Top positive review
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A gem for Christmas!
on 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.