Classical Studies – Athenian Navy Essay

Athens’ supremacy in the 5th century BC was entirely due to the power of her navy. Discuss.

The fifth century BC was dominated largely by Athenian power in the Aegean. The creation of the Delian League allowed the polis of Athens to develop control of a diaspora of Athenian puppet governments that facilitated the ascendancy of Attica as a controlling force. While the Athenian navy was unquestionably important in this development, it is perhaps misleading to say that Athenian gains were attributable “entirely” to the state’s navy.

It is worth beginning this discussion by highlighting the ways in which the Athenian navy came to play such a prominent part in the Athenian power grab of the fifth century. Using wealth from her silver mines, Athens was able to fund the biggest navy in the region, while her largest rival, Sparta, had developed the largest army. In the early years of the period, these two states put aside their squabbling in order to repel invasion by the Persians. These combined forces led to success, notably at Salamis (at sea) and at Plataea (on land). When Persia seized Athens in 480, the navy had already evacuated most of the population and, without suffering major losses, Themistocles was able to return and defeat the Persian forces at Salamis. Thus, by 479BC the threat of Persian invasion was removed. The following year, at the Battle of Mycale, the Athenian fleet inflicted the final and decisive blow in repelling the Persian navy.

Sparta ceased cooperation with Athens here, while many smaller states around the Aegean were keen to preserve their own safety, and entered into alliance with Athens in the Delian League. In this way, we can see that the Athenian navy was indeed a prominent reason as to why Athens asserted such control. Without the counterbalance of the Spartan polis, it would now appear inevitable that Athens would go on to use its forces to assert supremacy in the Delian League, especially as most League members did not have the forces to withstand Athenian aggression. However, when the alliance was struck, the newly-freed states did not anticipate this power shift, as Athens had fought to remove them from the tyranny of Persia. Having seen that the Athenian navy could move so decisively and effectively in their defence, it appeared logical to accept the “everlasting” terms – after all, these would surely provide everlasting safety from Persia.

The Delian League began in equality with each state having an the same vote. However, Athens was able to exert political power and influence to remove any real sense of cooperation. All of the League’s naval commanders were Athenian, as were the League’s treasurers. Initially, each state had to provide ships for the defence of the League’s nations, but these were directed by Athens, and many states eventually tired of both the losses and the fighting, and opted instead to send a tribute of money instead.

Finally, any state that attempted to leave the League was punished severely by Athens. League states provided valuable trade routes as well as tributes and ships. With Athens assuming an increasingly imperial role, the notion of protecting the League was replaced by the truth of protecting Athenian interests in the Aegean, under the mask of the former. It is worth noting that Athenian leaders understood that it was of far greater benefit to them to have the provision of ships replaced with a monetary tribute. States with ships had the potential to attempt their own independence, whereas the tribute of money could be administered as Athens saw fit. States that paid money and did not build a navy were simply easier to control. In this sense, the absence of other states’ navies was as valuable to Athens as the strength of its own. When the League treasury was moved from Delos to the newly-constructed Parthenon in 454BC, the imperial nature of the project was laid bare for all to see. The island of Samos was in many ways the location of the last resistance of the League. Unlike other states, Samos continued to provide ships, and following a dispute with Athens, Pericles crushed the resisting forces.

All of which is to focus on the military use of a navy. Of similar importance was the Athenian trading navy. This force was able to establish trade and commerce routes throughout the Aegean (notably at the Hellespont, allowing access to cheap grain from the Black Sea), enabling Athenian traders to become wealthy. The economic strength of Athens allowed its government to develop its military navy and one could not have grown without the other. In tandem with this, Pericles’ establishment of cleruchies was essential in propagating the Athenian form of government and trade. He also unified the system of coinage in League nations to make trade easier – on Athenian terms, of course.

It seems that for as long as Athens sought to assert dominance throughout the coastal and island states of the Aegean, her powers were secure. A strong navy ensured this. When the polis attempted to assert similar control in land battles, her power was quickly challenged. An initial increase of power on the Greek mainland was quickly reversed when the newly acquired states rebelled. Sparta, sensing Athenian strength in the region, assisted the rebelling states and Athens was pushed back. By 445, Athens had to relinquish her gains from the Peloponnese, and in 431, Spartan mistrust of Athens led to a resumption of aggression in the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC).

Throughout the war, the Athenians were able to resist Spartan assaults due to her naval capacity. The port could not be blockaded (Sparta did not have the naval strength) and supplies and trade could be maintained by sea. In retaliation for Spartan attacks, Athens was able to respond by sea. The general Pericles was correct in his belief that to meet the Spartans on their own terms, on land, would be foolish. In 425 and 424BC, Athens used its naval power to capture Spartan settlements in Pylos and Cythera, which prompted a short truce as Sparta regrouped.

The turning point in the war came when Athens attempted to cut supplies and commerce between Sparta and Sicily by invading the latter. The destruction of the Athenian fleet at Syracuse was disastrous, but the telling blow surely came from the loss of 30,000 experienced oarsmen. These had to be replaced by new men or, worse still, by slaves, and the Athenian fleet never regained its strength for this loss. At the same time, Sparta was constructing its own fleet and found an excellent military leader in Lysander. The reversal of naval strength was the tipping point and Lysander oversaw drastic terms of settlement when Athens sued for peace in 404BC. One of the specified terms was the removal of her navy.

It seems that Athenian naval supremacy was indeed a key aspect of Athenian dominance of the Aegean in this period. However, other factors also applied: the weakness of other navies in the region meant Athens benefited from sheer numbers; other states were keen to shelter under Athenian protection following the incursions of Persia; an effective Athenian merchant navy ensured the polis became the dominant economy in the region; a hiatus in land battles with Sparta allowed Athens to concentrate her resources in asserting her dominance; the establishment of cleruchies gave Athens internal control, and also benefitted puppet states with Athenian culture, law and governance. It would be wrong to say that Athenian dominance was “entirely” down to it successful navy, but perhaps it is accurate to suggest that her navy allowed Athens to exploit a sequence of opportunities that fell her way in this century.

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