The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece—and Western Civilization
by Barry Strauss
New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004
294 pp., with maps and photo
"So Many Triremes, Not Enough Awareness: Strauss Tries to Inform the World About the Importance of Salamis"
by Jennifer Williams
(for HIST 300)
An everyday man on the street might tell you, if asked, that he has heard of Marathon. A slightly better educated man might tell you that Marathon was a battle fought in ancient Greece, and is where we get the name for the modern marathon foot race. If you asked either of these gents about Salamis, however, they would more than likely not be able to tell you a thing about it.
It is precisely that vacuum of knowledge that Barry Strauss hopes to fill with The Battle of Salamis. Strauss argues in this book that it was the Greek victory in the naval battle of the Salamis straits in September 480 B.C. that enabled modern Western Civilization to develop as it did. Persia’s defeat at this battle, Strauss says, was the only thing that kept it from swallowing Greece and changing the course of history forever. Because Greece won this battle, Persia withdrew some of its forces, Athens was able to finish developing democracy, Greece learned the benefits of uniting as a whole before it dissolved into internal war again, and even Herodotus later wrote his Histories ultimately because of his exile from Halicarnassus.
Strauss lays the foundations of his book with a general overview of the political, social and historical context at that time. He elaborates on the type of ancient ship called the trireme [a ship with three levels of oars], how it worked and was maneuvered, how many people it took to crew it, and how many of them were rowers and how many were marine fighters. He lays out who was ruling which city-sates, who was on Xerxes’s council, and who stood to gain by defecting from once side to the other. He builds an elaborate reconstruction of the era and all of the players in this drama, so that the reader can become fully engrossed in the tale of this important battle. Details as minuscule but as important as the weather, sounds, smells, and food for the fighting men are all reported upon. This enables even readers who are not familiar with Greek history to understand not just the battle but also Strauss’s compelling argument about the impressive and important Greek victory over Persia.
In addition to the many details used to build this narrative, Strauss indicates where he gets his information, provides the reader with differing viewpoints, and explains why one source’s material might be more reliable than another’s. Histories, plays, epic poems, epitaphs, and monuments from the era are all used as historical sources to give the fullest picture possible. Strauss demonstrates his effort to give the most balanced account possible by including what few Persian accounts he could find. Photos of the locations as they are today are included, as are various archaeological examples and maps of the locations and points in the battle. These help readers visualize the setting for the battle and aid in Strauss’s goal of bringing the battle to life for his readers.
It is Strauss’s extreme attention to detail that is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While drawing the reader in with vivid descriptions, such as the clothes the slave Sicinnus was probably wearing on his secret mission to King Xerxes of Persia, the use of so much detail also slows down the book in points. It seems that Strauss, in his effort to make sure the reader is sure of the facts, repeats himself a little too often. Which Greek city-states supplied exactly how many triremes and how many men it took to crew them, right down to how many men on each level on each side, is repeated throughout the opening chapters. As first the battle at Artemisia and then repeated storms destroyed some of the Persian fleet, Strauss goes over these numbers again, even going so far as to cite historical sources that differ in opinion, and making the best argument for the figures he has come up with.
On the whole, Salamis is an enjoyable book that delivers readers to the place and time of this monumental event, allows them to feel a part of the struggle, and leaves them with the knowledge of how things could be very different for us today had the battle turned out differently. Strauss delivers his copious information in an enjoyable way, and the repetitious nature of the mathematical figures of the battle does not impede the reader from understanding what is being presented. This book, despite some tedious repetition, is sure to please anyone interested in ancient or military history or the major turning points in our western past.