Paul Cartledge

View from the Rowing Bench

Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens

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In June 1993, to mark the notional 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, a reconstruction of an ancient Athenian warship paid a symbolic visit to the Palace of Westminster: the Mother of Democracies meets the Mother of Parliaments. Possibly. At any rate, those of us who stood that day upon Westminster Bridge could feast our eyes on an avatar of one of the ancient Greek world’s most remarkable manufactures: the trireme, or three-banked oared warship, a glorified racing eight (but with over twenty times that number of oarsmen) and guided missile ramming-machine, as reconstructed according to British plans and finance and Greek craftsmanship. It was several hundreds of these weapons, in the hands mainly of Athenian citizens, that triumphantly gored and floored a many times larger Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BC, thereby saving a pioneer version of democracy or even, on one view, Western civilisation itself. Tragedy followed much later, in defeat at sea for Athens first by the Spartans (twice over, and with Persian money…), then by some of Athens’s own allies, and finally, decisively, by the Macedonian kingdom then ruled by the immediate successors of Alexander the Great. (The reconstructed trireme is perhaps rather humiliatingly named Olympias, after Alexander’s mother.)

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