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Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy [Hardcover]

John R. Hale
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 19 2009
A stirring history of the world's first dominant navy and the towering empire it built

The navy created by the people of Athens in ancient Greece was one of the finest fighting forces in the history of the world and the model for all other national navies to come. The Athenian navy built a civilization, empowered the world's first democracy, and led a band of ordinary citizens on a voyage of discovery that altered the course of history. Its defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BCE launched the Athenian Golden Age and preserved Greek freedom and culture for centuries. With Lords of the Sea, renowned archaeologist John Hale presents, for the first time, the definitive history of the epic battles, the indomitable ships, and the men-from extraordinary leaders to seductive rogues-who established Athens's supremacy. With a scholar's insight and a storyteller's flair, Hale takes us on an illustrated tour of the heroes and their turbulent careers and far-flung expeditions and brings back to light a forgotten maritime empire and its majestic legacy.


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"Nobody knows more about the history of oared ships around the world than John Hale, and he combines with it a knowledge of and love for the ancient Athenians that helps explain their achievement. To provide a new angle from which to view and understand the experience of the Athenians of the Classical age is a remarkable feat, but Lords of the Sea accomplishes just that. The writing is utterly captivating and makes the reader feel he is back in ancient Athens among the great poets, historians, sculptors, architects, soldiers and sailors, all of whom were connected in important ways to the Athenian navy."
- Donald Kagan, author of The Peloponnesian War

"The dazzling moment of Golden Age Athens was built on democracy, silver, reason and power. It was arguably the most creative moment in history, when western architecture, philosophy, drama and politics were all given their fundamental form. Behind it all was the Athenian navy, its life and fortunes described here with exemplary clarity and a vivid engagement with the visceral realities of battle and the sea. John Hale combines fluent readability with up-to-date scholarship and a sense that in these pages you are witnessing not only a driving collective enterprise but the foundation-level struggles of our own world. This is tour de force of historical imagination."
- Adam Nicolson Author of the New York Times bestsellers God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar

"Hale's simple but vigorous sentences prick up your ears from the first page... one hopes to hear more from him."
-New York Times (Dwight Garner)

"Compulsively readable...history so brilliantly told that, like the Athenian democracy, it is truly for all people."
-Louisville Courier-Journal (David Jones)

"Absorbing reading for those interested in either Greek or naval history...well- documented, with numerous maps, a chronology and glossary."
-Charleston Post and Courier (Lisa Isringhausen)

"You'd have to be half asleep to not become hooked by the first few paragraphs of Hale's Lords of the Sea."
-Cleveland Plain Dealer (Jean Dubail)

About the Author

John R. Hale studied at Yale and Cambridge before embarking on an archaeological career that includes extensive underwater searches for ancient warships. He has written for Antiquity, Journal of Roman Archaeology, and Scientific American and has been profiled by NPR and The New York Times. He has also been featured in documentaries broadcast by The Discovery Channel and The History Channel. He is currently the director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville.

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5.0 out of 5 stars A Gripping Account of Ancient Athens and its Navy March 23 2012
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
As pointed out by the author (p. 341), "this book presents a reconstruction of Athenian naval history from 483 to 322 BC". Athenian social structure, politics and military matters are also adequately (for my purposes) discussed and nicely complement the book's main theme. The boats used in the Athenian navy are well described including their style, construction, operation and special features. Finally, and very importantly, tactical manoeuvres in battle are discussed at length.

Over the course of the above time period, the author relates several gripping accounts of naval encounters, e.g., Salamis; however, not many details are provided concerning important land battles, e.g., Thermopylae. Since this book focuses on the Athenian navy, this is not surprising. Nevertheless, the importance of key land battles is always made clear.

I found that the author writes about his subject matter with lots of passion. His style is friendly, clear, lively, often riveting, quite entertaining and highly accessible. In short, I found the book very difficult to put down. This is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone; however, ancient history enthusiasts, like me, should be in for a treat.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great! July 7 2011
By MCL
Format:Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book. For anyone interested in the subject, it and Peter Green's The Greco-Persian Wars are excellent books to start with. They've inspired me to read Herodotus (I just received a copy of Robert Strassler's The Landmark Herodotus); next in line, Kagan's books on the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, .... I wish I had more time to read!
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
93 of 101 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Linking Athenian democracy and hegemony to its navy June 16 2009
By M. Reid - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A concise narrative of Athens.

This is a rather detailed history of Athens focusing on its navy. The author convincingly demonstrates a very close correlation between Naval power and both democracy and imperialism in ancient Athens. The writing style is clear, engaging, and very accessible. However, the book suffers from a narrative format that involves a lot a rehashing of topics and history.

The author's thesis is that because the class of men who manned the Athenian navy were lower in status than the hoplites or horsemen who formed the backbone of the army, as the navy increased in power so did the democratic element in relation to the "oligarchic" element in Athenian society. This was reinforced by the fact that maintaining a navy involved a great deal of expenditure flowing in large part into the pockets of the working glass artisans and laborers thus increasing their lot. However, these expenses forced Athens into a program of imperial expansion which could not be sustained. The author backs all of this up with ample evidence from a number of primary sources including some quite creative use of Athenian drama. There is very little to fault in his historical method save perhaps one or two factual errors -and even those are debatable (for example calling Athena's Aegis her breastplate when this probably refers to a cloak/shield like object she carried).

While this is an excellent book it has two flaws. The first is that its narrative format leads to a long series of admirals, battles, and dates. After a while, once it become apparent that the author has effectively proved his thesis, the whole thing becomes a little tedious, especially if you are even roughly familiar with the history. If you have not read Herodotus or Thucydides then you may ignore the following criticism: The other problem is that long stretches of the book are just retelling of one or two ancient sources. I cannot blame him for this because often that is all we have to go on. However, one might as well read the original sources at that point.

Despite these flaws, this is a closely reasoned and well supported piece of narrative history that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who has not already studied the subject in great depth (those will find little new). I would also suggest Kagan's Peloponnesian War; any of the earlier works by Victor Davis Hansen; and of course the primary sources the Author relied on so much Herodotus and Thucydides.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classical Greek History from a Different Viewpoint June 14 2009
By Bruce Trinque - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
John Hale's "Lords of the Sea" illuminates the history of Classical Greece from a direction far removed from the usual approach. His book describes Athens from the early fifth through late fourth century BCE from a nautical perspective, detailing the naval wars and battles of Athens against her enemies, including the Persian Empire, Sparta, and Macedonia. And Hale finds that there is an intimate connection between Athens' navy and her particular brand of radical democracy. With land warfare, the battlefields were dominated by the heavily armed hoplites; tradition required the hoplites to supply their own arms and armor, so a substantial level of prosperity was necessary to serve in that role. But the rowers of the Athenian triremes needed no armor or arms; indeed, not only were that not responsible for paying for their equipment, but they actually received pay for their service, opening naval service to even the poorest citizen and greatly increasing their role in public life. It would not be an oversimplification of Hale's central thesis that Athenian democracy and Athenian naval dominance were the two sides of a single coin.

While the illustrations of triremes are interesting in themselves, the numerous maps of the war zones and individual battles are vital for following Hale's detailed text. "Lords of the Sea" deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of Classical Greece.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Athenian prosperity and empire started with a great generation and ended with hubris July 6 2009
By Citizen John - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author, John Hale, a prominent archaeologist and historian, has achieved his monumental life's work with Lords of the Sea. Hale's work is bound to become a classic. I strongly recommend the audio version.

Epic historical accounts tend to be most enthralling in audio format. Even the visual documentary medium, probably the most powerful medium, cannot accomplish what audio can in a case such as this.

The reader is David Drummond. No reader prepares more thoroughly than Drummond; his understanding comes close to that of the author.

The story of the Athenian navy and how it created the Athenian Golden Age is filled with timeless instruction and meaning because human nature has not changed since then. Hale explains how the Athenians had their own "Great Generation" and how their brilliance, problem-solving skills and dash created widely distributed prosperity.

Hale's treatment of the Persians and the Greco-Persian wars is fair and shows how the Greeks understood that the Persians were determined and skilled in the pursuit of empire. Further, the famous Golden Age really only lasted for 19 years, from the end of the Persian Wars in 448 BC to the death of Pericles in 429 BC. That's because the short-lived Golden Age was succeeded by the Peloponnesian War.

There were three prerequisite conditions for Athens to achieve empire status.

One was economic and involved silver. The city-state of Athens collectively owned the most productive set of silver mines of their day at a place called Laurium. These mines famously funded the building of their warships, called triremes. Lords of the Sea makes the important point is that a world-class navy is capital intensive and must be funded by national treasure. Further, a navy requires continuous operation, practice and maintenance in peace times and is therefore extremely costly at all times. The least costly time was winter when triremes were dry-docked in boat sheds, gear tended to and hundreds of security personnel provided physical security.

Athenian silver made fleet construction possible, and the navy provided thousands of highly sought-after jobs offering decent pay, adventure and status. One had to prove Athenian citizenship before a special board for the privilege to be a sailor. Considering the dangers, physical hardships and perianal hematoma experienced by the sailors, it seems remarkable today that these positions were so highly sought-after.

The second prerequisite condition had to do with Athenian character, being both thinkers and men of action (it was a male dominated culture). Pericles was quoted as saying, "We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy." They loved innovation and were quick to commit physical and intellectual energy to projects, especially when in the service of their country. This was important because triremes were the most technically advanced product that one could attempt to manufacture.

The third prerequisite condition was the perennial threat the Persians provided to Athens in particular that galvanized the citizenry to put such resources into a navy. Athenians knew they could not build walls to stop the Persians. Logically, they faced eventual conquest and destruction or they could cooperatively try to stop the Persians in the sea.

Lords of the Sea describes the benefits and challenges of being a naval empire. Alliances were made to bring in tribute to finance a navy. Every violent dispute all over the Mediterranean and Black Sea beckoned the Athenians to pick a side, provide protection and collect tribute in the form of silver, additional triremes or other goods. Foreign policy became complex as the empire quickly expanded.

But mastery of the sea provided innumerable benefits, including prized fish such as bluefin tuna, wheat from areas bordering the Black Sea, African ivory, spices from the east and all sorts of crafted and luxury items. The naval complex produced economic stimulus that spawned all sorts of service jobs and a strong economy.

Domestic policy became more complex. Athenians actually engaged the first ever urban planners for service throughout the empire. Care was taken to ensure that each house built along a downward sloping hill would have its own unobstructed view of the sea. In some places, grid street systems were implemented.

Of course, hubris emerged as it always does when prosperity arrives in such measure and speed. The cost in lives and treasure of the Peloponnesian War signaled an end to the short-lived Golden Age. Athenians promoted democracy wherever they could, often choosing to garrison troops in diverse cities, only to later withdraw the troops and have cities return to oligarchic rule. They over-extended themselves and created resentment among their allies when they acted unilaterally.

Finally, the Athenians elected less experienced leaders based on charisma and populist appeal, and these leaders took a much more aggressive approach to war, thereby abandoning the thoughtful diplomacy of earlier leaders. Eventually the tribute dried up, they actually declined victory in the Peloponnesian War when Sparta sued for peace and ending up losing the war and empire. The world's first democracy ended in disaster in large part because elections produced irresponsible leaders that were gifted with little other than swagger.

The fact that all this happened in the 5th century BC makes this work particularly instructive. Throughout the story the listener is amazed at how hard it has always been to rise above in this world. The only lucky break the Athenians got was the silver mines at Laurium. The story is one of constant battles with a 19-year period of prosperity, peace, great happiness and the flourishing of the arts. We know this as the Golden Age but it might accurately be called the Golden 19 Years.

Throughout Lords of the Sea are lessons and meanings relevant to our time. Of course, differences are easy to spot. Nobody today would think oar rowing aboard a trireme was a good job, and the getting of such a job would not be dependent on proof of citizenship. But the mistakes the first democracy rushed into bear some resemblance to mistakes made in recent times. We remain vulnerable to hubris.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read. June 30 2009
By Robert Busko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Don't let anyone convince you otherwise, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John Hale is a well written, well researched and thoughtful presentation relating to the history of Athens. While certainly fitting for academic circles, I believe that Mr. Hale has written this book for the interested amateur, someone like myself. While I've read extensively about Sparta and the Spartan culture, Hale's book is a departure for me, and a good one at that.

One of Hale's initial points is that the development of the Athenian Navy had far reaching, and in some cases unexpected results. All society's at this time were made up of usually very sharply defined classes. Athenian society was no exception. The lowest class in Athens was the Thetes. Themistocles' plan was pretty simple, at least at first blush. A fleet of triremes would be built using windfall silver available to Athens. One hundred triremes would require seventeen thousand oarsmen. Who would pull the oars of these warships? Slaves? Captives? Themistocles was a smart man. Let the Thetes pull the oars. This would employ the lowest citizens in the class structure, effectively injecting money into a class level that had never really known such income. The original "trickle down" theory! And it worked.

Hale makes clear that Themistocles was no slouch when it came to political planning. Rightfully called the father of the Athenian Navy, his foresight set Athens on the road to greatness placing the Navy at the center of their culture. It would be for others to keep it there. For a time it seemed as though Athens sphere of influence would continue to grow unhindered. However, in the end the burden of their "foreign policy" became too much to sustain. Perhaps there is a lesson for others to learn from.

Hale's examination of the Athenian Navy and its impact on Athenian society is certainly worth the reading. From the victories at the battles of Artemisium and Salamis to the humiliation at Amorgos, Hale's investigation appears to be complete, at least to this untrained eye. However, Hale looks beyond the battles. He investigates the interaction between the power players of the day but never allows the reader to lose sight of the fact that it is the Athenian Navy the rules the seas at the end of the day. An early version of the "big stick" policy. Very insightful.

Lords of the Sea, at 318 pages of text is a demanding but rewarding read. The book does seem to bog down when one admiral and one battle after another marches by, but that is typical of books of this type. This fact is not a major minus to this book and may be a plus to some readers. Also provided are a Chronology, a very helpful Glossary, and the very valuable Notes on Sources.

Lords of the Sea is a superior investigation into the Athenians and is highly recommended.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected, Informative, and Entertaining Dec 14 2009
By JA - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Although I have read a good deal of military history in the past 35 years, I was almost did not try this book. Some good books have come out lately retelling stories of well known naval campaigns from a different emphasis and I was not ready for another one of those trying to make a whole book out of Salamis. But most of the material in this book was totally new to me. Yes, the battle of Salamis and its far-reaching influence on the development of western civilization is well known. But of the naval battle that immediately preceded it, I was largely ignorant. And after Xerxes' invasion, when you think the climax of the book would have already come, you aren't even half-way through the book. It goes on to describe many naval and combined naval-marine campaigns in detail, most of which were new to me. And it brings to life briefly many accomplished Greek fleet commanders who were new to me, also. You circle through the eastern Mediterranean from Salamis to Macedon, to Byzantium, to Sinope, down the cost of Asia Minor, up the Nile through Lower Egypt, across to Sicily, up to Corfu, and through the Peloponnese back to Athens. In the process the Author covers many aspects beyond the battles and the tactics such as ship construction, the place of the sailors in society, emancipation of slaves through naval service, the trophies and use of the proceeds of naval supremacy. The book has good maps and other illustrations. The Author, although an Academic, wrote a very readable and entertaining book. It was actually a joy to read. I first purchased the MP3 recording to listen to while exercising but I hadn't quite finished it before I had to purchase the hard back: not only to more comprehensively read the story, but where else are you going to find a map of the battle of Goat River? Having given a few other recent books a "5", I would have given this one a "7" if I could have.

My compliments also to Amazon.com for advertising the book and the MP3 recording well before their release. I waited until I saw the first few reviews posted before I thought it was a good bet. I hope this review in turn encourages someone else to plunge into the Aegean.
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