Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lords of the Sea by John R. Hale


The Athenian city-state lived and died by its navy.  They were remarkable, innovative ship builders in the early years giving them an edge in control of the sea.  Rival Sparta was always more comfortable with feet on solid ground.  The Navy used citizen rowers not the slaves so often depicted in Hollywood drama.  Those came later with the Romans, Barbary pirates and others.  Hale recounts the naval history of the Peleponessus over the course of several centuries with the focus kept squarely on the sea and largely leaving the land wars to others.

What I liked: I learned a lot about Athens culture, history and tradition from this book.  Democracy can be a brutal system of government when practiced in its true form (here in the US, we are a republic).  The hero of the hour quickly becomes the scapegoat of tomorrow and lives his life in exile.  There is no buffer for people to cool down or see the long term effects of actions.  They love ya or they don't.  Second, with an eye on our own immigration issues, I read with interest the ways Athens tried to limit its population to keep immigrants and mixed citizenship people from outpacing the resources of the city-state.  Third, at times the citizenship requirements were quite strict.  At their strictest, their leader Pericles experienced complete tragedy during a plague and lost all of his legitimate children.  The city immediately came forward with an exception just for him so he could legitimize and give citizenship to one of his children by a foreign mistress.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Finally, I learned a lot about sea tactics, the life of sailors and the building and manning of ships.  Since I read this for a 12x12 category about life in or on the sea, this aspect was perfect for my goal.

What I didn't like:  It felt like this book was about 100 pages too long.  I don't get into politics and Hale spent a fair bit of time explaining Athenian politics and power struggles.  Perhaps he felt it was necessary to understanding the stages of life of the Athenian Navy, but it didn't fit into my goal in reading the book.