Sunday, 16 September 2018

Liberty, democracy, thalassocracy

John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea is a good read on the interconnected rise of the Athenian navy, democracy and empire, drawing on Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Plutarch to construct a coherent narrative of Athens’ history from 483 BC to 322 BC.

Hale starts with the remarkable career of Themistocles – the visionary who realised that a Persian attempt to invade and subjugate Greece was inevitable and that Athens had to develop sea power to counter this threat – and ends not with Athens’ defeat and surrender to Sparta in the Peloponnesian war (404 BC) but with Athens’ capitulation to Macedonia some 80 years later. For Hale, Athens’ Golden Age is interrupted, not terminated, by Sparta, and once the Lacedaemonians’ short-lived empire ignominiously collapses, Athens revives and is able to continue its glorious trajectory well into the 4th century, before being definitively scuppered by Alexander the Great and his successors.

Hale argues that Athens, in the process of establishing itself as a maritime power, became absorbed by the sea and that the navy seeped into the fabric of everyday Athenian life – influencing language, science, art and culture. Historians, politicians, artists, poets, dramatists all incorporated maritime metaphors and naval themes into their work. The Athenian government became a ‘ship of state’, its leaders ‘steersmen’. Maritime references abound in Athenian comedy and tragedy, and Athenians showed their commitment to their navy by naming their children Naubios, Naukrates, Naumache or Nausinike. For Hale, Athens’ maritime empire opened the city to international trade and contact and fostered a spirit of tolerance, open-mindedness and free enquiry, while the demands of naval warfare placed a new emphasis on technique and cunning, which supplanted the previous virtues of raw courage and brute force associated with cavalry and hoplite fighting and undermined, in the process, the upper class supposed to embody them.

Hale stresses, then, that the navy became the emblem of Athenian liberty and democracy. The ethos of the trireme, manned by free Athenian males, where distinctions of class and wealth were thrown overboard in favour of collective spirit and mutual endeavour, inevitably translated into the political field and shaped the radical demos that Athens became. The common man who risked his life at sea for Athens and brought wealth and security to the city now wanted to take part in the Assembly and affect decisions on matters of war, defence and foreign policy.

But if the navy provided the power and prestige for democratic values and institutions to hold sway in Athens, then, inevitably, critics of Athenian democracy blamed Athens’ maritime obsessions for what they saw as the degeneration of society.

Aristotle disparagingly described the Athenian constitution as ‘democracy based on triremes’, and argued that the exoticism and heterogeneity of outward-looking maritime empires were antithetical to the functioning of an orderly state. Plato was an equally ardent critic of the Athenian thalassocracy and its architects – who he identified as Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles:

‘Yes, they say these men made our city great. They never realise that it is now swollen and infected because of these statesmen of former days, who paid no heed to discipline and justice. Instead, they filled our city with harbors and navy yards and walls and tribute and such-like trash.’

But if these navy yards were trash for Plato, Hale suggests for democratic Athenians they were the city’s pride and joy:

‘The glories of the Acropolis dominate our modern view of Athens. Ancient Athenians saw their city differently. In terms of civic pride, the temples of the gods were eclipsed by the vast complex of installations for the navy. Near Zea Harbor at the Piraeus stood the largest roofed building in Athens, indeed in all of Greece. It was a naval arsenal, four hundred feet in length. The Athenian architect Philo designed it to house the linen sails, rigging and other “hanging gear” of the fleet. Philo was so proud of his storehouse or skeuotheke that he wrote a book about it, and the Assembly voted to inscribe its specifications on a marble stele. The Parthenon received no such attention at the time of its construction.’