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From the time of Herodotos, historians have claimed that democracy was a critical element of Athenian military success (Hdt 5.78). Some, such as Barry Strauss (1996), consider the Athenian navy a force for democratization in the city: the trireme functioned as a “school of democracy,” uniting the masses. Even critics of democracy such as Pseudo-Xenophon appreciated the justice of the Athenian system, which, he claimed, allocated a preponderance of material and symbolic rewards to the demos “because the demos is the one who drives the ships and confers power on the city” (Ath.Pol. 1.2). In his view, successful naval service justified mass political power and the realization of demotic self-interest it allowed (cf. Raaflaub 1994: 143-45).

This paper contests attempts to posit direct causal relationships between citizen naval service and mass political power at Athens. The polis rarely conscripted thetes to row in the classical period—naval service was voluntary (Rosivach 1985; Gabrielsen 1994). The state provided empty hulls and empowered trierarchs to fill them with rowers irrespective of citizenship (Cawkwell 1984; Gabrielsen 1994). By 432, Athens’ enemies could claim that the city’s power was “bought” (á½ νητή) rather than inherent in its citizens and that money borrowed from Delphi and Olympia could lure foreign rowers away from its fleet (Th. 1.121), a contingency that Perikles admits would be disastrous (1.143). Nikias’ speech to the rowers in the harbor of Syracuse in 413 suggests that significant numbers of metics and foreigners manned the fleet (Th. 7.63.3-4; Graham 1992). Moreover, IG 13 1032 demonstrates that more than half the rowers of some ships were slaves and that officers and free rowers derived apophorai from their rowing slaves (Graham 1998, who dates to c. 412).

The institution of pay for political service in the 440s—particularly for 6,000 dikasts—created incentives for thetes thirty and older to avoid rowing and accelerated the formation of a primarily mercenary navy. The chorus of Aristophanes’ Wasps, performed in 422, implies that citizens preferred jury to military service as a source of remuneration, insisting that the latter should be a prerequisite for jury pay (1114-21). This process continued in the 390s when the polis introduced pay for assembly attendance, making paid political service available to citizens under thirty. Indeed, Apollodoros rejected citizen rowers conscripted from the demes in 362—they were few and “incapable” ([D.] 50.7)—and hired more capable foreign rowers on the open market.

Two shifts in Athenian society follow from the availability of money for mass political service and the evolution of a mainly mercenary navy. First, the military ceased to be the most important platform for the acquisition and maintenance of personal political power, as orators made reputations and gained followings as prosecutors of public crimes adjudicated by paid citizen dikasts. Second, management of the diōbelia (Buchanan 1962: 35–48) and then of the theoric fund (Rhodes 1981: 514) became a further basis for the exercise and maintenance of personal political power in the democracy. The logic of these shifts was not purely economic; it was also political. Naval service required citizens to be absent from the polis for long periods. Such service was inversely related to the exercise of political power in Athens’ direct democracy, preventing citizen rowers from voting as jurors, councilmen, and assemblymen. Moreover, far-reaching political decisions were enacted while soldiers were abroad for extended service throughout the course of the democracy (e.g. curtailment of the Areopagos, 461; conviction of Alkibiades in absentia, 415; dissolution of the democracy, 411). The evolution of differentiation between rank-and-file rowers and the Athenian demos both increased mass political power and contributed to political stability at Athens. Hence it may be that the formation of a mercenary navy—rather than the development of a citizen fleet—enabled and reinforced the expression of mass political power at Athens.


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