Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sunday Warbooks: The Battle of Salamis

Cringe, helots! Warbooks are back and this time it's personal. Well, not really. It's pretty much still totally dictated by finance and hegemony.

A review of The Battle of Salamis, by Barry Strauss.

This is an enjoyably readable, impressively detailed account of the sea battle that took place in 480 BC between the quasi-united Greeks --- officially under a Spartan commander but heavily influenced by the Athenian strategist Themistocles --- and the tremendously more numerous army of the Persian god-king, Xerxes.

For his account, Strauss closely follows Herodotus and other sources, accepting them as reliable for the most part (and there's fair reason to take the ancients at their word), but sweetening the tale with hundreds of details, born of modern scholarship, about the geography of the battle site, the prevailing winds, manners of dress, class structure, the physical requirements of rowing a trireme, and so forth. This book is a masterwork of erudition, yet written with a very pleasing and dramatic style that emphasizes the daring stratagems of Themistocles (for example, his false treachery to the Persians, when he sent his slave Sicinnus to say the Greeks were fleeing and that Xerxes should strike immediately, while in reality the Greeks were waiting for the Persians) and the therefore remarkable nature of the Greek victory.

The subtitle of the book is "The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – And Western Civilization," which is a bit of hyperbole, because in my view had the Greeks lost at Salamis they simply would have girded up and won a victory elsewhere. But Strauss seems to accept this hypothetical point; he means something different. To Strauss, while Salamis didn’t necessarily ensure classical civilization, which probably would have happened anyway, it did create a new kind of imperial democracy. Athens gained mastery of the sea and in short time her allies in the Delian League were closer akin to satellite states than allies.

Near the end of the book, Strauss given an account of this imperial Athens which seems to echo into the America of this decade. "At home, Athens stood for freedom and equality. Abroad, Athens did not hesitate to use any means necessary in order to enforce the authority of the league that it led. After making a heroic stand against Xerxes in the name of freedom, Athens had discovered that in order to maintain its freedom, it would have to make difficult compromises ahead."

Ah yes. Compromises in the name of liberty.


Books down for the count:

Greco-Persian wars: 2
WWI: 2
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2

1 comment:

Michael5000 said...

This helot is cringing as ordered! A martial welcome back to the Sunday Warbooks!