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Book Review: The Battle of Salamis (Barry Strauss)

Barry Strauss is a master of the “you are there” style of popular historical writing. His books are accessible and gripping narratives about discrete historical episodes, including Spartacus, the Trojan War, and the death of Caesar. I’m a fan, of course. I’ve read most of his books, and I’m working on finishing the rest. “The Battle of Salamis” was the first popular book written by Strauss, and it well deserves the praise often heaped on it.

Salamis (an island just southeast of Athens) was, of course, the site of an ancient naval battle in 480 BC, which is commonly and justifiably regarded as crucial in creating our world today. Here an alliance of Greek states, led by Athens, defeated the Persian Empire, after the Persians had sacked and burned Athens and all her people had been evacuated from the mainland.

Salamis immediately followed the defeat of the Greek alliance at Thermopylae, where the Spartans (and some other Greeks) fought to the last man. (“Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, that here obedient to their laws, we lie.”) Thermopylae is better remembered today than Salamis. But the Greeks saw Salamis as more important, and embodying the same spirit. The Corinthians set up a cenotaph after the battle with the inscription, “When all Greece was balanced on the razor’s edge; We protected her with our souls and here we lie.” Failure at Salamis would have led to Persian domination of Greece and, almost certainly, the loss of that Greek inheritance which has informed and molded Western civilization, the civilization solely responsible for all the modern world’s freedom and glory.

The nature of “you are there” history is to paint vivid pictures of key individuals at specific moments, and then slot those moments into the larger narrative, compelling the reader with the former and informing him with the latter. It is like a movie about Troy: perhaps a tight focus on a muscular Achilles, sweating in Corinthian helmet, bronze breastplate and greaves, stabbing with a short, bronze sword—then pulling out to include his immediate opponent, then farther out to show knots of men in combat, then further still to show the ebb and flow of the forces and the city standing opposite beached ships. In the same way, Strauss picks individual characters, such as Aminias, captain of the first (or maybe second) Greek ship to attack during the battle, describing and profiling him, including his possible thoughts, then slotting him into his role in the battle, pulling back to describe the period of the battle in which Aminias played a key part. This authorial technique is not easy; it can quickly become melodrama, or too obviously fantasy. But Strauss pulls it off, and repeatedly—not just with Greeks, but with Persians and their allies (who included many Ionian Greeks), such as Artemnesia, the queen of Halicarnassus and one of the extremely few women in all history known to have led in battle, though she did not fight hand-to-hand, and Tetramnestus, king of Sidon, who captained a ship personally.

A second particular gift of Strauss is teasing out often-contradictory sources to create a coherent narrative that still continuously acknowledges its possible inaccuracies and variations. An author in such a case (which is always true for books about Classical times) has to steer between getting bogged down either in “on the one hand, on the other hand,” or in a false sense of certainty (or worse yet, the creation of a wholly fictional narrative to fill in gaps). Strauss deftly notes where the sources differ, why that matters, and what he thinks most likely happened, and why. The reader is not perturbed, but rather informed. This authorial technique is also difficult, and it is to Strauss’s credit that he pulls it off repeatedly.

While it’s hard to argue with the contributions of Classical Greece to the West, traditionally the Persians have fared poorly in the telling, cast as effete, despotic and hampered by their various vices and inferior ways of government. Popular culture to this day, such as the not-bad movie “300” (about Thermopylae) and its atrocious sequel (about Salamis, sort of), reinforce these stereotypes. Yes, there’s some truth to all that, as there is to all stereotypes, but as Strauss notes, “Persia was neither decadent nor dull but a formidable and innovative power from which the ancient Greeks—and the modern West—borrowed much.” Sure, the Great King, Xerxes, lost. He lost at Salamis, and he (or rather his main general, Mardonius—Xerxes had gone home) lost at the subsequent land battle of Platea. Xerxes’s father, Darius, had lost at Marathon. And so the Persians never returned (and eventually a Greek, Alexander, dealt them their fatal blow). But they weren’t stupid, and they weren’t incompetent, or evil. They ruled a massive empire competently for a long time, though their inflexible military system that failed to reward initiative often hampered them in dealing with the flexible Greeks (see also, for example, Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” a hundred years later, where an army of Greek mercenaries cut their way home out of the heart of the Persian Empire). We would not, probably, have as good a modern world if the Persians had won, but they don’t deserve the contempt with which they’re frequently showered.

The hero, if there is one, in Strauss’s story is the Athenian leader Themistocles. “Themistocles was that rare thing in a democracy, a leader. He had no fear of speaking truths to the people. By the same token, he knew that a straight line is not always the shortest distances between two points.” Reading Classical history, one is always struck (as one is struck reading the Old Testament) how little people have changed. The archetypes visible in the real people of thousands of years ago are visible in people today. Donald Trump is, perhaps, a second-rate Themistocles: a clever man, under-rated by others, whose flexibility of principles masks a will to power, and a will to succeed on behalf of his vision of national greatness. Now, I hesitate to suggest this, much less to fully endorse it. I thought, though I doubted, in November 2008, that Barack Obama might be the new Pericles, sent to unite us. Instead, he was a fifth-rate Cleon, a divisive demagogue who led the country into the toilet by turning people against each other. So Trump is not very likely to be the new Themistocles. Or, if he is, he may end his days as a satrap to Vladimir Putin, just as Themistocles ended his days as satrap to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes, the son of the Xerxes defeated at Salamis. But it is just possible. Check back in four years!

Strauss ends with several pages of musings on the difference between liberty, the old Greek way and focus, and the “imperial democracy” of the Delian League, which succeeded the success of Athens in the Persian Wars and which, Strauss obliquely implies, is our modern way. In his view, it was the contradictions of imperial democracy, and its critics, that produced the Golden Age of Athens. This book was published in 2004, when America’s imperial democracy seemed at its height, though Strauss makes no reference to then-current events. Today, “imperial democracy” seems less attractive, and our own path nothing like that of Athens. We are spent and weak, exacerbated by years of execrable leadership that prized above all abasing America, not poised for expansion under new, great leaders. We are more like Athens after the Peloponnesian War, waiting to be plucked by Macedon. But such analogies can easily be overdone. All we can do is work our hardest—to make America great again, by searching for, exclusively rewarding, and ultimately achieving the excellence that the Greeks of Salamis, all of them, made their aim, to their everlasting credit and our everlasting admiration.

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