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A Game of Timber Monopoly: Atheno-Macedonian Relations on the Eve of the Peloponnesian War

Konstantinos Karathanasis

Washington University in St Louis

By 432 B.C., the alliance of Athens with Perdikkas’ internal enemies had precipitated a fall in the formerly amiable Atheno-Macedonian relations. This paper focuses through the lens of timber commerce on this peculiar termination of goodwill with Perdikkas. The main contention is that Perdikkas effectively opposed Athenian imperialism by restricting his monopolistic supply of silver fir (Abies alba), since timber from this Abies taxon was a nonpareil resource for shipbuilding and available only in Macedon. As a result, the shift of allegiance recorded by Thucydides emerges as part of an elaborate Athenian strategy that among other advantages would also facilitate access to invaluable ship-building resources.

In his narrative of the affairs preceding the revolt of Potidaea, Thucydides briefly remarks that Perdikkas had become an enemy at the time; “the reason for his enmity was the common alliance of the Athenians with his brother, Philip, and Derdas, who were in league against him” (1.57.2-3 ἐπολεμώθη δὲ ὅτι Φιλίππῳ τῷ ἑαυτοῦ ἀδελφῷ καὶ Δέρδᾳ κοινῇ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐναντιουμένοις οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι ξυμμαχίαν ἐποιήσαντο). It is clear from this remark that Perdikkas had had more than good reason to turn hostile, but what about the Athenians? In the past, Perdikkas was an Athenian ally and so was his father, Alexander I (Hdt. 8.136.1). Moreover, given that Thucydides entertains no motives for the decision to side with his enemies, the Athenian aggression towards Perdikkas seems unprovoked. Therefore, considering that the Macedonian king was not only a friend and ally but also capable of turning the tide of affairs in the north, this reversal of Athens’ allegiance poses a mystery.

This mystery has been treated nonchalantly by commentators; Gomme (1945) and Hornblower (1991) discuss Perdikkas’ actions at length but do not offer any comment on the expediency of this new alliance for Athens. On the other hand, Badian (1993) and Cole (1974) consider the political motives behind the alliance but leave important factors of expediency unexplored. In particular, as indicated by literary and epigraphic records (IG I³ 117; Plat. Leg. 704d-705d; Xen. Hell. 6.1.11; [Xen.] Ath. pol. 2.11-12), we do know that Athens depended heavily on Macedon for the provision of ship-building timber. In view of that and Athens’ expansionism to the north, exemplified by the continuous attempts to colonize the Strymon delta until the successful foundation of Amphipolis in 437 B.C., Psoma (2011) reached the conclusion that Perdikkas must have stopped exporting timber to Athens in reaction to the aggressive expansion of her control sphere. Psoma based her argument on numismatic research (2000, 2002), the findings of which suggest that the content of Macedonian coinage in silver seems to be fluctuating in accordance with the commercial relationships between Athens and Macedon in terms of shipbuilding timber. In other words, Perdikkas’ debased coinage was an emergency measure due to his financially catastrophic commercial policy. However, a question arises: if Amphipolis provided Athens with ship-building resources, as suggested by Hoffmann (1975) and Borza (1987, 1990), can Perdikkas’ commercial embargo provide adequate reason for Athens’ hostility?

Archaeobotanical research of the last two decades has come to confirm and further illuminate Theophrastus’ observations in his Historia plantarum on the supreme quality of Macedonian firs for shipbuilding and construction purposes. Specifically, the superior quality of the firs coming from the Almopian massifs of northern Macedon was due to their belonging to the alba taxon of the Abies genus, which was the tallest and hence the most apt for ship-building purposes of the Abies taxa growing in Greece (i.e. borisii-regis and cephalonica). As a result, Perdikkas’ embargo must have had considerable impact. Accordingly, given that Perdikkas’ brother, Philip, ruled over the archē comprising modern Mt. Paiko, where Abies alba fir-tress would grow, the alliance of Athens with Philip seems to have been the most strategic way to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy, while bypassing Perdikkas’ anti-imperialist commercial policy and regaining access to the ship-building resources necessary to maintain a naval empire.

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Greek History

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