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I may not know how to tune the lyre or to handle the harp but I know how to take a small and unknown city and make it famous and great.

One of my greatest regrets, in an academic career that includes more than a few, is that we learned so little about Greece and Rome in school as we were growing up. By the time we got to Junior High and High School Latin and Greek were no longer even offered and none of our history classes spent much time on Ancient History. Then in college it was like a scene out of Donna Tartt's Secret History--the kids in such classes seemed to be in a secret cult, led by the professors and not open to we unwashed. Fortunately though, for those of us who consider ourselves bereft, several authors have been doing yeoman's work in recent years, presenting the history of these civilizations in eminently readable style. Among the best are the historian/political commentator Victor Davis Hanson, the novelist Steven Pressfield, and now Barry Strauss, a Cornell professor of history and classics.

Though not as celebrated as the land battle at Thermopylae, the sea Battle of Salamis (September, 480 B.C.) was, as Mr. Strauss argues, every bit as pivotal to the Greek success in staving off the Persians. If the subtitle of the book may overstate the case a bit, Salamis does nonetheless bear the comparison that Mr. Strauss makes to Gettysburg, as battles that while not decisive in themselves made more likely and easier the long term victories in the respective wars.

More though than just its historic importance, Mr, Strauss makes excellent use of its improbability and the novelistic twists and turns surrounding it. If it were fiction you'd think the teller of the tale embellished too much, but it's all real. In one episode, the Athenian commander, Themistocles, dispatched a lone slave, Sicinnus, to bring disinformation to the Persian King Xerxes, telling him that the Greeks were terrified and ready to flee, thus prompting the attack that Themistocles desired. Mr. Strauss, as is his wont, fully discusses the differing versions of and controversies over this story, but then says:
[T]he mission did take place. There is no reason to deny it except for its improbability, and that is a poor argument, since history is full of the improbable.
Indeed the whole war was rather improbable:
Persia had unrivaled wealth in money and manpower; unparalleled ability in engineering and logistics; superiority in both projectiles and cavalry; superb ships, harbors, and seafaring allies; and diplomatic and psychological capabilities of such sophistication that only a state able to muster the resources of the world's oldest civilization could have unleashed them. Greece had better infantry and better seamanship than Persia as well as far shorter supply lines and superior knowledge of the terrain.

It would have made sense for Persia to respond with the force multiplier of cunning and innovative tactics. A raid on Athen's unfortified harbor, for example, or a cavalry raid in central Greece that could destroy crops might bring friendly traitors to power in Athens. Persia could win the war at little cost.

Generations earlier, under Cyrus the Great, Persia had excelled at just such unconventional warfare. Now, however, it was deemed beneath the dignity of the King of Kings. The commanders of the world's greatest empire, who ruled from a ceremonial capital that sat on a 350-acre terrace at the royal city of Persepolis, like to think big. And so, Persia resorted to the least efficient and most expensive force multiplier: numbers.
You get a nice sense there for the lucidity of Mr. Strauss's prose and the way he mixes sharp analysis into a flowing narrative. Likewise, you can see why we've such a rooting interest in the Battle, not just because we're descendants of that great civilization but because of the fun inherent in watching a more nimble and thoughtful fighter take on a lumbering and seemingly invincible foe. It doesn't hurt that there's something flattering about seeing how much more effective the Greeks, with whom we share much, were than King Xerxes, whose tyrannical empire resembles somewhat the several we've fought ourselves.
The bulk of the book, of course, surrounds the battle at sea and here Mr. Strauss brings his personal knowledge--he took up rowing at 40--with an apparently voluminous reading of the sources to create for us as accurate and compelling a picture as we're ever likely to get of what went on. A cover blurb from Dava Sobel compares him to Patrick O'Brian and that high praise is warranted. It would be enough to be instructed about this important piece of our past, but Mr. Strauss turns history into a ripping adventure yarn as well. It is a fantastic book.


Grade: (A+)



See also:

Barry Strauss Links:

    -FACULTY PAGE: Barry Strauss (Cornell University)
    -AUTHOR SITE: Barry Strauss
    -EXCERPT: Prologue: Piraeus (Simon Says)
    -ESSAY: Go Tell The Spartans: At Thermopylae a king and three hundred of his soldiers set the standard for battle to the death against overwhelming odds. (Barry Strauss, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History)
    -ESSAY: What, You Condemned Anti-Semitism?: How very one-sided! (Barry Strauss, 12/11/02, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Reflections on the citizen-soldier (Barry Strauss, Summer 2003, Parameters)
    -REVIEW: of Warrior Politics by Robert D. Kaplan (Barry Strauss, Arion)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Salamis: The Battle That Saved Western Culture (Weekend Edition, July 18, 2004, NPR)
    -PROFILE: Barry Strauss brings ancient warfare to life in The Battle of Salamis (Franklin Crawford, 9/30/04, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Strauss navigates midlife waters with memoir on learning to scull at 40 (Franklin Crawford, 4/08/99, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Classicist and historian studies that elusive thing called peace (Paul Cody, 7/09/98, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Rowing against the current: Princeton fellow looks at middle-aged love affair with sport (Justin Feil, April 28, 1999, Princeton Packet)
    -ARCHIVES: "barry strauss" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Battle of Salamis. The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization by Barry Strauss (John Lewis, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Tom Holland, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Brother Edward Sheehy, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salams (W.J. Rayment)

Book-related and General Links: