Under my byline

Men of mêtis

Posted in Architecture/Design, Art, Books by Rrishi on 2 September 2009

An American archaeologist reveals Athens’ navy as the engine of that city’s golden age

John R Hale, Lords of the Sea

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy
John R Hale
Penguin Viking
pp xxxvi + 396



Sparta is now remembered chiefly as the arch-enemy of ancient Athens, not so much for its own achievements. The entire story of the Persian Wars, during which the quarrelsome Greeks united against Darius and Xerxes, of the Peloponnesian and Spartan Wars, which saw Athens and Sparta locked in a bloody, costly, decades-long struggle, and the wars thereafter which precipitated Athens’ slide into naval oblivion, was written by Athenians and Athenian sympathisers. Today, we acknowledge our debt to golden-age Athens every time we speak, study, represent our universe through art (in the Western tradition, at least) and, of course, congregate politically. Athens is the capital of modern Greece; Sparta isn’t even a noble ruin.

This book will do nothing to curb the historical preeminence of Athens — it is, if anything, slightly old-fashioned in its approach, glorying in Athens’ awe-inspiring naval enterprise during the late sixth through late fourth centuries BCE. The author, John R Hale, is an American archaeologist, and this is his magnum opus.

Hale is a hands-on man. His book is a narrative military history with a dash of culture and politics. The thesis, in so far as there is one, is that once the Athenians had decided to recast themselves as a naval power and gather empire and glory by seaborne means (leaving mastery of the land to Spartan plodders), the effort and reorganisation required to man the fleets of warships with citizen rowers of the lowest classes, and to pay for them, was instrumental in the eclipse of the aristocratic cavalry class and the rise of popular democracy. This new “navalised” nation and its rule over the sea was labelled a thalassocracy, from the Greek word for “ocean”.

For the opening scene, Hale chose the occasion of the politician Themistocles’ famous speech before the Athenian assembly in 483 BCE, in which he urged his fellow citizens to invest the wealth gained from a massive new find of ore in the publicly owned silver mines in outfitting a new navy. The citizens agreed with him, and a huge industry of shipbuilding was set in motion.

Hale is good at describing how the famed triremes — ships with three banks of oars, designed for speed and ramming — were designed, built and manned. The enterprise sucked up manpower as well as money, and also eventually wiped out Attica’s forests. The narrative is supported by fine line drawings by Sam Manning.

Themistocles’ speech is a fit place to start. Hale shows that the Athenian democratic assembly’s moods amplified the effects of good as well as bad choices: the preparation of an expedition, a decision on the shape of an alliance, the disproportionate, even monstrous punishment of estranged allies or military leaders who made a mistake or miscalculation. Apart from quick summaries and digressions, however, Hale does not dwell on the politics — despite the “democracy” of the book’s title.

Themistokles, illustration from 1888Themistocles built on his success in instigating the pro-navy policy to become the chief strategist and guide of Athens. Just in time, too — Xerxes launched his invasion soon after. The Athenian-led Greek navy defeated much larger Persian fleets at Artemisium and again at Salamis.

The lavish care with which these and many succeeding encounters are described reveal that the author’s chief interest is in battlefield strategy. The research he undertook for this book included very thorough visits to the sites of all the major naval battles of the period of which good descriptions have survived. He reconstructs them carefully, and in some cases (notably the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE when Athens lost most of its fleet) is able to correct errors in the established narrative. But his text positively radiates appreciation when some general wins an unequal fight by tactical brilliance or sheer audacity.

The Athenians had a word to describe the quality of character needed. “Mêtis embraced craft, cunning, skill, and intelligence, the power of invention and the subtlety of art,” Hale explains, adding rudely: “Indeed it ran contrary to the values of many nations, most notably the Persians.” He may be right, because although the Persians and Spartans doggedly taught themselves how to fight on the sea, few of their leaders showed the battlefield wits of the greatest Athenians.

Empire followed victory, and Athenians had to learn from failure how not to treat allies and subjects. The fascinating fact is they did learn. One reason may be that events were so compressed. All the main events in this book occur within three human lifespans; so naturally, past successes and defeats burned strongly in Athenian memory. Then there was the fact that art followed public affairs, including the plays and histories we read now, 2,500 years later. This made art extraordinarily influential, and a means of passing on lessons learnt.

It has to be said that this is not a great book. There are a few awkward jumps, and Hale has little to say about the experience of the actual mariners. We don’t learn much about shipboard life, about technique and technology not directly applied to warfare (he doesn’t even tell us how ships signalled to each other in order to make the lightning-fast yet coordinated manoeuvres that time and again took Athens’ enemies by surprise), nor about any sort of participant other than the generals.

But it is still a thrilling read. And one thing we can learn from it is to consider how we want to be remembered. It is time to invest very heavily — not so much in our naval power, perhaps, as in our soft power. That’s what wins people over, in the end.

(Visit Lordsofthesea.org.)


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