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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 29 November 2011
This book was first published in October 2010 and, as another reviewer mentioned, it made an excellent Christmas present. It still does this year. The author is an archeologist specialised in underwater searches for ancient warships. His story of the "rise and fall" of the Athenian Navy is outstanding, compelling, fascinating and backed by flawless research (or, more modestly, I should say that I didn't find any!).

Although this is NOT a historical novel, you sometimes have the impression it is, given the way it is written. Another huge plus in favour of this book is that it is written in such a way that you are reading a story rather than digesting the history of one of the first major naval powers. In addition, John Hale manages the rare feat of explaining technicalities, such as the conception of Athenian trirèmes, how they were built to emphasize speed and swiftness, how the favorite Athenian battle tactics made the maximum use of the ships' design, what this implied in terms of training, maintainance and organization and how some of the ships could be adapted and converted into troop or horse transports to carry expeditionary forces overseas.

But, above everything else, and while following a chronological order, the author presents those that, in his mind, were the real "heroes" that, in addition to finance, organization and ship building skills, allowed Athens to "rule the waves" for most of the 5th century and restablish most of their city's dominance through most of the next century: these were the crews (rowers and sailors) that came from the lower classes which could not afford to fight as hoplites and even less as horsemen. While some might find that John Hale tends to "wax lyrical" on these, they -
and the fleet that they manned and which could not exist without them, were clearly the mainstay of Athens democracy. The economic impact of paying for their very valuable services -unlike what some still believe, they were full citizens - integrated them and allowed to effectively participate in Athens' political life. The importance of the ship crews was clearly shown when, during the last years of the Long War against Sparta, the latter managed to challenge Athens at sea thanks to Persian gold which allowed Sparta to outbid Athens by offering higher pay. At this point, however, losses on both sides had been such that a large portion of rowers were hired men (or mercenaries, if you prefer) rather than the poorest citizens of Athens.

The last strong point I want to emphasize is the story of Athens' decline. As the last section of the book makes clear, this started by a "Rebirth" as Athens recovered most (but not all) of its naval supremacy and strived to maintain it after having lost the Pelopenisian War against Sparta and its allies. However, Athens had become much more vulnerable in the long-run. Despite its efforts, it could no longer draw the same level of resources from what had been its "allies" of the First Delian League. In fact, it could no longer stop LIgue members from quitting the Alliance if they saw fit to do so. In additional to financial strains, and as Athens' population had increased considerably since 480, it had had to increasingly import most of its grain from overseas. This was probably one of the main reasons for the expeditions to help Egypt's revolt against the Persian Empire in the early 460s and for the expedition to Sicily between 415 and 413, both of which were disasters. This left Athens having to import most of its grain from the Bosphoros which became its main lifeline.

"The Last Battle", as the last chapter is entitled, tells the story of the Athenian fleet, and its weaknesses, in the revolt against the Macedonians just after the death of Alexander. This was indeed the last battle (in fact, they were at least two, both defeats) and the author clearly explains why. Although Athens would still be dragged into a number of conflicts between Alexander's Successors and would even wage wars of its own against Macedonia, these would essentially take place on land for there was no more a large fleet.

This is fantastic book that I can only urge you to read, once again. If not quite the best book I have read over the last twelve months (and I read a lot), then it is a very close second.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 5 August 2014
This is old fashioned narrative history (no discussion of possibilities, just the author's view expressed as such) spiced up with some practical knowledge of rowing. Because of the shortage of sources we get the usual old Herodotus (Xerxes lashing the sea) and then a broadly pro-Athenian account via Thucydides. The book is more a history of Athens than of trireme warfare - I'd have liked to know more of where the Spartans got their Persian financed rowers (for example) but if it is not Green or Lazenby it romps along enlivened by the occasional purple passage as the author imagines (for example) Themistocles getting ready to speak to the Assembly
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on 8 June 2016
A captivating book describing the Athenian Navy. A read that felt like a voyage through time and as immersive as if being a sailor on the ships themselves. A fantastic journey through the oceans of time and a great gift for anyone.
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on 5 September 2014
Got one of those Amazon "how would you rate" so, though only a quarter way through the book have added this comment.

Not a scholar but, since school oh so long ago, have retained an interest in Greek history 500BC to Alexander.

So far the book is highly readable and despite being short on time have returned to it to continue when I can. I like that, as well as simply the naval history the book also deals with the effects on the political setup in Athens of the involvement of a large part of the male population in crewing the Athenian triremes. Have found that extremely interesting as it's not something I've really thought of before.

Have just read up to the Peloponnesian War's start so have covered the good times. Now it'll start getting a bit gritty for Athens. Wonder what the author will make of that enigma who went by the name of Alcibiades? Yep looking forward to reading more.

Obviously an easy "buy it" for those interested in the period.

For others, Athens was the first major player with a governmental system based on a democratic style. As well so much of Western culture and thought began from this time and principally from this small city state. In addition the Greeks' eventual triumph over the Persian invasions is one of those absolutely landmark moments affecting the future history of Western civilisation.

In short here and then is where current Western history and culture was born so IMHO it's got some relevance for just about anybody. Even Asians, far away from the action here, are affected many many years later by the tidal wave of European expansion from the Renaissance on. That Europe began to walk at this time. And Korea, with Admiral Yi*,for that nation there is a real echo here in the Persian conflict.

*NB if the name is unfamiliar, look him up, well worth the effort.
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on 9 May 2011
The book I enjoyed, the proofreading though was shocking - some terrible typos (the "Athenian feet" for one), maps that do not even show the places under discussion in the text and several repetitions mark it down to ***.
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on 15 December 2014
I really enjoyed this book. Although interested in maritime history and warships I found the Athenian historical aspect really interesting. Very well researched and presented. Watch the YouTube video of the full-size Olympia Trireme replica built a few years ago as mentioned in the book and you will be hooked! I learned a lot from this book.
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on 3 January 2010
Hale's description of the golden age of Athenian navy is both enthusiatic, well written and has done a fine job on research. The only flaw, in my opinion, is that he overemphasizes the impact of those battles in greek and modern democracy.
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on 10 April 2013
A formidable book that definitely deserves a 5 star rating.

In all honesty, this is one of the best books I have read this year and probably one of the best books I have read overall on ancient history. I have been interested to go further on ancient naval warfare after reading book such as "the history of the Peloponnesian war "by Thucydides.

The book is attractive for a couple of reasons:
- Very good technical details are given about the trireme construction, attack tactics, etc.
- The naval battles descriptions are one of the best I found in military history books. The book also has some very good battle plans that help a lot in understanding the naval tactics.
- The book is also very well structured and the chapter division is clear and comprehensive
- Very good 3d sketches showing the trireme, freighters, horse transports, etc.
- Very good portraits throughout the book of the various military leaders and politicians. The Athenian Diaspora of generals to the former enemy Persia or even Sparta and its effect on the internal Athenian politic is well explained

However, the two things that slightly annoyed me were:
- The over-emphasized role of the navy upon Athens's democracy and politics. I think the author went a bit too far but I am no expert on ancient Greek history. The author is.
- The maps are clear and simple but probably too simple. They have very little information and offer no addition to the text.
- If you have knowledge already of the Persian Wars, Themistocles, marathon, etc. Then the first quarter of the book may sound a bit simple and repetitive.

Overall, a very good book that has very few negative reviews and is well worth a buy. It is also easily readable and you will certainly finish it with enthusiasm within few days.

By the way, if someone has come across similar reading in naval warfare, please let me know.
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on 27 May 2011
For anybody with a vague interest in ancient Greek history or the sea, this is a great read. Highly recommended.
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on 17 December 2011
Lords of the Sea is an outstanding story very well told... by a historian who happens to be a rower. For all lovers of democracy, imperfect as can be, it is a masterful lesson in how it all began, and of how Athens came to be the legendary city we all have heard about, learning along, i.e. how all her magnificent monuments got paid for. Themistocles and his vision of how to make a small city great, political power redistribution by sharing oar benches, battles and shipyards, understanding Sea power, or, simply, the sheer number of peole it takes to have a strong navy and its social implications... are all there. As an avid historical reader, I took on this book with marginal interest, having visited again the Aegean this summer, with the major highligth of the trip sailing to Delos. After reading it, I understand quite a few things about ancient Athens and her world MUCH better. I cannot recommend it highly enough!
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