Lords of the Sea

LordsOfTheSeaSuggested by Brad Nelson • The Athenian Navy was one of the finest fighting forces in the history of the world. It engineered a civilization, empowered the world’s first democracy, and led a band of ordinary citizens on a voyage of discovery that altered the course of history.
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6 Responses to Lords of the Sea

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I thought we could move the discussion of all things “democratic,” fascist, or thalassocratic here.

    I’m 66.9% into this book (according to the Kindle book counter) so there’s every chance I will finish it and perhaps even do a full review. And the nice thing about that 66.9% that it likely includes the index and all manner of things that are included after the last textual page. I’ve hit 60% on a book before and come to the end of the book, proper. I think “Albion’s Seed” was that way.

    My tentative conclusion regarding Athens as a society is that it was very aggressive in terms of its project (becoming a thalassocracy). And it had the advantage of not being a completely autocratic state in that it could move nimbly. At least twice it was in ruins, and yet raised itself (no passive voice here) from the ashes when even most Athenians thought they were done.

    What it lacked was a more coherent plan. And yet, perhaps I underestimate them. Could any force have brought together as many city-states into a functioning league as Athens did? True, she learned some lessons the hard way. In her second league, she dropped the need for tribute and for garrisoning Athenian troops in whatever city it wanted, which was a hated practice. And it dropped terror (the mass murder of entire rebellious cities) as a tool. But even then — with either the carrot or the stick — it was a tough coalition to keep together.

    The main problem seems not to have been Xerxes or Persia, per se. In fact, Xerxes (along with Spartan leadership) was the reason the Greeks got together in any form at all. But with Persia repelled, Athens and Sparta could conceive of no larger plan that included the both of them. They wasted most of their energy fighting each other. They likely could have made most of the Mediterranean their own pond and been the Roman empire, but with more of an emphasis on art and culture.

    Granted, Athens and Sparta were so very different in fundamental ways. But if you combined Athen’s sea prowess with Sparta’s land-warfare abilities, they would have been unstoppable, at least as far west as Sicily. Instead of Athens lasting a mere 150 years or so, it might have had a golden age (or at least a pewter age) of several centuries.

    As it was, the existence of Greek resistance to Persia likely assured that anything resembling the West arose at all. As naive and forgetful multiculturalists run to embrace the “diversity” of such barbaric systems as Islam, they throw away any sense of where they came from or, for that matter, where they are going.

    It’s likely that America already has had its golden age. We are being depleted by Communism (call it what you like, but a rose by any other name). And the only things we do have that bind us all (science, for instance) are being prostituted for bunk causes (global warming). Our own president has said that NASA’s goal should be to raise the self-esteem of Islam. (Here’s a good and blunt article on the shrunken vision of Obama and the Left.)

    Our arts are debased by vulgarity and not infused with beauty. Our wisdom is replaced by pop culture inanities. Our form of “Assembly” — of having a sense of being one people — is formed by the Idiot Box, a device that could have been invented by our enemies.

    And we pay for our narcissistic impulses (cradle-to-grave entitlements) today by borrowing from the future — in every way matching (if not exceeding) the worst abuses of the Athenian demos. Therefore I do not believe that America has much of a future, although as Mark Steyn says, there will still be that geographic territory. It will still have a zip code but it won’t in any recognizable way be America.

    I admire the Athenians for at least believing in something. And you can see the lessons that America’s founders learned from Athen’s dabbling in democracy. The first lesson is that democracy is little better than the rule by a mob. You need some institutional counter-balances and restraints.

    The second is that Athen’s seemed to be lacking enough institutional mass to keep its ship of state on any kind of coherent course. No people can be expected (at least these days) to look 50 or even 25 years ahead. But surely 10 to 15 was doable. The Athenian thalassocracy seemed way too willy-nilly. Yes, they were good at building triremes and training crews. But as a civilization, they seemed to lack any kind of wise or long-term foreign policy. Unlike the Romans, they were a culture that was more like a shooting star — brilliant but not long-lasting. And America will likely share that same fate.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The basic problem with uniting the Greeks (aside from the general hostilities between adjacent city-states, which reminds us that Greece is considered part of the Balkans) was that both Sparta and Athens wanted to lead the show. (The Periclean empire was more direct than Sparta’s, with Athens controlling affairs directly whereas Sparta merely expected to lead when involved.) Other city-states, such as Thebes, also had some imperial ambitions.

      The crucial nature of Greek resistance to Persia is the basic point (as I noted in my review) of Steve White’s Sunset of the Gods.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, I remember your review of Sunset of the Gods. If I remained stoked about early Greece, I may read it.

        In our day and age, we are hardly untouched by war, but “Lord of the Seas” reminds you just how common war was as a way of life. And you didn’t have to be a Spartan for this to be so. Plunder and conquest were regular means of enriching oneself.

        It seems during the second Athenian league that Athens was realizing that the sheer wealth provided by free trade was payment enough — along with the prestige of being the leader. And, indeed, this foreshadows the gist of modern “democracies” which have replaced plunder with free trade (although these “democracies” are turning rabid and are indeed plundering future generations via the debt and dissolution they are leaving them).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It looks as if I will be finishing this book, Timothy. I have but one chapter to go!

    I don’t think I’ll do a full review. But I will say that this is a “medium-strength” history. It’s detailed but not too detailed. Even though it’s mostly about the Athenian navy, you do get an overall background on Athenian life.

    The book is written in a style that is easy to read. My main criticism is that because this book jumps from major navel battle to major navel battle, the overall picture is not in sharp focus. A slightly longer book (although this is a hefty enough 432 pages) with just a bit more transitional material in between these battles would have improved this book.

    But as it is, you do get a “feel” for the Athenian navy, and the book is written in such a way that you can’t help pulling for it, and Athens. In that sense, the book is a readable success.

    Now, time to pay the piper and read the remaining chapter. I do believe Alexander the Great is about to put an end to Athens as a sea power.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I did a modest review of it for FOSFAX 217. If you’d like, I can bring it in at some point. But I would probably prefer first to review Dean King’s The Feud, an excellent history of the Hatfields and McCoys.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        By all means, submit that review when you can.

        My final observations are that Athens and its navy went out with a whimper, not a bang. They lost the will to dominate…and thus were dominated by someone else — a lesson Europe may soon learn regarding their imported Muslims.

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