Recently the Concordia University Retirees Faculty Book Club discussed John R. Hale’s, LORDS OF THE SEA: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. Hale develops the thesis that Athenian naval power was fundamental transforming Athens and creating a Golden Age of unparalleled achievement, 480 BC – 404 BC, an epoch also referred to as The Age of Pericles. The book jacket outlines the story succinctly. “The vision of the soldier statesman Themistocles set his own small city – Athens – on a course of greatness when he persuaded his fellow citizens to build a fleet of warships known as triremes, the formidable dynamos at the heart of Athenian history . . . Athens played a key role in the Greek struggle for freedom against the invading Persians . . . Thanks to its navy Athens played a leading role in the struggle for freedom against the invading Persians.” The Golden Age commenced by the Athenian led coalition of city-states with triremes and their oarsmen defeating the Persian navy at Salamis in 480 BC.
Hale argues that Athenian “commitment to naval power sparked the revolution that brought into being the world’s first “radical democracy” (dependent upon) common citizens who pulled the oars in the fleet.” Foreigners residing in Athens received citizenship for service as oarsmen on the triremes, slaves could earn their freedom with similar service. Free inquiry fostered creativity, naming a few areas, in art, architecture, sculpture, drama, athletics, and the highest philosophic expression with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. “Pericles was the architect of this new Golden Age, and under his benign (fifteen year) guidance the Athenians were justified in believing that they were setting in motion a new cycle of human history.” (p. 125)
Drawing my attention was the Golden Age placing emphasis on scientific inquiry and historical writing. There were geniuses in many fields but close to my particular interests is that the field of history was invented at this time by Herodotus. He came to understand that the Persian Wars “as an epic contest that led to the emergence of Athenian thalassocracy.” (Greek: sea and rule). He came to view the Persian Wars and all of Hellenic history “as a series of conflicts between East and West, Asia and Europe.” After him historia came to be more than inquiry or research but “designated as a branch of human intellectual endeavor: the quest to compile a record of events that would uncover root causes and recurring patterns.”
Macedonia under the leadership of Alexander the Great led to the final defeat of the Athenian thalassocracy in 404 BC. One can trace the fall of the Athenian Empire as caused by hubris, often typical causation for fall off empire. The Delian League formed in 478 BC under the leadership of Athens was an association of Greek maritime city-states and 150 islands. Athens used their allies navies for their own purpose. Supposed allies paying annual tribute to Athens alienation surfaced and the urge for independence grew.
Aristotle, representing an upper class view, spoke negatively of “trireme democracy” as evil and as enemies of the “well-ordered state, were not merchantmen but triremes.” (pp.398-9). There is another view, namely, “The experiment in democracy ensured that the fruits of naval victories were shared by all Athenians, transforming the life of even the poorest citizen. The age of the common man had dawned. For the first time anywhere on earth, a mass of ordinary citizens, independent of monarchs or aristocrats or religious leaders, were guiding the destiny of a great state.” (p.121)
Following are remarks made after my wife and I traveled to Turkey in 1998. Those remarks are relevant to the wider continuing struggle East and West the past 1600 years since the zenith of the Golden Age of Athens that, to considerable degree, depended on naval supremacy. Current tension East and West today in the Near East is only the latest chapter in that struggle.
Personal Observation and Experience
“Schooled in theology and history, my passion for many years had been to visit Justinian’s church of the Hagia Sophia (532) in Istanbul (Constantinople) and also experience an excursion on the Golden Horn and Bosphorus, the key waterway between Europe and Asia connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Both desires were met, exciting a historian’s mind in making historical connections that make more clear the shaping of western culture and values. Asian Anatolia and European Istanbul comprise modern Turkey. It is here that east and west interconnected over the centuries, creating much of the worldview we have inherited. From Central Asia advancing through the corridor between the Black Sea and the Caspian, in successive waves came the Hittites, Lycians, Phrygians, Seljuks, and Ottoman Turks. From the West in their turn came the Ionians, Greeks, Alexander the Great and Hellenization of the Near East, Romans, and, finally, the dominance for a millennium by the Byzantines in Constantinople until conquered by the Muslim Turks in 1453.
Out of all of this comes much of the synthesis shaping our Greco-Roman classical world view. It should be recalled that much of this worldview was not only preserved but enhanced, as well, by eastern philosophy and science that came packaged with the advance of Islam to the west in the Renaissance via the Islamic dominance in Spain and subsequent impact upon Italy and Christian Europe.
Today, Turkey is our trusted ally and fellow NATO member. Recall the Truman Doctrine of 1947. Britain had contained the Russian Bear throughout the nineteenth century. After World War II we took up the burden for the exhausted Brits and drew the line at the Bosphorus and Greece at the onset of the Cold War. The America Eagle frustrated the Russian Bear’s drive to warm water ports. Their dream, since Peter the Great was short-circuited.”