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The Athenian Navy and Democracy: Top-Down, Bottom Up or Topsy Turvy?

David Rosenbloom

Historians are critical of views that make naval power a condition for democracy at Athens (Ceccarelli 1993, van Wees 1995; Gabrielsen 2002) and elsewhere in Greece (Robinson 2011: 230-37) as a mirage of ideology (e.g. Gabrielsen 2002: esp. 209-12). This paper seeks to pinpoint the moment of elite ideological formation and contestation in perceptions of a “bottom-up” organization in the Athenian navy and democratic culture. 

            On the face of it, the Athenian trireme was an exemplary top-down organization (van Wees 2004: 230; cf. X. Mem. 3.5.18). The spatial arrangement of a trireme’s personnel recapitulated the superiority of Athenians to non-Athenians, freemen to slaves, and wealthy to poor. Athenians occupied the top tier: on deck were the trierarch and marines (cf. Ar. Pol. 1327b9-11). Of lower status but still on deck were the mainly Athenian specialized crew (hypēresia)—helmsman, boatswain, prow master, purser, aulete, shipwright (IG I3 1032; [X.] Ath. 1.2)—a cause for civic pride (Th. 1.143.1). Below them sat the top tier of rowers, thranitai, probably heavily Athenian, “the thranitēs folk who preserve the city” (Ar. Ach. 162-63; cf. Th. 6.31.3). Cramped beneath them were zugioi and thalamioi (Poll. 1.87, 120; Paus. Gr. ε 56, ζ 1). The former were perhaps composed of foreign rowers; thalamioi occupied the bottom rank and were likely to include slaves. The order of the personnel on naval lists inscribed this hierarchy in stone: trierarch(s), marines, hypēresia, citizen rowers, foreign rowers, slaves (IG I3 1032). Far from losing their identity as a small minority in the diversity of a trireme’s personnel (Gabrielsen 2002: 211), Athenians are conspicuously dominant in it. 

            For pseudo-Xenophon, the navy justifies democracy as a bottom-up organization. Allowing members of the demos (allegedly) to possess a lion’s share of goods, to hold allotted and elective office, and to speak in assemblies is right (δίκαιον) because “the demos is one who drives the ships and confers power on the city” (1.2). Naval power is the basis for a culture of equality (ἰσηγορία) among citizens, metics, and slaves, enabling freedom and agency at the lowest levels of society (1.10-12). Rowing, handling the helm, and using naval lingo permeate Athenian society, from the wealthy landowner and his slaves to the lowliest menial (1.19). But this organization violates moral order, turning the world upside down: “wherever there is naval power, it is necessary to be servants to slaves because of money” (ὅπου γὰρ ναυτικὴ δύναμίς ἐστιν, ἀπὸ χρημάτων ἀνάγκη τοῖς ἀνδραπόδοις δουλεύειν, 1.11). Persons of meager wealth, inadequate education, low social status and moral worth receive rewards while their superiors are stinted and exploited (1.1, 3.1; Pl. Lg. 707a2-b3; cf. Arist. Pol. 1327b7-9). Trierarchs and other liturgists are victims of the poor majority, who deplete their resources, taking payment for rowing, for leisure activities, and for feasts at festivals (1.13 cf. 2.9-10; cf. X. Smp. 4.31-32; Isok. 12.116).

            The tie between democracy and the fleet was not merely ideological (Ar. Pol. 1304a17-24, cf. 1321a14; [Arist.] Ath. 27.1). The “naval mob” (ναυτικὸς ὄχλος) at Samos could not abide the oligarchy of the 400 (8.72.2). Indeed, the crew of the Paralos, composed entirely of free Athenian citizens was “always and ever on the attack against oligarchy, even when it wasn’t there” (8.73.5); it was instrumental in the restoration of democracy at Samos and in resistance to the 400 in 411 bce. Fueled by images of the 400’s brutal treatment of the Paralos’ crew and its families, the fleet on Samos in 411 formed a democratic government, culled generals and trierarchs suspected of collusion, blamed the 400 for “dissolving the ancestral constitution” (8.76.6), and resolved to preserve it. Dēmokratia is a common name for triremes in the mid-fourth century (IG II2 1604, 1606-07, 1620, 1628-29, 1631). Parrhēsia and Eleutheria also appear. These hulls embodied and defended the political order and values that mattered most to the demos, even if its members did not row them.

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Popular Politics and Ancient Warfare

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