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The End of Hegemony? Revisiting Athenian Finance and Foreign Policy after the Social War

Robert Sing

This paper questions whether Athens’ defeat by its former allies in 355 B.C.E. was the watershed moment it is generally regarded to be – one that caused a sudden and significant change in the city’s financial and foreign policies. I present alternative interpretations of the evidence in order to recast our understanding of mid-fourth century Athenian political discourse.

The ‘failure’ of the Second Athenian Confederacy is generally seen as precipitating the abandonment of Athens’ long-held objective of exercising naval hegemony over the Aegean. The traditional argument is that leading members of the Confederacy seceded in 357 because Athens was turning the alliance into an empire (Cawkwell 1981). I join those who doubt this explanation (Griffith 1978; Cargill 1981). I argue that the natural lesson of the Social War for Athens was neither to give up on the Confederacy as a workable means of attaining hegemony, nor to stop practising imperialism against non-allies and pursue a balance-of-power strategy. Rather, the lesson was to set its finances on a more robust footing for future campaigning.

On this basis, the rest of the paper presents a different view of the goals underpinning the financial policies of Eubulus. On this score, most scholars follow Cawkwell (1963). The centralisation of financial administration under Eubulus and the Theoric Fund is seen not just as a way of achieving short-term fiscal recovery, but also as a way of securing Athens’ long-term prosperity by limiting military action to the defence of truly vital interests. The infamous theoric distributions are regarded as sweeteners which induced the dêmos to accept this restrained foreign policy.

But is this the only possible characterisation of the policies associated with Eubulus? Athens’ want of funds was so great that anything other than a restrained foreign policy was impossible. Athenian acceptance of temporary financial constraint is no indication that Athenians also accepted fiscal conservatism and military caution as the new, long-term status quo. I suggest that Athens’ history of pre-eminence and its interests overseas make it more likely that the dêmos continued to believe that hegemony was the necessary goal of foreign policy (cf. Badian 1995). To then suppose that the dêmos was bribed into suppressing this conviction is to take a paternalistic view of the political situation, one heavily influenced by the polemic of Demosthenes in the 340s.

I see an unprecedented commitment to revitalisation, rather than a transition away from great power status, as defining not just Athenian thinking but Eubulus’ policies as well. I draw support from two different bodies of evidence, the second seldom analysed with this question in mind. First, the scale of investment in military infrastructure in these years can be interpreted as evidence of a desire to have a solid material basis for the renewed projection of military power. Second, Demosthenes' speeches from the 350s (esp. 22, 24, 14, 4) show a special interest in the necessity, and in the virtually limitless potential, of sound financial organisation to project military power when coupled with sound financial vision. The young Demosthenes can be associated with the policies of Eubulus prior to the Olynthian War. As such, his rhetoric gives us a unique insight into the sort of ideas and arguments which underpinned the contemporary Eubulan reforms.   

The Social War had profound consequences for Athenian democracy and power. We cannot, of course, know for certain if Athens would in time have tried to regain its hegemony in the Aegean - the rise of Macedon deprived it of the opportunity. Nevertheless, my re-evaluation opens up a way of seeing the period less as a decisive break with the past and less as a time of sharp disagreement over the use of military force, and more as one of important continuities with the past. This approach also makes it possible to look forward and draw stronger connections between Eubulus’ initiatives and the Lycurgan programme of civic and military rejuvenation.  

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Money Matters

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