“Stifling in the August heat, even at night, Artermisium is a hub of activity. Seen by the light of bonfires, fifty thousand men are at work: here racing to patch damaged equipment, there hauling the bodies of the dead onto pyres, at one point filling water jugs and wineskins at the sprint, at another point leaving messages as disinformation for the enemy, who is close behind them. Some men are buckling on bronze helmets, others are tightening the leather straps of the arrow cases they carry on their backs, while most are holding nothing more than a seat pad made of sheepskin. As the men work, the area’s familiar scents of brine, thyme, and pine needles mix with the odor of sweat and the stink of corpses.
The cove is lined, at the shore’s edge, with about 250 triremes, moored stern first. From each ship, a pair of ladders comes down and a horde of blistered hands grabs onto the rungs, as rowers pull themselves up toward their seats. The rowers grunts mix with the crackle of firewood, while the cries of the rowing masters drown out other sounds.
The Greek navy is pulling out.” – Excerpt, The Battle of Salamis, Barry Strauss
Building a strong and compelling picture of an event in the distant past, of the forces that drove its occurence and of the people that lived through it is not an easy task. Historians as a breed seem often narrow, didactic and detail-obsessed, taking the most fascinating moments and devolving them down to dry and dusty factual points, sending another generation of students drifting into the land of Nod in the back rows of the lecture hall.
The Battle of Salamis is not that type of history book. Barry Strauss has penned a superlative and riveting account of the epic naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC between the Greeks, led by the fledgling democracy of Athens and the canny, manipulative and vain Themistocles, and the overwhelming Persian forces of Xerxes.
Strauss vividly portrays the key individuals, events and circumstances, drawing on chronicles of both participants such as Aeschylus, and the later accounts of “the first historian” Herodotus, among others. The result is an amazingly readable account of the battle, the ships (triremes), the tactics (drawing the enemy into enclosed waters where speed and manuverability mattered more than size…and ramming, lots of ramming), and the long-term impact of the battle through the history of the western world (Greek victory at Salamis = success for democracy).
Strauss’s efforts to portray the turning of the battle as one of democracy versus authoritarianism feels slightly overstated given the limitations on democracy at the time in both Athens (and the lack thereof in the other Greek city states) but the long-term historical impact certainly reverberates to this day.
Strauss has mastered the ability to give the reader a feel for the action, normally the strict purview of fiction writers, illustrating the event beyond just bare facts. In his words you can taste the woodsmoke and sweat, feel the thick knot of fear in the rowers stomachs and hear the creak of the oars and the thunderous crescendo of splintering wood before the rams…
Overall Strauss has written a crackling good history that is well worth your time.
Interesting in reading more? On the fiction side, I highly recommend Stephen Pressfield’s amazing Gates of Fire, an epic account of the 300 Spartans who faced Xerxes before Thermopylae, The Hot Gates and also (by the same author) the book Tides of War covering the Athenian soldier Alcibiades. Tides of War in particular has a brutal, rip-snorting trireme battle at Syracuse that, in my opinion, ranks with the best of Hornblower as a naval battle scene.
Interested in learning more about Herodotus, the world’s first modern historian (also called “The Father of Lies”)? Check out Herodotus on the Web for a comprehensive link list or go to Herodotus’s Histories. You can read Herodotus complete works online here.
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