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THE ROLE OF SEA POWER IN ANTIQUITY:
A REJOINDER TO CHESTER STARR

By James J. Bloom

I. Chester Starr Adrift

In researching the naval aspects of the Roman-Jewish War, it struck me that there was no comprehensive overview of ancient maritime power (or sea power, if you will) apart from Chester Starr’s  1989 survey, The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History.

Other books on the topic tended to get mired in the minutiae of nautical archaeological research. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not dismissing the importance of studies of ancient wrecks, the various artifacts therein and their origins and implications. To be sure, there have been several excellent books on the finer points of ship design and construction, seamanship, navigation, maritime technology, economics of shipbuilding and the evolution and precise configuration of that supreme ancient warship the trireme. All bring together diffuse data such as inscriptions, pictograms, relief carvings on tombs, temple walls and columns, images on seals and coins, fragments of statues (such as the famous Nike/Victory frieze in the Louvre) vase paintings, votive models, friezes, mosaics, ambiguous references in the written record and the recovered underwater carcasses of ancient ships or their cargoes and harbor fixtures.  In keeping with the varied scope of the data, the books severally deal with particular aspects of ships & fixtures, payloads, crews and harbors. But there are few overview books that examine the ancient world’s maritime aspect in the manner of Mahan, Richmond or Corbett.   The nautical archaeological studies are quite narrowly focused and rarely elevate to the level of the overall implications for the exercise of the maritime component of ancient statecraft.

There are some other good books, to be sure on the “big picture”, such as Lionel Casson’s Ancient Mariners (1959, revised 1991) and the studies by Fik Meijer History of Seafaring in the Classical World (London: Croom Helm, 1986)  and  J. H. Thiel, the latter concentrating on the Roman navy up to the time of the second Punic War A History of Roman Sea Power before the Second Punic War (Amsterdam 1954) and Studies on the History of Roman Sea-Power in Republican Times (Amsterdam 1946. (Observe how many of the leading authorities on ancient navies are Dutch.). That’s about it for the grand strategic viewpoint, comparable to what Edward Luttwak did for the Roman land forces in his Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.  Jean Rougé,  in his La marine dans l' antiquité (Paris 1975) gave a review of the components of the game with merely a glance at  how and why  the fleets were deployed. Ironically, Starr was one of the few who present a peep at the ancients in the fashion of the great modern naval theorists, if only to shadow-box with his bete noir.

It was all the more regrettable, then, that I found that Starr’s book was caught up in the “publish or perish” syndrome – publishers pushing their favorite authors for a fashionable “hook”. After but a few pages into the slender volume, I realized that the dust jacket’s ambitious objective is in no way seriously broached.

The late Chester Starr has written some well-regarded books on ancient empires and his study on the anatomy of the roman imperial navy is the standard reference. He, or Oxford U Press, probably decided to issue this potboiler in order to exploit the 100th anniversary of the Mahan's The Influence of Seapower on History.

The book could have stood on its own merits as a handy little summary of the naval side of ancient empire-building, defending and destroying. However it certainly does NOT prove that sea power is overrated as a factor. Nor did Mahan – Starr's supposed target – really make any such claims with respect to antiquity. Mahan's brief paragraphs on Athens (in his lecture notes) and the Second Punic War (in his Influence of Sea power book) were not only peripheral but were rather cautious compared to his claims for sea power’s role in building the British Empire – his main topic.

In fact, Starr's narrative and discussions are pretty supportive of the SIGNIFICANCE of naval and maritime dominance in ancient times, albeit not in the sense that Mahan intended for the British navy of the 17th through 19th centuries AD.  The most forceful, and practically only, argument advanced by Starr in order to debunk naval power is with reference to the Minoans. What's the point? Mahan never mentioned Crete or Minos at all.

In the dust jacket hype, Oxford U Press and Barnes & Noble mention that Mahan's “disciples” inflate the maritime factor with regard to antiquity. If so, Starr never mentions who these disciples are or their works, let alone refutes them.

Starr – or OUP’s – dubious assertion that naval power was not all that significant to ancient empires was confusing. The book’s failure to deliver on its promise is especially unfortunate, as not many books published in recent decades deal with the broader aspects of sea power in the ancient world.

All in all, this is a concise and informative reference on the use of ships before the medieval period. Its shaky hypothesis offers nothing new and in fact, devalues the book's true worth. Maybe we need some standard measure of significance or decisiveness.

We know that Salamis, in which a Greek naval alliance defeated a Persian armada, is considered one of the “decisive battles” of history. Apart from the oft-told tale of how Greece saved Western Civilization by this bold stroke,  the clash between the land power Sparta and the sea power Athens  a century or so later, and the controversy over how a trireme was configured, the history buff finds little about “sea power” until the Viking epoch and the age of exploration that followed. The epic contest between Carthage, the paramount naval power of its era, and the land-minded Roman upstart – the Punic Wars – has received uneven attention. The First Punic War, which was decided on the seas, is the subject of several monographs. However, the Second Punic War, in which the celebrated Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca was ultimately defeated, is commonly treated as an extended land campaign, the naval component receiving inadequate consideration.

As mentioned, the guru of modern navalism, Mahan, in fact didn’t seem much interested in anything prior to the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the late 17th century. His paradigm to explain his theories for the late Victorian era was the Royal Navy versus the French fleets of the 18th century.

Focusing on Athens and Carthage, Starr, according to his publisher, I’ve italicized several key phrases that are patently absurd or simply superfluous.

 “demonstrates that control of the seas was not always a strategic necessity.[Comment: whoever said it was? And why then is it necessary to assert that it was not “always” a strategic necessity?]  Similarly, he examines the Roman imperial navy--the most advanced and widely based naval structure in antiquity--noting that when Rome fell it was due to invasions by land, not sea. [Comment: And??? Does this imply that navies had no role in supporting such invasions by the barbarians, or that had Rome maintained its fleet of the imperial heyday, the invasions could not have been thwarted? What drivel!] Starr describes major naval battles in fascinating detail, and analyzes technological developments as they reveal the limitations of galleys in warfare. [Comment: Nonsense. I could not find one instance where Starr “revealed the limitations” of galleys except in his throwaway line that they could not maintain a maritime blockade, presumably in the manner of the German U-Boats of the first and second world wars, or the British surface fleet contra Germany in both conflicts, His “observation” that galleys didn’t have the “sea legs” to sustain such operations is about as relevant as saying that the Zeppelins  or Gotha bombers of 1916 could not bring Great Britain to her knees]. This innovative study provides an important corrective to Mahan's thesis, both as applied to ancient history and to modern strategic thought [Comment: Hardly, given that Mahan made no such claims regarding ancient naval power] - making it provocative reading for those interested in ancient history and also for those who follow military history ( from publisher’s blurb from the dust jacket of the 1998 Barnes & Noble reprint of The Influence of Seapower on Ancient History.)

It had long been fashionable to attack the imperialist haughtiness of that salty old curmudgeon. Upon scrutiny, the book’s declared purpose – to debunk Mahan’s supposed distortion of sea power in antiquity – is reduced to one or two inane sentences, oddly severed from their context. Clearly, OUP’s or Barnes & Noble’s rhetorical overstatement doesn’t reflect a sincerely held position. Lest this assertion seem to be a truism, I can point to a tendency in American historiography to debunk “navalism” as tantamount to imperialism and thus naval history unworthy of serious study. While this proclivity marked the fallout from the American fiasco in Vietnam, there are earlier examples of the trend. For example, the distinguished American military historian Walter Millis sparred with Mahan’s imperialist apparition on the eve of the Second World War.  Finally, I contend that Starr’s depiction of wars and empires actually proves the opposite of what he – or his literary agent – claims he set out to establish. 

Where, indeed, can one find Mahan’s supposed unjustified claims for sea power’s omnipotence in antiquity? He devoted but a few pages: pp 13-21 to the Second Punic War and another 8 pages of reflection on the Athenian expedition to Syracuse in the Peloponnesian war in his collected lectures, Naval Strategy, published in 1911. These discussions are rather cautious in tone, regularly reminding readers about the paucity of documentation. 

Mahan’s vantage point from which to demonstrate his sea power doctrine was the British Navy of the 17th through the early 19th centuries. He does not pretend to apply the lessons of Trafalgar to Salamis and Cannae. Using Mahan as a fulcrum, the book feigns to expound upon Starr’s ostensible thesis that ancient Crete, Greece and Rome exhibited neither the economic nor the political stability to possess and protect the sea. Although many historians of antiquity and naval analysts dismiss Starr’s polemic, his little potboiler keeps finding its way into bibliographies and “further reading” lists. 

The thrust of Starr’s tract is that land campaigns and battles were the ultimate determinants of the Persian, Peloponnesian and Punic Wars; in his view sea power was an ancillary, albeit important factor. This is hardly a thunderbolt. Nobody seriously holds to the “decisive battle” proposition anymore, whether on land or on the water. The idea that wars were won or empires lost, as the result of a solitary coup de main is the stuff of dorm or hobby club chatter. More so than any other facet of national potential, naval mastery is characterized by deliberate and gradual “presence” rather than bold dramatic strokes. Further, it is in the naval sphere that the military and economic facets of power are substantially interlaced. Neat dichotomies of land versus naval operations are likewise inappropriate and out of tune with reality.

Whether or not the Greeks prevailed over the Persian fleet at Salamis, it is likely that Greece would have eventually checked the Persian drive to the West. A Persian victory at Salamis is likely only to have slowed rather than stopped Greek ascendancy. This is not based on any counterfactual fancy, but the evidence of embedded trends and capabilities.

Sea power was indisputably a substantial component in the growth and sustenance of the great empires of antiquity. Like much of the world’s history, economic and social influences affected the integrity of empire more constantly than the odd land battle or sea fight.  The ability to traverse open waters, to carry goods thereon, and to protect such mercantile traffic became essential to any pretenders to empire.  It should not require a detour into counterfactual alternatives to comprehend that reality.

If the book’s premise is so clearly unsound, one might reasonably ask, “Why devote so much energy to shooting it down?” Because, wrong-headed or not, Starr’s little booklet compels a reexamination of the true role and capabilities of ships and navies up through the Viking epoch.  Starr’s tract serves as a handy compendium of ancient sea fights and “fleets in being. Pondering its thesis gave me a chance to present my own commentary on the character and importance of navies before 1000 AD.  I plan to do so in a forthcoming book, now in preparation.

I will employ a more restrained notion of sea power, in keeping with the limited capabilities of ancient ships, to demonstrate that merchant and combat fleets were significant determinants controlling the fate of Mediterranean civilizations between 500 BC and 300 AD.

The preponderance of Starr’s slim (84 pages of text) exposition comprises a sprightly tour of how civilizations from Pharaohnic Egypt to the Byzantine Empire used their fleets to acquire and maintain power. His relative handful of paragraphs debunking ancient naval power appears as obtrusive non-sequiturs in his otherwise well-crafted review of the ships and seamen of ancient times. Starr’s particular criteria for “influence” and “sea power” (wrongly imputed to Mahan in this context) are incompatible with the power projection particulars of the arrow-like triremes and unwieldy fat-bellied merchantmen of antiquity. This is his straw man that he feigns to knock down.

In disputing Starr’s half-hearted proposition, my forthcoming manuscript hopes to offer a “revisionist Mahanian” or, more accurately, a Corbettian critique of naval capabilities in antiquity. British naval historian and theorist Julian Corbett, and his disciple, Herbert Richmond provide a more nuanced and adaptable paradigm of sea power that is more well-suited for evaluating the navies of ancient Greece and Rome than Mahan’s high seas battle fleet blueprint.  In each instance, with regard to both the ships & fleets and the battles and campaigns, my book will thrash out the applicability of such concepts as “sea control” and freedom of shipping in the context of what was possible with the archaic sail and muscle powered craft and what was probably done – given the sparseness and idiosyncrasies of the sources. Hopefully, this book will offer readers a fresh examination of sea power before the Viking epoch.

Was controlling the seas always a strategic necessity?  Starr’s simplistic either/or treatment fails to come to grips with this issue. The fact that some or even most military campaigns may have been implemented through land battles does not demonstrate the converse – that commanding the sea-lanes was irrelevant. It’s not a zero-sum proposition.

Let’s take a modern example. The 2003 campaign in Iraq was most definitely decided by land operations, closely supported by airpower. Let’s disregard for the moment whether sea-based airpower was the determining factor – let alone whether the war was, or can ever be, “won”.  The fact is that Saddam’s Iraq, or its potential allies, was incapable of challenging American/coalition dominance along the maritime approaches to the theater. Sealift and waterborne air support were indispensable to success on land, if one might indeed describe the present pickle a triumph.  Sea power was the dog that didn’t bark. The Iraqi capacity to interdict crucial seaborne supply or to interfere with aircraft carrier deployments was nil, so American maritime projection was simply a given. So too were ancient fleets and admirals often the overlooked facilitators of the phalanxes and legions as they clashed on and beyond the shoreline.

It might be useful here to consider the concept of “Thalassocracy.” Literally it means the rule (krateîn, to rule) of the sea (thálassa, or thálatta in Attic). In other words it means rule by those who control the sea. In fact, Mahan, without actually using the term, provides the first systematic discussion of the idea in his The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 [1890, Little Brown and Company].

Mahan actually wrote minimally about sea power in antiquity. Below, we will consider point-by-point his concise analysis of the Second Punic War as a curtain raiser in his Influence.  His reflections about Hannibal were simply a prelude to his observations on the British use of naval force.  In fact the only other mention of pre-1660 maritime operations is in his compilation of lectures at the Naval War College, published in 1911 as Naval Strategy wherein he devotes eight pages and a map to the Athenian expedition against Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War. 

A thalassocracy is a state that utilizes its fleet to extend its power and to link its various possessions that are separated by water. Some nations, like the 17th century Dutch, have been naval powers while not necessarily being a thalassocracy. The true thalassocracy is a state that, should its navy be annihilated, would completely collapse.

The first nation whose power depended principally on its ships may have been Crete, about which we known little, and then Phoenicia, about which we know a great deal. Phoenicia, however, was never politically unified, was often under foreign rule, did not effectively retain control of its colonies, and never used colonies as footholds of conquest. The greatest Phoenician colony, Carthage, itself came rather closer to a thalassocracy, retaining control of colonies in the Western Mediterranean and then, under Hamilcar Barca, undertaking the conquest and development of Spain as a Carthaginian imperial possession.

By then a major thalassocracy had already come and gone. In general Greece exhibited the same characteristics as Phoenicia. Greek city states founded colonies but then retained little or no control over them. With Athens, we got something different. The power of Athens began with the League of Delos, a defensive confederation formed to oppose the Persian invasion of Greece in 480. All members made proportional contributions to the common defense, which were kept at the Temple of Apollo on the Island of Delos. Hence the name. With the Persians defeated, the League continued. But the status of Athens as the predominant member began to tell. Pericles wanted to move the Treasury of the League from Delos to Athens. He did this even though no other members of the League agreed. Athens then began spending the money for its own purposes, and the contributions of League members became in effect Tribute paid to Athens. The League became what historians now like to call the "Athenian Empire," although such terminology is pretty anachronistic. Nor is it apt. The "Empire" of Athens, with more or less unwilling participants, depended wholly on the ability of Athens to maintain naval supremacy in the Aegean Sea. If that were lost or disrupted, Athens would be powerless.

This is exactly what happened in the war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War (430-404). Sparta had an invincible army, so the best that Athens could do was avoid it – relatively easy in a land of peninsulas and islands. If some Spartans could be trapped on an island, as did happen, then they could even be defeated and captured. This all worked fine until the Spartans began building their own navy. Now Athenian "allies" had an easier time defecting, since they were no longer entirely at the mercy of Athens. The Spartans could now support even island friends. And, if Sparta could wipe out the Athenian fleet in a great battle, it would win the war in one day. The great battle came in 405 at Aegospotami. Destroying the Athenian fleet, the Spartans proceeded at once to the siege of Athens, which surrendered in 404. The Athenian thalassocracy burst like a bubble.

The next state heavily dependent on sea power was, indeed, Carthage. In the First Punic War (264-241) the Romans defeated Carthage and conquered Sicily, in great measure by destroying the Carthaginian fleet. No one would ever say this was done by finesse. The Romans simply filled their ships with soldiers, grappled the Carthaginian ships, dropped gangways, and overwhelmed the enemy with infantry. Carthage never regained naval supremacy. The response was Hamilcar's, to recreate Carthage as a land power in Spain. Hamilcar's son, Hannibal, then invaded Italy itself in the Second Punic War (218-202). The Romans, unable to defeat Hannibal in open battle, then used their own sea power to defeat him indirectly. Spain was conquered behind him. And then Africa itself was invaded. Hannibal had to abandon his army in Italy and return to defend Carthage itself. There he was finally defeated in battle.

The Romans turned the Mediterranean into their own lake, the Mare Nostrum, "Our Sea." This control, except for some periods of piracy, endured until the Vandals captured Carthage in 439. They then, with exquisite irony, built a fleet that swept the Romans from the Western Mediterranean. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, they came by land, but when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, they arrived, and left, by boat. This supremacy survived until Belisarius arrived in 534. Their base was abruptly yanked from under the Vandals by the Roman fleet and army from Constantinople. This reestablished Roman maritime control until the 9th century.

Conceivably illustrations using two distinctive occurrences from the Roman period might help to illuminate my difficulties with Starr’s book.

II. Sea Power in the Second Punic War
III. PAX ROMANA AT SEA: The Naval Factor in the Roman-Jewish War
IV. CONCLUSION: Ancient Ships as Instruments of Empire

'next' button, click here

This article is the core of a planned book-length treatment on ancient maritime power, which will be more than a simple rebuttal to Starr. It was presented as a lecture at the New York Military Affairs Symposium at the City University of New York facility in Manhattan on June 25, 2004.

Copyright Jim Bloom © 2005


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