row2k Features
Upset Victory: A Review of Barry Strauss' New Book
August 31, 2004
Rob Colburn

In 480 BCE, the ancient world witnessed a confrontation between Imperial Persia and the Greek city states. On one side was massed the power of an absolute monarchy, whose subjects were bound in rigid obedience to their divine king. Against them -- fighting for their lives, their culture, and their homes -- were the free citizens of a small city-states, including a newly-formed democracy which valued individual intellect and action.

By September of that year, Xerxes, king of kings, had Greece almost on its knees. The cream of the Spartan army had perished in the heroic defense at the pass of Thermopylae; Athens had been evacuated, and the Persians had burned the Acropolis. The outnumbered Greek fleet was seemingly trapped behind the island of Salamis by an Persian fleet three times its size waiting to sweep in for the coup de grace. Had the Persians succeeded, much of what western civilization values in the way of individual freedoms and intellectual exploration would have been crushed into the slavish obedience demanded by large and bureaucratic empires.

Barry Strauss' fascinating new book tells why this did not happen and provides a detailed and suspenseful narrative of the unexpected victory at Salamis which turned the tide on that September day. A history professor and rower himself, Strauss explains details about the way triremes were built, rowed, and maneuvered, while spinning a riveting sea yarn. The clever tactics and intrigues of the Athenian admiral Thermistocles make the book read with all the flair of an espionage thriller.

Oarheads and coxswains will savor this book for the way it brings the art of maneuvering oared ships to life, down to the commands and training that were used. History buffs will find much new research into how the stunning upset was accomplished. Strauss demonstrates how the Persian supply lines had become overextended and their crews were ill-fed in the weeks leading up to the battle, leaving them badly prepared for the physical demands of rowing for an entire day in the September heat at battle intensity. The fact that the Persian crews had rowed all through the night prior to the battle, while the Greek crews had slept and eaten on shore and went into battle well rested certainly affected the Persians' performance, while Thermisticles' local knowledge of the winds and the waves and how it would disrupt the Persian ships, was also crucial. The Persian ships had higher bulwarks, and were more vulnerable to the aura (a close cousin to the meltimia wind which has already played such havoc with the Olympic rowing venue at Schinias). Massed in the confines of the straights, their numbers became a disadvantage. Strauss emphasizes the daring and bravery of Greek commanders who acted on individual initiative, in contrast to the brittleness of the Persian chain of command and a culture which discouraged independent action.

This is a book that anyone interested in history, rowing, or democracy will enjoy. It is a thrilling story about rowers pulling off an upset victory, written by a rower and classics professor who clearly revels in his subject.

294 pp., illust., maps, index; Buy Now!.

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