rusty lawn chair

History Is in the Details

rusty lawn chair

sxc.hu/liaj

History comes at us in different ways. Daily, as we live it. Sometimes as we watch it on TV or in the cinema, or someone’s version of it. Rarely, unless you really love it, in the form of books.

Watching an Agatha Christie series, having just listened to a lecture on archaeology, and reading a book on The Peloponnesian War all have in common the details of history. An Agatha Christie episode of Miss Marple, made in the middle 1980’s and starring Joan Hickson (the preeminent Miss Marple, in my opinion) reminded me that to make an historically accurate production of an earlier era requires attention to detail. Not just major details, but especially the small details.

The small details are the most telling. In one scene, a character from the 1950’s seats himself on a canopied gliding lounge sofa. It was the kind I remember seeing from my childhood in the 1980’s, but I had to search my memory because it didn’t quite fit in the 1950’s surroundings. Then I dimly remembered seeing something like it in an old magazine picture from the 50’s, possibly online. Regardless, it did make me realize that what we see around us, the things that are seemingly unimportant, are the stuff of history, which leads me to the lecture on archaeology.

Digging into history

The lecturer pointed out that it was the small things that an excavation discovers that tell the story of history. The little things tell the story, bits and pieces like ostraca, pieces of broken pottery with writing on them, sometimes even shopping lists of 6th century B.C. ladies of the manor. These details, the same kind of shopping lists that we would toss as we return home from the market, help give a clear picture of what everyday life was like many centuries in the past. Thrilling stuff, huh?

Which brings me to the Peloponnesian War. Reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan has been informative, but also a challenge. The book is well written, but the event is long and arduous. Thirty years of the Greeks at war and frankly it feels like it has taken me almost as long to read about it as it took to fight it. A detailed war, in a region of numerous city-states and decades of leaders with names that are remarkably similar if you aren’t a fluent speaker of Greek. It is history, it is compelling, but it isn’t light reading.

The big and small of history

The connection? There isn’t one, not a similarity at least, but a disparity. The accounts of this Greek war come from the detailed histories written by various ancient scholars and historians. They are based on military accounts, biographies of great men, and political rhetoric. Somewhat removed from the odd shopping list and glider-lounge. But both are history. They are the big and small of history.

The big history is charging Greek soldiers leaping off of triremes and sloshing onto the beaches of recalcitrant city-states. The little history is what they ate on board the morning before and how they polished their spears. The big history is 1950’s cold-war counter-movements done by spies. The small history is what they bought at the grocery when they had a toothache while spying (and if they bought a gliding lounger when they retired).

We live daily with big history and little history. Big history is government legislation. Small history is whether we bought Nutella for a our chocolate craving or simply a Hershey bar. Both become a part of the whole picture of history of the past and our place in it. The big history is affected by the small history, cravings for Nutella affect trade partnerships between Europe and the US. And, of course, the big history affects the small. Government legislation affects what and how and how much we eat.

Food for thought. Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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.