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Athens - Model for Democracy

The Laurion silver strike

In 483 B.C., a rich bed of silver was discovered in the old mining district of Laurion. Athens was unsure what to do with the 100 talents which came into its treasury as a result. Some suggested distributing the money to the citizenry. Themistocles, who was archon at the time, persuaded the Assembly to use the money to construct a fleet of triremes. Whether Themistocles was anticipating a war or simply wanted to make Athens a naval power, the decision placed Athens in a strong military position when war came. Xerxes, the Persian ruler, would order an invasion of Greece in 480. By that time the Athenian fleet had grown to number 200 triremes.

The battle of Salamis

The naval forces of Greece and Persia would face each other at Salamis, an island not far from the harbor at Athens. If the Athenian fleet made her the undisputed leader among the Greek cities, she was, as yet, no match for the Persians. She still was dependent on the smaller Greek cities for help. She was successful in her appeal and the contributions of the other states would increase the Greek fleet size to nearly 400 ships. Even at that, the Greeks were outnumbered. While any engagement posed risks, the smaller force of Greek ships was at greater risk in a massed confrontation on open water. There was an advantage to delaying battle.

There were reasons why both sides would seek to avoid a fight. Battle fleets were difficult to maintain and storms were an unpredictable hazard. If the Greeks could hold out long enough, the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Persians would start to erode as weather and repairs forced individual ships to withdraw. However, delay could also favor the Persians. Athens did not control its allies and the longer the Persians remained in the vicinity, the more it looked as if they had the power to defeat Athens. It was also expensive to provision a ship. While Athens had the resources to maintain a large fleet, the smaller states had a comparatively greater financial burden. As a practical matter, the expectations of the smaller cities was that the fighting would be over fairly quickly and they did not provision their ships for any lengthy confrontation.

The Persian strategy of intimidation seemed to be working. Unnerved by the presence of the Persian fleet, many of the allies began thinking of withdrawing. Themistocles, both to prevent their leaving and to lure the Persians into a battle, sent his slave to Xerxes, with the message that the Greeks were planning an escape. The Persians, almost instinctively, moved to bottle up the Greek fleet. That alone might have given them a victory. Unfortunately, rather than waiting for a surrender, they chose to attack in the confined bay of Salamis. They had now lost the advantage of numbers. Forced to enter the bay in columns, the Persians were unable to organize their forces. Attacked from the flank by the Greek fleet, the fight quickly broke down into a series of smaller battles. If the Persian fleet was not destroyed, the Greeks had managed to inflict a defeat.

Viewed from a military perspective, the victory at Salamis had been a severe blow to Persian prestige, but it was not fatal. The defeated "Persian" fleet was, in fact, not entirely beaten, nor was it entirely Persian. Some 200 ships had come from Egypt and the Phoenicians and Ionians had contributed ships as well. In addition, while the Persian naval forces had suffered a defeat, the Persians remained on land in strength. Before Salamis, the army had forced the Athenians to abandon their city, allowing the Persians to burn the temples. The situation would change in 479 however, when the army would suffer a defeat at the battle of Plataea. An Athenian fleet would inflict a second defeat on the Persian navy at Mycale shortly afterwards.

Athens, Persia, and the Ionian Greeks each had their own perspectives on Salamis. The Athenian view was somewhat idealistic. They portrayed themselves as the foremost among the defenders of Greek liberty, a city willing to take on powerful enemies. If the decision to fight at Salamis had been a risky undertaking, the Athenians were inclined to couch their actions in terms of self-sacrifice and courage. Capable military strategists, they were willing to take calculated risks to win victory. However they portrayed Salamis, the prestige of Athenian naval power and leadership rose following the victory.

From the Persian perspective, the losses at Salamis and Plataea spelled trouble closer to home. The defeat of a Persian military expedition was not as critical to Persia as the loss of a part of her Empire. Yet, maintaining her Empire was dependent on military force and any military defeat represented a potential loss of prestige and credibility throughout her Empire. If the desire for independence were strong enough, a series of losses was all it took to bring rebellion. The Ionian Greeks, who had been ruled by Persia for only 60 years, now might be tempted to declare independence. That perception proved to be true. The Ionian Greeks were all too ready to revolt. They saw both a weakened enemy in Persia and a robust ally in Athens.

Salamis, from an Ionian perspective, was probably a mixture of feelings. They had revolted against Persia in 499, so any misfortune which befell Persia was a source of satisfaction. Yet, they had contributed to the Persian fleet and their ships and crews had been lost at Salamis. Despite such losses, their overall perspective, in 479, was that Greek victories were reason to hope for deliverance from Persia. By 469, many Ionian cities were having second thoughts about their reliance on Athenian promises of friendship. In 472-1 Athens attacked the city of Carystus, which had not become a member of the League in 477, and forced her to join. The city of Naxos was next in 469. She had joined the League in 477 but now sought to withdraw. Athens blockaded her into surrender. For the Ionians in 477, the tyranny of Athens was in the future. Persia was seen to be the real enemy. The newly independent Greek states agreed to join an alliance with Athens, known as the Confederacy (League) of Delos. The cities who joined agreed to contribute either money or ships.

The growth of the Athenian Empire

Athens, for much of her history, was inclined to take fate into her own hands. She took an active role in her destiny, ready to exploit opportunities which came her way. At other times, fate seemed to smile on her by chance - she had a habit of being in the right place at the right time. She was, in other words, extremely lucky. It was not so much luck that the silver bed at Laurion was there at all, but it was lucky that it had been discovered in 483. Themistocles had been lucky that the Persians had fallen for his trick at Salamis and lucky that the battle had been won. Battles are extremely risky ventures.

The year 477 would provide Athens with one of those rare opportunities she was ever ready to exploit. The obvious opportunity was a military one. The defeats at Salamis and Mycale had shown Persia to be vulnerable. With the support of the Ionians, Athens could build an even more powerful fleet and eliminate the Persian threat in the region altogether. Persian defeats represented a political opportunity as well. Portraying themselves as freedom fighters and champions of the Greek world looked even more appealing if the Athenians were confident they could win. There was a less obvious economic opportunity. The Athenians clearly recognized it, but it was not so obvious to the Ionians. Economically, the Ionian cities were productive. Geographically, most were either island cities or were situated on the Mediterranean coast. A naval force was the perfect instrument to control an empire of coastal inhabitants. The Ionian Greek cities were ripe for exploitation.

Whether Athenian leaders fully comprehended the economic importance of the League, at the time, leadership would prove quite lucrative - more lucrative, in fact, than the Laurion silver mines had been in 483. The first year's contribution was 460 talents. Annual revenues would eventually amount to 1,000 talents. When the Peloponnesian War started in 431, the amount held by the Athenian treasury was 6,000 talents.

Empire and Democracy

Prosperity has usually been associated with democracy. While the Empire was a major source of revenues for Athens, does it explain her democracy? There is no obvious connection between her Empire and Athens' democratic period. It is true that construction of the Parthenon, the most recognizable symbol of democracy, took place during this period (447 B.C. - 432 B.C.). It is also true that the tribute paid by League members was a major source of funding. Whether the Empire was the source of Athens's wealth, it clearly represented a substantial contribution to her well-being. The question is whether democracy was the reason for her prosperity or whether her prosperity was the foundation for her democratic institutions. There is little question that the point in time when Athenian democracy was in full flourish coincides with her period of greatest prosperity.