The Battle Of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece–And Western Civilization, by Barry Strauss
One can tell the sort of subject matter that an author is expert in by what they see as “saving western civilization,” and this author is clearly a classicist in viewing the Battle of Salamis in such a light. This is not to say that a reader should think the battle unimportant, only that this battle is one of the many battles that is viewed as a hinge of history. One can tell that the author is a classicist and not, say, a moralist by the way that this battle is viewed as being vitally important but not providential in nature. The author goes out of his way to look at various reasons why we should not look to divine providence as a reason for the survival of the Greeks, and the author is helped in this by his focus on the trickiness and general lack of moral fiber of the hero Themistocles and the author’s view that religious feeling on the part of anyone is akin to superstition. The book therefore is an interesting read but there is clearly some distance between the author’s view and my own.
This book of about 250 pages is divided into four parts. The author begins with some notes on spelling, a timetable, and notes about the ships. After that the author discusses the Persian advance (I) with chapters on Artemisium (1), the Greek stand at Thermopylae (2), the Persian sack of Athens (3), and the arrival of the Greek fleet at Salamis (4). After that the author discusses the Greek trap of the Persians (II), looking at what happened at Phaleron where the Persians had set up their base of operations (5), the trip of one of Themistocles’ slaves from Salmais to Phaleron with some information about Greek disarray (6), the willingness of the Persians to accept the bait of that trap (7), and the arrival of the Persians at Salamis (8). The next part of the book is spent talking about the battle itself (III), dividing the battle into three phases, namely morning (9), afternoon (10), and evening (11), looking at what the sources say and what can be reconstructed from it. Finally, the author closes with a look at the retreat (IV) of the Persian fleet (12) and the response of the Athenians to it (13) with an epilogue about Themistocles’ going to Persia after having to leave Athens in exile.
This book is very humanistic in its tone, and that is likely something that will appeal to a lot of writers. Yet it would not be too much to imagine that Greece could have survived the loss at Salamis. There is nothing to say that a Persian victory would have been permanent in light of the frequent revolts in Egypt and Ionia. Likewise, there is no reason why the Persian army would have necessarily been superior had there been a less decisive victory or a draw that allowed for a retreat to the area around Corinth. We are all a bit prone to view things as decisive because they happened to happen that way without thinking more about what it would have meant for things to work out differently. Often our imagination is not nearly as good as our interest in analyzing and enshrining the importance of what did happen. Even so, this is a good book about an important battle that was one of the battles between very different and alien cultures that demonstrated the boundaries of an empire and its eventual decadence and decay. The author’s praise and heavy use of Herodotus is not a choice that everyone would agree with, but the author’s view that ancient authorities should be respected is certainly in line with my own views on the matter, to be sure.