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Democracy and Imperialism Discussion Forum 2013-4

Democracy and Imperialism Discussion Forum 2013-4 Discussion of Term 1 Lecture 8: Athens and Empire: Key Questions

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  1. •Was Athens interested in supporting democracy elsewhere? •To what extent do you think the political system and decision-making processes at Athens made war inevitable? •To you think that the democratic system at Athens made the loss of the Peloponnesian war inevitable?
  2. To you think that the democratic system at Athens made the loss of the Peloponnesian war inevitable? The problem with putting the responsibility for the defeat squarely on the Athenian public is that such an argument ignores the nuances and practical considerations of a war. It is true that the Athenian demos made some catastrophic considerations, in this light perhaps we should see the rather bizarre decision to invade Sicily, the execution of the victorious generals after Arginusae and perhaps the banishment of Alcibiades. Yet one must speculate on how successful Athens could have been in the first place. She systematically alienated major supplies of grain; by trying to incite Persian Egypt into revolution earlier and then the failed invasion of Sicily obviously didn’t help. This meant that Athens had to secure imports from elsewhere (esp. considering the Spartans came and destroyed the Athenian harvest every year during this period), and the only place they could turn to was the Greek settlements on the Black Sea. Thucydides records that Pericles himself went to this area to secure trade agreements, and Demosthenes writing later will place a lot of emphasis on the grain connections with the Black Sea. However the Black Sea is problematic, in the sense that it can only be accessed by a narrow channel which could be easily blockaded. The founding of Amphipolis was probably an attempt to safeguard this route, although it ultimately failed to do so after the Spartans won at Aegospotamai and that would force Athens – under the threat of starvation, to surrender. The fact Athens had to rely on imports from this region was in essence part of a larger problem; how to feed Athens, and this was not a problem which could be put down to an irrational voting populace. The other issue is that Athens obviously chose to develop naval power, which is great for sustaining an empire in the Aegean. However Sparta was situated in a self-sustained part of Laconia with very little need for sea-imports, so even if Athens managed to blockade the Peloponnese (which was in fact impossible) they would never have brought Sparta to heel. The war itself was unwinnable because Athens was trying to fight the enemy with the wrong tools.
  3. •To what extent do you think the political system and decision-making processes at Athens made war inevitable? To answer this, it really depends at what point we can consider that war was inevitable in the first place. For example, it could be argued that due to the expansive nature of all Empires, there was always going to be conflict, and the Empire was made possible by the success over the Persians. Whether or not it was in the interest of the demos to expand or to satisfy the interest of the individuals is debatable, but Athens' decision making, particularly when considering the treatment of allies within the Delian League, certainly seems to have been a major factor in the outbreak of the Peloponessian War. Perhaps if more respect had been given, and a level of equality shared, it would have been preventable. It is easy to see why Athens acted how it did, human nature alone shows us that the strong rule the weak, and Athens at this time was certainly strong, but this in itself would tend to lead to war. •Do you think that the democratic system at Athens made the loss of the Peloponnesian war inevitable? In terms of military strategy, the demos had no say; the role of War Archon was designated to someone who was qualified, unlike the boule, which could be designated to any Athenian citizen. However, military tactics in battle does not seem to be what lost Athens the war; more so the tactical decisions which were available to the demos. In particular, the cases of Sicily, Alcibiades, and the execution of the generals all were decisions that seem to have been made without full consideration of the possible ramifications; had rational thought been put into these decisions, perhaps the result may have been different. Although it's pure speculation, it's difficult not to feel as though had Athens' democratic system been replaced with an oligarchic or aristocratic, then these decisions may have been handled far better.
  4. •To you think that the democratic system at Athens made the loss of the Peloponnesian war inevitable? The democratic system was indeed a factor in Athen's defeat in that it hindered and delayed decision making. Not only did the sheer number of people voting add time to the procedure, but often the decision would change from one minute to the next, or simply be a bad course of action. A prime example is the events after the battle of Arginusae, when the generals returned without their dead, forced to leave them behind because of a storm. Rather than recognizing the futility of their situation, Athens voted to execute them all, thereby depriving themselves of their best strategos. It is understandable that the generals were guilty for religious crimes, since it was sacrilege in Athens not to return wardead (indeed, the only time this was accepted was at the battle of Marathon) and therefore the general sentiment towards the generals would not have been positive. This does not mean the decision was clever, since Athens went on to lose most of the following battles, leading to their eventual defeat. On the other hand, it was not entirely the fault of the democratic system. While it is true that it hindered their success, it was not enough to produce defeat; this came about for other reasons, including fighting a war against a land power when Athen's strength was at sea. So while democracy was a problem, it did not make loss inevitable, but was instead one of many factors that caused Athens to losr the war.
  5. 3. Was Athens interested in supporting democracy? I think the term 'interested' is perhaps a misleading one. This is because it appears as though Athens was ultimately interested in increasing the power and control of her Empire, this can be seen through the way in which members of the Empire were intially forced to pay tribute/provide ships and with the imposition of later degrees such as the Standards Decree. The Chalcis Decree which made members of the empire swear not to rebel implies that if anything, it could be stated that Athens had 'interests' in supporting democracy, because by supporting democracy their goal of power and control appeared to become easier. An example of this can be seen in the rebellion of Samos of 440/39, because after the rebellion was put down by Athens, democracy was imposed. This strongly suggests that it was thought by the Athenians that if a city-state was democractic in nature they would have more sympathy towards their control by Athens, because as Hunt argues, states with oligarchies would have been more likely to support that Athenian enemy, Sparta. Although it should also be noted that Athens did not appear to go out of her way to impose or support democracies unless they had ulterior motives, so it cannot be said that Athens was 'interested' in supporting democracy (as interested implies that it had a strong impact on policy making), only that it had 'interests' in doing so.
  6. 1. Athenian support for other democracies seems orderly as, as far as I have seen, they would approve of and ally other democracies which came about, as noted in Thucydides. However, its allocation of democracy to rebelling states seems a much less steady judgment. It is likely that Athens was more interested in keeping its own interests safe, than in spreading what they believed was a superior political system, not necessarily because they thought others might rival theirs - which is unlikely, as they did actively institute democracies in other states - but simply because it may have been less time-consuming or just easier to sort out difficult states differently. 2. I believe this is a problematic question - as Bradley points out, to assume any particular cause made war inevitable means ignoring the intricate processes involved in the build-up to a war. External factors such as Sparta's lack of diplomacy, which would have set any political system in a place of friction with them, and perhaps the existence of states who backed Athens up when there were challengers to the Delian League, which may have strengthened their belief in their own supremacy and importance, regardless of what the political system was, would also have a strong effect. However, it can be argued that group rule inevitably amounts to war-mongering, or at least being more aggressive towards external beings as the effects of deindividuation could take place, leading to more extreme decision-making as a reduced sense of negative estimation of actions occurs, perhaps evidenced in the first outcome of the Mytilenian Debate and their subsequent regret. However I do not believe Athens was a "mob rule" such as this; their assemblies were very regulated and potential decisions were likely to have been thought out very carefully during the Boule before being taken to the Assembly (although there are 500 people in the Boule which is still a very large group.) Not only this but there is evidence in for example, the Mytilenian Debate that Athens was not ruled my mob thought - it is clear that, after the first outcome, there was a real thought process and not just mindless aggression. Therefore, I do not believe the political system nor its decision-making processes made war inevitable.
  7. *To what extent do you think the political system and decision-making processes at Athens made war inevitable?* I don’t think the regulated political system in Athens would have made war ‘inevitable’. The boule would have had to propose going to war which would have then been voted on and then clearly could go either way. However, the people may have been worse judges of whether or not to go to war. Had there been an oligarchy with just a few generals in charge, they would have known more about the intricacies of war and the negative impact this could bring, therefore possibly coming up with a more diplomatic way of dealing with the problem. With a democracy, the people may have been incited by a ‘mob rule’ and just gone along with the crowd, leading to disastrous consequences. However, it is also possible that the people would have been less likely to vote for war due to concern for their families; although there is always an impression of overwhelming honour given in different sources e.g. Pericles’ Funeral Oration, it is impossible to know what the extremely poor citizens of Athens would really have felt about this. Overall, I think that the political system definitely did not make war ‘inevitable’ – it may have made it slightly more likely, but definitely not inevitable.
  8. 1. To what extent do you think the political system and decision-making processes at Athens made war inevitable? In my opinion, I think that the fact the democracy flourished in Athens so well caused the Athenians to become slightly power hungry and make decisions that one can argue were not democratic such as using the facade of the Delian League to cover their empire building. Athens also became too caught up in rivaling Sparta. However, I don’t think that there was a set series of events that allowed for war to be inevitable but more that Athens had poor judgment and made bad decisions that meant they did not act carefully and so these early issues acted as a catalyst for war.
  9. Was Athens interested in supporting democracy elsewhere? Through the example of Athens subduing Mytilene in order to protect another democracy (Methymna) we can assume that Athens felt some sense of responsibility towards other democracies. It could be said that a city which shares the same governmental system and therefore many of the same values would probably have been a natural ally for Athens. We can see this in other instances such as the Cold war when the democratic countries e.g. US, Britain and France formed an alliance against the communist countries which included Russia and China. Therefore it appears that countries with similar governmental systems seem to naturally band together.
  10. Was Athens interested in supporting democracy elsewhere? Athens was interested in control of her empire. Athens in order to function as a democratic system and as a city state needed the benefits that the empire gave it. As such measures of control were introduced such as the Chalcis Decree. City states that were democratic were easier for Athens to maintain a power over as they were more ideologicaly inclined to ally with their fellow democratic states such as Athens over the oligarchies like Sparta. Therefore I would say Athens was not interested in supporting democracy for democracy's sake, but rather as a measure to ensure the support of city states during the Peloponnesian War and to reap the benefits that the empire brought them. This is shown most clearly at the rebellion in Samos where Athens instated democracy after putting down the rebellion, thus creating a like-mindedness between the two cities.
  11. *Was Athens interested in supporting democracy elsewhere?* * * Athens was very interested in establishing and supporting democracy elsewhere primarily because imposing democracy reduced the risk of more revolts against their leadership. Athens wanted to be dominant and to maintain their position as absolute leaders of the Empire, thus they were willing to introduce democracy and support democracy in places within the Empire in order to consolidate their own power. However they were inconsistent in their support and did not support democracy everywhere; the support they did give was not absolute . The most likely explanation is that any place that was viewed as a potential threat, either in rebelling against Athens or joining Sparta in an alliance, would have democracy imposed so as to reduce the threat. Allies of Sparta had oligarchies which meant that powerful intelligent individuals were in power and could easily pose as a threat towards Athens. Thus Athens wanted to put the general populace in power. Therefore with the power taken away from the rich, wealthy educated people who would be most likely to plan a break from the empire or an alliance with Sparta, Athens knew that that by imposing democracy the chance of any danger towards them was not a threat as the power was held by the common people.
  12. 1. Yes but not for the sake of democracy or any objective of spreading an ideology. I think the spread of democracy was at an institutional level promoted more f it was in Athens’ interest. 2. Individuals such as those termed demagogues were able to sway the assembly and push for policies which reflected their own personal interests. 3. I am not sure about this – I think their loss would be more to do with the overreaching of the individuals within the system rather than the democratic model itself.
  13. I do think Athens politics were very heavily to blame for the loss of the Peloponnesian War, simply because I think everything went a bit crazy. The Athenian people - illegally - executed the strategoi, an one could argue that perhaps they had a little too much power and perhaps they panicked at the time.

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