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Athenian Generals: Private Profit and the Problem of Agency

Michael S. Leese

Throughout the Archaic and Classical period, Greek generals and military leaders were traditionally rewarded with the largest shares of booty.  After the rise of the democracy, however, the Athenian demos progressively exerted tighter and tighter control over its strategoi and the booty they collected while on campaign (Pritchett, 1991, 400-425).  Generals acted as agents on behalf of the Athenian polis; they were invested with the full power of the Athenian military but were supposed to use that power primarily for the good of the demos and not for their own personal benefit.  The Athenians instituted a number of measures to monitor the behaviour of its generals, for which modern Agency Theory (North, 1990, 32-33) can provide valuable insight.  The demos assigned public slaves and treasurers to oversee the money that was handled while on campaign (Dem. 8.47) and required strategoi to submit accounts upon completion of their service ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 59).

As in modern agency relationships, the mechanisms that the demos designed to police its agents were not perfect, and generals often behaved opportunistically, using the tremendous power in their hands to make money in secret from the Athenian polis.  Some are said to have altered their accounts (Dem. 49.12, 16), and others seem to have colluded with their state-appointed treasurers, convincing them to overlook embezzlements in return for a piece of the action (Lysias 28 and 29).

Because there was a distinction between booty that belonged to the demos and that which became the personal property of soldiers (Xen. Hell. 1.2.5), strategoi could also circumvent the laws of the polis to make money for themselves.  Many generals were creative in finding ways to work around the polis’ controls and were able to identify sources of profit that did not interfere with the interests of the demos. Some even waged campaigns “on the side” for their own profit (Dem. 2.28-29).

Furthermore, there was a great deal of ambiguity regarding precisely what types of personal profits generals were allowed to make.  In some situations, booty unequivocally belonged to the state (Dem. 24.11-13), but in other cases it seems that the demos could decide whether or not money made by generals on campaign was permissible or not, regardless of what the law said (Hyp. 1.24-25; Harvey, 1985), so the line between licit and illicit personal profits seems to have been negotiable.  The democratic institution of the strategeia was thoroughly embedded in the culture of aristocratic xenia and royal gift-giving that dominated the Mediterranean world.  To be successful, generals needed to follow the informal rules that governed diplomacy (Plut. Lys. 6), which often required the taking of personal bribes.  Many strategoi took advantage of this legal grey area in order to make money for themselves while on campaign, believing they would not be prosecuted.

Indeed, to decrease the risk of being prosecuted for financial crimes, generals could try to secure the goodwill of the demos.  It was much less likely for a strategos to be prosecuted as long as he was held in high esteem by the demos (Plut. Per. 23.1), who manned the dikasteria and had the ultimate authority to convict a strategos.  Since the vast majority of prosecutions followed a military defeat (Pritchett, 1991, 24; Taylor, 2001, 56), there was a much lower chance of being charged with a financial crime as long as a general kept the demos happy. Thus, although it was extremely risky, nevertheless the potential rewards were great enough to encourage some generals to roll the dice and take a chance at profiting from the strategeia

(590 words)

Session/Panel Title

Profits and Losses in Ancient Greek Warfare

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