Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.02.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.02.12

David Pritchard, Athenian Democracy at War.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2019.  Pp. xxiv, 287.  ISBN 9781108422918.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew A. Sears, University of New Brunswick (


The similarity of this book’s title to W. K. Pritchett’s five-volume The Greek State at War (Berkeley, 1974-1991) might be a coincidence, but it is telling nonetheless. Where Pritchett used five volumes to publish his considered views on a host of loosely related topics pertaining to ancient Greek warfare, Pritchard—who for the last two decades has established himself as perhaps the foremost expert on Classical Athenian warfare—in a single volume, has presented a selection of his findings on democratic Athens at war. Like Pritchett’s work, rather than advancing any particular thesis, Pritchard’s book will prove most useful as a resource for those interested in various topics about Athens and war.

The book begins with a Foreword by Kurt A. Raaflaub, arguing that the main contribution of this volume is its synthesis of a great body of research in order to reveal the practical underpinnings of the broad military changes that took place under the Athenian democracy. After a short Preface, the body of the book consists of eight chapters, varying widely in length from eleven pages to eighty-one.

Chapter 1, “Athenian Democracy at War,” provides an overview of the book’s topics while presenting Pritchard’s principal original arguments. Central to Pritchard’s program is the claim that democracy—contrary, perhaps, to modern expectations—can be extremely bellicose. Classical Athens, which spent far more of its public funds on war than on any other activity, was certainly warlike, and even the supposedly chastened democracy of the fourth century, deprived of much of its population and imperial revenue, initiated wars more often than in the past. Pritchard argues, therefore, that democracy and war are linked, which should prove an important insight for modern political scientists trying to make sense of the war-making of nascent democracies such as those emerging from the “Arab Spring.” In addition to arguing that a military revolution accompanied the democratic and cultural revolutions of late-Archaic/early-Classical Athens, Pritchard tries to put to rest the idea that the Solonian property classes had any bearing on military recruitment, doing so by covering what he labels the four branches of the Athenian military: hoplites, cavalry, archers, and sailors.

Chapter 2, “The Armed Forces,” is by far the longest chapter, covering in turn the hoplites, cavalry, archers, and sailors of Athens, going over in detail how these forces were assembled, organized, and funded by the democracy. Aside from the archers, who Pritchard argues were still held in disdain by most Athenians, the democracy found a way to share the formerly aristocratic virtue of courage (aretē) among most citizens in the polis, even including rowers in the fleet. This chapter is a fairly comprehensive account of the military forces of the Athenian democracy, and will likely be the most useful section of the book as a scholarly resource.

The remainder of the book is a series of shorter chapters on particular topics related to the Athenian democracy and war. Chapter 3, “Naval Matters in Old Comedy,” makes the case that Athenian sailors were esteemed as much as Athenian hoplites and horsemen. 1 Pritchard touches on a variety of literature, but focuses on the extant comedies of Aristophanes. Chapter 4, “Costing Festivals and Wars,” demonstrates that, despite comments from ancient authors such as Plutarch, and the scholarly consensus stemming from the 19th century work of Böckh, the Athenians spent far more on wars than on anything else, including their lavish festivals. Since the Athenians discussed and voted regularly on matters pertaining to public finance, the massive outlays of cash on military ventures shows that the Athenian dēmos considered war to be the top public priority. Chapters 5 and 6, respectively “The Cost of the Peloponnesian War” and “Public Finance and War in Ancient Greece,” continue the discussion of public finance to provide estimates for how much the Peloponnesian War cost the Athenians, and the way that public finance played a larger and larger role throughout Greece as the Classical period progressed. Pritchard argues that in the Archaic period war was essentially a private activity, whereas the more public warfare of the fifth century required states to adopt new financial measures to pay for war.

The final two chapters focus on the relationship between warfare and athletics. Chapter 7, “Sport and War,” argues that the Athenian dēmos continued to support elite athletes because of the close affinities between warfare and sport. Even lower-class Athenians who, say, rowed in the fleet, could compare the ponoi and kindunoi they undertook on behalf of the state to those athletes endured, also for the benefit of the state. This chapter contains what I find to be the most interesting and original argument in the book, that satyric drama reinforced the connection between sport and war by placing satyrs in both athletic and military situations. Hilarity ensues when satyrs, who characteristically lack aretē, find themselves in situations requiring the utmost aretē, situations in which Athenian citizens, either as elite athletes or common soldiers, would regularly experience. Chapter 8, “War and Panhellenic Sporting Victory,” claims that Panhellenic athletic victories brought glory to states just as victories in war did, a point that is reinforced by the presence at Panhellenic sanctuaries of so many military victory monuments.

This is a strange and sometimes frustrating book. As the above synopsis should make clear, the book is not structured around any thesis or theme, but rather contains a collection of studies more or less related to how the Athenians organized themselves for war. In his Preface, Pritchard admits that half of the book represents revisions of previously published material, which is fine as far as it goes. The current volume, however, contains so much repetition, sometimes with entire sentences and paragraphs repeated nearly verbatim, that this reviewer wishes the book had undergone more extensive editing in order to render it a coherent monograph. Rather than tying the book and its many topics together in a neat conclusion, for example, the text simply breaks off at the end of the final chapter on Panhellenic victories. I do wish to reiterate, though, that there is a lot of informative and detailed work here that will advance many scholarly discussions.

As for the arguments themselves, I do not have space here to engage with more than a few. Since the present volume represents a collation of Pritchard’s scholarship undertaken over two decades and published in several monographs, edited volumes, and major articles, Pritchard here necessarily treats many topics only in brief. But some topics require much fuller discussion. The first chapter, for instance, covers the Athenian democratic and cultural revolutions very superficially, glossing over a great many contested issues relating to what counts as a democracy, and when Athens could be considered fully democratic. In the next chapter, Pritchard argues for his focus on Athens’ “Imperial Age” between 481-386, even though Athenian democracy began decades earlier and lasted at least another fifty years—and many scholars now consider Hellenistic democracy more truly democratic than once thought. Similarly, the book offers hardly any comment on how, if at all, certain military measures were unique to democracy, let alone how Athenian democratic practices differed from the many other democracies in the Classical Greek world. Even Pritchard’s categories of “democratic,” “cultural,” and “military” can be problematic, since the Classical Athenians did not necessarily separate activities into such neatly delineated spheres. The horsemen of Athens paraded in the Panathenaic procession, as famously depicted on the Parthenon frieze, which surely could be considered both a military and cultural activity, and so could the money spent on it.

While Pritchard builds on the work of others to reaffirm that Athenian sailors were not nearly as marginalized as once thought, he continues the standard line that archers were disdained for cowardice. Some Athenians chose to be archers anyway, Pritchard argues, because the pay was good and more regular than in other branches of the military. I think the stigma against archers is overstated. Why else would Herodotus, who certainly leaves out important activities of light-armed troops like the slaves at the Battle of Marathon (see Paus. 1.32.3), praise the decisive role of the Athenian archer corps at Plataea (Hdt. 9.21-23)? And why would the training for ephebes in the late fourth century, the initiation right for full membership in the community as citizen-soldiers, include training with ranged weapons such as arrows and javelins ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 42)? Also, since one of Pritchard’s main points is that democratic Athens spread the aristocratic virtue aretē generously among the branches of the military, thereby democratizing the virtue, he might have discussed the connection between the cavalry and anti-democratic factions, most notoriously demonstrated in the cavalry’s support for the Thirty Tyrants in 404-403. Not for nothing is the cavalryman Dexileos’ funerary monument uniquely inscribed with both his death date and birth date in order to prove that he was too young to have fought against the democracy—even as he strikes an arguably antidemocratic pose on his horse.2

I found the final two chapters on sport particularly perplexing. Pritchard covers this topic much more extensively in his 2012 monograph, Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens (Cambridge), but in the present volume he does little to demonstrate exactly what new ideas he offers. Anyone familiar with the funeral games of Patroclus in Iliad 23 could tell you that sport and war are inextricably linked, and Pritchard does not explain how the Athenian appreciation for athletics and its elite athletes differs from other Greek states, including distinctly undemocratic ones like Sparta. Scholars such as Bruno Currie (in, for example, Pindar and the Cult of Heroes [Oxford, 2005]) have already amply shown how Panhellenic victories by elite individuals could redound to the glory of an entire polis. The building form of the treasury, found in abundance at Panhellenic sites such as Delphi and Olympia, is a famous physical representation of the relationship between a state and the Panhellenic triumphs of its citizens. Perhaps the seeming paradox of the dēmos’ appreciation for elite athletes does require explanation. Then again, as one of my college professors remarked, every society, even the most democratic one, is fascinated by celebrities.

I greatly admire and have benefitted from Pritchard’s scholarly program, and he is an essential author for those working on Athens and war in any respect. The volume here under review contains many up-to-date references and facts about a great many topics pertaining to Classical Athens at war. The long second chapter, on the various armed forces, is especially rich in information and links to further scholarly work. But, for those who want to delve into the intricacies of how one of the world’s first democracies thought about and waged war, Pritchard’s considerable number of earlier publications would be a better bet.


1.   Building for the most part on C. Jacob Butera’s 2010 Duke University doctoral dissertation, “The Land of the Fine Triremes:” Naval Identity and Polis Imaginary in 5th Century Athens.
2.   For which see, among others, J. Ober, Athenian Legacies: Essays in the Politics of Going on Together (Princeton, 2005) 237-247.

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