Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Battle of Salamis : The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization

Abstract of Review by Franklin Crawford

"As the book's flyleaf states, the battle of Salamis "was the most important naval encounter of the ancient world. In the narrow strait between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland, a heavily outnumbered Greek navy defeated the Persian armada ... The Greek triumph at Salamis stopped the advancing Persians and saved the first democracy in history. It made Athens the dominant city in Greece, gave birth to the Athenian empire, and set the stage for the Age of Pericles."

The story is populated with a star-studded cast of characters: "Themistocles, the Athenian commander who masterminded the victory (and tricked his fellow Greeks into fighting); Xerxes, the Persian king who understood land but not naval warfare; Aeschylus, the Greek playwright who took part at Salamis and later immortalized it in drama; and Artemisia, the half-Greek queen who was one of Xerxes' trusted commanders and who turned defeat into personal victory."

With all these elements, it's easy to see the appeal of Salamis as both historical set piece and heroic seafaring thriller. And Strauss didn't simply wish to pen another military history of the battle of Salamis; he wanted to bring entirely new scholarship into the court of memory, drawing on nautical science, archaeology, forensic anthropology and meteorology, among other specialties -- in short, all the latest advances in the field of classical history.

"What I've been doing as a scholar before writing this book was an exercise in reading between the lines," Strauss said. "By applying the knowledge of naval archaeology or meteorology, for example, we can reconstruct an ancient world that is much richer than the pictures we get from just literary sources. When we read Thucydides or Herodotus or any of the ancient sources without that knowledge, we think, 'gosh, those guys left a lot of gaps.' [But] when we have that stuff in mind, suddenly it begins to make sense and a lot of the gaps get filled in."

In addition to bolstering ancient sources with modern scholarship, Strauss crafted a visceral accounting as full of sun, sea, sweat and blood as necessary to spice the tale. Strauss also details the "Persian campaign in Greece and flesh[es] out a picture of society and warfare in the ancient world, illuminating such topics as Persian court protocol, the prayers of Corinthian temple prostitutes and the proper method of ramming an enemy trireme," according to Publisher's Weekly.

He boldly enters into the heads of the major players on the field of battle, speculating on their states of mind. In choosing a novelistic approach to the narrative, he followed the leads of military historians like John Keegan and Stephen Ambrose, who err on the side of creative verisimilitude."
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