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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - Democracy’s Impact on Warmaking in Ancient Athens and Today

2nd February 2015, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Palace Green, Dr David M Pritchard (University of Queensland)


This paper considers how democracy impacted on warmaking in ancient Greece’s largest and most populous state. Athens developed democracy to a far higher level than any other state before the modern period. It was the leading cultural innovator of its age. Less well known is its military record. Athens transformed war and became one of the ancient world’s greatest powers. The timing of this military revolution is striking: it followed directly the popular uprising of 508 and coincided with the flowering of Athenian culture, which was largely brought about by democracy. This suggests that it was democracy which caused this military success. Ancient writers may have thought as much but the tradition assumptions of ancient historians and political scientists have meant that democracy’s impact on warmaking has not been studied. Democracy impacted on Athenian warmaking in two general but quite different ways. The competition of elite performers in front of non-elite adjudicators created a pro-war culture. This encouraged the Athenians to join the armed forces in ever-increasing numbers and to vote regularly for war. But this was offset by the democracy’s rigorous debating of war. This reduced this militarism’s risks and encouraged military reforms. It also helped to develop the initiative of the city’s generals, hoplites and sailors. Today there is a pressing need to understand better how democracy affects war. The number of democracies is certainly rising in new regions of the world. But these regions are still plagued by wars, territorial disputes and arms races. They continue to experience wars or threats of war. Increasingly these conflicts will involve democracies. Currently there is no satisfactory explanation of the behaviour of democracies in such conflicts. Consequently we will struggle to prevent them or even to predict how they will progress. Political Science has long used democratic Athens as a source of new hypotheses. Thus classical Athens serves as a historical study which is rich in new lines of enquiry into the wars of today’s democracies.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.