The thought and history of ancient Greece is one of the two basic rocks on which Western Civilization is built. So anything to do with ancient Greece should be interesting.

    At least those are some of the reasons I find them interesting.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      An excellent response, though one might note that this also allows room for an interest in the Persian War, the conquests of Alexander, and the wars of the Diadochi (one wonders how many people know why Demetrius became known specifically as the Besieger of Cities). Come to think of it, I have plenty of material on all of these.

      Around 30 years ago, I noted a certain similarity between the Cold War and the Peloponnesian Wars (the unstoppable land power vs. the invincible sea power) and was a bit disturbed by how the latter ended. Fortunately, there was no equivalent of Persia to stake the Soviets (something I wasn’t very well aware of at the time).

  3. Anniel says:

    Thank you for giving me more to consider about warfare and how ancient battles shaped our world. Limbaugh says that for most people history begins the day they were born. After that it has to be brought to life by good teachers and I did have some of those. But none of them were gung-ho on war.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Whether or not one is “gung-ho” on war, history teaches us that war is part of the human condition. That being the case, we had better have some understanding of it and it’s many causes.

      As, I believe, Trotsky said, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

  4. Anniel says:

    Brad, I think I’ll skip the book on Carthage for now.

  5. Anniel says:

    Mr. Kung – Is the tingling on the back of my neck and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach a warning of war’s interest? Maybe that’s why more people are getting so afraid.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Very possibly.

      I believe the Obama has weakened the country across the board as he and his minions hated the USA we grew up in.

      As a result of this administration’s work, much of the world now believes the USA to be neither a powerful friend nor determined enemy.

      I am not sure how this will play out, but you can bet China will get more frisky and much of Eastern Europe will be unstable. Israel will likely be forced to use more violence to maintain itself.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        People noticed long ago that, particularly under Democrats, the US is a nearly-worthless friend and a nearly-harmless enemy. Feckless Leader simply takes this to new extremes, as he does the other follies and crimes of modern liberalism.

  6. David Ray says:

    This article reminds me of the Dutch Republic. I could withstand Spain because it had the financial muscle. (The Dutch had a thriving economy.)

    Little Barry has amassed a debt that has strained our credit to the breaking point. I hope Russia and China didn’t take too much notice.

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