Springer (2022) h/b 328pp £109.99 (ISBN 97830984304)

This is the first of two volumes of papers presented at an online conference held over two days in October 2020 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the battle of Salamis (or 2,499th, if you don’t believe there was a year 0 CE). It was a significantly interdisciplinary and international gathering. Of the 17 contributors, eight are ancient historians, four are economists and the remainder work in the fields of strategic and conflict studies, politics and international affairs. Between them they represent universities in the USA, Greece (the conference was sponsored and hosted by five Greek institutions), the UK (Paul Cartledge and Edith Hall, both in excellent form); Sweden; Australia; Germany and China. The contents list gives an idea of the flavour and considerable scope of the book.

I The Democratic Implications of the Battle of Salamis

Herodotus on Rationality and Cooperation Before Salamis (Josiah Ober); Greece’s Finest Hour? The Democratic Implications of the Battle of Salamis (Paul Cartledge); Salamis as Inflection Point: Militarization, Politicization, and Democratization (Thomas Figueira).

II The Strategies That Lead to Monumental Naval Victories

Themistocles: Leadership and Grand Strategy (Αthanasios Platias and Vasillis Trigkas); Salamis and Actium: Lessons from Two Decisive Ancient Battles in Greek Waters (Barry Strauss); The Legacy of the Battle of Thermopylae (David L. Berkey).

III The Institutional and Societal Implications of the Battle of Salamis

The Institutional Roots of a Naval Victory (Michel S. Zouboulakis); The Battle of Salamis and the Democratization of Justice (Sara Forsdyke); Coping with Chronic Warfare. The Athenian Experience (Carl Hampus Lyttkens and Henrik Gerding); Rowing and Democratic Memory: Salamis in Aristophanic Comedy (Edith Hall).

IV The Sociopolitical Background Before and After the Emergence of Democracy and the Battle of Salamis

Ancient Greek Political Science: Parochial or Universal? (Alain Bresson); The Emergence of Democracy: A Behavioural Perspective (Emmanouil M.L. Economou and Nicholas C. Kyri); Antigone, the Demos, the Law, and the Money (Manfred J. Holler); Honouring the War Dead in Democratic Athens (David M. Pritchard).

There is a lot going on here. The collected papers offer much more than a linear narrative of strategic, political and social developments before and after Salamis and their focus expands across the pentecontaetia into the Peloponnesian War and even beyond into the 4th century.

In the words of the volume editors, two professors of economics and one of strategic studies, the conference agenda drew inspiration ‘from the democratic origins of the great Greek naval victory’. These ‘democratic origins’ were, of course, predominantly Athenian. The rest of Greece, the Hellene community of 1000 poleis, even as represented by the 30 or so who were both willing and able to risk all to defy the Great King, would not collectively have seen themselves as defending a shared form of democratic governance. Two of the three most significant other members of the alliance, Corinth and Aegina, were oligarchies, and Sparta had its unique blend of dual monarchy, gerontocracy and democracy.

The editors go on to argue that Salamis ‘should not be considered only as a Greek victory. It is much more, a victory of the ideals and values of Western civilisation…’. This grand view calls for a similar degree of moderation. It was a ‘Greek victory’ that could not have been won without the Athenians. Secondly, in 480 BC those ‘ideals and values’, taken as meaning democratic ideals and values, were still in the early stages of evolution, if most developed in Athens. The Salamis battle cry recorded by Aeschylus (Persae 402-5), and the values cited by the Athenians in their spring 479 ‘no surrender’ speech (Herodotus 8.144), seem better reflections of what the Greeks collectively believed they were fighting for. There is no shout for democracy in either passage, but rather for the preservation of each polis’ independence from external rule and of the traditional values and general way of life that all (non-medizing) Greeks could subscribe to.

However, later in the Persae (584-593), the chorus of Elders hints at a vision of Persian subject states free and turning democratic as a consequence of the empire’s catastrophic defeat:

Now, in all of Asia, it will not be long

Before men are free from rule of Persian law…

No longer will men’s tongues be silenced by force.

For the people may now speak freely.

(584-5, 591-3)

An Athenian audience would have recognised the allusion to two essential components of democracy, isonomia (equality under Athenian law) and isegoria (an equal voice in government for all citizens), and these are clearly relatable to 21st century concepts of the rule of law, and freedom of speech and democratic participation. However, Cartledge points out that the word demokratia was not yet coined and would not find its way into Athenian political discourse until the middle of the 5th century.

Continuing their introduction, the editors add, ‘values alone do not win battles’. This cues in several pages examining Themistocles’ extraordinary leadership of the Athenians from his archonship three years before Marathon to Salamis and beyond. They take the opportunity to challenge a ‘current “structural orthodoxy” [in international and strategic studies] that regards leaders as either theoretically immeasurable or heavily conditioned actors that lack transformative agency.’

Platies, one of the editors, joins with Trigkas in the first paper in Part II to tackle this ‘orthodoxy’ head-on. Themistocles’ leadership over the 13 years up to 480 resulted in the development of Piraeus as a strategic seaport, both mercantile and naval; the persuasion of the entire citizen body to invest labour or cash in his massive ship-building programme (‘a fiscal expansionary program of a Keynesian inspiration’); the inspiration of an overwhelming majority of citizens and non-citizens to serve the common good in combatant and non-combatant roles; and the successful communication and implementation of his brilliant strategic and tactical vision, as commander of the 200-strong Athenian contingent (well over half the entire Greek trireme fleet) but subordinate to a Spartan commander-in-chief and with only an equal voice and single vote in the deliberations of the 15 other Greek commanders.

Platias and Trigkas use the case of Themistocles to argue explicitly and convincingly ‘that leaders may indeed have a consequential and measurable impact upon strategic issues’. I wonder how many outside this academic warzone need convincing of this but enjoyed the recruitment of ancient history to their cause by two specialists in contemporary strategic studies, who from their specialist perspective add new facets to our understanding of one of the greatest war-leaders of all time.

The first two of the three papers that comprise Part I trace the development of Athenian democracy before and after Salamis. Ober draws on Herodotus’ narrative to show how isegoria enabled citizens to make rational decisions, informed by shared knowledge and in a spirit of mutual trust across property classes and the old divisions of city, coast and country. Cartledge deftly plots the trajectory of Athenian democracy from the final years of the 6th century to the 330s, but his main focus is on the period between 508/7 to 447, Salamis ‘at its beating heart’. Both Ober and Cartledge introduce important themes which are explored further in the contributions that follow. Figueira, third in Part I, shows how the Athenians, led by Themistocles, adapted and strengthened their rudimentary naval infrastructure and processes to enable the rapid execution of Themistocles’ shipbuilding and crew-training programme.

In the second paper in Part II, Strauss identifies the differences between Salamis and Actium in brief surveys of the two battles, but argues that they also had certain things in common. However, it seems a stretch to say both battles represented conflicts between East and West, true of Salamis but not of Actium, the climactic confrontation in a Roman civil war. True, each battle was the culmination of a campaign, not a one-off event, and that the result of each was ‘decided by a combination of cunning, prowess and audacity’. But something along these lines can be said of most great victories on sea or land. Exceptionally, both battles did indeed feature a female admiral on the losing side, though Artemisia and Cleopatra were in very different leagues in terms of the forces under their command and their personal impact on the battles’ outcomes.

Berkey’s contribution on Thermopylae sits oddly in a section devoted to ‘strategies that lead to monumental naval victories’. True to its title, the paper’s main focus is on the land battle’s immediate and lasting legacy. Berkey touches only briefly on its strategic importance as the land component of an integrated defence of central Greece and says even less about Artemisium, the sea component. The defensive plan failed disastrously, but bought enough time for the untested Greek fleet to gain essential battle experience and build the confidence to fight again and win not many weeks later.

Three out of the four papers in Part III follow on naturally from Figueira’s in Part I. Zouboulakis, from his perspective as Professor in the History and Methodology of Economics, focuses on the institutional factors that enabled the organization of the Athenans’ defence and victory at Salamis. Fosdyke shows how change in the Athenian judicial system, fully involving all citizens in paid jury service, was catalysed by the recognition after Salamis of the importance of the poorest citizens to the military strength of the polis. Lyttkens and Gerding, respectively economist and classicist, explore the issues for Athens of manpower sourcing and the impact of casualties. Their discussion throws light from a different angle on some of the institutional changes examined by other contributors.

Two of the papers in Part IV sit comfortably with the three discussed in the previous paragraph and Figueira’s in Part I. Economou and Kyriazis, economists applying organizational theory, trace the evolution of ‘coordination and cooperation’ in hoplite and trireme warfare as behavioural mechanisms from which new sets of values emerged. These qualities of cohesion, trust and shared purpose, evolving in the decades before Salamis, were as crucial for the development of democracy as for the cohesion and effectiveness of hoplite formations or trireme crews. Pritchard ends the book in style, showing how democratisation from the reforms of Cleisthenes onwards transformed the way Athens waged war and consequently how she honoured her war dead. ‘The beautiful death’ and elaborate funeral rites and commemoration ceased to be the private preserve of the aristocratic warrior elite and were publicly bestowed in mass ceremonies on all fallen citizens, hoplites, light armed (psiloi) or sailors. War and the decision-making around it had become public, collective activities and the new ‘Athenian way of death’ fully reflected this.

Finally, there are three papers, one at the end of Part III and two in Part IV, that draw on close examination of specific textual sources, respectively comedy, political thought and tragedy. Hall, injecting some fun after 200 pages of properly serious analysis and theorising, explores the six surviving plays of Aristophanes performed at the Lenaea between 425 and 405. She demonstrates their richness as a source of evidence for ‘the Athenian navy’s pride, idiolect, physical experience, and inherited foundation memory of Salamis.’ Naval references are such a feature of these plays because the festival took place in January when the crews were home from the sea and comprised a large proportion of the audience. Their enjoyment of Aristophanes’ naval jokes, and appreciation of his many well-informed references to their shared experience as the muscle that maintained and projected Athenian power, could usually be relied upon to secure the prize for best comedy. The citizens who formed a large part of this constituency, identified by Aristotle as collectively ‘more democratic in spirit than those who lived in the city’, could come up from Piraeus and put decisive weight behind motions in the Assembly and there was a comparable need for politicians from Themistocles onwards to cultivate their support. Through Aristophanes we come into face-to-face contact with an important component of the human engine of Athenian democracy.

In his paper opening Part IV, Bresson may not surprise many readers with his affirmation that Greek political science is ‘universal’ rather than ‘parochial’. However, writing as a classicist specialising in the ancient economy, Bresson offers some interesting perspectives. For example, he shows how the conceptual frameworks developed by the Greeks to make sense of the varieties of governance found in their world of city-states were usefully applied in the analysis of worlds other their own, and how they have remained useful in subsequent eras. He strikingly contrasts the hierarchical structure of the Achaemenid world with the collaborative, democratic principle of ‘egalitarian horizontal circulation’ of information, ideas and goods in a world ruled by nomos.

Holler, an economist, lists conflict resolution, public choice and decision theory amongst his main areas of research. He examines Sophocles’ dramatization of Antigone’s doomed defiance of Creon, the king, pitting ancient sacred law against the law of the state, and unravels the complexity added by the involvement of the seer Teiresias and the people of Thebes represented by another chorus of elders. The play ends with Creon still king, now indelibly stained with tyranny, and Antigone and his son, Haemon, dead. But Haemon, has spoken up passionately, albeit ineffectually, for democracy. Writing half way through the 5th century, Sophocles adapts this tale from the often irrational heroic past to show how far Athens had travelled to her democratic and mostly rational present.

Democracy and Salamis is a kaleidoscopic commentary on the length and breadth of that democratic journey and a substantial addition to the literature on the subject, especially welcome for the dimensions and perspectives opened up by its interdisciplinary scope. Salamis was an important waymark. It did not change the direction of travel but it was the most spectacular demonstration yet of the transformative force of isegoria and isonomia.

‘While under tyrannical rule the Athenians were no more of a force in warfare than any of their neighbours, yet when they had got rid of the tyrants, they became the best by far. They were plainly half-hearted in the service of a despot, but, once liberated, every one of them was eager to achieve great things for himself.’ (Herodotus 5.78)

The editors’ ambitious ‘higher goal of seeking answers for a more prosperous and brighter future for our societies’ is achieved to a fairly limited extent, but the book is no worse for that. Major issues that it deals with are timeless and universal, and consideration of how they were addressed in the ancient past is perennially helpful in considering how they might be dealt with in the present and future. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy read. In particular, for some contributors English is not their first language and their texts would have benefitted from more detailed and sensitive copy editing. Also, the index is poor, giving little help in navigation between papers when following important themes and sub-themes through the collection.

A second volume, Democracy in Times of Crises: Challenges, Problems and Policy Proposals (also published in 2022), ‘discusses the current pressing issues of democracy worldwide’ and has much more contemporary focus, though Brexit and Ancient Greece, and Themistocles and Donald Trump rub shoulders in the publisher’s listing of the book’s ‘Keywords’!

William Shepherd