Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy

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John Hale is an archaeologist at the University of Kentucky in Louisville with an impressive dossier of field experience at sites both above and below water. He is also a former oarsman, which makes him even better qualified to pen this beautifully written, fluent account of the rise and fall of the Athenian navy. This book is an intricate tapestry of triremes and naval tactics, of sea battles well-known and obscure. Competent and incredibly stupid leaders appear and disappear; Aristophanes, Euripedes, and other dramatists provide fascinating commentary on victory and defeat.

The writing is evocative, sometimes magnificent, and never dull, the sounds of a trireme’s rush a ‘throbbing pulse, as strong and steady as the heartbeat of a giant’. I have never read better descriptions of the Piraeus and its trireme sheds or a finer synthesis of the complex dynamics of ancient Athenian life. Lords is a masterpiece of understated, multidisciplinary scholarship that combines field experience with meticulous library work. This is a wonderful Christmas gift for anyone who likes sound scholarship and good writing, illustrated with superb drawings by Samuel Manning. I hope now that Hale goes on to write another book, this time about actually rowing in a trireme. He is well qualified to do so.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 38. Click here to subscribe

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