Sezione tematica

Athènes et la mer


It is first Herodotus and Thucydides who stress the importance of the sea in the history of Athens during the fifth century. Themistocles is the one who is credited for this, as he first realized that by the existence of a large fleet Athens would be able to oppose the ambitions of Xerxes. This explains the emphasis on the victory of Salamis (480) which sealed the fate of the second Persian war and shaped its consequences: the creation of the Delian League and the affirmation of Athenian imperialism. From a political point of view, this gave importance to those who served on the fleet as oarsmen, that is to say the majority of citizens who did not have the means to procure the panoply of the hoplite. The navy became thus one of the foundations of democracy as defined by Pericles. The Peloponnesian war and the two oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 404 put into question this balance. In the fourth century, criticism against democracy and the sea intensified particularly in Plato, Aristotle and in a more nuanced way in Xenophon, who in the Poroi argues that the fleet could now be an instrument of development of commercial trade. Indeed, the collapse of the second Athenian Confederacy did not destroy the fleet, but it was thereafter increasingly used to protect trade and was composed by increasingly fewer citizens who were now assured to participate in the hoplite war, due to a new tax (symmories, trierarchies). This change caused the break between sea control and democracy.

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