Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.32

David Pritchard (ed.), War, Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xviii, 460.  ISBN 9780521190336.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Nicholas Sekunda, Gdansk University (


This book has its origins in conferences at Sydney in 2006 and 2007 as part of the inaugural programme of the Sydney Democracy Forum. The underlying theme running through the whole volume is to assess in what ways democratic structures and procedures helped Athenian society in making war. In the preface Pritchard gives the reader some idea of the massive task of editing this book and preparing it for publication. Pritchard is to be credited for bringing this interesting collection of studies to fruition. The theme has an obvious connection with recent political and military events, which are dealt with in the first and last chapters.

In Chapter 1 David M. Pritchard attempts to analyse the symbiosis between democracy and war in ancient Athens. This chapter, by far the longest in the whole volume, acts as both a statement of the main theme of the book, and serves as a sort of summary of the conclusions arrived at by the other contributors to the volume. Although due emphasis is given to the financial and demographic advantages Athens enjoyed over other contemporary Greek states, Pritchard suggests that democracy at Athens affected its capacity to make war more effectively. Consequently the author does not fail to point out (pp. 31, 59-62) the book’s relevance to contemporary events, while stating (p. 60) that ‘Athens was of course smaller than an average-sized modern state and had a direct rather than a representative democracy which was based on different social relations’. It would have been useful and pertinent at this point to indicate that another significant difference between Athenian democracy and modern democracies is that Athenian democracy was established on a slave-based economy. It would not be useful at this point to give an opinion on ‘how much’: suffice to say that ‘it was’. This fact alone gave the Athenians a considerable advantage over other contemporary Greek states in their war-making. Only at Athens was it possible to extract out of the local economy such large quantities of manpower for such large periods of time during the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

When he deals with questions of Athenian demography in this chapter (as at pp. 22-3, 54-5) the author makes exclusive use of the conclusions of Hansen, without mentioning the alternative viewpoints of Ruschenbusch (or of Sekunda for that matter, the latter in BSA 1992). Consequently Pritchard states (at p. 55) that at Athens ‘in any one year of the later fourth century, it seems that about 50 per cent of the newly registered demesmen were now choosing to serve as heavily armed soldiers’, whereas according to the other viewpoint military training as hoplites was compulsory for all ephebes in any age-class after 335 BC.

In Chapter 2 Josiah Ober discusses the superior capacity Athens had for collective action and knowledge management during the opening phases of the Peloponnesian War, thanks to its democracy. His narrative is based on the text of Thucydides. Ober illustrates this section of the book with the narrative of the military campaign at Mytilene in 428/7 and at Pylos in 425.

In Chapter 3 Ryan K. Balot argues that the Athenian concept of andreia was not simply a construct of the Greek polis, but that it was a specific construct of Athenian democracy: ‘only Athenians were truly courageous because their courage was well-informed and appropriately located within their lives as a whole, whereas the Spartans’ courage, for example, derived from excessive discipline, fear of shame and punishment and lifelong training. Spartan courage was thus inappropriately motivated and insufficiently self-conscious’ (p. 99).

In Chapter 4 Iain Spence examines the question of why Athenian democracy was willing to subsidize a corps of cavalry which was by its very nature necessarily an elite. Spence concludes it was military necessity that motivated the Athenians. A corps of cavalry could minimize damage to the Attic countryside in the type of war that Pericles anticipated fighting. Spence in this contribution in effect re-states arguments that he has published elsewhere

In Chapter 5 Matthew Trundle gathers together the evidence for the various categories of light troops employed by the Athenians. After an introduction which examines the prejudice expressed against light infantry troops in the sources, he gathers together (pp. 147-52) the evidence for the Athenian corps of archers (both citizen and non- citizen). It is useful to have this collection of source material, as one is otherwise forced to turn to Plassart’s 1913 article which is now well out of date. His examination of the evidence for peltasts employed by the Athenians (152- 59) is less complete, and runs into various long-standing problems. One of these is whether ‘the peltasts of the Athenians’ are Athenian citizens or not. In this context Trundle states that it ‘cannot be doubted’ that the xenikon at Corinth under the command of Iphicrates were mercenaries (155). I am not so sure: they were indeed mercenaries, but this does not mean that a considerable proportion, perhaps the majority in fact, were Athenian citizens. He argues (in support of the position adopted by Jan Best) that the frequently discussed ‘Iphicratean peltast reform’ never, in fact, took place (156-7). The alternative view, that the ‘Iphicratean’ peltast is a precursor of the Macedonian phalanx, first proposed (to my knowledge) in 1933 by Parke in his Greek Mercenary Soldiers 155-6 should have been given here. Finally, for the reform of the Athenian ephebeia in 335 being occasioned by the fall of Thebes to the Macedonians, rather than the battle of Chaironeia which took place three years earlier, Trundle cites an unpublished paper of John Friend delivered in 2007 at the APA annual conference. This suggestion has, in fact, been made previously elsewhere by Brian Bertosa in his article ‘The Supply of Hoplite Equipment by the Athenian State Down to the Lamian War’ Journal of Military History 67 (2003): 361-79 at 373-4.

In Chapter 6 Sophie Mills studies war as it is depicted in Euripides’ tragedies, and concludes that it had little effect on the established attitudes of Athenian audiences. ‘Tragedy may indeed question ideology, but the ambiguity at its centre always offers an escape route, and questioning is not synonymous with advocating, much less effecting change’ (183).

In the succeeding Chapter 7, David Konstan argues that Aristophanes and the other comic poets active during the Peloponnesian war contributed to the public debate by arguing as forcefully as they could that the Athenians were in the wrong in initiating and continuing the war. Thus (194) ‘Aristophanes does not pull his punches with respect to Athenian responsibility for initiating hostilities’, which will come as a surprise to some modern day apologists for Athenian imperialism, but coincides with the view of the reviewer. He compares the rhetorical strategy employed by Aristophanes to a modern example based on the recent American intervention in Iraq (195-6). American citizens ‘wanted to trust’ their leaders, and allowed themselves to be deceived. In a similar way Aristophanes argues that the Athenians allowed themselves to be deceived by their leaders.

In Chapter 8, Alastair J.L. Blanshard subjects four passages taken from the corpus of Athenian forensic rhetoric to detailed examination. One feature which emerges from this scrutiny is the inconsistency in the points of view adopted by the antagonists. As Blanshard explains, civic ideology is full of inconsistencies anyway, so these divergent opinions are easily accommodated within the current ideological framework anyway. The second feature is the range of subject matter discussed. Nothing seems ‘out of bounds’. Thirdly the grievances aired in these court cases are frequently addressed in reforms of the military system undertaken some time later on.

Peter Hunt in Chapter 9 deals with Athenian militarism. After first defining what he means by militarism, Hunt applies various strands of current military theory to Athenian history, most usefully, in my view, Geoffrey Blainey’s theory, expressed in his 1973 book The Causes of War, that optimism plays a major role in the outbreak of war.

Robin Osborne, in his Chapter 10, deals with changes in the ideology governing the iconography of Attic funerary sculpture. He concludes that the tendency for commemorating the war dead anonymously in public monuments came under increasing pressure in the later fifth century, eventually becoming replaced by private monuments. In this process, the Corinthian war was a turning-point. Prior to the erection of the Dexileos monument the iconographic possibilities of depicting the fallen were limited to scenes of departure. Henceforth it was possible to show the deceased in the moment of his death on the battlefield. The latest extant list of war dead dates to 394/3, and the first honorific statues erected to individuals (to Conon and Evagoras) appeared in the Agora at the same time.

In chapter 11 Patricia Hannah examines the evidence derived from the fifth-century warrior loutrophoroi. After an (inconclusive) examination of the meaning of the word loutrophoros, she goes on to examine some 40 archaeological objects which bear this name. The overwhelming majority of vases of this type showing warriors are found clustering around the times of the Athenian Empire and especially the Peloponnesian War, periods of intense military activity.

Margaret C. Miller suggests in Chapter 12 that the Greek figure on the so-called ‘Eurymedon vase’ in Hamburg has naval connotations, and that the crouching archer is Persian. The vase represents the viewpoint of the Athenian elite, ridiculing both the ‘low-life’ naval victors and the vanquished, thus adopting and developing Schauenburg’s original 1975 opinion. This may well be the case, but the author should at least have mentioned the alternative explanation, that the Greek figure represents the epic hero Eurymedon and the archer his Scythian ‘squire’. Indeed, it appears unavoidable to link this vase with the battle of Eurymedon, given the close proximity in date, but, in the opinion of the reviewer, this vase in Hamburg has yet to reveal all its secrets.

Polly Low in her Chapter 13 looks at the whole process of commemorating the Athenian war dead, including the pre- burial practices, which left some space for private mourning, and the post-burial ceremonies. She balances the democratic element of these practices (and monuments) against other elements: honorific, consolatory and military.

In Chapter 14 Sumio Yoshitake examines the apparent contradiction between the lavish praise accorded to the war dead in the Athenian funeral oration and their actual achievements in battle. He concludes that all of the war dead deserved to be honoured irrespective of their actual achievements on the battlefield, because of the price they had paid.

Chapter 15 forms an epilogue to the whole work. It is written by John Keane who is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. Keane maintains that democracy is not inherently bellicose—as opposed, in general, to more authoritarian forms of government, which are. However, when politically democratic states, like ancient Athens, or revolutionary France, or present-day America, transform themselves into powers imbued with an inordinate potential for military power, there arises a tendency towards a bellicose exportation of their political opinions, triggering political and military opposition among the societies subject to their military adventurism. Thus, Keane concludes (407), ‘their demise and ultimate downfall becomes a near certainty’.

The reviewer, whose main research interests lie in the field of ancient warfare, found the contents of this volume to be of varied interest, which is reflected in the depth of discussion to which the component parts are subjected. This is, regrettably, a reflection of the competence of the reviewer, rather than the relevance of the contributions to the overall theme under investigation. The volume as a whole serves as an eloquent affirmation of the truism that the omnipresence of warfare in ancient Greece had an influence on every aspect of social behaviour.

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