Hale Explores the Athenian Voyage to Democracy

'Lords of the Sea' by John R. Hale (Penguin Group)

Modern Piraeus, Athens’s port, is a grungy affair. Food shops sell days-old spinach pies, multitudes of tourists wheel suitcases over the grey grime of the sidewalks, and everything—the spanakopita and tourists alike—sweats from the heat. Painted metal grates separate the cabs and buses of the main roadway from the floating barges, giant hunks of metal lining the waterfront. An enormous ramp lowers onto each barge, and cars drive up the ramp so that in a few hours they can disembark elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Food is served on board these boats, and passengers often sit up top on the benches, looking passively at the sea gulls that swoop behind the boat.

This Piraeus is vastly different from the sea-faring launch pad that John R. Hale describes in his book “Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.” The book is a work of history that makes the claim that the development of the Athenian navy is responsible for Athenian democracy. One might expect a book with such a hefty argument to be full of stale prose, but Hale’s work remains engaging by using people, rather than pure historical data, to drive the story.

Hale begins with Themistocles, a statesman of Ancient Athens, eating breakfast. Athenians had just discovered a deposit of silver, and a meeting in the morning would determine how the silver was to be spent. One idea was to dole the funds from the repository out to the citizenry in small units of currency. Themistocles, however, intended to convince the Assembly that instead the sum of the funds should be dedicated toward building up an Athenian navy to protect Athens against the Persians and the nearby inhabitants of Aegina. In convincing the Assembly, Themistocles creates the framework from which the rest of the story progresses.

Themistocles, with his “mêtis”—the fabled idea of cunning and wit that Robert Fagles immortalized in his translated epithet of Odysseus’ “wily ways” —is just one of the many characters Hale takes beyond historical fact and constructs into a personality. Pericles, Xerxes, Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, and Sophocles—whom we first see as a “handsome and talented youngster”—all play vibrant roles in the narrative.

Hale asserts quite boldly and fairly convincingly that if individuals such as Themistocles had not taken charge of the Assembly, a series of contingent actions would never have followed. Had Athens not constructed 100 new triremes—three-tiered ships with intense rams designed to splinter enemy ships—in order to defend themselves against the double threat of Persia and Aegina, not only would modern Piraeus not exist, but more significantly, modern notions of democracy would never have been formed.

Hale’s thesis is a little far-fetched. To maintain that ships are responsible for the gold standard of democracy’s success oversimplifies the evolution of democratic theory. But if taken with a grain of salt, the argument seems to have merit. He makes his case based on the inherent equality of rowing boats. “Oars were great levelers,” Hale writes, not least of all because each stroke had to be taken in exact unison by the hundreds of men sitting on rowing pads of uniform design. In order to have enough hands to pull the oars, 17,000 men in total according to Themistocles’ first estimation, the help of the thetes, a lowly Athenian class, would be necessary. In seating such men on the seats of the prized triremes, the thetes were raised to respectable ranks, earning blisters and calluses on behalf of Athens.

In 407 BC, the most incredible “leveling” took place. The Athenian Assembly voted to grant freedom and citizenship to slaves who enlisted in the navy. There, perhaps, lies the precedent for loyalist Lord Dunmore’s proclamation that all slaves who joined Her Majesty’s forces in the American Revolution would earn their freedom.

Though Hale maintains that ships were a democratizing force, he pays homage to those like Plato who had problems with the politics of a ship, unearthing an ancient debate. While earning a seat on a trireme represented social ascendancy for many oarsmen, it did not provide rowers with autonomy or influence. “One of Plato’s many complaints against the navy,” Hale says in his introduction, “was its reliance on the skill and technique of individual steersmen to win battles rather than the virtuous bravery of citizen soldiers fighting in the phalanx.” But it is the ship, not the phalanx that Hale describes as responsible for Athenian democracy.

This detailed analysis is bolstered by unexpectedly vivid descriptions, full of colorful imagery that help Hale avoid the dry, textbook-tone that seems to go hand in hand with books about ancient history. Battle scenes, of which there are many, depict ships with pyres extended like hedgehogs.  Moreover, naval terminology is used to apply to all aspects of Athenian life, including sex.

Though the ships in Piraeus are no longer subject to the debilitating effects of worms, and many other changes have taken place since the ancient period on which Hale writes, the sentiment behind the text is still relevant, and the argument still poignant. Whether or not modern democracy in fact owes its debt to Themistocles is somewhat dubious, but Hale’s idea of ships as a force that mobilized the Athenian citizenry makes for a compelling historical work.

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at spitzer@fas.harvard.edu.