Ancient History & Civilisation


In the Shadow of Macedon [339 -324 B.C.]

Reversals of fortune are frequent, for sovereign rule never remains in the same hands for long.


THE JOY OF THE ATHENIANS AFTER PHOCION’S EXPEDITION to Byzantium lasted less than a year. Philip had temporarily abandoned his designs on the grain route, but the war was not over yet. He accepted the fact that his Macedonian fleet was no match for the Athenian navy. Further operations against the Greeks would be carried out on land. Thanks to Demosthenes the navy was once again a formidable force, but there had been no Demosthenes to work a similar transformation on the Athenian army. Worst of all was the dearth of talented commanders. The best Athenian tacticians and strategists now served as mercenaries abroad.

Philip’s opportunity came when a minuscule squabble erupted about the plowing of sacred fields near Delphi. Invited to help protect the Delphic Oracle, Philip marched south with his army through the pass at Thermopylae. The Sacred War, however, was only a pretext. Now that Philip had entered Greece, he intended to stay. His well-drilled army would subdue or eliminate his opponents on their own ground. Only Thebes stood between the Macedonians and the frontiers of Attica, and Thebes was by long tradition hostile to Athens. Demosthenes carried out a mission even more difficult than his embassy to Byzantium when he persuaded the Thebans to ally themselves with Athens in resistance to Philip.

Preparations for a decisive land battle engaged both sides for months. Late in summer the two armies met on a plain near the town of Chaeronea. Philip’s forces destroyed the power of Thebes and inflicted heavy losses on the Athenian hoplite phalanx as well. His young son Alexander took part in the historic victory as commander of the Macedonian cavalry. Rumors from the battlefield quickly reached Athens, seemingly on the wind—terrifying reports that Philip was now marching toward the city. Always energetic and decisive when prospects were at their worst, the Athenians immediately prepared to resist a siege. They appointed Demosthenes to secure the grain supply and sent him by ship to seek support in other cities. The older men marched down to the Piraeus to man the harbor fortifications; others strengthened the city’s defenses. To replace the thousands of citizens killed or taken prisoner at Chaeronea, the Assembly voted to enfranchise slaves and metics, as their forefathers had done before the battle of Arginusae.

In the midst of this frenetic activity envoys arrived from the Macedonian headquarters in Boeotia. Unexpectedly, Philip was in a conciliatory mood. The two thousand Athenian prisoners were to be returned to the city without a ransom. The Macedonians would also burn the bodies of the fallen, and a guard of honor would convey their ashes to Athens. What could account for this unexpected show of kindness to a beaten enemy?

Athens had been saved by its ships, though no battle had been fought at sea. Ever since the naval action at Byzantium, Philip felt a renewed respect for the Athenian navy. In its own element it was still invincible, and the Piraeus was still a well-nigh impregnable base. He would no longer attempt to defeat Athens at sea. Instead, even as he extended a conciliatory hand toward Athens, Philip was devising plans that would harness Athenian naval power to his own purposes, along with other military forces of Greece.

Philip followed up his victory at Chaeronea not with an assault on Athens but with a summons to a peace conference at the Isthmus. At Corinth, surrounded by anxious envoys from Athens and the other cities, Philip created a new Hellenic League with an ancient goal: a holy war on the Persian Empire. The rhetoric was religious: Xerxes’ burning of the Greek temples was at last to be avenged. Philip told the cities that he expected them to contribute troops and ships. Isocrates would have been happy to see his dream fulfilled, but he did not live to see it. He had died at the age of ninety-eight, just as the news of Philip’s victory at Chaeronea was brought to Athens.

One casualty of the new alliance against Persia was Athens’ Second Maritime League, founded almost forty years before. Philip could brook no hegemony alongside his own, so Athens must free its remaining maritime allies from their oaths of allegiance. Even here he was willing to make concessions. In view of Athens’ vital role in patrolling the seas, Philip recognized the city’s right to retain its essential territories abroad: the island of Samos with its Athenian cleruchs; the holy isle of Delos; and Skyros, Lemnos, and Imbros on the route to the Hellespont. So along with the other allied delegates at the Isthmus, the Athenians swore to follow Philip in making war on Persia and on all those who broke the peace that Philip had established. With Greece now brought to heel, Philip returned north. Before attacking the territory of the Great King, he planned to preside at his daughter’s wedding.

At Athens the citizens awaited the royal order that would levy ships and men for the war in Asia. Long accustomed not to follow but to lead, the prospect of obeying Philip as commander in chief was galling. Yet it was technically no worse than the subordination of their ancestors to Spartan leadership in the alliance against Xerxes, and infinitely better than their subjection to Sparta after the Peloponnesian War. Looking back over the years of struggle against Philip, Demosthenes pondered the wisdom of the course he had pursued.

“If the lightning that struck us was too great not only for us but for the rest of Greece, what were we to do? One might as well put the blame for a shipwreck on the ship’s captain, even after he has taken all precautions and fitted his vessel with everything he believes will guarantee its safety. Then the ship encounters a storm, and its rig is damaged or utterly destroyed. But I was not captain of a ship, nor was I in command as general, nor could I rule fate. No, it was fate that ruled all.”

Instead of mobilization orders, earthshaking news arrived from Macedon. King Philip was dead, struck down during a public procession by a lone assassin. The killer, one of Philip’s own household officers, brought a concealed dagger to the royal wedding celebration and stabbed the king as he rode by. On hearing the news, the Athenians voted public ceremonies of thanksgiving. A jubilant Demosthenes almost convinced the Assembly that Philip’s death meant the end of Macedonian power. He proved a poor prophet.

Within months a Macedonian army marched once again into Greece. At its head, astride the legendary stallion named Bucephalas, rode Alexander, the son of Philip. Though just twenty years old, the new king had already eliminated threats to his succession at home. He was now moving at high speed to reassert his control over Greece. Alexander aspired to be not another Philip, but rather a second Achilles. Hoping to absorb the fiery spirit of his hero, he slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow. In imitation of the eternally youthful Achilles, he even declined to grow that indispensable symbol of Greek manhood: a beard. The royal moods, too, were Achillean, swinging unpredictably from warmhearted enthusiasm to murderous wrath.

Athens had the good luck to be one of Alexander’s enthusiasms. The new king revered the city as the central hearth of Hellenic culture. He especially loved Athenian tragedies and took scrolls of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to read while on campaign. Not only did he respect Athens, he sincerely courted the city’s friendship and approval. Athenians had been slow to acknowledge him as their overlord. But Alexander gave a friendly welcome to the envoys that brought him the Assembly’s apology. The message was carried not by Demosthenes, who prudently stayed at home, but by a bluff and hearty citizen named Demades, a shipwright and ferryman who had lately taken up a career as an orator.

For all his boyish looks and ways, Alexander made it clear from the start that he would not loosen his father’s iron grip on Greece. He summoned the Greeks back to the Isthmus, where they renewed their oaths of loyalty to the Hellenic League, and to Alexander himself as hegemon, commander supreme on land and sea. Alexander in turn pledged himself to the league’s goals: peace in Greece and war in Asia. He had inherited Philip’s dreams of eastern conquest along with Philip’s army. After two years of campaigning, Alexander had secured his frontiers in Europe all the way to the Danube River in the far north. The time was ripe for his invasion of the Persian Empire.

Alexander needed ships to transport his army across the Hellespont, and he ordered his Greek allies to provide the ferry service. Athens’ share of the burden was light: only twenty triremes, leaving the main fleet untouched at the Piraeus. Alexander considered Athens most valuable to him as a free and self-sustaining maritime ally. The famous navy would assist his imperial ambitions by policing the seas and suppressing piracy—at Athenian expense, not his. To keep a watchful eye on Greece in his absence, Alexander left his father’s old general Antipater behind him as regent in Macedonia.

As the third year of Alexander’s reign began, the 20 Athenian triremes voyaged to the Hellespont to join an allied Greek fleet of 160. Alexander’s forces crowded the northern shore in tens of thousands: foot soldiers, cavalry, engineers, armorers, bakers, doctors, prophets, heralds, day runners, grooms, camp followers, and slaves. No Persians troops appeared on the Asiatic shore. No Persian ships blocked the channel. Alexander would cross the Hellespont unopposed.

After sacrificing to the gods, Alexander performed the symbolic actions of steering the first trireme across and casting a spear into the soil of Asia from the deck of his ship. Then he leaped ashore, Achilles incarnate. Once the commander in chief had enjoyed his theatrical moment, the army could follow. The main crossing route ran from Sestos to Abydos, like Xerxes’ bridges of long ago, where the channel between the two continents narrows to about a mile. In these familiar waters the Athenians plied back and forth across the swiftly rushing stream, carrying Alexander’s army on the first stage of its immense journey into the heart of the Great King’s empire. Freighters were also pressed into service, their holds packed full of men and provisions. It was impossible to employ sails in the narrow Hellespont, so the triremes took the freighters in tow.

When all had crossed, Alexander sent his fleet south under the command of a Macedonian admiral named Nicanor. Unlike Xerxes, Alexander made no effort to coordinate the movements of his army and navy. The land forces struck inland, bearing the entire brunt of Alexander’s mission of conquest. Meanwhile the fleet cruised independently along the coast of Asia Minor to a rendezvous at the port city of Ephesus. By the time Alexander rejoined his ships, he had already triumphed over the Persian cavalry at the Granicus River, accepted the surrender of Sardis, and enrolled newly liberated Greek cities in the Hellenic League. With his customary flamboyance, Alexander sent Persian shields from Granicus as trophies to Athens, where they were hung in a long row on the east front of the Parthenon.

On a darker note, the victory at the Granicus also netted hundreds of Athenian prisoners. These men had fought as mercenaries in the Persian ranks. Furious with the “traitors,” Alexander shipped them off to do hard labor in the mines of Thrace. Along his march Alexander would encounter many more Athenian soldiers of fortune, including a younger son of the great Iphicrates.

Had Athens possessed the funds to keep them at home, these men could have restored the fortunes of the Athenian navy. The eastward trickle that began with Themistocles, however, had become a torrent after the Peloponnesian War, and the loss of so many potential commanders was an irreparable tragedy. But it was not only Persian gold that lured ambitious young Athenians across the Aegean. Given the Assembly’s relentless attacks on its democratically elected generals, and the punitive record of Athenian juries and review boards, service to the Great King had become less hazardous than service to their own fellow citizens. Alexander’s experiences proved that Athenian families were still producing tactical geniuses and valiant warriors. If they were absent from the city in the crises that lay ahead, the blame lay with Athens itself.

After the Ephesians opened their gates, Alexander advanced to his next target: the ancient metropolis of Miletus. Scouts reported that a Persian armada was in the offing, some four hundred ships from Phoenicia and Cyprus. At all costs they must be kept out of Miletus Harbor and prevented from reinforcing the Great King’s garrison of Greek mercenaries. The veteran Macedonian general Parmenio urged the king to challenge the new arrivals in a naval battle. He said that he had seen an eagle near the Greek ships beached on the island of Lade, outside Miletus Harbor, and claimed it as a portent of victory. Parmenio was the father of the young admiral Nicanor and may have hoped to give his son a moment of glory. Alexander rejected the idea outright. Like Philip before him, he would use actions on land to defeat enemies at sea. Despite his appointment of Nicanor as admiral, all Alexander’s trust still rested on his phalanx, his cavalry, and his engineers.

Alexander merely commanded the Athenians and other naval allies to crowd their ships together and block the harbor mouth at Miletus. He himself had already neutralized the enemy fleet by the simple expedient of occupying all landing places anywhere near Miletus. Unable to beach their ships, the stymied Persians cruised away in search of fresh water, food, and campsites. Once they had left the scene of action, Alexander struck.



The Macedonian siege engines rolled forward to batter the walls and towers, followed by an irresistible rush of Macedonian troops. As the defense of Miletus collapsed, desperate Greek soldiers attempted to escape across the water using their hollow shields as skiffs and their hands as paddles. Most were killed. The survivors surrendered from a rocky islet, the site of their last stand. The Persian armada, outmaneuvered and impotent, vanished away to the south. Alexander soon learned that it had gone to ground within the circular harbor of Halicarnassus. In that historic city of Artemisia and Herodotus, the naval forces of King Darius would again try to halt Alexander’s headlong advance.

With Miletus in hand and the Persian fleet in retreat, Alexander saw no reason to go on paying hard-won money to his Greek crews. At two hundred men per trireme, he had almost as many mariners as soldiers. So the king dismissed the levy of ships from the Hellenic League, except for the Athenians. They would perform one final service. As Alexander and his army marched through the rough terrain of Caria toward their next target, the city of Halicarnassus, Macedonian engineers loaded the wooden siege machinery onto the decks of the twenty Athenian triremes. It took no more than a day for the crews to row south to their rendezvous point near Halicarnassus, where they set the heavy equipment ashore.

Alexander ignored the Persian fleet in the harbor at Halicarnassus, making all his assaults from the landward side. The commander of the city’s garrison was an Athenian mercenary named Ephialtes, perhaps a descendant of the famous democratic reformer. Though he fought with daring, Alexander prevailed. When the fall of Halicarnassus seemed inevitable, the Persian fleet slipped out of the harbor under cover of darkness and fled to distant havens. Next morning Alexander marched into the city. With winter coming on, he sent the Athenian triremes with the siege equipment north to Tralles on the Meander River. From Tralles the Athenians turned their backs on the historic Macedonian adventure and voyaged home, their duty done.

Over the next three years reports of Alexander’s amazing progress reached Athens. The conqueror cut the famous knot at Gordium, defeated King Darius and his field army at Issus in Syria, and took the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Gaza by siege. Egypt welcomed Alexander as liberator and pharaoh; the oracle of Zeus Ammon in the desert hailed him as son of the god. Amid these triumphs Alexander began to show a new and ominous interest in the sea. He assembled a fleet of Phoenician and other ships to give his Macedonian commanders some much-needed naval experience. West of the Nile delta he laid out the new city of Alexandria, a future cosmopolitan capital, port, and center of learning that would one day surpass both Athens and the Piraeus in grandeur and power.

When the Athenians heard that Alexander had returned from Egypt to Tyre to prepare an expedition into the heart of the Persian Empire, they sent envoys on board the Paralos to seek the release of the Athenian prisoners taken at Granicus. The king had already turned down one appeal: he was keeping these Athenians as hostages for the good behavior of Athens itself. Knowing Alexander’s obsessions, this time the Assembly actually found a citizen named Achilles to deliver the petition. The Paralos arrived as the Macedonian army was about to start its long march to Susa. In a mellow mood Alexander unbent and granted the Athenian prisoners their freedom.

As the crew of the Paralos rowed homeward, happy with their success, Alexander left the Mediterranean behind. He met and crushed the army of Darius III at Gaugamela near the Tigris River, a victory that made Alexander, in effect, the new Great King. At Susa the Macedonians discovered long-lost Athenian marble statues, ancient loot from the Acropolis carried off by Xerxes. During the Macedonian victory banquet at Persepolis, a beautiful Athenian camp follower named Thaïs incited Alexander to put the great palace of the Persian kings to the torch. Thus an Athenian—and a woman—exacted final payment for Xerxes’ burning of Athens.

But the conqueror could not rest from conquest. Beyond Persia, far beyond, the insatiable Alexander pursued roads and tracks into Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Like a storm blowing away over the rim of the world, he and his army passed eastward toward India. With their disappearance, a deep peace settled down over the Aegean Sea. The shadows departed, the sun shone, and Athens began to bud and grow again.

Taking full advantage of this halcyon spell, the Athenians step by step restored the fabric of their navy. As long as Alexander’s charmed life continued, they could scarcely hope to change the balance of power. But Athenians were as patient as they were energetic. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, they meant to be ready. New ships, new naval installations, and new training programs would ultimately help restore Athens to its traditional place as ruler of the sea.



During these years the most influential man in Athens was neither an orator nor a general but a financial minister named Lycurgus. His severe and incorruptible character commanded universal respect, as did his position as hereditary priest of Poseidon. Carefully husbanding the city’s revenues, mainly from maritime trade, Lycurgus first filled the depleted treasury and then embarked on a truly Periclean campaign to renew, strengthen, and beautify Athens. The gods received their due: for Athena, a new Panathenaic stadium; for Apollo, a temple in the Agora; for Dionysus, a theater rebuilt in shining marble; and for the goddesses at Eleusis, a vast new pillared hall of initiation. Yet with so much attention paid to the spiritual well-being of the city, Lycurgus was equally mindful of its naval sinews.

The Lycurgan program directed money toward the military training of the Athenian epheboi, the cadets of hoplite class. Under Lycurgus’ efficient regime they spent their first year on duty in the Piraeus—manning the fortress on Munychia Hill, guarding the naval base, and learning to row in the triremes of their tribes. The second year was devoted to garrison duty in the frontier fortresses. The ceremonies and processions of these fine young men delighted the Athenians. So too did the annual regattas. Crews of cadets from each tribe raced in triremes around the perimeter of the Piraeus promontory, from the start in Cantharus Harbor, past the tomb of Themistocles, to the finish at the little harbor of Munychia. Spectators who watched the start could then run across town to witness the end of the race and hail the winning trireme.

In these years the Athenians also made a thorough review of their ships. Ever since the end of the Peloponnesian War, more than sixty years before, Athens had been losing ground to other naval powers in the area of innovative design. The fast trireme still ruled supreme at Athens, just as it had in Themistocles’ day. But while the naval architects of Athens held aloof from change, new types of warships began to appear in Carthage, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Phoenicia.

Now the Assembly ordered the board of naval architects to modernize the navy with new ship types, larger and heavier than the trireme. The sweeping campaign led to the introduction of the quadrireme and quinquereme. Their Greek names tetreres (“rowed by four”) and penteres (“rowed by five”) derived from the novel system of manning the oars. In the trireme each man pulled his own oar, and three oarsmen in echelon formed the basic unit of the rowing crew. Within the quadrireme the unit was reduced to two oars, but the length of the oar increased and two men rowed on each oar. In the quinquereme five rowers were fitted into the unit by multiple manning of oars. More men could thus row in a given space, and the ship could be built more heavily yet maintain a speed comparable to that of a trireme.

In these new ships, only half the rowers needed any experience or skill. While one rower maneuvered the oar handle, his partner simply provided brute force to drive the oar through the water. The oars were worked through an enclosed oar box instead of the trireme’s open and vulnerable rowing frame. The crews grew in size: a quinquereme employed 300 rowers compared to the trireme’s 170. The building of these superships bore witness to Athens’ determination to retain the rule of the sea. Thanks to Lycurgus, Athens eventually boasted a navy of 360 triremes, 50 quadriremes, and 2 quinqueremes, plus troop carriers, horse carriers, and triakontors.

All these activities brought renewed life to the Piraeus. In the years after Lycurgus instituted his new financial regime, the naval base once again provided steady employment for thousands of citizens who found work as administrators, inspectors, guards, scribes, craftsmen, and crew members. The resident aliens who had established themselves at the Piraeus as merchants or manufacturers also prospered. Some gave generous contributions every year to support the finances of their adopted city. Others beautified the Piraeus with temples of their own gods.

To house the growing fleet of warships, Lycurgus and his successors at the public treasury provided funds for the building of yet more shipsheds. At the same time they repaired the Long Walls and the other fortifications. The greatest single achievement of the Lycurgan program, however, was the completion of a gargantuan building to house the sails and rigging from the warships. Later known as “Philo’s Arsenal,” its proper name was the Skeuotheke (“Storehouse for the Hanging Gear”). Never had canvas and cordage received such a palatial home. Like the Parthenon, Philo’s Arsenal was built in the Doric style, but it surpassed in size any temple in Greece. Seventeen years in the building, the Arsenal extended from the gate at the west corner of Hippodamus’ Agora to the shipsheds of Zea Harbor. Philo himself, who had also designed the new hall of initiation for the Eleusinian Mysteries, felt so proud of his naval arsenal that he wrote a book about it. No such sign of respect or public interest had been accorded the more prestigious Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The Arsenal was plain; the walls of soft yellowish Piraeus limestone were ornamented only by gray marble frames for the doors and windows. The corners were given a touch of additional grandeur and strength by ashlar blocks that projected beyond the surface of the walls. Down each long side ran a row of thirty-four small windows, set high up under the eaves of the low-pitched roof. The roof itself was covered with tens of thousands of Corinthian tiles.

On entering through double doors sheathed in gleaming bronze, one passed immediately from the glare and uproar of Hippodamus’ Agora to a vast quiet space, cool and dimly lit. Thirty feet overhead the wooden rafters almost vanished in the shadows. To the left and right were bays, like stalls in a barn, enclosed by wooden railings and filled with equipment. Within the bays were wooden shelves, chests, and cabinets to hold the sails and rigging for 134 warships. Despite its immense size, Philo’s Arsenal could meet less than half of the navy’s storage requirements. The cabinets had open-work sides, so stored items could dry quickly if brought in wet. Space was also found for various odds and ends—anchors, chains, and the thin oval-shaped plaques of painted marble that served as eyes for the ships. Except at noon when the sun stood overhead, the windows high up in the walls admitted shafts of light, along with ventilation to prevent rot or mildew.

Finally, stretching from end to end was the longest covered walk in the Greek world, a spacious aisle twenty feet wide and four hundred feet long. Through this central aisle Athenian citizens could stroll as on a promenade, conversing, gazing, and marveling at the magnificent array of naval gear. Their pride in the Arsenal, like the Arsenal itself, was the mark of a people who valued their past but whose eyes were fixed firmly on the future.

Among Lycurgus’ other building projects was a new gymnasium at the Lyceum. In the year after Alexander became king, the philosopher Aristotle arrived in Athens and made the Lyceum his headquarters. His school of scientific, political, and ethical studies formed the brightest light in Athens’ constellation of new undertakings. Aristotle was a northern Greek whose father had served as doctor to Philip of Macedon. He first came to Athens at the age of seventeen to study with Plato, in the days when Chabrias and Timotheus also frequented the Academy. Master and pupil did not see eye to eye. Plato nicknamed Aristotle “The Colt” and criticized his sardonic expression, incessant talking, and objectionable haircut. Aristotle eventually left Athens and for several years investigated marine life around a lagoon on Lesbos, laying the groundwork for his unprecedented scientific works of description and classification. In time he was called away from his octopi and barnacles to fill the most prestigious academic post on earth: tutor to the young prince Alexander of Macedon.

Now that his royal charge had grown up and left the nest, Aristotle was free to return to Athens. Morning and evening he walked through the groves and colonnades of the Lyceum, surrounded by young disciples. Occasionally a shipment of exotic zoological specimens arrived, gifts of Alexander to his old teacher. Unlike Plato’s Academy, the Lyceum gave pride of place to practical and applied knowledge. Thus it happened that in the final years of the Athenian navy, ships and maritime matters (along with most other things under the sun) were subjected to a more searching formal study than ever before.

One of Aristotle’s followers compiled a book called Problems. Some of the mysterious problems were maritime. “Why do ships seem to be more heavily loaded in harbor than out at sea?” And “Why is it that if anything (for example, an anchor) is thrown into the sea when it is rough, a calm ensues?” And again, “Why is it that sometimes vessels that are journeying over the sea in fine weather are swallowed up and disappear so completely that no wreckage even is washed up?”

For Aristotle, the prime example of energy overcoming inertia, and of living things imparting motion to inanimate ones, was the image of a crew dragging a ship down to the sea. One of his followers included a number of nautical questions in a book calledMechanics. “Why is it that those rowers who are in the middle of the ship move the ship most? Is it because the oar acts as a lever? The fulcrum then is the tholepin (for it remains in the same place); and the weight is the sea that the oar displaces; and the power that moves the lever is the rower.” This particular observation related particularly to the new quadriremes and quinqueremes, where the oars were double-manned and the rower seated inboard did indeed have more leverage. “Why is it that the rudder, being small and at the extreme end of the ship, has such power that vessels of great burden can be moved by a small steering oar and the strength of one man only gently exerted? Is it because the rudder, too, is a lever and the steersman works it?” And again, “Why is it that the higher the yardarm is raised, the quicker does a vessel travel with the same sail and in the same breeze? Is it because the mast is a lever, and the socket in which it is fixed, the fulcrum, and the weight which it has to move is the boat, and the motive power is the wind in the sail?”

Aristotle’s favorite student was Theophrastus, his faithful companion from the years of wading and waterside research on Lesbos. In his monumental Enquiry into Plants Theophrastus collected the lore of shipwrights concerning the trees traditionally used in shipbuilding and listed the species most appropriate for the various parts of a trireme. His researches even included the folk wisdom of woodsmen concerning the best seasons of the year for cutting different types of timber, and the direction of slope—north-facing and shady, or south-facing and exposed to the sun—that would produce the best wood. In his treatise Theophrastus reported a miracle. An oar carved from olive wood was left propped up with its handle resting in a pot. The pot contained some damp earth, and after a few days the oar suddenly came back to life and sprouted green leaves.

Yet another follower of Aristotle, a disciple whose name is now forgotten, wrote about weather and atmospheric phenomena in a work called Meteorology. He noted that rainbows occurred at sea when sunlight struck the spray kicked up by a trireme’s oars. “The rainbow that is seen when oars are raised out of the sea involves the same relative positions as a rainbow in the sky, but its color is more like that around lamps, being purple rather than red.” In terms of scientific study the Athenian navy was inspiring more focused inquiry than at any other time in its existence.

During these years Aristotle himself was working on his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. At the end of the latter work he wrote, “From the collection of constitutions we must examine what sort of thing preserves and what sort of thing destroys cities.” In Aristotle’s view, one of the destructive things was sea power. He identified four species of maritime people—those involved with triremes, like the Athenians; ferrymen, like the islanders of Tenedos; traders, as at Aegina and Chios; and fishermen, like those at Byzantium and Tarentum. Some harm to the city might arise even from seaborne trade, with the influx of foreigners and exotic merchandise that it promoted. The real enemies of a well-ordered state, however, were not mer chantmen but triremes. Aristotle agreed with Plato on very few things, but the danger of thalassocracy was certainly among them.

Among the eleven stages or revolutions in the life of the Athenian constitution, Aristotle called the seventh “the constitution to which Aristides pointed and which Ephialtes accomplished by overthrowing the Areopagus. In this the city made its greatest mistakes, because of the demagogues and its rule of the sea.” Geography played a role in national character. “At Athens there is a difference between the dwellers in the city itself and those in Piraeus; the latter are more emphatically democratic in outlook.”

At the end of his Politics Aristotle considered the importance of the sea for a well-ordered state. A city seeking greatness, or simply security, might be compelled to build up a navy. In that case Aristotle concluded that the only safe course was to exclude rowers and other mariners from participation in the city’s political affairs. “The large population associated with a mob of seamen need not swell the citizenship of the state, of which they should form no part. The troops that are carried on board are free men belonging to the hoplite infantry. They are in sovereign authority and have control over the crews. A plentiful supply of rowers is sure to exist wherever the outlying dwellers and agricultural laborers are numerous.”

Aristotle here passed from a condemnation of maritime empire—no novelty in Athens, even among patriots like Isocrates and Demosthenes—to a more dangerous claim. Naval power was compatible with good government only if the nautical, democratic element could be suppressed. Walking under the trees of the Lyceum, Aristotle planted in the minds of wealthy young Athenians the conviction that a “trireme democracy” was inevitably an evil to itself and others. With or without Aristotle, such treasonous ideas were swiftly gaining ground among the city’s upper classes.

While Aristotle’s students were collecting the constitutions of existing city-states, the Athenians were preparing an expedition to found a new city of their own—a colony in the Adriatic. In recent years Athens and the rest of Greece had suffered bad harvests and food shortages. The Hellespont and Egypt lay under the thumb of the Macedonians, who might at any time cut off the vital shipments of grain. As war clouds gathered in the east, Athens felt once again the lure of the golden west. This time they aimed not at Sicily but at the great Adriatic Sea, running wide and free from the heel of Italy northward to within sight of the Alps. With this bold and (for Athens) unusual plan to found a colony, the city’s great rejuvenation reached its high-water mark.

The colony’s purpose was to secure Athens’ grain supply “for all time to come.” Its harbor would offer a safe emporium for Greeks and non-Greeks alike and provide a base for operations against marauding Etruscan pirates. The Athenian colonists would keep the expedition’s fourteen ships to form the nucleus of their own fleet: eight triremes and quadriremes, two horse transports, and four triakontors.

The Assembly appointed a citizen named Miltiades to lead the mission. The choice of this man symbolized the return of the old heroic days. Seven generations earlier his ancestor Miltiades had led the Athenians to victory at Marathon. An even earlier Miltiades had founded the famous colony among the Thracians on the north side of the Hellespont. Because of the high priority set on the Adriatic mission, the Assembly ordered the Council to go down to the Piraeus and hold their sessions on the jetty itself every day until the fleet departed. Anyone who impeded the expedition was to be fined ten thousand drachmas, payable to the goddess Athena herself.

One member of the expedition was Lysicrates, trierarch of the Stephanophoria (“Bearer of the Crown”). He had recently made his mark on Athens by erecting one of the loveliest monuments in the city: a victory trophy for a boys’ chorus that he had sponsored at one of the annual festivals. The song that his winning team had performed took as its theme the mythical triumph of the young god Dionysus over a shipload of Etruscan pirates. Lysicrates’ monument stood in the shadow of the Acropolis, and its ring of slender Corinthian columns provided a delicate counterpoint to the massive Doric order of the Parthenon on the high rock above it. Atop the columns ran a circular frieze carved with the figures of the pirates who had kidnapped Dionysus and as a punishment were transformed into dolphins. The grotesque metamorphosis was shown through strange creatures with human legs and dolphin heads, plunging into the sea. With his service in the colonizing mission, Lysicrates would have an opportunity to deal with the contemporary descendants of those legendary Etruscan pirates in a much more practical way.

The expedition to the Adriatic had only a little time to create an Athenian stronghold overseas. As Miltiades and his fellow emigrants were pursuing their way west, momentous events in the east overshadowed their venture. The Macedonian army, after six years of wars and wanderings in lands almost unknown to the Greeks, had suddenly reappeared in Persia. Alexander was back, convinced now of his own divinity and determined that the Greeks should do his bidding. Athens would need all its newfound strength to resist him.

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