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rise and fall of athens

With my recent completion of Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, I have come to a point of rest in my gradual survey of 5th and 4th century Athens, which has taken me from Thucydides to Aeschylus to Xenophon to Plato to Plutarch all the way up to present day. What follows is my tentative encapsulation of the rise and fall of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries, respectively. I am planning to write a cogent narrative of the rise and fall that integrates the a) tremendous works of drama and comedy and the b) philosophical disputes on the nature of the polis that echoed in the works of Plato and Aristotle and later on in the work of Karl Popper. (I am most sympathetic to the views of the playwrights and Popper.)

Athens’ comparative advantage was its location: its ports, once fortified, created great distance from its enemies; its silver reserves, once mined, brought wealth that could pay for a navy of rare size and excellence. This latent potential might have stayed dormant had it not been for the threat of foreign invasion from Persia. Competition threatened the existing Athenian elites, and increased their interest in a navy, which was then enough to overtake the interest groups threatened by the navy, namely the horsemen. It so happened that the naval unit most advantageous to Athens would be the trireme. The trireme’s effectiveness was dependent on the participation and skill of many Athenians outside the current power structure. Thereby the the elite power structure of Athens changed with the rise of the navy, empowering some of the lower classes and creating new opportunities for elites to accumulate power, most directly through perceived excellence in military command.

Athens’ naval power had second-order effects on the city-state as well. Domination of the sea allowed for greater commercial and cultural exchange that enriched a new group of commercial elites who had a vested interest in peace and mare liberum. The wealth and openness to foreigners that accompanied this change coupled with the value placed on technical excellence in rhetoric and the arts also heightened the demand for intellectuals. The increased demand for intellectual and artistic excellence resulted in the rise of philosophy, drama, history, art and architecture to heights previously not seen in Athens.

Athens’ naval power also changed its relationship to the outside world. It’s comparative advantage allowed the city-state to create value for other Greek societies by policing the waters, allowing for freer trade and reducing the threat of foreign invasion. When the threat of foreign invasion was high, allies saw it in their interest to pay for this service. The incentive to free-ride, however, increased over time. The Athenian navy now existed as an organization with interests in its own survival — such free-riding was unacceptable — and Athens exercised its power to coerce payment for its service at the highest rates they could safely (for the time) extort.

Like its rivals, Athens’ ability to compete militarily was limited by its political system. As Sparta was hamstrung by the threat of slave riots in the homeland, Athens was encumbered by its particular system of checks-and-balances. Beginning with Themistocles, the father of the Athenian navy, the elites and their democratic coalitions ostracized many of the city-state’s greatest leaders. The democratic body was divided between minority commercial aristocrats who saw greater returns in peace, and the majority elites and masses whose vision of militaristic primacy was tied to their own personal interest in the navy. Because of Athens’ political structure, this competition manifested in the systematic dismissal of excellent leaders and the promotion of fiery, war-mongering populists. The commercial elites were largely politically silenced, with their voices reflected in the plays put on by Attic’s greatest playwrights in the annual festivals. As the war waged on, the leadership deficit grew and led to poor decisions, both on strategic and tactical levels, that eventually led to Athens’ defeat.

While Athens would be humbled by Sparta, Athens fell to Macedonia. Athens had grown dependent on the territory’s lumber for its navy, and Macedonia’s technological advances in ground warfare now mitigated Athens’ strength. Athens’ golden age was the product of self-discovery of a unique and unparalleled comparative advantage in naval warfare. Its bold commitment to the sea brought momentary wealth that allowed the best and brightest of the Greek world to rise to great heights in myriad aspects of civic and artistic life. Unfortunately, the particular system of taxation on allies was not sustainable (though Athens may have sustained it for a time if the plague had not greatly weakened Periclean Athens when it was best poised to succeed.)

The tragedy

The very balance of power in Athens produced by the bold naval undertaking stopped the coalitions (led quietly by the commercial elites and voiced by the Attic playwrights) that envisioned Athens at peace and prosperous from maritime trade. By the time Athens liberalized its relationships with its allies it was too late. Athens, like all the societies of its time, played a zero-sum game when it had the opportunity to be a non-zero-sum hegemon. Athens’ liberalism made it the ‘best man’ in the Greek world, but the hidden defects of the liberal political system proved that Athens was too flawed to lead.


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