John R. Hale's Book, Rowing to Democracy





John R. Hale was a freshman at Yale in 1969 when an offhand comment from the legendary classics professor Donald Kagan changed the direction of his life. Mr. Hale was taking Mr. Kagan’s Introduction to Greek History, and when the professor learned his student was rowing for the freshman crew (“Ha!” Mr. Kagan exclaimed. “A rower.”), he made a suggestion. “He told me that I should investigate Athenian history from the vantage point of a rower’s bench,” Mr. Hale writes in his new book. “It was an assignment, I found, for life.”

Mr. Hale went on to study at Cambridge, where he did his doctoral work on the evolution of the Viking longship. From there he embarked on a long archaeological career that has included many underwater searches for ancient warships. Decades later he’s finally gotten around to writing his first book, “Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy,” along the lines Mr. Kagan proposed.

Mr. Hale’s sea-level view of Athens during its Golden Age is, as Mr. Kagan had guessed, a novel and gripping way to approach a story that has been told many times before. What Mr. Kagan might not have guessed is that his student would become a far better than average writer. In “Lords of the Sea” Mr. Hale’s simple but vigorous sentences prick up your ears from the first page...

...Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides...

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