The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization
Just before dawn on 25 September 480 BC, a Persian armada sailed out of the harbour at Phaleron, just along the coast from Athens. The ships took up position at the entrance to some narrow straits between the Greek mainland and an island called Salamis, where the Greeks had taken refuge. Their fragile alliance, so the Persians had been told, was on the brink of collapse. All they needed was to provoke panic: the Greeks would crumble. And… well, it didn’t quite happen as planned. What unfolded over the next twelve hours was one of the greatest sea-battles of antiquity, and Barry Strauss’s book brings it to pulsing, vivid life. This isn’t a story of nautical jargon and dry-as-dust tactics: it’s swashbuckling of the first order, set against a mighty clash of civilisations, and populated by a cast of characters so colourful that it’s easy to forget it all actually happened.
Strauss uses a lot of imagination in his history, but it comes off well. It took me a while to get into it, but then I began to enjoy the way he opens each chapter by homing in on a particular figure: sometimes a major player in the battle, sometimes someone relatively minor, each of them offering a key to the next stage of the story. This helps him to emphasise the ethnic diversity of the Persian fleet (which included just as many Greeks as the Greek fleet did), but it also has a more immediate narrative impact. We’re plunged straight into the thick of the battle: standing alongside Aminias of Pallene as he rams a Phoenician trireme; watching the cunning Themistocles forging unity from discord; sitting with the poet Aeschylus at the oars of a Greek ship; or watching the formidable Artemisia of Halicarnassus direct her fleet from her quarterdeck.
Like a film director, Strauss alternates close-up shots with broad panoramas across the straits (supplemented with helpful maps showing the different stages of the battle). This isn’t a bird’s eye view, but a king’s eye view, because the Persians were fighting under the eye of the Great King himself. Xerxes was watching from a nearby hillside (seated on a golden throne, of course) as the unthinkable happened and his fleet – lighter, faster, much more numerous – was thrashed by the ships of these upstart Attic barbarians.
Back in the day, when I was seventeen or eighteen, I’d have been urging on the Greeks without a second thought. Nowadays, things are more complicated, as I’ve started reading about the Achaemenids and my loyalties are – I suppose – split. For this reason, I was exceedingly narked by the subtitle. ‘Saved Western Civilization’ indeed! It feels brash and overdone – a publisher’s ‘look at me!’ ploy – and I couldn’t help feeling there were unpleasant jingoistic undertones, along the lines of ‘Western Civilization’ being a thing that could only be preserved by fighting against people from the Middle East. Saying that it saved Greece would’ve been enough. But even that might not be true. In defence of the Persians, they ruled with a very light touch and they did appreciate ‘Western’ (aka ‘Eastern Mediterranean’) art. Strauss himself reflects considerably more nuance than his subtitle: while he certainly shows us the Persians marching through the conquered streets of Athens, throwing down statues and smashing vases, he also shows us Xerxes letting the Greek ex-pats in his army go up to the Acropolis to worship their gods, and carting off the best of the Greek bronzes for his museum at Persepolis.
Initially, I suppose I thought that Strauss was actually being rather old-fashioned about the way he reported the battle. At the beginning, it felt very much: ‘Greeks = good; Persians = bad’. But I gradually realised that lots of this is due to his use of Herodotus and other Greek writers – Aeschylus, Plutarch – thanks to the fact that nothing remains from the Persian point of view. He actually does a lot to bring both sides to life and, to my pleasure, he makes an effort to take us inside the Persian camp as well. Yes, we have the standard evil, conniving eunuch in the form of Hermotimus (not entirely unwarranted), but his characterisation of the others is a bit more balanced. In particular, I thought he was rather fair towards Xerxes, who comes across not as some berserk lunatic, but as an autocrat who simply couldn’t believe his massive force could be broken. I was glad to see my old friend Mardonius, offering belligerent advice as usual, and I looked out for some other familiar faces too, but – as they were with the army – they were probably halfway to the Corinthian Isthmus while all this was going on.
While the battle is reported in immense (and gripping) detail, it’s set within the much broader context of the war and the other battles that surrounded it. We get a glimpse of what life was like in Athens, and how a wily, clever man like Themistocles managed to get a famously obstinate city to do things his way. He comes out of this book like a new Odysseus, endlessly resourceful and fascinating. Nor does Strauss omit the most ironic part of Themistocles’ story when, as an old man, exiled from Athens, he turns up on the doorstep of Xerxes’ son in Susa, asking for sanctuary. And, in a clever twist of perspective, Strauss asks us to imagine how the Greek campaign was viewed, not by braggart Greeks, but by the new Persian king Artaxerxes:
The Great King’s expedition to the land of the Greek barbarians truly represented one of the greatest achievements in history … With the help of heaven, the King of Kings bridged the Hellespont. He gathered so many troops and ships that they darkened the horizon. After forcing every city in his path to offer him its hospitality, His Majesty crushed the Spartan army at Thermopylae and killed the evil king Leonidas. Then he took Athens, burned to the ground the temples of the false and lying gods, devastated the land and sold into slavery all the inhabitants who had not fled. Having subjected to his will every land from Thrace to the Isthmus of Corinth, His Majesty imposed tribute and returned in the finest of form to Anatolia … Artaxerxes had heard something about a skirmish of ships near some island called Salamis … but after making a show of force, the Persian army had withdrawn beyond secure borders.
Strauss even has the playful cheek to imagine Mardonius’ ‘unfortunate’ demise at Plataea on his return from a ‘pacification’ campaign. I enjoyed this because it didn’t just give me a chance to think myself into the Persian mindset (which is always interesting), but also because Strauss makes a wider and more important point about history and even journalism. It’s often said that the dominant version of events is written by the victors. But sometimes in history, and increasingly in the modern day, it isn’t at all clear who the victors are. Usually we just end up listening to the people who shout the loudest.
This turned out to be so much better than I’d expected. It’s thoughtful, intelligent and full of panache. It may not satisfy hardcore archaeologists, and Strauss imagines the feelings and motivations of his protagonists in a way that tends towards the novelistic… but it works. Funnily enough, it’s done more to make me feel what Salamis would have been like than any of the historical novels I’ve read set in Ancient Greece. We need more history books like this, offering the pace and drama that you usually only find in a big-budget blockbuster. If you fancy a bit of rather violent escapism, for heaven’s sake, don’t watch 300: Rise of an Empire; just read this instead and marvel at what really happened.
The highest recommendation I can give to this is to say that I’ll be reading it again, and soon. I certainly never thought I’d be saying that about a book on (essentially) naval history…