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Τετάρτη, 1 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010

Barry Strauss brings ancient warfare to life in The Battle of Salamis

 By Franklin Crawford

The real story of war doesn't make it into history books, poet Walt Whitman once opined. Barry Strauss, Cornell professor of history and classics and an expert on ancient warfare, took old Walt's lament as a challenge.


Strauss' latest book, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- And Western Civilization (Simon and Schuster, 2004), is all about reconstructing an ancient naval battle in as exacting detail as can be rendered -- from wind speeds and the stench of the ship's hold to the garments of a warrior queen and the thoughts that might have been inside her head. Given that the showdown occurred in 480 B.C., primary sources are, of course, missing in action. But there are accounts from Herodotus and Thucydides, Aeschylus, Plutarch -- even the much-maligned Timotheus, as well as a score of modern scholars who have all taken their best shots at the pivotal battle.

Enter Strauss, who, in addition to his reputation for keen, edgy scholarship, is himself an avid rower (he took up sculling at age 40 and wrote a book on it) and an authority on ancient oar-powered fighting vessels such as the Greek triremes that were used at Salamis. His research took him to excavation sites and museums in Turkey to Greek fishing villages. Strauss read modern war diaries and even interviewed his own father, a WWII veteran, to get a sense for the "face of war."

As the book's flyleaf states, the battle of Salamis "was the most important naval encounter of the ancient world. In the narrow strait between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland, a heavily outnumbered Greek navy defeated the Persian armada ... The Greek triumph at Salamis stopped the advancing Persians and saved the first democracy in history. It made Athens the dominant city in Greece, gave birth to the Athenian empire, and set the stage for the Age of Pericles."

The story is populated with a star-studded cast of characters: "Themistocles, the Athenian commander who masterminded the victory (and tricked his fellow Greeks into fighting); Xerxes, the Persian king who understood land but not naval warfare; Aeschylus, the Greek playwright who took part at Salamis and later immortalized it in drama; and Artemisia, the half-Greek queen who was one of Xerxes' trusted commanders and who turned defeat into personal victory."


With all these elements, it's easy to see the appeal of Salamis as both historical set piece and heroic seafaring thriller. And Strauss didn't simply wish to pen another military history of the battle of Salamis; he wanted to bring entirely new scholarship into the court of memory, drawing on nautical science, archaeology, forensic anthropology and meteorology, among other specialties -- in short, all the latest advances in the field of classical history.

"What I've been doing as a scholar before writing this book was an exercise in reading between the lines," Strauss said. "By applying the knowledge of naval archaeology or meteorology, for example, we can reconstruct an ancient world that is much richer than the pictures we get from just literary sources. When we read Thucydides or Herodotus or any of the ancient sources without that knowledge, we think, 'gosh, those guys left a lot of gaps.' [But] when we have that stuff in mind, suddenly it begins to make sense and a lot of the gaps get filled in."

In addition to bolstering ancient sources with modern scholarship, Strauss crafted a visceral accounting as full of sun, sea, sweat and blood as necessary to spice the tale. Strauss also details the "Persian campaign in Greece and flesh[es] out a picture of society and warfare in the ancient world, illuminating such topics as Persian court protocol, the prayers of Corinthian temple prostitutes and the proper method of ramming an enemy trireme," according to Publisher's Weekly.

He boldly enters into the heads of the major players on the field of battle, speculating on their states of mind. In choosing a novelistic approach to the narrative, he followed the leads of military historians like John Keegan and Stephen Ambrose, who err on the side of creative verisimilitude. Where Strauss is in doubt he says so or qualifies his observations.

The result is his most popular book to date. Hitting the shelves in June 'twixt the Hollywood blockbuster "Troy" and the summer Olympics in Athens, Strauss found The Battle of Salamis to be a hot item. He was featured three times on National Public Radio and Salamis garnered international attention, receiving rave reviews as well as a few dissenters.

Strauss didn't time it that way. His book was a culmination of a career's worth of thinking about warfare and a desire to write about an ancient naval battle. The writing itself took about a year or more and the whole process about three years, he said.

Spanish, Portuguese and Greek translation rights to Salamis have been sold and Strauss has been invited by Greek-American groups for a speaking tour on the West Coast and in Rocky Mountain states, and he also has been invited to speak at the New York Public Library and various universities.

Sticklers for the "just the facts, ma'am" school of history might have a bone to pick with Strauss' book. But he doesn't abide "the old party line" when it comes to history, he said.

"I think it's really important for ancient historians to use their imaginations -- guided by scholarship -- to try to [recapture] what it might have been like," he said. "There is immense value to writing scholarship that says, 'I'm only going to tell you the thing that we can be 100 percent sure of ...' But you also need scholarship that tells you, 'Look, I can't say with mathematical certainty what it was like, but I can tell you with a certain amount of probability that this is what it might have been like.'"

Strauss added, "I think it's our job as students of history and humanists to imagine what the past was really like in three dimensions. I think we're not doing our full job if we don't."