War and democracy in ancient Athens: a preliminary report

David Pritchard

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Classical Athens is famous for creating the world's first democracy and for its related cultural revolution that laid the foundations for the historiography, theatre, philosophy and visual arts of the antique and modem worlds. Little known (and certainly never hymned) is the city's contemporaneous military revolution. Athens of the fifth century intensified and transformed the waging of war, killed tens of thousands of fellow Greeks, and ignored some of the traditional customs of battle. By the time the democracy was fully elaborated, in the 450s, war had come to dominate the politics and popular culture of the city and the lives of its citizens. War consumed more money than any other public activity, was waged more frequently than ever before, and was the main topic of debate in the democratic council and assembly. Certainly this military revolution was made possible by the unrivalled size of Attike and its citizen population and the unprecedented supply of money from the Athenian maritime empire. However, the practical innovations Athens made to the waging of war, the efficiency of its military operations, and the disturbing willingness of its non-elite citizens to fight and die in battle were direct consequences of the new practices of democracy. In part the twin revolutions of Athenian culture and warfare can be understood as flipsides of each other. This article has three parts. Part I considers warfare in sixth-century Athens in order to set a benchmark for measuring changes to come. Part II analyzes the innovations and limits of the Athenian military revolution. Part III sketches how democracy itself was partially responsible for Athenian bellicosity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-25
Number of pages10
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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