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September 15, 2006

Case Studies in State Formation, Part II: Athens

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have become interested in the topic of state formation. I have been putting together a series of case studies on the topic; this is the second. (You can read the first, on Sparta, here.)

According to tradition, in 753 BCE Attica, the territory of the city-state Athens, replaced its line of kings with a power-sharing coalition of some sixty aristocratic clans. The heads of these clans jointly selected three magistrates, or archons. Each archon, after their one-year term of office, joined a council that took overall responsibility for affairs of state. This Council was known as the Areopagus, after the hill on which it met in Athens.

However, despite their monopoly on public affairs, the Areopagian clan-leaders of the archaic period were not a particularly powerful aristocracy. Stanford professor Ian Morris, in his paper "Military and political participation in archaic-classical Greece" (which you can read here) contrasts them with the elites of other ancient civilizations:

Iron Age Near Eastern rulers claimed to have special access to the gods (or, in Egypt, to be gods), controlled vast financial resources, and led armed forces with expensive cavalry, chariots, and fortifications. Archaic Greek aristocrats failed to master any of these sources of power. The separation between secular and sacred authority in Greece was remarkable...

While the Athenian aristocrats could not claim religious sanction for their leadership, did not lead vast high-tech armies and were not even outlandishly rich, they were able to utilize their position in government and their relative wealth to oppress their fellow citizens. Apparently the very poor could fall into such a degree of debt to their betters that they could end up as slaves and be sold abroad. Even more prosperous commoners were obligated to make a yearly payment to the local clan boss in return for protection, presumably in the Mafia sense. As Charles Freeman points out in his book "Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean," this protection payment was deeply resented.

Economic pressures resulting from very rapid population growth doubtlessly stoked this resentment. Although by Greek standards Attica was an enormous city state (it was the size of Rhode Island, some 2,500 sq. kilometers), its agricultural resources were hard put to sustain what archeological studies suggest was a 10-fold increase in population between 800 and 400 BCE. Modern estimates of the carrying capacity of ancient Attica suggest it could support no more than 42 people per square kilometer (or a total population of 105,000). If this is true, Athens likely outgrew its internal food production capacity as early as 600 BCE. This estimate correlates well with the date that Athens began founding colonies around the Black Sea, an excellent region for growing cereal grains. As the Attic population continued to grow, reaching a peak of perhaps 350,000 in 430 BCE, the city state became increasingly dependent on grain imports from the Black Sea region and elsewhere. Eventually, Athens imported a heavy majority of its food.

The upside of the disparity between the limited agricultural potential of Attica and its burgeoning population was a highly developed economy. This wasn't just good luck: the Athenian state had widely varied resources, and it was forced to use all of them in order to survive. There was timber for shipbuilding and charcoal, grazing in the upland regions, good clay for pottery (an important export product), excellent conditions for olive cultivation and olive oil production in the lowlands (an even more important export product), quarries to provide fine marble and, most important of all, rich silver mines. The profits of long-distance trade between third parties around the Mediterranean were also available to a society that of necessity had to maintain enough shipping to import the bulk of its food. Despite the growth of the population, the wealth of the middle-class Athenian clearly increased; archeology reveals that the average size of homes grew several fold during this period. As Professor Morris remarks in his paper, "The Athenian Empire" (which you can read here).

[It has been] convincingly argued that what the Athenians called the "invisible" (aphanes) economy of banking, trade, and commerce was very large; indeed, to have maintained themselves at the standards that we know they did, the richest Athenians must have been extensively committed to it.

The effect of this highly developed economy was to create diverse sources of wealth and political power outside the traditional clan (phratry) structures of Athenian politics.

Another challenge to aristocratic political control was the rise of a strong cultural norm of male citizen egalitarianism, which was a trend across much of the Greek world (as we noted in looking at Sparta). Professor Morris notes his paper, "The Athenian Empire (478-404 BC)":

The idea of the polis as a community of equal, local-born men...gained dominance in the eighth century [BCE]. It was strongly contested across the archaic period, but by 500 [BCE], this emerged as the only legitimate basis for authority...

This push toward social egalitarianism, while nowhere more visible than in Attica, was undoubtedly connected to a major agricultural shift that had occurred across the entire Greek world. The countryside in the Greek dark ages prior to 800 BCE had been dominated by large aristocratic cattle ranches; it was redeveloped during the archaic era into many small, but labor and output intensive farms. This economic shift was required to feed the rapidly growing population of this era, overcoming the difficulties of the local climate (dry), soil (rocky and poor), and limited arable land (ancient Greece was roughly the physical size of modern Mississippi but had only half the arable land to feed approximately the same 3 million person population). This agricultural redevelopment also made for a large class of landowning farmers, each with roughly the same amount of land and with roughly the same wealth.

In Attica the popular discontent with the political domination of the local aristocracy and its economic exactions came to a boil early in the sixth century BCE. The response of the phratry leaders who dominated the Aeropagus was to make a number of incremental concessions in the face of this discontent. Reform was entrusted to one aristocrat, Solon, who despite his rather populist rhetoric ultimately proved loyal to his class. During the years 594-590 BCE Solon organized Athenians into classes by wealth, with all citizens in the wealthiest tier eligible for selection as archons. This was a fairly transparent attempt to recruit the richer farmers and merchants into the aristocratic camp, but it also loosened the aristocracy's exclusive grip on municipal office. Solon also either founded or more likely reorganized the Athenian communal assembly. His scheme permitted the poorest citizens, who were the ones most vulnerable to land seizure and debt slavery, to participate in this assembly. Solon also gave the communal assembly some of the judicial functions of the Aeropagus, thus ensuring a more level playing field for litigation instead of one that tilted heavily towards the aristocracy. Finally, and most radically, Solon went in for wholesale debt forgiveness. He cancelled mortgage-liens on agricultural land, eliminated debt slavery, and even attempted to buy back poor Athenians sold into slavery abroad. In this Solon may have gone beyond too far for his aristocratic brothers as the great lawgiver found it prudent to take an extended vacation overseas and write his memoirs on politics and the joys of pederasty (in verse, no less) immediately on leaving office.

Nonetheless, these steps didn't resolve the situation. The rest of the sixth century saw continued political unrest, including a two-generation experiment with tyranny which was only brought to an end by Spartan intervention. The oligarchy installed by Sparta to govern Athens in the post-tyrannical era was so transparently tied to Spartan interests that the Athenians rose up and overthrew it. They then apparently restored Solon's constitution or something close to it.

Again, however, this failed to calm the situation. A new round of political reform ensued under the leadership of an elderly aristocrat Cleisthenes in 508-7 BCE. (Note: other historians describe these reforms as being implemented over a longer period of time.) This second bout of reform was aimed squarely against the traditional power base of the aristocracy, the ancient kinship groups or phratries. Cleisthenes and his allies created a new tribal structure to take over the political role of the phratries, mixing citizens from multiple geographic regions of Attica in each new tribe to create a new sense of loyalty to the city-state as a whole. The tribes elected representatives to a new council, the Boule, which prepared the order of business to be placed before the citizen assembly. The intention of Cleisthenes, apparently, was not to create a democracy per se but rather a state of equal rights between citizens in the public sphere. Whatever the elderly reformer's goals, the aristocratic Areopagus continued in some fashion to dominate the popular councils in Athenian public affairs. This might possibly be due to the death of Cleisthenes, who disappears from the historical records instantly after his reforming work is done. How long this unstable arrangement could continue in the face of continuing tensions between aristocrats and commoners was unclear.

Foreign Adventures & Their Domestic Consequences

However, at this tense moment foreign affairs assumed an overwhelming significance. In the early years the fifth century BCE Athens had poked its nose across the Aegean, encouraging the revolt of an Ionian city from the mighty Persian Empire. (A half century earlier, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Persians had conquered the Ionian Greek cities of Asia Minor.) In 490 BCE Persia sent an army to teach the nosy Athenians a lesson. Luckily, the Athenians had on hand an advisor, Miltiades, the former tyrant of Chersonesus Thracia and a one time ally of Persia, who was well acquainted with the Persian style of war making. To everyone's surprise the Athenian amateurs, with coaching from Miltiades, defeated the Persian pros at the battle of Marathon.

While this unexpected victory immeasurably improved Athenian self esteem, the city state fortunately did not fall prey to the illusion that it was finished with mighty Persia and its Great King. The ambitious, popular (and low born) politician Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to use the revenue from a new silver mine to radically enlarge their navy. Athens adopted the plan of Themistocles, making itself in the process the dominant maritime power in Greece.

This military initiative had a significant political consequence. Fighting ships of the era were maneuvered in combat by banks of rowers, and the construction of over a hundred new ships required a large new source of motive manpower. Moreover, while fighting on land had required that a citizen be able to buy a full set of armor, rowers needed only their strong backs. The solution, of course, was to recruit the new navy (with pay, unlike the middle-class hoplites) from among the landless poor. As Charles Freeman observes:

This class [the landless poor] was now fully involved in the defence of the state and, as important from the political point of view, gained the experience of working together in unison...It is not surprising, therefore, that Themistocles, founder of the navy, was closely linked to the move toward greater democratic rights...

In 481, the Persian Great King, Xerxes, now really pissed, decided to punish the upstart Greeks properly and marched a large invasion force, supplied by an equally massive fleet, westward along the north shore of the Aegean. The new 200 ship Athenian navy fought and defeated the larger Persian fleet at Salamis. The bulk of the Persian army, which had difficulty feeding itself after the destruction of its supply fleet, and who were also needed to quell a rebellion in Babylon, withdrew post haste. Although the remaining Persians revenged themselves by sacking an evacuated Athens, in 479 BCE an allied Greek army under Spartan leadership defeated the Persians at Platea. The remnants of the Great King's invasion force were completely driven out of Greece.

The external danger abated, if not eliminated, Athenian politics could return to its traditional interior struggles. Only a few years later the Athenian aristocracy under its leader Aristides took the opportunity to ostracize (i.e., exile) the democratic politician Themistocles when they caught him with his hand in the civic cookie jar. With Themistocles out of the way, the immensely wealthy Cimon, a hero in the Persian wars (and the lieutenant of Aristides) became the leader of the aristocratic faction and the dominant politician in Athens.

Aristides and Cimon seem to have decided to buff up the somewhat tarnished aristocratic authority in Athenian politics via a bold foreign-policy initiative. In 478 BCE, at the invitation of Athens, the city states of the Aegean united to create the Delian League against the still potent Persian threat. The league member cities paid tribute for the upkeep of the Athenian navy, which defended them from Persian retaliation, while the League as a whole under Athenian leadership pursued a step by step campaign to liberate the Ionian cities of Asia Minor from Persian control. While during Cimon's era the Delian league coerced a few city states to join the League and forcibly prevented two members, Naxos and Thasos, from dropping out, the organization remained democratic, with each city-state wielding one vote in its councils, and retained its focus on the goal of mutual security from Persia. In short, Cimon deliberately pursued a course of moderate empire, with the senior league member Athens becoming the hegemonic power in Aegean Greece, but carefully not rubbing anybody's nose in this fact. This position of international leadership, of course, also kept Cimon and his allies in power domestically.

However conservative Cimon may have been, the Delian League created a whole new fiscal era for the Athens and Greece. Previously no Greek state, in marked contrast to the major empires of the Middle East, had possessed much of a public sector in the economic sense. What little state revenue was obtained from tolls and other revenue sources went primarily into the building and upkeep of local temples. As Ian Morris explains in "The Athenian Empire (478-404 BC)":

Greek states famously avoided all forms of regular direct taxation. Athens, however, succeeded in creating two kinds of tax, which produced vastly greater revenue flows than any Greek state had seen before ...The most important was the tribute (phoros) assessed by Aristides and his successors [i.e., Cimon], controlled by the Athenian hellenotamiai. A few cities paid in kind, providing military services; most exchanged cash for security. Our sources never refer to the tribute as a tax, but this was how it functioned. The second form was taxes on the use of harbors, and particularly on goods passing through the Hellenspont. [emphasis added]

The popular or democratic faction, however, was determined not to allow the aristocrats to claw their way back to permanent political dominance on the backs of empire, no matter how lucrative.

Domestic Adventures & Their Foreign Consequences

Ephialties, described by Aristotle as the "Leader of the People," launched a series of prosecutions of aristocratic members of the Aeropagus for corruption. In 462 BCE this campaign eventually led to a coup. Relatively bloodless, the revolution of Ephialtes was launched when Cimon was conveniently out of the city on a military mission to aid Sparta after a major earthquake and a helot revolt. Cimon had consistently pursued a policy of mollifying the dangerous Spartans in the face of growing Athenian power, wealth and influence. Ironically, and ominously, the Spartans spurned Cimon's offer of help. Meanwhile, back at home, as Charles Freeman puts it:

[The coup leaders] stripped the Areopagus of its powers [which they distributed] to the Council (the Boule), the Assembly, and the law courts, with the fictional excuse that they were restoring to the people powers the Areopagus had accumulated illegally.

The result was one of the world's first democracies, and perhaps the leading example ever of direct democracy. (Details of the constitutional arrangements of Athens can be studied here.)

When Cimon returned he attempted to undo the Ephialtic reforms, but he failed, and was ultimately ostracized from Athens at the hands of the popular faction in 461 BCE. Ephialties became the political boss of Athens and was promptly assassinated; Athenian politics was a rough game. Ephialites was succeeded by his chief lieutenant, an aristocrat by the name of Pericles. Pericles, possibly because he seems not to have fought in the Persian wars, felt forced to justify his dominance by proving that he could pursue a bolder and more aggressive foreign policy than his now ostracized predecessor, Cimon.

Pericles, very much a 1960s best and brightest kind of guy, was keenly aware of the many strategic advantages Athens possessed over any its rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean. Athens wielded unparalleled sea power, reaped the unparalleled revenues of the Delian League, could draw on the largest population of any mainland Greek city state (Attic population numbers represented approximately 10% of that of the entire Greek world, at least with its large slave population added in). The city state also possessed all the resources of an advanced trading economy. Pericles staked his regime on the notion that all these strengths would be enough to permit Athens to simultaneously battle Persia and dominate mainland Greece. This entailed replacing Sparta as the dominant Greek military power.

Upon assuming political leadership of Athens, Pericles reversed Cimon's long standing policy of placating Sparta. He made alliances with the city states of Argos and Megara. These were not chosen randomly; Argos was Sparta's main rival in the Peloponnesian peninsula, and Megara guarded the road the Spartans would need to take to invade Attica. These two moves, unsurprisingly, led to war with Sparta, a conflict known to history as the First Peloponnesian War (460-445 BCE). As if this wasn't challenge enough, with the First Peloponnesian War still in full swing, the next year Pericles launched an invasion of Egypt to support a local rebellion there against the Persian Empire.

For several years, both initiatives went reasonably well. Athens with its allies, Argos and Megara, came to dominate almost all of central Greece with the exception of Thebes; and the Athenian navy with its Egyptian invasion force of 200 ships drove the Persians south along the Nile. However, in 454 BCE the Persians counterattacked and destroyed the Athenian fleet in Egypt, costing the Athenians most of their 200 ships and 8,000 men. The city states of the large island of Euboea, due north of Attica and under its thumb, seeing their chance, rose against their overlords. Pericles hung tough, however, and the Euboean rebellions were, over time, put down.

Periclean Empire and the Athenian Welfare State

In 451 BCE, after 10 years of both personal rule and continuous warfare, Pericles sent a rehabilitated Cimon to negotiate a truce with Sparta, one that preserved most the Athenian gains in mainland Greece. To obtain this, Athens agreed to toss overboard its ally, Argos, in exchange for Sparta agreeing to abandon its ally, Thebes. The next year Pericles sent an expedition south under the Cimon to seize Cyprus from the Persians; despite military victories, this expedition returned to Athens without actually occupying the island, possibly because of the death of Cimon from disease.

After this point Pericles seems to have lost interest in further action against the Persians. Within a year he negotiated a peace treaty with the Persian Empire. This treaty recognized the Aegean as an Athenian lake. Apparently Pericles felt secure enough as a result of this treaty to even begin importing wheat from the Persian Empire's territory of Egypt.

Although this nonaggression pact with the Persians was negotiated on behalf of the Delian league, it occurred without any input from the other city states of the league. This was a plain token of another Periclean policy: the rapid conversion of the Delian League into a de facto Athenian empire. In 454 BCE, apparently in reaction to the Egyptian disaster of that year, Pericles relocated the treasury of the league from Delos (chosen originally as being sacred to Apollo) to Athens itself.

In 450 BCE Pericles went a step further and established the first cleruchies. These were colonies of Athenian settlers who retained their Athenian citizenship and who were granted land inside the allied city-states of the Delian league. The initial settlements were in Lemnos, Andros, Naxos and Carystus but continued to multiply over the next twenty years. The settlers, or cleurechs, were viewed by the locals as permanent garrisons imposed by the imperial power; they were intensely disliked.

Pericles also insisted that trials of league matters had to take place at Athens itself. In 449 BCE he issued a decree banning the mining of silver by the city states of the Delian League, forcing them to utilize Athenian coinage, weights and measures. To underline the political symbolism of this monetary degree, Pericles ordered a stone pillar placed in the marketplace of every allied city on which this decree was engraved, and imposed stiff fines for any city failing to comply. Finally, of course, after 449 BCE, when there was no longer an active Persian threat to the League members, Athens continued to collect the tribute money. It was used to maintain the fleet which now suppressed all attempts at revolt. Moreover, the amount of the tribute payment was increased by nearly 50%.

Domestically, to demonstrate that his policies paid off for Athens, Pericles had instituted a kind of welfare state for its citizens. From the beginning of his time in office he seems to have adopted a policy of picking up the tab for Athenian religious festivals and public festivities. Cimon, who had been immensely wealthy, had paid for these celebrations personally, but Pericles did so with public funds.

To underline his democratic principles, Pericles had instituted payment to all citizens who served as jurors in the public courts. This allowed poorer citizens, and not merely the wealthy who could afford to take time off, to participate in the most direct form of civic activity.

The cleurechies served as a major vehicle of wealth transfer to the Athenians of all classes, although most significantly to the rich. Professor Morris remarks in his paper "The Athenian Empire (478-404 BC)":

There is some ambiguity in the sources over whether the Athenians actually relocated to their new lands, or stayed in Athens and extracted rents from these lands...During the fifth century, at least 15,000 Athenians (and perhaps closer to 20,000) out of a citizen population peaking around 40,000 in the 430s obtained land in colonies in clerouchies...Focusing on the demographic/political consequences, [Plutarch] suggested that Pericles "relieved the city of a large number of idlers and agitators, [and] raised the standards of the poorest classes"... alongside this "official" land-grab, we also hear of individual Athenians obtaining land in the subject cities...Thucydides' well known comment (8.48) that the kaloikagathoi, the Athenian upper class, were the main beneficiaries from the Empire, must be referring to such acquisitions of property.

In 447 BCE, Pericles also instituted a very significant program of public works, including the rebuilding of the religious complex on the Acropolis. This program continued for over a decade, and constituted a sort of full employment act for Athenian artisans and construction workers, paid for by the resources of empire. It was, of course, designed to send the message to his fellow citizens that the glorious city of Athens was the natural ruler of both the Aegean and of Greece itself.

Finally, around the same time as he began his public works program, Pericles tightened the qualifications for Athenian citizenship, requiring that only men descended from both Athenian mothers and fathers would qualify as Attic citizens. Previously, it was enough to be of Athenian descent on either the paternal or maternal side. Although this reform was not retrospective, in 446 BCE Pericles took an opportunity to remove some 5,000 names from the citizen lists of Athens. In so doing, Pericles was attempting to limit the financial demands on his welfare state. At the same time, his foreign policy demanded a stronger sense of Athenian unity. Greek notions of political community tended to be defined largely by exclusion of others. As Professor Morris notes in "The Athenian Empire (478-404 BC)":

This belief-system [of political equality among all native born men] was accompanied by unusually strong gender and ethnic distinctions. In the fifth century, large numbers of non-Greeks were imported as chattel slaves into those [city-states, especially Athens] where male egalitarianism flourished most strongly.

This approach to citizenship and political community by exclusion explains why the Athenians could simultaneously practice a radical form of citizen democracy while maintaining a society in which slaves represented over a quarter of the population.

While making citizenship more exclusive may have promoted the unity Pericles sought and kept its cost under control, eliminating potential citizens was a peculiar decision militarily. Given the breadth of Pericles' ambitions for Athens, the resulting limitations on Athenian resources may have cost the city state opportunities in the frequent wars waged under his direction. Athenian manpower seems, like that of Sparta, to have suffered a significant contraction during the conflicts of the latter part of the 5th century BCE. According to Professor Morris:

Athens' population was about 30 percent lower in the 350s [BCE] than in the 430s [BCE, at the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War], and probably fell lower still the early fourth century, while surveys suggest that in other parts of Greece population was often 10 to 20 percent higher in the fourth century than in the fifth. The [Second] Peloponnesian War [431-404 BCE] was a demographic disaster for Athens.

Whatever the long term military impacts of his reform of Athenian citizenship, Pericles' approach to Athenian imperial expansion was about to suffer a significant check in the much shorter term.

In 446 BCE Boeotia revolted against Athenian control, eventually forcing Pericles to evacuate his conquests in central Greece; then the recently pacified Euboean city-states rose again in rebellion; and, finally, after Athenian armies had been dispatched to bring Euboea back into line, Megara defected from the Athenian cause and allowed Sparta to invade Attica. Pericles was forced to renounce all claims on both central Greece and on Megara in order to patch up a peace treaty with Sparta, intended to last 30 years. The next year, as criticism mounted over how Pericles had handled the war, an attempt was made to ostracize him. However, Pericles kept his grip on power and instead his isolationist rival, Thucydides (not the historian) was exiled from Athens. Possibly as a result of this incident, Pericles afterwards adopted for many years a sadder but wiser international strategy of consolidating Athenian control over the Delian league while avoiding other entanglements, especially those on the Greek mainland.

What Destroyed the Resilient Athenian Empire?

The original assessment of Pericles had been correct: the strategic correlation of forces of the fifth century BCE supported eventual Athenian domination of both the eastern Mediterranean and of Greece itself. Despite the very long list of setbacks and failures of Athenian imperialism, none of these checks was sufficient to strike a fatal blow against Athenian power. Athens and its empire managed to revive in every instance.

However, as Professor Morris points out, building a truly Mediterranean-spanning empire would take time, time enough to permit Athenian population and wealth to continue to increase to the point where Athens could overwhelm the resources of Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, the other mainland city-states, and ultimately the Persian Empire itself:

Pericles was right: if the Athenians had been able to just sit and wait, as he had persuaded them to do [after] 446 [BCE], protecting the tribute and extending the reach of the Athenian state into Aegean society, victory would ultimately have been theirs. It would have taken a long time, just as it took other empires a long time.

So what brought down this budding empire, one that appeared likely to have, at least in time, control over the Mediterranean? It is a story of a spectacular military blunder, but a blunder had been prepared nearly six decades earlier by the ambition of Pericles himself. The preparation was his decision, way back in 461 BCE as the newly established supremo of Athens, to quite unnecessarily choose to add Sparta to the list of enemies of Athens along with Persia.

After the disasters of 446 BCE, a humbled Pericles spent 15 years trying to avoid giving Sparta any overt cause for further conflict. But in 431 BCE the septuagenarian Pericles seems to have either been unable to avoid war or to have deliberately chosen renewed war with the Spartans. He apparently hoped for a quick and relatively painless victory to put Sparta in its place (possibly before political leadership passed from him to another Athenian). Instead of the quick victory that Pericles dreamed of, Athens found itself in the grim, multi-decade quagmire of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE.) Pericles died In 429 BCE during an outburst of plague a mere two years into the war, a disappointed man. As this Second Peloponnesian war dragged on year after year, decade after decade, Athens kept failing to find a way to deliver a knock-out blow against Sparta. Ominously, however, opportunities for cooperation between Sparta and Persia, those two old time enemies of Athens, started popping up.

Cooperation between the two powers was first realized after Athenian reverses in Sicily in 415-13 BCE. Seizing the moment, Sparta persuaded Persia to cut off grain exports to Athens from Egypt. Building on this first fruit of strategic realignment, Sparta approached and obtained a subsidy from the Great Kings of Persia in 407 BCE that allowed them to construct a serious Spartan navy. That is to say, a navy strong enough to be able to challenge Athens for control of the sea.

After the cutoff of Egyptian wheat, Athens had become totally reliant on grain imports from the Black Sea. In 405 BCE, the new Spartan navy, by a lucky sneak attack, destroyed a grotesquely incompetent Athenian fleet near the mouth of the Black Sea. The Spartan navy then choked off the Athenian food supply. After six months of starvation the city of Pericles was forced to capitulate, its walls were torn down, and its empire, which might well have lasted centuries, was dismantled, never to be resurrected.

Political Consequences of Imperial Collapse

Athenian democracy, which had been brought into being and underwritten financially by the imperial adventures of the city, collapsed twice into oligarchic rule as a result of the Second Peloponnesian War. This happened first in the aftermath of the disastrous Sicilian campaign of 415-413 BCE; the second time was in the aftermath of the final surrender to Sparta. Both times the oligarchs managed to do nothing but alienate the population and democratic rule was quickly reinstated. Democracy on the lines of the Ephialtic constitution, with some modifications, continued for some 70 years after the Athenian surrender to Sparta.

However, the two Peloponnesian Wars, which had together seen over 40 years of combat waged under the banner of Athenian democracy and empire, had led to a considerable evolution in military tactics. By the Fourth Century BCE, military advantage had shifted away from traditional hoplite warfare (so closely tied to the traditional city state and its landowning citizens) and towards more mobile, technologically advanced and professional (i.e., mercenary) armies. These new armies nonetheless retained hoplite warfare's decisive lethality. This shift was especially evident when these new armies fielded substantial amounts of cavalry. These change made the previously primitive states on the western and northern borders of the Classical Greek world far more potent foes.

Eventually, the most successful of these states, the kingdom of Philip of Macedon, extinguished the reality, if not the external forms, of Athenian democracy. In 338 BC Philip with an assist from his son, Alexander, crushed a combined force from Athens and Thebes. A year later Philip formed the League of Corinth which established him as the ruler of a federal Greece. Athen's time as a self-ruling city state had come to an end.

Next, we study the Etruscans.



posted by Friedrich at September 15, 2006


So it appears the factors that made Athenian democracy possible were: a varied economy in which more than one sector of the population participated (traders, merchants, miners/manufacturers, landholders big and not so big) in wealth accumulation over an extended period of time (not just one or two generations but for a century or more), in combination with the inability of any one group within that society (especially the aristocrats) to gain a choke-hold on power.

I think it is also helpful to think of the Athenian Empire as primarily a mercantile empire. The point of the whole enterprise was to "let the good times roll." The internal struggles for power might be fierce but it was generally agreed that power was to be used to: maintain Athenian naval dominance in the Aegean/keep the colonies in line; maintain the defensive wall around Athens and its port, Piraeus(sp?); enter into mercantile alliances (sometimes coercive) with other Greek city-states. In other words Athens was not an ideological empire. The aristocrats weren't out to do away with the merchants, or vice versa. And Athens wasn't concerned with imposing democracy on other states. This accounts for the fact that Athenian rule wasn't particularly despotic, either internally or externally.

What brought Athens down? The Athenians! Athenian hubris was so extreme, that in the middle of the Pellopenisian(sp?) War, its strength in manpower and treasure having been seriously sapped by a Spartan led siege, Athens, by vote of its Assembly, nevertheless set out to conquer distant Syracuse (in Sicily! 900 miles to the west). This recquired the building and manning of 90-100 triremes, sailing/rowing them to Sicily, building a siege wall around Syracuse and starving that city into submission. In the event, although they managed to reach Sicily in relatively good shape, a combination of terrible logistics and irresolute generalship led to catastrophe. The mission was a collossal failure from which Athens never recovered. Sparta didn't bring Athens down. Athens did.

Posted by: ricpic on September 16, 2006 8:49 PM

In terms of Athens not being despotic: what about the large-scale massacres of the citizenry of smaller cities that attempted to leave the Athenian alliance, that are documented in Thucydides? Thucydides also documents the vicious internal civil wars that took place in some Greek city-states between pro-Athenian democratic factions and pro-Spartan royalist ones, wars in which each side was apparently supported by its foreign patrons. I think that complicates your picture of Athens as not attempting to "export democracy" or any ideology. Finally, in a much poorer world high levels of forced taxation alone can be somewhat despotic.

Great posting, Friedrich. Clearly a lot of work went into it. Very clear and direct and understandable despite its length.

Posted by: MQ on September 17, 2006 11:49 AM

This stuff sounds as though it were "ripped from the headlines."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 17, 2006 11:54 AM

Thanks. I'd read a dozen accounts of these events before, but this is the most lucid.

At some point I'd like to see you consider analogies between these events and more recent history of the last couple of centuries.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 17, 2006 3:24 PM

MQ - Agreed. How's this: Athenian rule was not systematically despotic, internally or externally.

Reminds me of the joke about the Hebrew pharisees remonstrating with the Roman soldiers after the crucifixion:

"We didn't mean for you to kill him, we only wanted you to lean on him a little."

Posted by: ricpic on September 17, 2006 4:45 PM

Victor Davis Hanson does a good job of comparing events of today with those of the Peloponnesian War in his latest book, "A War Like No Other". It's a fine work of history, and those expecting a partisan political screed will be surprised...

Posted by: tschafer on September 19, 2006 1:51 PM

Once again, thank you for an illuminating and interesting read.

Posted by: Tom West on September 19, 2006 7:04 PM

wow. u guys are lames. :[[[[

Posted by: Lisa B. on September 24, 2006 6:34 PM


What’s with the BCE instead of B.C.? Did the pagans get to you too? What is a CE anyway? Great post, however, we don’t read enough of you these days…

Posted by: Matt S on September 26, 2006 12:07 PM

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