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Thursday, March 20, 2014

“The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization”, by Barry S. Strauss

294 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0743244510
Professor Strauss has, with The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization, written one of the best books on the Greek-Persian wars – no small feat considering the fact that the writer is dealing with almost no primary sources and secondary sources that are 80 years on average removed from the event. He begins by placing the battle in its wider context to the Persian War, which lasted from 499-479 B.C. He briefly takes us through earlier battles of 480 B.C. which lead up to Salamis, including the Naval Battle at Artemisium and the famous land battle at Thermopylae, where Leonidis and his 300 Spartans gained everlasting fame. Finally, he leads up to the battle as the Persians sack Athens, and most of the residents take refuge on the horseshoe shaped island of Salamis, which is viewable from the Acropolis (he also mentions how Salamis is the home to the legendary King Ajax, who was famed in Homer’s Iliad; it is little side-notes like these that make Professor Strauss’ book so enjoyable to read). Strauss likewise gives us character portraits of the main participants in the battle, most importantly Themistocles, the wily Athenian Commander and mastermind behind the battle; Xerxes, the Persian King; and Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus in Anatolia.

The true power of the narrative is in the description of the battle itself, as the outnumbered Greek fleet took on the faster, more experienced Persians, who had the knowledgeable, seafaring Phoenicians on their side. It took place under the gaze of Xerxes, as well as the enraged, displaced Athenians on Salamis, who took every opportunity to vent their hatred at the unlucky Persian sailors who swam to their shores. His descriptions of how in a moment of panic, Artemisia, allied with the Persian fleet, rammed one of the Persians ships to avoid certain destruction herself, and then turned it to her advantage, as Xerxes believed it was an enemy ship, and heaped praise on her afterwards as a hero of the battle.

All told Professors Strauss says 200,000 men took part in the battle and one lone woman, Artemisia, an astronomical figure that he converts to modern statistics as being the equivalent of around 20 million people. Among them was Aeschylus the great Athenian tragedian, who took part and wrote a famous play “The Persians” based partly on his personal experiences. He is one of the ancient sources Strauss relies on, along with the “father of history” himself Herodotus, who is quoted frequently and personally interviewed many of the participants. Another important historian drawn upon is the Roman Plutarch, as well as other less known ancients to leave accounts of the battle. He also briefly notes that a young Pericles was one of the displaced Athenian refugees, and notes that the Macedonians allied with the Persians on their march across the Hellespont through Macedonia, led by an ancestor of Alexander the Great, who would later wage a war of retribution for the Persian invasion. He is quite effective at explaining the importance of the Greek trireme, a slower heavier ship compared with the faster Persian triremes, and how it was possible that the Greeks were able to succeed by using the narrow Salamis straits and deception tactics to their advantage. He then goes on to conclude his story, summarizing the Persian War, which would end a short year later, after the Persians were again routed at Plataea. He also discusses the fate of Themistocles who was eventually banished from Athens and lived the remainder of his days at the Persian court of all places. A rather sad end, he says, for such a great naval commander. 

Professor Strauss has written an indispensable, effectively argued chronicle that is a darn good read. He argues that it was a turning point for western civilization, though he does state that he believes the Greeks would have prevailed eventually. I look forward to reading his future works on the period, and applaud him for bringing such an ancient naval encounter to life so readable.

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