Section 2

The Athenian Military

by Xenophon Icon

As to the heavy infantry, an arm the deficiency of which at Athens is well recognised.

They recognise the fact that, in reference to the hostile power, they are themselves inferior, and must be, even if their heavy infantry were more numerous.

(1) But relatively to the allies, who bring in the tribute, their strength even on land is enormous. And they are persuaded that their heavy infantry is sufficient for all purposes, provided they retain this superiority.

(2) Apart from all else, to a certain extent fortune must be held responsible for the actual condition. The subjects of a power which is dominant by land have it open to them to form contingents from several small states and to muster in force for battle.

But with the subjects of a naval power it is different. As far as they are groups of islanders it is impossible for their states to meet together for united action, for the sea lies between them, and the dominant power is master of the sea. And even if it were possible for them to assemble in some single island unobserved, they would only do so to perish by famine.

And as to the states subject to Athens which are not islanders, but situated on the continent, the larger are held in check by need (3) and the small ones absolutely by fear, since there is no state in existence which does not depend upon imports and exports, and these she will forfeit if she does not lend a willing ear to those who are masters by sea.

In the next place, a power dominant by sea can do certain things which a land power is debarred from doing; as for instance, ravage the territory of a superior, since it is always possible to coast along to some point, where either there is no hostile force to deal with or merely a small body; and in case of an advance in force on the part of the enemy they can take to their ships and sail away. Such a performance is attended with less difficulty than that experienced by the relieving force on land. (4) Again, it is open to a power so dominating by sea to leave its own territory and sail off on as long a voyage as you please.

Whereas the land power cannot place more than a few days’ journey between itself and its own territory, for marches are slow affairs; and it is not possible for an army on the march to have food supplies to last for any great length of time. Such an army must either march through friendly territory or it must force a way by victory in battle. The voyager meanwhile has it in his power to disembark at any point where he finds himself in superior force, or, at the worst, to coast by until he reaches either a friendly district or an enemy too weak to resist. Again, those diseases to which the fruits of the earth are liable as visitations from heaven fall severely on a land power, but are scarcely felt by the navel power, for such sicknesses do not visit the whole earth everywhere at once.

So that the ruler of the sea can get in supplies from a thriving district. And if one may descend to more trifling particulars, it is to this same lordship of the sea that the Athenians owe the discovery, in the first place, of many of the luxuries of life through intercourse with other countries. So that the choice things of Sicily and Italy, of Cyprus and Egypt and Lydia, of Pontus or Peloponnese, or wheresoever else it be, are all swept, as it were, into one centre, and all owing, as I say, to their maritime empire. And again, in process of listening to every form of speech, (5) they have selected this from one place and that from another—for themselves. So much so that while the rest of the Hellenes employ (6) each pretty much their own peculiar mode of speech, habit of life, and style of dress, the Athenians have adopted a composite type, (7) to which all sections of Hellas, and the foreigner alike, have contributed.

As regards sacrifices and temples and festivals and sacred enclosures, the People sees that it is not possible for every poor citizen to do sacrifice and hold festival, or to set up (8) temples and to inhabit a large and beautiful city. But it has hit upon a means of meeting the difficulty.

They sacrifice—that is, the whole state sacrifices—at the public cost a large number of victims; but it is the People that keeps holiday and distributes the victims by lot amongst its members. Rich men have in some cases private gymnasia and baths with dressing-rooms, (9) but the People takes care to have built at the public cost (10) a number of palaestras, dressing-rooms, and bathing establishments for its own special use, and the mob gets the benefit of the majority of these, rather than the select few or the well-to-do.

As to wealth, the Athenians are exceptionally placed with regard to Hellenic and foreign communities alike, (11) in their ability to hold it.

For, given that some state or other is rich in timber for shipbuilding, where is it to find a market (12) for the product except by persuading the ruler of the sea? Or, suppose the wealth of some state or other to consist of iron, or may be of bronze, (13) or of linen yarn, where will it find a market except by permission of the supreme maritime power? Yet these are the very things, you see, which I need for my ships.

Timber I must have from one, and from another iron, from a third bronze, from a fourth linen yarn, from a fifth wax, etc. Besides which they will not suffer their antagonists in those parts (14) to carry these products elsewhither, or they will cease to use the sea. Accordingly I, without one stroke of labour, extract from the land and possess all these good things, thanks to my supremacy on the sea; whilst not a single other state possesses the two of them. Not timber, for instance, and yarn together, the same city. But where yarn is abundant, the soil will be light and devoid of timber. And in the same way bronze and iron will not be products of the same city.

And so for the rest, never two, or at best three, in one state, but one thing here and another thing there. Moreover, above and beyond what has been said, the coast-line of every mainland presents, either some jutting promontory, or adjacent island, or narrow strait of some sort, so that those who are masters of the sea can come to moorings at one of these points and wreak vengeance (15) on the inhabitants of the mainland.

There is just one thing which the Athenians lack. Supposing that they were the inhabitants of an island, (16) and were still, as now, rulers of the sea, they would have had it in their power to work whatever mischief they liked, and to suffer no evil in return (as long as they kept command of the sea), neither the ravaging of their territory nor the expectation of an enemy’s approach.

Whereas at present the farming portion of the community and the wealthy landowners are ready (17) to cringe before the enemy overmuch, whilst the People, knowing full well that, come what may, not one stock or stone of their property will suffer, nothing will be cut down, nothing burnt, lives in freedom from alarm, without fawning at the enemy’s approach.

Besides this, there is another fear from which they would have been exempt in an island home—the apprehension of the city being at any time betrayed by their oligarchs (18) and the gates thrown open, and an enemy bursting suddenly in. How could incidents like these have taken place if an island had been their home?

Again, had they inhabited an island there would have been no stirring of sedition against the people; whereas at present, in the event of faction, those who set it in foot base their hopes of success on the introduction of an enemy by land. But a people inhabiting an island would be free from all anxiety on that score.

Since, however, they did not chance to inhabit an island from the first, what they now do is this—they deposit their property in the islands, (19) trusting to their command of the sea, and they suffer the soil of Aticca to be ravaged without a sigh. To expend pity on that, they know, would be to deprive themselves of other blessings still more precious. (20)

Further, states oligarchically governed are forced to ratify their alliances and solemn oaths, and if they fail to abide by their contracts, the offence, by whomsoever committed, (21) lies nominally at the door of the oligarchs who entered upon the contract. But in the case of engagements entered into by a democracy it is open to the People to throw the blame on the single individual who spoke in favour of some measure, or put it to the vote, and to maintain to the rest of the world, “I was not present, nor do I approve of the terms of the agreement.”

Inquiries are made in a full meeting of the People, and should any of these things be disapproved of, it can at once discover ten thousand excuses to avoid doing whatever they do not wish. And if any mischief should spring out of any resolutions which the People has passed in council, the People can readily shift the blame from its own shoulders. “A handful of oligarchs (22) acting against the interests of the People have ruined us.” But if any good result ensue, they, the People, at once take the credit of that to themselves.

In the same spirit it is not allowed to caricature on the comic stage (23) or otherwise libel the People, because (24) they do not care to hear themselves ill spoken of. But if any one has a desire to satirise his neighbour he has full leave to do so. And this because they are well aware that, as a general rule, this person caricatured (25) does not belong to the People, or the masses.

He is more likely to be some wealthy or well-born person, or man of means and influence. In fact, but few poor people and of the popular stamp incur the comic lash, or if they do they have brought it on themselves by excessive love of meddling or some covetous self-seeking at the expense of the People, so that no particular annoyance is felt at seeing such folk satirised.

What, then, I venture to assert is, that the People of Athens has no difficulty in recognising which of its citizens are of the better sort and which the opposite. (26)

And so recognising those who are serviceable and advantageous (27) to itself, even though they be base, the People loves them; but the good folk they are disposed rather to hate. This virtue of theirs, the People holds, is not engrained in their nature for any good to itself, but rather for its injury. In direct opposition to this, there are some persons who, being (28) born of the People, are yet by natural instinct not commoners.

For my part I pardon the People its own democracy, as, indeed, it is pardonable in any one to do good to himself. (29) But the man who, not being himself one of the People, prefers to live in a state democratically governed rather than in an oligarchical state may be said to smooth his own path towards iniquity. He knows that a bad man has a better chance of slipping through the fingers of justice in a democratic than in an oligarchical state.


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