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Moral and Practical Analysis of Athens’ Military Empire
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Moral and Practical Analysis of
Athens’ Military Empire

Michael Fortunato

Thomas Hobbes once observed, "If there is no power erected, or not great enough for our security, every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength for caution against all other men" (99). His intention was to impress upon his readers the rationale for the enlargement of a dominion for their own security. Hobbes believed it was in the nature of man to seek dominion over others and therefore there must be some restraint put upon him. He considered this to be a universal law, true in all times and places and so it would have been no surprise to Hobbes to find this condition in fifth century Greece. A discussion of the reasons, therefore, that led to the creation of the Athenian empire at that time, and which made it practical and necessary can begin here.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica imperialism results in varying degrees from a complex of causes which include economic pressures, human aggressiveness and greed, the search for security and drive for power among others. (273).

In the remotest antiquity, Greece was loosely populated and politically fragmented and unstable. The development of a stable settlement or community was highly tenuous because there was too much fear of being overrun to promote any unity among the settlements. As a natural consequence, wealth was very difficult to accumulate.

The most famous early forerunner of Athenian imperialism was the legendary Minos of Crete. He used his navy to rule the islands and wipe out piracy. This made sea travel more safe and encouraged people living on the coast to build communities. Safer seas also created more trade and made it possible to acquire capital wealth. The security of naval power caused the development of more permanent settlements (Connor 24).

The truth is that imperialism brought benefits, not only for the imperialists but even for the subjects. What made it all possible was naval power. As Thucydides observed about his own fifth century B.C. era, "The ones who acquired naval strength were not least those who applied themselves to naval power, thanks to the income in money and the domination of others" (353). Here, Thucydides observes the right of the stronger to rule.

The absence of an aggressive imperialist empire in the eastern Mediterranean allowed the Greek city-states to flourish. The city-states that had become richer threw up walls around their towns. For their own gain and protection, the weaker cities let themselves become ruled by the more powerful ones, while the more powerful cities used their wealth and power to subjugate others. This was the accepted practice of the time both by the ruler and the ruled. The fortifications of the city-states made it possible for the Greeks to combine and offer serious resistance to the threat posed by the Persians.

The Persian Wars, however, made clear the need for an organization more solid than the Peloponnesian League. The inability of Sparta to extend her power and protect the Aegean after the Persian wars resulted in the formation of the Delian League, which evolved into the Athenian Empire. It was the weakness of Sparta and the fear of Persia that caused Athens to strengthen her empire. This resulted in Sparta developing a growing fear of Athens' might. There were now two factions of power in the Greek coalition, Sparta and the Peloponnesian League, and Athens and the Delian League. Power and fear created these empires and the fear of each other is what eventually brought them to fight each other (Kagan 31).

Let’s now examine the benefits that came from an empire beginning with economic increases. Security from outside oppressions often results in stability and economic gain. In the case of Athens, trade by sea was a great advantage. Not only was there trade between the Greek Islands but also from other lands. Athens having a large navy could transport goods to other Aegean cities and profit from the enterprise. This ability, in fact, foreshadowed that of England, who became wealthy through similar naval supremacy.

In classical Greece, however, the increase in trade brought greater wealth, which gave rise to fortified cities. The security that the city offered resulted in an increase in population. This created the need to build more housing creating jobs for its citizens. Economic stability invariably motivates a city to improve and increase its resources.

Colonization, a word which today has only very negative connotations, had a far different and usually very positive meaning in the ancient world. It was an effective way to remove the burden of overpopulation and depletion of resources. Colonization also enlarged the size of the empire and generated wealth in the form of tribute, as was the case of Syracuse and Agrigentum in Sicily as well as Ephesus and Miletus in Lesser Asia. These were colonies of larger cities who seemed to have rivaled and even surpassed their mother cities.

The progress of many of the ancient Greek colonies towards wealth and greatness seems accordingly to have been very rapid (Smith 273). The idea of mercantilism was well received in Greek philosophy. Hesiod observed that, "Work was a shame to none." Unlike the aristocratic ethos of subsequent centuries, the ancient Greeks did not look down upon trade or merchants who were appreciated for bringing home the good things the nations enjoyed (Plutarch 65).

Economic power made it possible for Athens to increase the size of its navy, subjugate weaker states by controlling trade, and in time of war hire mercenaries.

It cannot be said, of course, that imperialism was a totally benevolent thing. It seems to be only human nature that people who get more and more power find it easier and easier to disregard the rights of others and the Athenians were no exceptions. The policies of the imperial state are almost always self-serving, and any act or grievance brought before the state will be acted upon in the interest of the state.

The numerous atrocities committed in the Peloponnesian War are good examples of this. When the Athenians made war against the island of Melos, they sent ambassadors to negotiate. It was the intent of the Athenians to convince the Melians to rebel against Sparta and abandon their neutrality. Athens used the argument that Melos could not withstand the power of the Athenian force and should submit to them. The refusal of Melos to submit to Athens was based on their hope that Sparta would come to their aid. Unfavorable conditions resulted in the unwillingness of Sparta to aid Melos. Athens then killed all the male population and enslaved the women and children forcingMelos into submission. This was done to serve as a lesson to any other rebellious states (Thucydides 91).

Injustices like these typically are neither regretted or repudiated by military empires and have in fact been employed often. Moral accusations of behaving without virtue are usually disregarded when the immoral behavior serves the interests of state. Machiavelli has observed, "if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something that looks like virtue, if followed will be his ruin; Whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity" (22). It is in strength not weakness that an empire survives, for weakness breeds rebellions and weakens an empire.

Nevertheless, despite the serious negative aspects a military empire has, there is much to be said for the positive results it brings. The imperial state brings security and the accumulation of wealth, but there are other advantages. Imperialism brings peace to the empire. The people, enjoying a sense of security, can turn to a vocation profitable to themselves and their society.

The artisan class typically flourishes and gives rise to a diversified and prosperous working class. The greater production of goods then adds to the increase and power of the merchant class. This in turn creates greater wealth for the state and its people. The state then can use its resources to improve the culture of the people. There is great evidence of this in Athens during the time of Pericles. Pericles more than any other democratic leader made Athens a great city. During his rule public funds were used to build great architectural structures. Examples of these are the Parthenon and the Erechtheum. Pericles initiated the development of the agora, which displayed imports from all over the world. Athens, being the imperial power, tried court cases from all over the Aegean. The culture of the city was magnificent. Great tragedies and comedies were produced in the theater of Dionysus. The city with its democratic constitution and brilliant way of life became the "school of Hellas" (Encarta 97).

Pericles praised the greatness of Athens in his funeral oration. Pericles observes,"we have provided many ways to give our minds recreation from labor, the greatness of our city has caused all things from all parts of the earth to be imported here, so that we enjoy the products of other nations as we do our own" (Thucydides 41). The nature of imperialism made Athens the power in the Aegean as it did Sparta in the Peloponnese.

As for the moral aspects of imperialism, it is often the subject of debate. Plato has observed, "Every man surely likes his own laws best, and the laws of others not so well" (665). This is certainly proven to be true in the ancient and the modern world. The ruling state always considers its policies and way of life the correct one. Actually, imperial empires often present themselves as liberators. It was these ideas that were the core of the arguments used by Athens and Sparta to justify their acts of war. It was in his speech to the Acanthians that the Spartan Brasidas claimed that the arrival of his army was to liberate the Acanthians from the tyranny of Athens. The Acanthians were than forced into an alliance with Sparta.

In his funeral oration Pericles told his Athenian audience that the might and majesty of Athens was so great that it would live forever that her conquered subjects had enriched their lives as a result (Thucydides 43). If Athens’ policy of empire is judged on a moral basis there can be many things found immoral in it. If these acts are judged on a practical level, however, then the necessity of the situation justifies it.

It must always be remembered that on the highest-level war is always immoral because it involves killing fellow human beings. Moreover, many situations that always come up in war lead to immoral deeds. The destruction of Melos and its people was a result of their refusal to submit to Athens. The decision of Athens to slaughter the male population was certainly not moral. It was however, necessary to serve as a lesson to other rebellious states and may have even saved more lives than it cost by preventing even bloodier uprisings and reprisals. (Thucydides 109).

The truth is these have been the practices of empires since their earliest creation. There always have been debates over the right and wrong of empire since the strong feel in the right and the weak feel they have been wronged.

The strongest are never really strong enough to always be the master unless they transform strength into right, and obedience into duty. Since force is a physical power, the moral effects are questionable. To yield to force is act of necessity, not of choice; therefore, in what sense can it be a duty? If force creates right, then every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it becomes possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience becomes legitimate. The strongest will always be “in the right”; the only thing that matters then is to take action to remain always the strongest.

In reality, the necessity of a situation often overrules any moral rules. Cicero observes, "In the midst of arms the laws are silent" (Plutarch 714). This reality can be observed in the acts committed by both Athens and Sparta. The old conventional ways of behaving were mostly disregarded. Skillful oration justified immorality. Both Sparta and Athens believed that they had the right to use offensive and defensive measures of almost any kind because they saw themselves as states forced into war and were compelled to seek the advantage.

Viewed as a state of nature, the right of nations to go to war is the legitimate way to protect their own power when they see themselves threatened by active preparation of hostile intentions. In such cases the right of preemptive strikes is claimed by both sides. This was the reason Sparta attacked Athens.

In the final analysis, perhaps, imperialism must be judged according to conditions of the time. To judge past empires by our own maxims would not be fair. Some empires brought economic gain for themselves and their dependent states. Any moral evaluation of colonialism must be sensitive to changing historical circumstances.

The effects of colonization can best be described as mixed both for the colonizers and the colonized. Clearly the empire brought many benefits such as emigration, opportunities, better trade and profits, and strategic resources. At the same time colonization was very costly, colonizers were required to provide for colonial administration and defense. There is no doubt that colonization had harmful effects on the peoples of colonized areas. Lives and cultures were disrupted, destroyed, subjugated or exterminated.

Military subjugation to gain land or to balance power was thought to be practical and just to any head of state. The strong dictated the rights to the weak and so it remained until the power was usurped. History has innumerable examples to show that it is the nature of any superior state to seek dominion over weaker ones to secure their security and possessions.

Today, fortunately, technology has made it possible to abandon military conquest because economic superiority creates a country’s might. With the development of atomic weapons the fear of their usage has forced man to fight economic not military battles. The ruthlessness of economic competition has bought the same questions to mind however. Are our economic methods moral? The stronger economic country can control the market price forcing weaker nations to submit to them. Economic imperialism often has no more morals than military imperialism of the past.

There has always been a cause or need for an empire whether in ancient times or now. It is necessary for the development of mankind. Many empires brought a higher level of technology and culture to the people they conquered.

An interesting similarity can be seen in the motives of ancient empires and modern ones. It was the claim of Sparta that they were the "liberators of Greece" and it was Athens claim to be the "protectors of democracy." In modern times is the United States who has the desire to "protect the free world" and the former Soviet Union to "liberate the peoples of Eastern Europe".

As to whether it is ultimately moral or necessary to establish an empire, as long as human groups are determined to dominate each other there is a need for protective coalition. The morality of it can only be judged when the need for it is removed.

Works Cited

  • "Imperialism." Encyclopedia Britannica. 1994 Ed. Connor, Robert. Thucydides. New Jersey. Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Mastanduno, Michael. "Colonies and Colonialism." Microsoft Encarta, 1997
  • Hobbes, Thomas. "Of Commonwealth." Leviathan. Ed. Nelle Fuller. New York: Everyman's Library, 1973.
  • Kagan, Donald. The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. New York
    Cornell, 1994.
  • Kant, Immanuel. The Science of Right. Trans. W. Hastle. New York: Longmans Green & Co, 1952.
  • Locke, John. Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government. Ed. Charles Sherman. Appleton-Century Company, Inc. 1937.
  • Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Trans. William Marriott. New York: Everyman's Library I , 1963.
  • Plato. Laws. t-ans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford University Press. 1952
  • Plutarch. "Solon." Plutarch's Lives. The Dryden Translation. New York: Everyman's Library, 1982.
  • Smith Adam. The Wealth of Nations. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1952.
  • Woodruff, Paul. Thucydides On Justice, Power And Human Nature. Indiana: Hackett 1993.

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