First-rate military and political history, focusing on a critically important battle of the ancient past.
By 480 b.c., writes Strauss (History & Classics/Cornell Univ.; Rowing Against the Current, 1999), newly democratic Athens had emerged as the preeminent naval power in the eastern Mediterranean; reports Herodotus, whose words resound through Strauss’s pages, “When the Athenians lived under a tyranny they were no better at war than any of their neighbors, but after they got rid of the tyrants they were the first by far.” Small wonder that Xerxes, the famed ruler of the Persian Empire, determined that Athens had to be crushed first if his forces were to advance into mainland Greece. Well aware of Xerxes’ intentions, Athenian military leader Themistocles urged his fellow citizens to take the defense of the city onto the seas. In early September, the city now evacuated, the Persians arrived and captured the Acropolis after a brief siege, then were lured into sea battle at the Straits of Salamis, where a Greek force of 271 warships sailed against a Persian fleet nearly three times as strong—and made up not only of Persians, but also of Greeks from other regions. The Persians, Strauss writes, “knew that the Greeks did well in war only when united, so Persia’s job was to divide them.” They were largely successful in doing so, but the successful resistance of the Athenians at Salamis helped inspire other Greeks to revolt against Xerxes, even though the Athenians, as Strauss writes, “knew that in spite of the damage they had inflicted on Persia’s ships, the majority of the enemy’s triremes had escaped.” Xerxes went on to other conquests elsewhere. By an irony of history, Themistocles, miffed because the Athenians did not prize him sufficiently, eventually went over to the Persian side, serving as “an administrator in the Persian provinces and a vassal of Xerxes’ son, the Great King Artaxerxes I.”
Strauss’s reconstruction of the events of naval and classical history overflows with detail and writerly attention to a grand story.