Ancient History & Civilisation

Part Three



No doubt all this will be disparaged by people who are politically apathetic. But those who, like us, prefer a life of action will try to imitate us. If they fail to secure what we have secured, they will envy us. All who have taken it upon themselves to rule over others have incurred hatred and unpopularity for a time. If one has a great aim to pursue, this burden of envy must be accepted, and it is wise to accept it. Hatred does not last long, but present brilliance will become future glory when it is stored up everlastingly in the memory of mankind.

—Pericles to the Athenians


The Imperial Navy [446-433 B.C.]

O Athens, queen of cities!

How fair your Navy Yard! How fair your Parthenon! How fair your

Your sacred trees—what other city can match them?

Heaven itself, they say, shines on you with a brighter light.

—Fragment of a lost comedy

IN GREEK MYTH, HUMAN HISTORY BEGAN WITH A GOLDEN AGE. Cronus, father of Zeus, ruled the world. During this idyllic period our ancestors enjoyed long life, perfect health, and food in abundance. As time passed, the golden race declined through cycles of silver, bronze, and iron. For Athens after the Peace of Callias, naval supremacy seemed to have brought back the legendary age of gold. The people prospered. Art, architecture, philosophy, drama, historical writing, and scientific inquiry flourished as never before. Pericles was the architect of this new Golden Age, and under his benign guidance the Athenians were justified in believing that they were setting in motion a new cycle of human history.

Pericles built upon four mighty pillars: democracy, naval power, the wealth of empire, and the rule of reason. In Pericles the Athenians had found a leader whose genius for public affairs pervaded all these realms. For more than three decades he was the city’s leading politician, orator, naval commander, administrator, and promoter of arts and learning. True, he stood on the shoulders of giants. In the course of his long career Pericles followed the precedents of Themistocles as a maritime proponent and sponsor of politically oriented plays, Aristides as an architect of empire, Ephialtes as a democratic reformer, Cimon as a civic benefactor, Tolmides as a naval strategist, and Anaxagoras as a scientific thinker. Yet as a visionary leader he surpassed them all. Partly in admiration, partly in jest, his fellow citizens called Pericles “the Olympian,” or just Zeus.

In the Assembly Pericles made few speeches, reserving his appearances on the speaker’s platform for momentous occasions. One wit compared him to the sacred state trireme Salaminia, which was launched only for important missions. He had a knack for coining phrases that stuck in the mind. He visualized Aegina as “the eyesore of the Piraeus,” threats of conflict as “war bearing down from the Peloponnese,” and the loss of young Athenian soldiers abroad as “the taking of the springtime from the year.” The philosopher Socrates remembered to the end of his days that he had been in the Assembly when Pericles proposed the construction of a third Long Wall to secure Athens’ link to the Piraeus. The comic playwright Eupolis compared Pericles’ speeches to the work of bees: sweet as honey, but leaving a sting behind in the memories of his listeners.

Peace with Persia and the Peloponnesians did not diminish Athens’ naval effort. Naval power demanded a constant investment of material, effort, and money. Like the boar in Aesop’s fable, which spent all its leisure time sharpening its tusks, the Athenian navy could not relax in time of peace. Ships required time to build, large sums to maintain, and constant practice to operate. During Pericles’ projected age of peace, Athens would devote itself to its fleet as much as during Cimon’s time of perpetual war.

Pericles took it upon himself to set up a peacetime routine for the navy. Every spring sixty triremes would put to sea with crews composed entirely of citizens. Twelve thousand Athenians were regularly involved in these expeditions. The right to serve on board the triremes was reserved for men who could prove Athenian ancestry on both their father’s and their mother’s side. Athenian citizenship was a cherished prize, as was the pay that came with naval service, and the citizenship lists were jealously guarded against pretenders. Special naval judges or nautodikai heard accusations against men of suspect birth. They judged these cases each year during the month of Munichion, at the start of the seafaring season.

Even with these periodic purges, the Athenian population was experiencing an explosive period of growth. One of the greatest benefits of empire was the acquisition of new territory overseas that could be divided among the poor citizens of Athens, transforming them from urban masses to private landowners. Such allotments were called klerouchoi or cleruchies, meaning lands assigned by lottery. The Athenians who took possession of these parcels of land kept their Athenian citizenship rather than becoming citizens of a new colony. Tolmides established cleruchies on the islands of Euboea and Naxos, Pericles divided land in the Gallipoli peninsula among Athenian cleruchs, and certain tracts in Thrace were specifically reserved for citizens of the two lowest classes, the thetes and the hoplites. Thus the conquests of the Athenian navy provided land and livelihoods for thousands of commoners.

The triremes of Pericles’ peacetime navy were launched in early spring. They remained in service for eight months, until the onset of winter storms brought them back to their shipsheds in the Piraeus. During those months the triremes of Athens performed many tasks. Twenty ships guarded the coasts of Attica and the approaches to the Piraeus. Ten collected tribute from allied cities and islands. Some triremes carried embassies to foreign lands or ran sacred missions to distant sanctuaries and religious festivals. Others hunted down pirates. Still others conveyed troops of Athenian hoplites to islands and cities where they would serve as garrisons, supporting local democratic factions against their oligarchic opponents. Whatever their orders, all Athenian crews used their time at sea to perfect the skills needed in naval battles. Athenians were talkative and self-willed by nature, but on board the triremes the common citizens learned the disciplines of silence and instant obedience. The Athenian navy depended upon their skills, and the people’s political power depended on the navy.

The annual cost of Athens’ peacetime navy of sixty ships was 480 talents for their eight months at sea. Lower-class citizens benefited greatly from the steady income, which was drawn from the tribute paid by the allies. At home more than twenty thousand Athenian citizens depended for their livelihoods on naval and maritime income. The city’s swarms of jurors, archers, horsemen, councilors, Acropolis guards, prison guards, and orphans might have no direct connection with the naval effort, but they were all paid with wealth from the sea. There were five hundred guards in the Navy Yard, and seven hundred civil officials who were sent out annually to enforce compliance among the allies.

To regularize the annual tribute payments, the Athenians gradually organized the allies into five districts: Islands, Caria, Ionia, Hellespont, and “Thraceward.” The districts had no independent political identity, nor did the Assembly appoint governors to rule the districts on the model of the Persian satraps. In time the Athenians introduced standardized coinage, weights, and measures and even required many judicial matters that arose in allied cities to be tried in Athenian courts. The Athenians took a hint from both the Persians and the Spartans and ordered the cities in their realm to dismantle their walls and fortifications. Thousands of troops were shipped out from Athens to serve on garrison duty, protecting Athenian interests and guarding subject cities and democratic factions throughout their realm. The true guarantee of their safety, however, was the Athenian navy. In an empire of coastal cities and islands, ships constituted the best defense. The Wooden Wall now safeguarded a frontier more than fifteen hundred miles long.

The empire’s geographical extent more than doubled when the Athenians extended their thalassocracy into the Black Sea. This fathomless expanse of dark water, so unlike the aquamarine Aegean Sea, dwarfed the cities on its shores and the ships that plied its surface. In crossing the immen sities of the Black Sea, a freighter could sail for nine days and eight nights and see nothing on the horizon but waves and water. With its storms, fogs, and wild currents the Black Sea seemed hostile to seafarers bred in the south. To ward off its dangers they called it the Euxine (“Friendly to Strangers”) or simply Pontus (“The Sea”). Earlier Greek colonists had long controlled the shores of the Black Sea, but the hinterlands were inhabited by non-Greek tribes known for archery and horsemanship. These included the Thracians, the Scythians, and somewhere out on the steppes, the legendary Amazons. The riders had little interest in the sea, and the Greeks seldom attempted to penetrate far inland.

The Black Sea was a place of riches. The most venerable of all Greek seafaring sagas, the tale of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece at Colchis, told of the voyage of the ship Argo to the eastern end of the Black Sea. In Pericles’ day its waters teemed with tuna, sturgeon, and other fish that migrated in huge schools from their spawning grounds in the rivers Danube, Dnieper, and Don. The salt pans along the northern coast supported a highly profitable trade in salt fish. Along with horses the Scythians produced cattle and hides. Amber was transported along the rivers from unknown lands to the north; minerals and ores washed down from the mountains to the sea. The true gold of the Black Sea, however, was yellow wheat. The fields started near the mouth of the Danube River and stretched to the Crimea and beyond. In places the grain was sown right down to the edge of the sea, and flocks of black crows mingled with wheeling seagulls. The wheat, like the other precious commodities, was shipped across the Black Sea and down the Bosporus during the short sailing season of two months after midsummer.



After the Persian Wars the fame of Athens had spread around the Black Sea. Some of the Greek cities sent envoys to seek Athenian intervention in local wars. The appeal that initiated Pericles’ expedition came from exiled citizens of Sinope, an old colony of Miletus on the southern coast. These refugees had been expelled from their homes by a tyrant. Pericles and a young colleague named Lamachus equipped a large fleet including both fast triremes and carriers for six hundred Athenian settlers. Once they defeated the tyrant, these colonists drawn from Athens’ burgeoning population helped secure Sinope against future coups. Pericles’ expedition opened the Black Sea to a host of Athenian envoys, merchants, settlers, and garrison troops as well. One newly established city was named “Piraeus”; another, lying between Trebizond and Colchis, “Athens.” Between fifty and sixty cities around the margin of the Black Sea joined the Athenian alliance.

A few years after the Black Sea expedition, the golden west of the Mediterranean beckoned Athenians as well. Again, local conflicts led to an invitation for Athens to intervene. Two Ionian cities, Rhegium in Italy and Leontini in Sicily, were feeling threatened and overshadowed by their powerful Dorian neighbor, the city of Syracuse. At the height of Athens’ power, they appealed to the rulers of the Aegean to enter into alliance with them. Rhegium occupied the very toe of Italy and commanded the eastern shore of the famous Strait of Messina, legendary home of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis in Homer’s Odyssey. The other new ally, Leontini, lay on the fertile plains of eastern Sicily between Mount Etna and Syracuse, an area that, like the Black Sea coast, abounded in wheat.

Only one short war marred the fifteen years of Pericles’ Golden Age, and it ended in a victory that enhanced Athenians’ pride in their navy. The great island of Samos, along with Lesbos and Chios, had been furnishing ships rather than tribute ever since the founding of the Delian League. Of these three semi-independent allies, Samos was the most powerful. The Athenians did not interfere with the oligarchic regime on Samos until the Samians defied Athens’ authority and attacked a neighboring city that was also a member of the Athenian alliance.

Pericles had a personal interest in countering the aggressive actions of Samos. Their target was Miletus, the home city of his beloved consort Aspasia. When attempts at arbitration failed, Pericles led an Athenian fleet to Samos and established a democracy. Soon after he departed, the unrepentant oligarchs overturned the fledgling democracy and imprisoned the soldiers of the new Athenian garrison. Pericles and the other generals mustered a fleet of forty-four fast triremes and set out for Samos. One of the generals was the playwright Sophocles, who had been elected to command after the success of his tragedy Antigone. Pericles considered Sophocles to be of little use in a battle, however, so the distinguished playwright was dispatched instead on a mission of goodwill, visiting the still-loyal maritime allies on Chios and Lesbos. Meeting his fellow poet Ion at Chios, Sophocles said, “Pericles told me that I may have mastered poetry, but I know nothing of generalship.”

Near Tragia (“Billygoat Island”) the Athenians came upon the big rebel fleet and defeated them. But the Samian War was not yet over. The Persian satrap at Sardis had summoned a Phoenician fleet, and Pericles voyaged east to head off these reinforcements. In his absence the Athenian squadron that had been left to blockade the main port was overcome by a sudden sortie. The Samian oligarchs controlled the seas around their island for half a month, until Pericles returned and forced them to surrender.

It was a proud moment. Pericles had often been elected general, but he had never matched the distinction that his father, Xanthippus, had won at Mycale, let alone that of Cimon at Eurymedon. A general should be known for feats of arms, not merely for prudence. Now Pericles could claim that he had achieved at Samos in nine months what it had taken Agamemnon ten years to accomplish against Troy. Samos lost its walls, its navy, and its privileged status within the empire. Moreover the readiness of the Persians to support rebellion in the Athenian Empire exposed the fragility of the peace and confirmed Pericles’ wisdom in keeping the navy on alert.

The Athenian Golden Age was a time of power and prosperity, but it was also an age of reason. Confident that science must prevail over superstition, Pericles set out to enlighten his fellow citizens. On one occasion he boarded his trireme at the Piraeus and prepared to launch an expedition. At that moment the sky darkened with a solar eclipse. The steersman was too alarmed by the portent to get the ship under way. Pericles, however, had no fear of eclipses. His friend Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher from Clazomenae in Asia Minor, had explained to him that the darkness was only a shadow cast across the face of the sun. His crew, however, regarded the eclipse as a divine warning against starting the expedition. Pericles promptly walked over to the steersman. Holding his cloak in front of the man’s eyes, Pericles asked if he were frightened. “No,” the steersman answered. “What difference is there between this and the eclipse,” Pericles asked, “except that the eclipse was caused by something larger than my cloak?” After this the men consented to start, their fears dispelled by Pericles’ arguments and perhaps also his air of Olympian calm.

The majority of Athenians believed in omens and divination. Prophets accompanied all Athenian expeditions of any importance. They read the signs for the generals at the morning sacrifices and interpreted the meaning of comets, eclipses, phases of the moon, the flight of passing birds, and even dreams. To counterbalance this religious intrusion into military and political affairs, Pericles welcomed natural historians, city planners, philosophers, military engineers, and astronomers to Athens. Debates over their ideas and teachings were far from abstract or academic. Some Athenians readily accepted innovations, but others found them shocking. Among the common people there was a widespread mistrust of scientists or philosophers whose theories seemed based on the theory of a universe without gods. Among Athenian crews, superstition often trumped common sense.

Yet through constant give and take, Pericles and Athens maintained a delicate balance between reason and tradition. The city provided almost free of charge a public education in political science, rhetoric, philosophy, and many other fields. So remarkable was the liberal intellectual life in the city that Pericles called Athens the “School of Greece.” Every citizen was expected to engage in the discourse. As Pericles said, “We do not say that a man who takes no part in public affairs minds his own business; on the contrary, we say that he has no business here at all.”

Pericles was eager to transform Athens into the imperial capital of his dreams. The treasury of the maritime alliance had gradually accumulated a surplus of several thousand talents, first on Delos and later at Athens. The sum could be expected to grow with every year of peace. Guided by his vision of a new Athens, Pericles proposed to the Assembly that they build new temples and public buildings to replace those destroyed by the Persians during Xerxes’ invasion, about thirty years before. In particular, he wanted to raise a grand new marble temple to Athena on the southern side of the Acropolis. In time this temple would be known as the Parthenon. Surplus naval funds would help defray the costs of materials and construction.

At once there was an outcry, not from the allies who paid the tribute but from Pericles’ aristocratic opponents. They denounced Pericles’ proposal as an unseemly attempt to deck Athens out like a pretentious woman in finery and ornaments. Worse, this use of the tribute money would be a fraudulent misappropriation of naval funds and a betrayal of the allies. Pericles had his answer ready. “They do not give us a single horse, soldier, or ship. All they supply is money.” In Pericles’ view, so long as the Athenians protected their allies at sea, they could do as they wished with the rest of the funds.

All of Attica was then beautified and invigorated as new temples arose to the sea god Poseidon at Cape Sunium, to the vengeful goddess Nemesis at Rhamnous, and to the great goddesses Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis. On a hill above the Agora, overlooking the smoky kilns and casting pits, rose a temple to the craftsman god Hephaestus. Outshining all the other buildings were the new Parthenon and the Propylaea, gateway to the Acropolis.

These marble edifices were the crown of Pericles’ ambitious building program and indeed of Athens as well: matchless in grandeur, poise, and harmony. The Parthenon dominated the artificial terrace on the south side of the Acropolis, rising above the massive retaining wall that had been constructed after Cimon’s victory at the Eurymedon. To ornament the new statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, some of the city’s haul of gold was hammered into sheets. These were then molded into elaborate folds to represent the goddess’s robe, setting off the pieces of lustrous ivory that formed her face and arms. In the hand of Athena, Phidias placed an image of the winged goddess Nike (“Victory”), looking as if she had just descended from Mount Olympus to place a victor’s wreath upon the brow of Athens.

For all its resplendent decoration and sacred images, the Parthenon had a practical side as well. Phidias’ gold and ivory statue not only greeted visitors to the Parthenon but also guarded the hoard of tribute from the Athenian allies, now secured in a special chamber at the west end of the building. Pericles also directed that the gold plating should be removable so that in time of need the metal could be taken off and melted down to pay for ships and other armaments. The Parthenon combined the functions of a temple and a treasury, while serving also as a victory monument for all Athens’ triumphs during the Persian Wars. Not far from the temple stood a massive marble stele inscribed with a record of the annual tribute payments from the allies or, more specifically, with a tally of the sixtieth part of each ally’s tribute (one drachma per mina of silver) that was given to Athena as her share in the enterprise.

During the Golden Age the city fostered geniuses in many fields. Indeed, the field of history was actually invented at this time. While the Parthenon was under construction, a visitor to Athens named Herodotus was offering public recitations on the Persian Wars, that epic contest that led to the emergence of Athenian thalassocracy. Born at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, Herodotus had been a young boy when Queen Artemisia returned with her triremes after the battle of Salamis. As a man he traveled widely, collecting stories from veterans on both sides.

In time Herodotus came to view the Persian Wars, and indeed all of Hellenic history, as a series of conflicts between East and West, Asia and Europe. The saga started when ancient seafarers from one continent kidnapped women from the other. The abductions of the Greek princess Io, the Phoenician princess Europa, the Asiatic sorceress Medea, and even Helen of Troy were hostile acts and reprisals in this age-old struggle. He then traced the conflict through the rise of the Persian Empire and its epic collision with the free cities of Greece. The impact of Herodotus’ theorizing was so profound that it changed the meaning of the word historia. Before Herodotus it had meant no more than “inquiry” or “research”—the term that he himself applied to his epic work. After him it designated a new branch of human intellectual endeavor: the quest to compile a record of events that would uncover root causes and recurring patterns.

The stories recorded by Herodotus confirmed two controversial Athenian claims: their right to the leadership of the Greeks, and the justice of their maritime empire. Herodotus indeed concluded that the Ionians had been subjugated by the Athenians because they were unfit to maintain their own liberty. He exposed their flawed character in the tales of the great naval battle of Lade that ended the Ionian revolt against Persia, when the Ionian crews refused to submit to the arduous training in rowing and seamanship that might have granted them victory. In considering the rise of Athens, Herodotus expressed a view that he knew would fly in the face of popular opinion among many readers outside Athens. “If the Athenians, through fear of the approaching danger of Xerxes, had abandoned their country, or if they had stayed in Greece and submitted to the Persians, there would have been no attempt to resist the Persians by sea. In view of this, therefore, one is surely right to say that Greece was saved by the Athenians.”

While Herodotus studied history and geography, Sophocles addressed himself to questions of ethics, morals, and human destiny. The son of a sword manufacturer, Sophocles had been in the public eye since his youth, when he led the victory dance for Salamis. In addition to commanding an Athenian naval squadron as a general in the Samian War, he had also held the position of Hellenotamias, one of the “treasurers of the Greeks” who supervised the tribute from the allies. Names were believed to hold great significance, so it is not surprising that Sophocles, whose name was a compound of “Wisdom” and “Glory,” seemed the right man for almost any job.

Sophocles brought the sea and ships into his dramas. An unflattering description of a cowardly trierarch is so vivid that it seems drawn from his own experience as general with the fleet. “I’ve heard a man, a bully with his tongue, ordering his crew to put to sea in dirty weather. Aboard, and in the thick of the storm, you’d always find him speechless, hiding his head beneath his cloak, and letting any man walk over him.” In other tragedies Sophocles charted the “sea of troubles” that overwhelmed his heroes and heroines, or compared a government to a “ship of state.” He also dramatized the divine punishments meted out to men who were guilty of hubris. To a Greek, hubris was more than arrogance. It was arrogant, wanton violence against others, yet it seemed difficult to control an empire without it.

At the Dionysia festival in Athens, the staging of new plays was preceded by an imperial pageant. After the thousands of Athenians and their guests had taken their seats, a procession of porters emerged from the wings into the circular orchestra, the area where the chorus traditionally sang and danced. Each porter carried a portion of the annual tribute money that had arrived that spring from the allied cities. In a stately parade they carried the hundreds of silver talents in front of the citizens, a reminder of the great wealth that came to Athens over the sea. Only when the treasure had been shown to the people could the dramatic competition proceed.

The Athenian people celebrated the start of a new civic year at midsummer with a festival called the Panathenaea. By the time of Pericles this festival had become a citywide celebration of Athens, its maritime empire, and the goddess under whose aegis both had prospered. During the days of this festival the city was alive with processions, feasts, religious rites, displays of sacred regalia, and competitions for athletes and artists. All the pride that the Athenians felt in their achievements and their city was shown to men and gods during these days of summer.

Among the sporting events of the Panathenaea was a rowing race for triremes. Each of the ten Attic tribes entered its own tribal ship in the regatta, with a crew of young citizens to man the oars. The tribe whose trireme won the race received a prize of three hundred drachmas and two bulls from the organizers of the festival. An additional prize of two hundred drachmas was presented to the crew, one drachma per man, to cover the costs of the victory banquet.

The highlight of the Panathenaea was a grand parade. Young and old, men and women, Athenians and foreigners—all took part. The daughters of the resident aliens carried jars of holy water. Freed slaves carried oak branches. Envoys from the cities and islands of the empire led cattle that would be sacrificed to the goddess. They also brought shining panoplies of hoplite arms and armor as gifts to the city. The centerpiece of the procession was a little galley mounted on wheels that was called the Panathenaic ship. Before the start of the procession many citizens joined in the symbolic ritual of grasping long ropes to raise the mast and hoist the yardarm.

The climactic moment came with the unfurling of the sail. For nine months young girls of old Athenian families had been weaving and embroidering a beautiful new robe or peplos, the city’s birthday gift for their goddess. Now their handiwork adorned the sail of the sacred ship. The design, glowing with purple and saffron dyes, showed Athena triumphing over the giants in the great battle of gods and titans. The people caught their first glimpse of the new robe as the ship rolled through the Potters’ Quarter and the Agora, billowing in the summer breeze. The sail with the peploswas suspended high in the air above a “crew” of priests and priestesses crowned with golden garlands. At the far side of the Agora the slope up to the Acropolis became too steep for this elaborate parade float. Here the sail was taken down, to be carried on foot up the long flights of marble steps to the sunlit summit. In a final act of reverence, the new robe was offered to the goddess, whose ancient wooden image was the holiest possession of the Athenian people. It was fitting that each year the Athenians presented their patron deity with a robe that was also a sail. With this act of devotion they reminded themselves, their maritime allies, and the world at large that Athens, from its harbors right up to its highest citadel, was a city wedded to the sea.

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