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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Democratic War-Making in Ancient Athens


Ancient Athens developed democracy to a higher level than any other state before modern times. It was the leading cultural innovator of the classical age. Classical Athens is rightly revered for these political and cultural achievements. Less well known is this state’s extraordinary record of military success. Athens was directly responsible for transforming Greek wars and for raising their scale tenfold. By the 450s it had emerged as the eastern Mediterranean’s superpower. The first major reason for this emergence was this state’s demographic advantage. With twenty times more citizens than an average Greek state, Athens could field armies and fleets that were much larger than all but a few others. The second major reason was the immense income that Athens got from its empire. This allowed it to employ thousands of non-elite citizens on campaigns and to perfect new corps and combat modes. There is a strong case that democratic government was the third major reason. The military impact of Athenian democracy was twofold. The competition of elite performers before non-elite adjudicators resulted in a pro-war culture. This culture encouraged Athenians in ever-increasing numbers to join the armed forces and to vote for war. All this was offset by Athenian democracy’s rigorous debates about war. This debating reduced the risks of Athenian cultural militarism. It also made military reforms easier and developed the initiative of the state’s generals, hoplites and sailors. Political scientists have long viewed Athenian democracy as a source of fresh ideas. Presently they cannot satisfactorily explain the war-making of modern democracies. Consequently, ancient history can provide political science with new lines of enquiry into how modern democracy impacts on international relations.

Insights Paper

Vol 10 Article 13