John Hale’s “Lords of the Sea” is an in-depth history of the Athenian thalassocracy from before the Peloponnesian Wars, up until Cleitus, one of the Macedonian successors to Alexander the Great, forced Athens to accept the yoke. It is a fascinating read.
Hale brings a very specific perspective to this topic: as a crew rower, he is perhaps more interested in the naval side of Athens than of any other aspect. Hale makes a compelling case that Athenian democracy itself had both its roots and its flowering in naval power. Athens, like the other Greek poleis of their day, only allowed citizens to serve in the military. The trireme, Athens’ war vessel with 3 rows of oars on each side, needed 170 men to power it. With hundreds of triremes – each one able to ram and cripple enemy ships – Athens needed thousands of citizens actively involved in the war effort, citizens who needed to provide neither arms, nor armor, nor anything beyond a strong back and the will to fight. This need, Hale argues, made democracy rather more likely to flourish in Athens than in land-based poleis, whose military might resided in the hoplite phalanx. Hoplites, needing to supply their own arms and armor, were by definition men of property; not so the humble sailor.
Hale backs up his argument with evidence that the Athenians themselves saw life through the lens of naval warfare. Citing works by Euripidese… My favorite little etymological guilty pleasure would have to be Hale’s offhand observations on sexual terminology:
“A woman’s vagina could be described as a kolpos or gulf, like the Carinthian and Saronic gulfs, where a happy seafarer could lose himself. As for the penis, a modest man could claim to have a kontos or boat pole, an average man a kope or oar between his legs, and a braggart a pedalion or steering oar. Inevitably too, the erection poking against an Athenian’s tunic was referred to as his “ram.” Sexual intercourse was likened to ramming encounters between triremes, but the men did not always take the active role. The popular Athenian sexual position in which the woman sat astride her partner gave her a chance to play the nautria or female rower, and row the man as if he were a boat. A man who mounted another man might claim to be boarding him, u sing the nautical term for a marine boarding a trireme. Sexual bouts with multiple partners were sometimes dubbed naumachiai or naval battles.”
Hopefully Hale will forgive me choosing perhaps the only sexually explicit passage in his 500 page book as an excerpt. But I am now waiting eagerly for life to give me a chance to deploy the word naumachiai in this context. May I live long enough.
The modern image of golden age Athens is wrapped up in images of philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, in deep conversation about life and government. But Hale points out that these men were, largely, reactionaries. A chapter-long discourse on Plato’s fable of Atlantis shows how it was a crypto-mythological critique of Athens’ addiction to sea power, which is a perspective I was, before this book, simply unaware of. The thought of people ignoring that critique in favor of searching for the “real” Atlantis would, one suspects, make Plato weep.
I was led to Lords of the Sea by my explorations of Thucydides. I was searching for something that put the Peloponnesian War in a larger context. The fear when you pick up a book such as this is that it will prove to be nothing more than a palimpsest, a summary of things that other, better writers have created. What Hale has actually accomplished is a synthesis, drawing from ancient sources but also contributing his own insights. I was considerably enriched by Lords of the Sea, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in the history of Hellenic warfare.