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How Odious was the Athenian Tribute System?

Aaron Hershkowitz

Rutgers University

In my presentation I will challenge the belief, long dominant among scholars of the ‘Athenian Empire’, that the Athenian exaction of phoros (tribute) from its allies was particularly odious to those allies. Lisa Kallet (1993 p. 146), speaking about the decision taken by Athens in the Mytilenean Debate to divide Lesbos into klerouchic allotments rather than assessing tribute and a war indemnity notes that “[t]he Lesbians, with the exception of the ringleaders, would have survived the revolt intact, would not be forced to leave their land, and would not be pressed into the subject status of virtually all other allies and forced into the repugnant and humiliating act of paying tribute.”  Although Loren Samons (quotes here from 2010 p. 18, but cf. also 2000) does not use language quite as strong as the “repugnant and humiliating” of Kallet, he nevertheless suggests that the tribute system was “resented” and characterizes it as “a regular and elaborate system for financial exploitation”.

It cannot be debated that Athens’ actions as hegemon of the Delian league caused resentment and discontent within the alliance: Naxos rebelled (unsuccessfully) within a decade of the league’s founding, and several other poleis followed suit even before the Spartans’ famous ultimatum that Athens allow the Greeks to be autonomos or prepare for war (Thuc. 1.139.3). However, Athenian involvement with, and interference in, local matters of allied poleis went far beyond the assessment and collection of tribute, and so it must be asked whether we can identify the particular Athenian actions that allies found objectionable. The constant caveat of work in antiquity, that our sources cannot provide adequate information for certainty, applies as ever here, but the truth is that there is no evidence for allied discontent about tribute even into the period of the Archidamian War, when we have strong circumstantial grounds to suspect such discontent given that (1) the tribute was raised significantly, (2) new, non-allied states were assessed (and possibly compelled to pay) tribute, and (3) this tribute went to fund a war not against Persia or the barbaroi, but against another Greek alliance of poleis.

To start with the establishment of the Delian league and the tribute system in 478, Kallet (1993) has made a compelling case for recognizing the initially voluntary nature of the league. Although we may compare the phoros to the Persian tribute (dasmos), and scholars including Oswyn Murray (1996) and Samons (2010) have made just such a comparison, the poleis in the league (many of whom had just emerged from Persian control!) apparently did not find this similarity so troubling as to reject membership. Next to be examined are the various rebellions from the league of which we know: in no case is any mention made of tribute, and in fact most of the rebellions are by poleis who contributed ships, and not tribute. We also know that during this time many poleis that formerly contributed ships or men converted their contribution to tribute, probably voluntarily: it should not surprise us that communities might prefer to pay an amount of money that was not particularly onerous—as it has been demonstrated to have been less than 4% of total economic output—in exchange for the Athenians taking on the dangers of sailing, warfare, and piracy suppression. A final piece of evidence often adduced in support of 5th-century hatred for tribute is the explicit rejection of levying tribute in the foundation of the so-called “Second Athenian Confederacy” and the general avoidance of the word phoros in favor of syntaxis (‘contribution’). However, this fact admits of two objections: first, that it shows 4th-century, not 5th-century opinions, and second, that while the word phoros had become hopelessly entangled with 5th-century Athenian actions that did incense the allies, the subsequent and relatively untroubled introduction of syntaxis undermines the idea that tribute itself was a toxic concept.

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Foreign Policy

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