Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Battle of Salamis

Usually for vacations I try to read things that are a little outside my normal reading for church, theology, New Testament studies and the like. Last year, for example, I read Barry Strauss' The Spartacus War. Having enjoy that book, this year I picked up his book The Battle of Salamis.  This is an excellent account of the Battle of Salamis, the events leading up to it, the day itself and the aftermath.

When Barry Strauss writes historical accounts his work is judicious in accounting of the historical facts coupled with weighing good vs. bad speculation about the events. He does a good job of filling in the background for those unfamilar with Greek history and places the battle in light of its larger historical significance. For example, the introduction contains a helpful description of the Greek Triremes along with how the technology advance in the decades after Salamis, including the reinforcing of the hulls for head-on ramming, a capability not available at Salamis.

In the events leading up to the navel battle, we have the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans delayed the Persian until they were defeat. This is of course more famous, even having been made into at least two movies. There was also a smaller navel battle at Artemisium as a sort of testing the waters.

Prior to any engagements, the Persian Fleet contained 1,327 ships comprised of different nationalities including the famed Phoenician sailors, Ionian Greeks, and Egyptian--Persia itself was a land power who trusted in horses. The Phoenician's skill were probably the single greatest threat in the Persian fleet. The Hellenic League had 333 warships, the majority of them were Athenian (180 ships) although the Spartans, the Corinthians and a few others had put up some. 

The ancient sea battles were fought largely by ramming ships in the rear or the side (at this time), although there were a few hands on the deck, which could engage in boarding and hand to hand combat.   The majority of the crew sat under deck as oarsmen a miserable job--a picture which Strauss clearly paints.

After the small battle near Artemisium where the Persian fleet suffered small losses, the Greek fleet retreats. Thanks to a storm, the Persian fleet is reduced in size significantly so that by the battle of Salamis the Persians had about 650 ships, still double the Athenians. However, in a strategic move the Athenians abandon Athens and it is sacked--and the Acropolis burned (this is before the Parthenon as we know it was built). All the Athenians strategically retreated to the island of Salamis--including men, women and children. However, if the battle was not fought and won decisively, there would either need to be another retreat, or more likely those on Salamis would starve from lack of food. 

The Athenian admiral Themistocles is the mastermind behind luring the Greeks into the Salamis Straits--although it is the Spartan Admiral who had overall command. Themistocles is no noble hero but more of a cunning opertunist who uses skills of all kinds to orchestrate a Greek victory. Constantly through the story we see Themistocles not only a brilliant tactician but a schemer and a manipulator. It is even ironic where Themistocles ends his life.

Themistocles was able to capitalize on the arrogance of Xerxes by creatively goading Xerxes' forces into the straights between Salamis and Attica. Xerxes was however not only the king but a land general. He watched from the sure. Before the battle one of the few woman admirals in history, Queen Artemisia of Caria warned against fighting the navel battle. Had Xerxes listened to the advice history might have been different.

The historical account is fascinating filled with detail and subterfuge. It is fascinating to read the role of an ambiguous oracle from Delphi, Themistocles using his servant sending a secret message to lure the Persian into launching their attack in the pre-dawn thinking they would catch the Greek's in a retreat, the deceptive or actual retreat of 40 Corinthian ships and even Queen Artemisia escaping destruction by ramming her Persian allies in the battle, and many other details.

This book is definitely an enjoyable read. Strauss brings history alive without condescending to the reader a whitewashing the difficulties of knowing all the details. The book reads like a novel at times without ever becoming the genre of historical fiction. 

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...