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the battle of arginusae

19 june 2015

As battles involving oar-powered warships go, Arginusae (406 BCE) isn't exactly Salamis, Actium, or Lepanto. Which is to say, it isn't one of the handful I'd ever heard of before Debra Hamel's The Battle of Arginusae arrived in the mail this week.

One of the themes of Hamel's book is that vanishingly little is known about the actual events at Arginusae. We have two sources for knowledge about the battle itself: Xenophon, who barely mentions the battle action, and Diodorus, who presents it in a formulaic way that probably bears little relation to reality. So The Battle of Arginusae is not the kind of military history we're used to from descriptions of modern wars, with their minute blow-by-blow accounts. Hamel instead offers succinct historical context, discussion of ancient Greek navies in general, and analysis of the "tragic aftermath" mentioned in her subtitle, an ensuing political scandal that is much better documented than the battle itself.

Hamel tells her story as a nested set of cliffhangers. She starts with the battle over and surviving sailors floating in the water, awaiting rescue. We don't learn their fate for another three chapters or more. Should I spoil the whole book? Maybe not; but then again, Arginusae was 2,400 years ago and the facts are a Google search away. Stop reading now if you want the same suspenseful experience I had when I read The Battle of Arginusae.

Though as I've already alluded, the book's subtitle promises a tragic aftermath, so foreboding is in the air from the moment you see its cover. Arginusae, militarily, was an episode in the generations-long Peloponnesian War that pitted Athens and its allies against Sparta and theirs. The Athenians won the battle; they would eventually lose the war. Hamel doesn't necessarily think that they lost the war because of the events that followed Arginusae, but they became a lasting scandal in Athenian history, and they couldn't have helped.

Athenians held returning generals, even winning generals, vigorously accountable. Turns out very few of the floating sailors were picked up by the victorious fleet. The commanders, on their return to Athens, were tried and executed for the crime of abandoning their men. (Or at least those who returned were executed; a couple, seeing the writing on the wall, didn't even bother to go home.)

The Athenians soon repented of their overreaction, but the generals were still dead, and the Arginusae trials came to be emblematic of the hot-headed fickleness of mob rule. Again, Hamel's conclusion is that they were and they weren't. Something went gravely wrong in the (literal) wake of the battle. We have little direct evidence of what, but we have far more detailed evidence of the legal proceedings that determined that the wrong was serious indeed. The demos may have overreached, but it's hardly like oligarchs and autocrats have never done so. As so often, democracy may be the worst form of government except for all the others.

Hamel combines hip writing for the general reader with a scholar's ability to size up the sources of our knowledge of the past. For instance, a key witness back in Athens was a guy who had escaped the battle scene by floating off on a tub of barley; so naturally Hamel keeps referring to him as "the guy on the barley tub" (81). In her critical eye for sources, she's like Jerry Toner in his book on ancient games, also for Johns Hopkins' Witness to Ancient History series. We may know quite a bit about Athenian legal disputes, thanks to Xenophon, for instance; but we know little about this one battle, and next to nothing about the materiel and tactics of ancient naval warfare. This was truly a revelation to me; I thought there must be an archeological record and a bunch of surviving naval manuals. But no remains of any trireme have ever been found; even the size of these warships must be inferred from the size of their sheds. Recreations are one source of knowledge; critical reading of scraps of evidence another; and for Hamel's purposes, Aristophanes is also useful. The great comic playwright wasn't much interested in military history, but his scattered allusions to all kinds of experience offer inadvertent sidelights on things like what it was like to be an oarsman on a trireme. (Smelly, exhausting, and violent.)

The Battle of Arginusae makes exceptionally good use of maps. There are only a couple, in the front of the book, and they're just line drawings, but if Hamel mentions a place, you can look right at the map and be sure to find it. This seems simple, but it's the rare history book that's well-enough produced and edited that its maps are ideally integrated with its text. It may just be that I'm a visual learner, but I found Debra Hamel an excellent teacher.

Hamel, Debra. The Battle of Arginusae: Victory at sea and its tragic aftermath in the final years of the Peloponnesian War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. DF 229.83 .H36 [Witness to Ancient History]