BMCR 1995.06.09

1995.06.09, Gabrielsen, Financing the Athenian Fleet

, Financing the Athenian fleet : public taxation and social relations. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xvii, 306 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801846922 $45.00.

The financing of the Athenian navy and of its operations is very imperfectly known. Our documentation—reports and remarks of historians and orators, and the records on stone of the naval boards (the latter with few exceptions restricted to the period 377-323/22)—never encompasses the whole of the expenses. While it is clear that an often considerable share was devolved upon the rich citizens of Athens, who served as commanders (trierarchoi) of the ships, no case is known where we can estimate with any confidence what proportion this share was of the total outlay. Again, it is certain that as long as the Delian league was a going concern the tribute of the allies covered naval expenses to a great extent and that the loss of this income considerably aggravated the laying under contribution of the trierarchs, but we cannot figure out the shifts involved with any certainty. Also, it is evident from our information on naval strength and on the effects of Athenian naval policy that Athenian naval power in the fourth century was in effect much reduced, even if the number of ships remained comparable to that of the golden times of the Empire; it is evident also that this reduction is mainly to be explained by the lack of imperial income, but again it is well-nigh impossible to weigh the impact of all the factors involved.

Although many problems implicit in this situation receive notice in this volume, it must be said that the author concentrates on one element almost to the exclusion of all others, namely the financial contributions exacted from wealthy citizens in connection with the trierarchy, including the history of this institution itself. After an introductory discussion of ‘Concepts and Aims’ and ‘Sources’, a chapter on the establishment of the institution and on the pre-Themistoklean naval organization opens the book; then the qualifications for the trierarchy are examined under the headings ‘Qualification by Wealth’, ‘Appointment’ and ‘Exemption’; further the financial responsibilities of the trierarchs with respect to the crew, the ship and its equipment; finally the institutional transformations such as the establishment of the syntrierarchy and Periandros’ and Demosthenes’ reforms. Detailed and differentiated evidence is available only for the period 377 to 323/22: on this period therefore the attention is fixed, on the whole to the great enrichment of the scholarly discussion.

The general tenor of the argument is that during the period just mentioned Athenian policy regarding the funding of the navy did not lead to heavy-handed exploitation of the rich, and that the state authorities manoeuvred very carefully in order to maintain sufficient willingness to shoulder the burdens involved. The demonstration on several accounts that this was so is one of the most interesting features of the book. No definite money value, for instance, was attached to the trierarchy. Real costs were indeed very variable, depending on the trierarch’s readiness to spend and on the upkeep requirements of individual ships. But the reason to avoid attaching a definite price to the trierarchy was the undesirability of limiting the number of potential trierarchs by enabling the unwilling to ‘prove’ their non-liability (52). Wealth-concealment is shown to have been a much-used trick in this context (53ff.), which the authorities were unable to eradicate. This is why a fiction of voluntariness was upheld and why acclaim and honour remained vital elements in the strategies adopted to countervail the adverse effects of such malpractices (59). Regular exemption for two years instead of one (conjectured!) after the discharge of a trierarchy is likewise seen as a concession because of the laboriousness of the task (86: this explanation though not implausible is in my view unnecessary: the two-year dispensation may well go back to the peace-time routine of the pentekontaetia when no more than 60 ships were active most years). Very interesting is the demonstration (91ff.) that antidosis also functioned in this context because it ensured that a man’s absence from the trierarchic class—e.g. thanks to wealth-concealment—would not last long. The author convincingly argues that the antidosis thus was a sophisticated mechanism for the state to exert (indirect) control over the trierarchic class. Important is the argument that there was a steady tendency away from service on the basis of personal liability via collective liability to pure taxation. This is demonstrated in several contexts, most interestingly in the case of compensatory payments for hulls (141ff.). The delicacy of the relationship between the state authorities and the trierarchic class is vividly illustrated once again in the chapter devoted to the recovery of naval debts and the treatment of debtors (158ff.), where the circumspection of the authorities and the leniency with which naval debtors were treated are justly emphasized (162ff.).

All this is very excellent and even when not wholly convincing always stimulating. I would in particular single out for praise the excellent remarks on the incessant shortages of equipment (ch.7), which, even if they do not furnish an adequate explanation of what was clearly a most embarrassing evil, are a very enlightening summary of our documentation. The study of the trierarchy as a fiscal institution has been very well served here.

But there is another side to this medal. As an exposition of the financing of the Athenian navy, as distinct from the funding of individual triremes, the book has serious defects. As noticed already, where the financial contribution of the state is concerned, the evidence is very deficient and a complete picture therefore an illusion, but G. ought at least to have framed a rough hypothesis, or model, concerning the totality of naval finance in the perspective of which the trierarchs’ contribution could meaningfully be assessed. Failure seriously to address this problem has led to, or in any case not prevented, unguarded assertions, such as the optimistic claim ‘that with the exception of the three decades following the defeat of 404 the naval strength of Athens remained remarkably stable’ (129), as if the number of hulls available—which was indeed not much reduced in the 4th century—was the only factor that mattered. Likewise the very superficial view is expressed that the funding of the navy in the fourth century differed from that in the fifth only in so far as the trierarchs’ share became larger (116) and it is loosely asserted (but in no case really substantiated) that ‘some but not all of my conclusions may safely be extrapolated to apply to the fifth century’ (12). As far as I can see, the implications of the difference the allied tribute made for the level of readiness and efficiency of the navy are never squarely faced.

Moreover, like many writers on ancient sea-power G. writes as if the only function of triremes was that of operational units in active naval warfare and that for this reason oar crews had invariably to be complete, to me a totally unrealistic view. It leads him to reject Plutarch’s report on Perikles’ peace-time patrols, the only element in the tradition that can satisfactorily explain why the Persians could not seriously attempt to re-establish their fleet in the Aegean (111 and n.13: the note is very misleading). Like its modern counterparts, the Athenian navy, as long as an equal opponent was lacking, had primarily the political function of flag-showing and of keeping the allies in line (not to speak of such tasks as argyrologia), for which full crews were not essential.

The ‘peculiar characteristics’ of the trireme, i.e. its huge crews, are indeed adduced as the decisive argument against the possibility of mastery of the seas, thalassokratia, which is said to have been impossible to achieve (5). This notion, just as unrealistic as its basis, the invariably full crews, is of course utterly belied by the history of the pentekontaetia: in those years the Athenian empire did wield thalassokratia in its own domain. This was so self-evident and imposing a phenomenon that the theory came up, silly indeed but nevertheless plausible to (near-)contemporaries, that there had been an unbroken series of thalassokratores before the Athenian empire (Euseb. Chron. I 225 Schoene; cf. L.H. Jeffery, Archaic Greece (1976), 252-54).

Three minor points: G. has the strange idea that the fleet’s size was frequently maintained or enlarged by the capture of enemy ships’ (131 and n.15), but this is not really confirmed in the literature quoted and in my view intrinsically improbable, no ancient source ever stating or clearly implying anything of the kind. His notion that the sending out without funds of fourth century commanders is to be explained as a consequence of ‘a general tendency to divert a good deal of the naval expenditure from the state coffers’ (117) neatly stands the matter on its head. And very shortsighted is his presumption that in operations where the navy was involved, such as the siege of Samos and the intervention in Korkyra, the war chest was wholly expended on naval pay (115).

But what is most disappointing is G.’s treatment of the early history of the Athenian navy. This chapter (19-39) simply bristles with dubious assumptions and interpretations, leading to conclusions which flagrantly contradict the vital testimony of Thukydides and common sense. G.’s central thesis is that the Athenian navy slowly developed, being still ‘comparatively small’ ‘prior to the final years of the 480s’ (19). Thukydides on the contrary insists that it was insignificant (brachea: I 14.2) up to the time of Dareios’ death in 486, while the Herodotean evidence can be combined with Thukydides’ judgment in the thesis that Themistokles’ navy bill of 483 was a totally unexpected development, a true revolution. In the face of Thukydides’ verdict, all attempts to make the pre-483 Athenian fleets of 50 ships mentioned in the tradition analogous if smaller to the navy which fought the battles of Artemision and Salamis must be considered futile. Around the 490s Athenian sea-power consisted of a navy of two ships and 50 (before Kleisthenes 48) auxiliary (merchant) galleys, furnished by shipowners entitled naukraroi in this context and heading organizations called naukrariai. G. tries to get rid of the evidence concerning the naukraroi: he starts from B. Keil’s all too facile epigram ‘Wo die Flotte, keine Spur der Naukrarien; wo die Naukrarie, keine Spur der Flotte’ and is clearly unaware of Wilamowitz’ less facile comments, which convincingly determined the make-up of the early fleets which I just paraphrased (cf. Aristoteles und Athen (1893), II 165 n.52). He throws suspicion on the testimonies of the lexicographers, who link the naukraroi with the fleet, and accuses Pollux of adding ‘purely speculative and improbable accretions to the narrative of Athenaion Politeia’ (23), whereas Pollux is just as likely to have derived good information from the Atthidographers as ‘Aristotle’. The derivation of the word naukraros from the roots nau (‘ship’) and kara (‘head’), which is accepted in the etymological dictionaries of Frisk and Chantraine, is gainsaid on the basis of very flimsy linguistic arguments (24). But at the same time G. recognizes—not very clearly—an original organization which consisted of ‘the traditional proprietors of ships’ and ‘public vessels’, the number of the latter gradually increasing during the slow development he assumes for the time before 483 (34). In this perspective his jettisoning of the naukraroi is difficult to understand.

In this connection one very good point is made in the remark (33-34) that the creation of the institution of the ship liturgy (which only after 483 became the trierarchy) could be connected with the purchase by the Athenians of 20 Corinthian ships (certainly not triremes, as G. thinks). Clearly this drastic, more than tenfold enlargement of the state navy could not be organized after the model of the two original public ships. From that moment on the Athenian state had need of a new institutional framework for the exploitation of these twenty ships. Here liturgists may have been called in.

The book is splendidly produced. There are very few misprints: read 431/0 for 331/0 (132), Perdiccas for -dicas (140), prytaneis for -ies (233 n.6), K.J. Beloch for J.K.B. (239 n.13). The general index is rather meagre. Regarding his main concern, the Athenian system of ship funding, G. presents a picture which is very carefully thought out and exemplarily presented; it will no doubt stimulate debate and further research.