Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy...

...is the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Richard Wenghofer speaks: Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens -- Wed. March 25, 10:30 AM, F307

From James Murton:

The final History Department Seminar Series of this year will feature Richard Wenghofer of the Classics program, speaking on "The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens."

Richard's paper will argue, contrary to received wisdom, that racism did exist in ancient Athens, and it emerged in lockstep with, and as an indirect consequence of, the evolution of democratic political structures and their concomitant social and political ideologies.

Wednesday, March 25, 10:30 am, F307

Refreshments will be served.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest


The subtitle of this book is "The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior," and therein lies its interest to me as sometime historian of democracy. About 15 years ago Phil Paine and I wrote an article in which we argued that democracy was not the intellectual property of just one culture, but that most cultures contained the raw materials out of which democracy could be built. (See "Democracy's Place in World History," Journal of World History, 4 (1993): 23-45.)

Boehm in his book is interested in a similar point, and I certainly would have been happy to have access to his thinking in the early 90s. Are humans basically hierarchical or egalitarian? What does anthropological evidence tell us? How about comparison with other great apes?

Boehm argues that contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers are universally egalitarian, as are some sedentary hunter-gatherers. But it's not because humans don't have a strong prediliction for hierarchy (which is pretty obviously the case); it's because in small communities hunters, who are all armed, trained killers, don't tolerate potential alpha males lording it over them. The male hunters, and the women too, use gossip, criticism, ostracism and ultimately execution to keep such "upstarts" under control.

Thus humans have evolved in such a way that both strong hierarchies and egalitarianism are real possibilities.

Boehm never mentions Athens, but archaic Greece was always on my mind as I read the book. In particular, ostracism and the career of Alcibiades.

Image: Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, by Regnault. All sorts of smart remarks come to mind, the most presentable being adding "for about 15 minutes" to the title.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Athenian navy: could they beat the 300?

I am going to start by pasting in a post from Adrian Murdoch's blog, Bread and Circuses and my own reply to that post:

The faculty of biological science at Leeds has some interesting research about the fitness of ancient rowers:

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens - around 500BC - would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Thanks fo AJ for passing this over.

And here's what I said, more or less:

[The demos (common citizens) who were paid to row Athenian warships] have often been accused of being a belligerent, imperialistic group because more war meant more pay (and presumably more profit from the empire).

If these guys were a large group of physical fitness fanatics, too, you can see how they might be a rather fearsome political pressure group.
Would you want to face these guys in a heated debate in the assembly -- 6000 overexcited Greeks all determined to exercise the sovereignty of the people?

I still have not seen 300, but when it came out lots of people remarked on the physiques of the Spartan heroes, and somebody said, roughly, that beautiful architecture and literary debates and even democracy were all very well, but sometimes you needed people who could give the opposition a kick where it counted for something.

Even at the time I thought, "Friend, you have no appreciation for the dynamic of Athenian democracy;" now I think, "Friend, who had better sixpacks, the rowers or the infantrymen?"

Bread and Circuses is well worth a look for all sorts of ancient material, especially concerning the Later Roman Empire. See this on a movie on the last emperor in the west.

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