Freedom, Barbarism, and Triremes

Twenty-five hundred years ago this month, a Greek naval armada, composed largely of Athenian ships led by the brilliant statesman Themistocles, won a decisive victory over the massive navy of the Persian king Xerxes in the straits of Salamis. This victory effectively ended a decade of Persian efforts to subjugate the autonomous cities of ancient Greece to barbarian rule.

Commemorating this event is not antiquarianism. By preserving the freedom of the Greeks, the victory at Salamis made possible a period of human flourishing in the arts, sciences, philosophy, and politics that the world has rarely seen, one that would prove foundational to Western civilization and whose rival for significance might only be found in the Italian Renaissance. In remembering it, we remind ourselves of what makes the West both so distinct and so fragile.

When I, as a professor of political science, teach my students about an event so critical to our shared history, I try to show them how the texts of the ancient world convey both the dramatic urgency of political life and the human wisdom inherent in learning about its affairs. In reading accounts of the battle by Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, and Plutarch, I’ve often wondered about that morning two and half millennia ago—about what Themistocles was thinking in the hours and minutes leading up to a battle that he had engineered. After all, the placement and timing of this battle were largely his own doing; through subterfuge practiced on both the Persian king and his own allies he manufactured a battle on which the liberty of Greece rested.

Perhaps, as he stood on the deck of his trireme staring across the straits at an enemy intent on enslaving him, he thought of his own glory. As a master of foresight, Themistocles surely anticipated what a victory here would mean for the power and glory of Athens and himself. But not even such a far-seeing statesman could have known what Athens’s victory would mean for the centuries that followed.

Perhaps even more inconceivable for a man like Themistocles is how, 25 centuries later, a free people, reared amidst a civilization that his daring and wisdom helped make possible, could voluntarily surrender their liberty to a foe no less visible and every bit as dangerous as the Persians he vanquished. But such a surrender is precisely what America appears to be contemplating.   

The Battle of Salamis (ca. September 25, 480 BC)

The battle of Salamis was the turning point in the wars between Persia and Greece. In early 480 BC, the Persian king Xerxes began constructing a massive army from the farthest reaches of his empire. His hope was to avenge his father’s humiliating defeat at Marathon a decade earlier by Greek forces who had so insolently refused to bow before Darius. Because of his army’s enormity (Herodotus improbably reports it at over a million men), Xerxes’ advance went unopposed. Everywhere his army marched, previously free and independent Greek city-states offered up soil and water as a sign of their submission.

But the Athenians, like the famed Spartans to their south, found the prospect of willing slavery to the barbarian simply unacceptable. Unlike the cities of the Peloponnesus, however, which were protected by a thin isthmus that the Spartans claimed they and their allies could defend, Athens enjoyed no such geographic advantages. So the Athenians opted for something daring. At the behest of Themistocles, they decided to abandon their city to the Persians, send their women and children into hiding, and order all able-bodied men aboard their ships. The only hope of preserving their freedom and recovering their homes now lay in victory at sea.   

That the decisive battle would take place in the straits of Salamis was due partly to the fact that those Greeks who decided to resist the Persians suffered heavy losses at the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium. While their infantry retreated, effectively conceding the rest of mainland Greece to the Persians, their naval forces regrouped at the island of Salamis just off the southern coast of Attica.

What mattered most at Salamis was not one’s wealth or birth, or the differences owing to custom or convention, but the respective daring, self-sufficiency, and capacity for civic spirit that nature bestowed on each Athenian.

But it was also due to the genius of Themistocles. Recognizing that his fellow Greeks were terrified of a Persian navy whose ships outnumbered them by about 2-1, and were thus likely to endorse a Spartan plan that counseled more retreat, Themistocles, pretending to betray the Greek cause, informed Xerxes that dissension among the Greeks gave him the perfect opportunity to conquer his enemy once and for all. Xerxes took the bait.

On the night of September 24, the Persian navy sailed into the straits of Salamis and tried to block both entrances. But the Greeks, now faced with no hope of escape, did not fold. Instead, embracing the daring to do what needed to be done, they attacked the Persians the next morning. There, in the straits’ cramped conditions, the Persian numbers proved an active hindrance. As Persian ships struggled to maneuver, they ran afoul of each other, allowing the numerically inferior, but more capable and more disciplined, Greeks to score a decisive victory, sinking or capturing in a single day at least 300 enemy vessels. Faced with such a blow to his logistical support, and “aided” with yet more subterfuge by Themistocles, Xerxes decided to retreat to Asia with much of his army.

The following year the battle of Plataea concluded the Persian wars. But it was the Athenian-led victory at Salamis that broke the fighting spirit of the barbarians in Greece.  

The Legacy of Periclean Athens

This stunning victory is critical to the life of the West because it was critical to the transformation of Athens over the next century. And to speak of the Athens that grew out of the remarkable victory Themistocles engineered is to call to mind the great Pericles.

As an influential Greek statesman, orator, and general during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Pericles is most associated with the golden age of Athenian democracy. Indeed, his influence on Athenian society was so profound that Thucydides, his contemporary, acclaimed Pericles as “the first citizen of Athens”; when Pericles talked, people listened. It is fitting then that we remember Pericles as much for what he said as for what he did. And no speech of Pericles is as memorable—or as emblematic of the Athens that Themistocles “created”—as what tradition calls his Funeral Oration.

At the start of the Peloponnesian war in 431 BC, Pericles, as the leading man in Athens, was required to deliver a eulogy over those men who were the first to die in battle. There Pericles famously remarks of Athens that “as a city we are the school of Greece.”

Athens is the school of Greece because, according to Pericles’ lustrous praise, her citizens are generous, versatile, open to others, supremely confident in their abilities, and gracefully refined without sacrificing the manly virtues needed to defend their city. They are leisured, loving philosophy without becoming soft, and they are ambitious without being crudely self-seeking; they are daring and enterprising but just as comfortable discharging public duties as they are pursuing private interests; and their reason informs and moderates their passions without paralyzing their ability to act for the city. Such virtues explain why Pericles concludes that they “have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere . . . have left imperishable monuments behind us.”

These are no idle boasts. In the span of less than a century this little city, whose territory and population were no larger than the central Massachusetts town where I teach, produced the treasures at the heart of Western civilization. In the structures adorning her Acropolis, in the famed sculptures of Phidias, and in the tragedies and comedies of its playwrights, Athens laid the foundations for Western art, architecture, and literature.

By becoming the home of Herodotus and Thucydides, Athens proved the birthplace of history. Through the golden words of her statesmen, Athens taught oratory to the Romans whose example, in turn, shaped the rhetoric of leaders like Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy. And as the world’s most famous direct democracy, Athens strove to combine the example of political freedom and equality at home with an energetic, daring, and powerful maritime empire abroad. Finally, during this period Athens gave us Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, men whose works made possible philosophy, that reasoned and joyful quest for the truth that has informed Western intellectual, moral, and political life for millennia.   

Such an explosion of human vitality in so short a period becomes all the more impressive when one contrasts it with the artistic and cultural contributions of America in the 244 years since our colonists declared independence from England. While our scientific and industrial innovations would baffle the leading lights of classical antiquity, America’s long-lasting contributions to the humane arts simply pale in comparison to its Athenian predecessor. What allowed the Athenians to do this? The key to unlocking the puzzle of their dynamic energy lies in understanding how the Athenians defeated the Persians 50 years before Athens’ “golden age.” 

Triremes, Democracy, and Human Nature

Themistocles knew what the Greeks, and especially his fellow Athenians, could achieve at Salamis because he understood how their fleet of triremes could amplify the Athenian character. The acme of maritime power, triremes derived their name from the three banks of rowers, 170 souls in all, used to generate each ship’s ramming speed. This meant that at Salamis, where Athens contributed nearly 200 ships, she had almost 34,000 citizens afloat on the wine-dark seas. This amounted to almost their entire free male population.

The experience of the whole city cramped together within the hot and stinking hulls of their ships, sweating and working away in silence as they kept their oar-strokes timed to the sound of a piper, proved critical to the formation of Athens’ democratic psychology. Not only did it bring together the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, in the service of a well-defined and genuinely common good. It also amplified the animating spirit of democratic freedom and equality. For what mattered most at Salamis was not one’s wealth or birth, or the differences owing to custom or convention, but the respective daring, self-sufficiency, and capacity for civic spirit that nature bestowed on each Athenian.

It is in this space for and openness to nature that we see more clearly the roots of Athens’ amazing vitality. In deciding to abandon their city and take to their ships, the Athenians, who took their civic religion seriously, had to surrender to the barbarian, at least temporarily, their sacred temples and olive groves, the graves of their heroes and their ancestors, and the temples that housed the rites of their gods.

In this momentary separation from their particular traditional and religious authorities, they made possible for themselves a magnificent discovery. On that fateful September morning, when the Athenians, relying on their own native genius, won a nearly miraculous victory against a vastly superior foe, they discovered for themselves the potential of human self-assertion. Through their revolutionary daring, they came face to face with the beauty and dynamism of mankind’s natural independence.

Too many of those who benefit from the innovation, freedom, and love of excellence at the heart of Athens and America offer mindless support of a social movement that seeks a fundamental transformation of American life.

This encounter with human nature changed the basis on which Athens would operate over the next century. For in their daring at Salamis, the Athenians, acting out of a jealous concern for one’s own freedom, showed the world a willingness to sacrifice those moral and political verities that are merely given. As such, they anticipated the willingness to question tradition, ancestral authority, and conventional wisdom in pursuit of genuine human autonomy, an aspect of their civic character that would define life in Periclean Athens. And it is this capacity for self-critical reflection, undertaken in a spirit of generosity, that would become the hallmark of the cultural and intellectual flourishing in Western political communities for centuries.

It is true that the battle of Salamis resulted in great power for Athenians. But it also opened them to a standard of human health, a standard independent of the love of one’s own, that could inform the responsible use of that power and point the way to genuine human excellence.  

Salamis and America Today

We Americans owe no small debt to the Athenians who fought at Salamis. A similarly radical love of freedom rests at the heart of our own political experiment. It inspired a revolutionary enterprise that sought to ground political institutions dedicated to freedom and equality not on accident and force but on our own reflection and choice. It guided American generosity through wars fought for human rights at home and abroad. And it served our country’s efforts to work tirelessly toward the fulfillment of those aspirational principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, it gave rise to a nation whose capacity for self-criticism and self-correction has no equal in the modern world.

But today this capacity for self-reflection has become unmoored from any notion of nature, objective truth, or moral integrity. Nature is called into question by an identity politics in which “essential” characteristics of race and gender precede and defy the genuine differences and limits that nature might authorize. Absent a grounding in human nature, our civic polity lacks the basis by which we might hope to evaluate fairly our regime or even chart a responsible course for the future.  

Meanwhile, the concern for an objective truth that makes possible common deliberation and allows us to identify falsehood has been replaced by unthinking ideological commitments that assign right and wrong along the lines of a perverse kind of tribal politics. As for moral integrity, the lawless rule of the mob, sanctioned by the media and large parts of the American government, has replaced the standards of decency that once informed the basis of civilized life.   

The kind of self-respect and manly independence that inspired the Greeks to resist the Persians against seemingly insurmountable odds are viewed today as unconscionable affronts to a majority that demands total conformity with its views. Those who, out of a dispassionate concern with the truth, interrogate the assertion that a community long-dedicated to the rights of mankind is systemically racist risk getting cancelled. From the perspective of today’s barbarism, the discourse by which one might prudently judge competing political claims is only seen as another claim to power. To merely question the prevailing wisdom is to announce one’s self an enemy to the cause of social justice.   

Too many of those who benefit from the innovation, individual freedom, and love of excellence at the heart of Athens and America—that is, our educators, our corporations, our professional athletes, and our elected representatives—offer mindless support of a social movement that seeks nothing less than a fundamental transformation of American life. Like the timid city-states of ancient Greece, they render up their own form of soil and water in the hopes that the mob will spare them its outrage. And unlike our Athenian forebears, they do not hope to return from their “battle” to rebuild the “temples” burned by the barbarians or resurrect the traditions they tried to destroy.

Without a “Themistocles” capable of piloting our own ship of state, the prospects for American freedom seem bleak. Fortunately, his example and the examples of his fellow Athenians live on in the great texts of classical antiquity. While the liberal education that preserves such texts is imperiled by the very barbarism that makes them necessary, we can take heart in the fact that Xerxes’ massive force was defeated by a relatively small group animated by a fierce love of freedom.

It is then to those institutions who have yet to surrender the cause of liberal education—those “happy few,” a motley “band of brothers” indeed—that the 2500th anniversary of the battle of Salamis is properly dedicated.