Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-097
17 Nov. 2021
Review by Ciaran Jones, St. Mary's University School of Law
Athenian Democracy at War
By David M. Pritchard
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019. Pp. xxiv, 287. ISBN 978–1–108–42291–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, Classical Antiquity, Athens Print Version

In Athenian Democracy at War, David Pritchard (Univ. of Queensland) examines Athens' conduct of war in the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Specifically, he clarifies the role of the naval warfare that bolstered the Athenian empire. He considers, too, how Athenian culture reflected the participation in warfare that Athens demanded of its citizens regardless of social class. He gathers evidence from epigraphy and the canonical authors to argue that athletes, though exclusively upper-class, championed the bellicose attitudes of commoners. Finally, he reviews his prior work on Athenian finance[1] to debunk canards decrying ancient Athenians' inordinate provision for public festivals: though the Athenians in fact spent heavily on public spectacle, warfare absorbed most of their resources. Although the cumbersome prose of the social sciences sometimes sullies his fluid writing style, the author's thorough research gives readers a sense of how the world's most famous direct democracy defended itself during an extremely violent period.


Click cover to purchase
at Amazon to support MiWSR

Athens thrived on naval warfare. "Comic poets and public speakers," in contrast to the philosophers, who wrote for a more prosperous audience, did not criticize sailors, "suggest[ing] the demos esteemed sailors highly" (13). This reticence, argues Pritchard, gratified Athenian citizens, most of whom discharged their military obligation by rowing in the navy. "In the late 430s, two-thirds of citizens met their duty to fight for the state by regularly serving in this branch" (33). Aristophanes "compared himself to naval personnel … us[ing] their career ladder as a justification of his own apprenticeship in old comedy" (123). Thucydides's account of Pericles's funeral oration located Athenian might in its warships (125). Citing Xenophon, Pritchard adds that "some writers even went as far as to characterize petty officers as a building block of Athenian dunamis or military might," though Athenian sailors, unlike hoplites who deployed only alongside fellow citizens, rowed side-by-side with slaves and therefore may have suffered "guilt by servile association" (94, 101). Forensic speechwriters like Lysias lauded the "warships and walls" that kept Athens safe (128). Pritchard uses such excerpts to show how naval power stirred Athenian audiences and jurors.

Pritchard notes that Sparta won the Peloponnesian War only when it "realized that it too had to become a seapower" (17). In 412, the Spartans allowed Persia to impose taxes on Ionian Greeks in exchange for money to build a fleet. While the introduction of the trierarchy (an institution in which Athenian aristocrats took responsibility for provisioning and commanding a naval vessel) allowed Athens to supplement the public funds it dedicated to naval warfare with the private resources of its wealthiest citizens, Sparta's "weak finances [had] ruled this out" (169) before the Great King bankrolled Persia's former enemy. "With this fleet, the Spartans blocked the grain ships sailing for Athens" (30), thus nullifying the Athenians' time-worn tactic of retreating behind their walls and provisioning themselves by sea. By 405, "Sparta easily destroyed the last of the Athenian triremes in the Dardanelles and so was able to force the surrender of Athens by a land and sea blockade" (174). Athens lost, Pritchard insists, by ceding its supremacy at sea.

Pritchard uses the Athenian example to dispute the common assumption that democracies are necessarily less warlike than other forms of government. Democracies, he notes, "have frequently fought colonial wars or attacked non-democratic states in the name, for example, of democracy and human rights" (11). Indeed, democracies are historically notable not for their pacific nature but rather their disproportionate success in waging war. "They have won over 90 per cent of the wars they have started and around 80 per cent of the wars that they have fought" (11). Athens, specifically, benefited from its financial prowess as it tried to project power throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Athenians, noting the tribute Persia levied upon its imperial subjects, used the income from Attica's silver mines and the liturgy of the trierarchy "massively to expand and to upgrade their public navy" (171) in the wake of the Persian Wars. With the creation of the Delian League, an alliance dedicated ostensibly to resisting Persian incursions into the Greek archipelago, Athens began levying phoros (tribute) upon the participating city-states, hoarding the money in its public treasury. "In 425, the Athenians trebled the phoros of their imperial subjects to 1,200 talents" (173). Pritchard shows that Athens eagerly pursued power at the expense of its neighbors.

Athens fostered bellicose ideals by sponsoring athletic and dramatic competitions. "The Athenians conceived of sport and war as comparable" (xv). Widespread military service supported this ethic. Before Cleisthenes instituted democratic reforms in Athens at the end of the sixth century, "war had largely been an elite pursuit" (200) in Archaic Greece, in which an influential noble would gather a cohort of followers to fight a single, pitched battle at a predetermined location. "With the creation of a public army of hoplites and a large public fleet, military service was extended to every social stratum" (180). Since Athens did not publicly subsidize the training in athletics, music, and letters that constituted a traditional education, "the number of disciplines that a boy could pursue and the length of his schooling depended on his family's financial resources" (186), virtually guaranteeing elite athletic competitors would come from the upper echelons of Athenian society. Nonetheless, writes Pritchard, regular Athenians admired aristocratic competitors who honed the skills needed to prevail in war. At the Great Dionysia, one of two major festivals celebrated by ancient Athenians, comedic playwrights elicited laughter by having satyrs compete athletically, a trope reflected in ancient pot shards. Satyrs, as acolytes of the incontinent god Dionysus, lacked the discipline and moderation to succeed in athletic competition. "As far as the demos were concerned, athletics and sophrosune [moderation] went together. Without such virtues, and knowing only the 'ponoi' [hardships] of drinking and fornicating, satyrs could only ever be terrible athletes" (199). By contrast, public decrees lauded the martial virtues of each tribe's ephebes, or athletic apprentices, such as "their kosmiotes ('orderliness'), eutaxia ('military discipline'), sophrosune, and arete (courage)" (204). Athens reserved its most prestigious public commendations for successful athletes and military commanders. "One of the highest honors that a Greek state could give a citizen was sitesis or free public dining" (207). Athens awarded this privilege to athletes who earned victories at the Panhellenic games, placing them on a par with victorious generals. Forensic speechwriters listed their clients' athletic feats alongside their military service to elicit sympathy from jurors, citing the glory such achievements garnered for the polis. "Such a victory gave … regional powers uncontested proof of the time that they claimed in relation to their neighbours and rivals" (216). Athletics, an elite pursuit, enraptured Athenians of all social classes.

Athenian political conventions also reflected a society burdened by military service. "Generals were required by law to ensure that [their] corps' katalogoi [conscription lists] did not include those who had recently served" (106). If a hoplite recently returned from duty found himself on the lists, he could petition for an exemption. Athens also instituted a two-year exemption from chorus sponsorship and other public liturgies for wealthier citizens who had performed a trierarchy. Athens likely increased taxes on its imperial subjects in 425 to alleviate the financial burden wealthy Athenians had borne when a rise in taxes accompanied the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War.

Pritchard examines the types of Athenians who performed the various military services that the polis required of its citizens. "Non-elite Athenians," he observes, "usually chose their form of military service," evaluating the pros and cons of each branch. Less prosperous Athenians avoided the army, since the "equipment that a hoplite had to purchase was a lot more expensive than a sailor's" (31). Citing epigraphic evidence such as a tombstone depicting a wealthy Athenian as an epibates, or marine, Pritchard "supports the majority view that epibatai were simply regular members of the hoplite corps who happened to be serving in the navy" (43). Since hoplites fought alongside fellow tribesmen, the community closely monitored each individual's behavior in battle, discouraging cowardice and the shirking of duty. Nevertheless, a poor man via military service "was recognized as khresimos tei polei ('good and useful to the state') or a khrestos polites ('good and useful citizen')" (45). Service in the cavalry remained the exclusive domain of the aristocracy. "A hippeus," or hussar, "had to buy his own horse and another for his groom," an expense equal to "2 years of wages for a skilled labourer" (62). Though archers suffered from the stigma of cowardice on account of their distance from the enemy, financial incentives drew poorer Athenians to this corps. Since archers had to train constantly to maintain their proficiency, Athens granted them a misthos, or salary. "What attracted citizens to this corps was its misthos and the fact that it cost significantly less than service as a hoplite" (74).

Although the author's prose suffers from minor stylistic errors, especially wordiness and clumsy phraseology, specialists and general readers alike will benefit from reading David Pritchard's welcome, richly detailed study of the financial and social pressures that dictated ancient Athenians' decisions concerning military service.

[1] Viz., Public Spending and Democracy in Classical Athens (Austin: U Texas Pr, 2015).

Purchase Athenian Democracy at War
Site News
Books Available for Review
For an updated list of books available for review, see Submissions.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2021 Michigan War Studies Review