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Democracy & Imperialism in Classical Athens - Outline

Full Description of the Module and its Themes:

Athens is celebrated nowadays as the cradle of Western democracy. It was also, for much of the Classical period, an aggressive and imperialistic power. Her fleets of merchant-ships and triremes visited the shores of Russia and Egypt, Phoenicia and Italy, trading peacefully, waging war or making sure client-states produced their tribute on time.

Ancient and modern observers have seen a contradiction here. Contemporaries at the time of the Peloponnesian War thought it inappropriate that a democratic city should rule other Greeks like an autocrat. Most recent accounts, however, see no problem with a democracy being a great power. The empire is seen as an essential part of the Athenian miracle: the world's first democracy, like her beautiful buildings and festivals of drama, was only made possible by the brutal exploitation of other states.

The Athenian democracy and the Athenian empire are, indeed, two sides of the same coin. They both have their origins in the late Archaic period between the ending of the Pisistratid tyranny and the Persian Wars and both eventually succumbed to the rising power of Macedon in the later fourth century. The democracy was always an imperial democracy. The empire was given its distinctive character and its variable fortunes by the democratic system. It is impossible to understand the one without the other.

In this course we will study the parallel evolution of the democracy and the empire from the reforms of Cleisthenes at the end of the Archaic period to the city's demise almost two hundred years later, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, including comparisons with other forms of hegemony and political structure. We will stick closely to ancient sources: the work of politicians like Demosthenes, historians like Thucydides and Plutarch and the authors of the Atthides (Attic histories), theorists and pamphleteers like Plato, Aristotle and the anonymous 'Old Oligarch', as well as poets of the theatre like Aristophanes and the tragedians. We will also make use of the documents and artefacts unearthed by archaeologists: the temples and monuments of the imperial acropolis, the finds of the agora (the civic and commercial centre), the numerous laws, honours and invoices painstakingly inscribed on stone, as well as Athenian coinage minted and dispersed around the Aegean, testifying both to imperial solicitude and democratic accountability.

At all times, this course will seek to put both democracy and empire within their proper ancient social, political, military and religious contexts. To help keep our bearings through these developments the lectures and seminars will follow a basic chronological framework, but there will also be room to study some broader themes of the period, the elaborate workings of the People's Assembly and the law-courts, the position of women, the role of slavery, the nature of religion, ship-building, the ancient economy and theatre.

In the second part of the course, we will also turn to think about how the 'Golden age' of Athenian democracy and imperialism was received in the very different Hellenistic and Roman worlds. What did the Hellenistic monarchies owe, if anything, to Athenian democracy? What, if any, similarity is there between Rome's constitutional Republic and Athenian democracy? What reputation did Athenian democracy have by the end of the Roman world and why did politicians from the time of the English Civil War onwards prefer Sparta as a model to Athens? What has made Athenian democracy and Empire so popular in our modern world? And could we ever re-enact Athenian direct democracy in our world today?