My Kingdom for a Ship

A Short History of Athenian Naval Wars

From about 506 B.C. onward until 322 B.C. the Greek city-state of Athens was in a nearly continuous state of making war or preparing for it. And lest I single them out, so were the rest of the Greeks as well as the Persians and generally most of the occupants of the Mediterranean shores.

To help you locate it, here is an image of the cover.

According to John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy the Peloponnesus, that peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean and which is connected to the Greek mainland by a narrow slip of land called the Isthmus of Corinth, was embattled with internecine wars, primarily between the Athenians and the Spartans (of 300 fame).

Oddly, these two archenemies could also be allies if the need arose. When the Persians to the East decided to wage a campaign to increase their imperial holdings in Mediterranean Greece, the two allied against Kind Xerxes. This led to the famous Spartan loss at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. followed in concert by the victorious Athenian naval battle of Salamis in the same year. At Salamis the Greeks wailed on the Persians and rendered their fleet useless.

Athens rules the waves

Hale explains that Athens was a significant naval power from this point onward until the rise of Alexander the Great, and the ensuing Macedonian empire (322 B.C.). They policed the Mediterranean and brokered deals with various city-states, receiving tributes of silver or gold for protecting harbors and ships on the sea. Athens invested in its navy by building a fleet of the state-of-the-art ship of the day – the trireme.

This vessel, originally a product of Phoenicia, was 120 feet long, powered by rowers on three tiers (hence trireme) in the hold. The Greeks added a top deck that could double as a troop carrier for marines. It was guided by a steersman and commanded by a trierarch. It was the kind of ship that worked well on calm seas but was useless in inclement weather when swelling seas could pour water into the oar ports and swamp the ship.

I’ll have my say…

The author of Lords of the Sea contends that because the ships relied on significant manpower the less wealthy individuals who risked their lives to row their superiors in the Athenian class system (the steersman and trierarchs) to and from battle wanted and had the leverage to demand a voice in the Athenian assembly. This resulted in eventual suffrage and leadership roles for all citizens of Athenian society, regardless of wealth.

The investment of funds and lives in the Athenian navy meant that those who served, every male citizen, had a say in the governing of the city. This was the motivating force for democracy in this place, at this time in history. It did not, however, mean that Athens was the ideal democracy.

Missteps

The Athenians grew, through alliances with other city-states and the tribute paid to them, into an imperial power. If your city-state angered or defected from the league you were subject to the wrath of Athens, generally wholesale massacre of all citizens in your city. If Athens didn’t get enough tribute from its allies it would also resort to pillaging and piracy to gather the extra funds from enemies and allies alike.

Occasionally the democracy would even turn self-destructive. After one famous victory against the Spartan navy at the Battle of the Arginusae Islands in 406 B.C. six of its victorious generals were executed for failing to pick up the bodies of the dead from the sea because of bad weather despite their overall success in the battle. One of these generals was Pericles, the son of Pericles, the great man of Athens.

Athens had a democracy, but it also had great men of vision who guided the democracy: Themistocles, Pericles, Socrates, and others. However, without these men who could think into the future, Athens struggled.

Hale’s writing is easy to read, but the book is a little battle heavy as one reviewer put it. It gives a clear analysis of Athens and its naval ambitions, and really, much of the rest of Greece during their heyday just prior to the ascension of Alexander the Great and the Macedonians.

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