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Money and Power

Lessons from the 5th Century B.C.

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

To the first empire of the west, money mattered. It fueled the growth of a navy that gave Athens power over much of the Aegean in the fifth century b.c., but misjudgments about its proper use also contributed to the Athenian Empire's end.

Those are among the lessons that Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, is trying to convey in his History of the Peloponnesian War, says Lisa Kallet, a classicist at the University of Texas at Austin. "In writing, 'war is not a matter of men but of expense, which makes men useful,' Thucydides became the first historian to articulate political power in terms of money," says Kallet. "He sees the relationship between the wealth of a state and its power."

Kallet, who is writing a book that deals with Thucydides' treatment of money, says scholars have tended to neglect this aspect of the historian's work. The reason may be that the concept of "power costing money is banal to the modern world, but it was a novel idea in the fifth century b.c."

When Thucydides was writing, money, in all its newness, was already causing moral consternation among Greek thinkers. It had only been around in Greece since the middle of the sixth century b.c. The Athenian economy, in fact, wasn't fully monetized until the fifth century following the exploitation of local silver mines which made it made it possible to produce coins in significant numbers. At the same time, there was an influx of coined money into Athens in the form of tribute from the city's allies, one result of the Persian Wars. In 490, the Athenians managed to defeat the mighty Persian army on the Plains of Marathon. "The victory made the other Greek states take notice," says Kallet. When the Persians returned in 480, Sparta, Greece's great military power, led the Hellenic League against the invaders. Athens was given command of the navy, which was largely made up of Athenian ships built with revenues from silver mines in Laurium. The Athenian victory over the Persian navy in the Strait of Salamis gave Athens leverage with the other city states.

In the future, sea power would be necessary to keep the Persians at bay. In exchange for tribute, Athens would offer protection to its allies. Thus, the Delian League was born to maintain Greek freedom and retaliate against the Persians when necessary.

"The Athenians saw nothing wrong with collecting tribute," Kallet says. "Honor and self-interest justified holding onto empire. Their attitude was 'we deserve our empire because we fought in the Persian War and at Salamis.'"

Thucydides sees the origins of the Delian League cynically from the start. To him the Athenians had an ulterior motive for assessing tribute: They built it up for their own use. The allies, no less craven, thought they would get material gain from Persia.

Until the fifth century, the city-states had not needed to use their wealth to wage war. Soldiers paid for their own weapons and armor, traditionally battles had been fought on land, and fights were of short duration. For the Spartans, power was based on land and resided in numbers of men.

Following the Persian War, naval power created the need for large amounts of money because ships had to be built and rowers had to be paid. "It's a fascinating period of transition where money's importance in war grows," says Kallet.

But the tribute that came in was more than Athens needed to protect itself and its allies. Some of the tribute was used in the building of huge monuments like the Parthenon. Centuries later, Plutarch would claim that enemies of Pericles said the city was "decked out like a prostitute," says Kallet.

Pericles's spending on the city made sense in the context of prevailing Greek views. For the Greeks, accumulation of wealth beyond the needs of the household is acceptable only if the excess is spent for the good of the polis. Spending for the good of the state might mean spending to equip warships, paying for a chorus, or building a temple, says Kallet.

In Thucydides' view, if the treasury was spent to maintain the Athenian naval preeminence and the city's security, there was no moral peril. But he challenges the prevailing view that it was acceptable for the city to pay for ostentatious buildings. He saw them as false symbols of power, says Kallet.

Thucydides points out that if Sparta, which had no magnificent temples or monuments, were to be become deserted, "I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it was."

"Thucydides is revolutionary in his attitude that display of wealth and spending are not true expressions of power," says Kallet.

Sparta watched warily as Athenian power grew in the latter part of the fifth century. Finally, the Peloponnesian War broke out between the two in 431 when Sparta accused Athens of aggression in an incident that involved a relatively minor spat between their respective allies.

Thucydides saw through the rhetoric of each side and declared: "I believe that the real cause of the war, but the one least articulated openly, is that the growth of Athenian power and the fear that it provoked in the Spartans, compelled the war to happen."

Thucydides is pessimistic about human nature and has little praise for most of the players in his History. "He doesn't use the word 'intelligence' often," says Kallet. "But his heroes have strong intellect."

Two of the people he admires are Themistocles, who displays forethought in devoting resources to the development of the Athenian navy before the Persian War, and Pericles, the statesman most responsible for the city's rise to empire. (Thucydides gives Pericles high marks in spite of his building program.)

For Thucydides, Pericles is the ideal leader because he knows how to combine the city's financial surplus, or intelligent judgment, says Kallet, who argues that the discussion of these two ideas are the most consistent themes in the History. Pericles is unwilling to overextend the empire. He focuses on the continued flow of revenue into Athens and he knows how to use wealth for the polis.

After Pericles dies of plague two years into the twenty-seven-year war, new leaders arise who lack his abilities, and there is an unraveling of Athenian power through private and polis greed.

In her upcoming book, Kallet argues that Thucydides puts a continued focus on Athens' superb financial health throughout the History only to better demonstrate that the city's eventual defeat was the result of poor judgment and emotional decision-making. He drives the latter point home in his description of the Sicilian expedition and its aftermath.

In 415, during a break in fighting the Peloponnesians, the Athenians set off to conquer Syracuse on the island of Sicily. "The fleet was in a high state of efficiency and had cost a lot of money to both captains and the State. Every sailor received a drachma a day from the Treasury.....what made this expedition so famous was not only its astonishing daring and the brilliant show that it made, but also its great preponderance of strength over those against whom it set out," wrote Thucydides.

Apparently, no expense was spared. But Thucydides questions the Athenians' judgment and the motives of their leaders. He points out that they "were for the most part ignorant of the size of the island and of the numbers of its inhabitants.....and they did not realize that they were taking on a war of almost the same magnitude as their war against the Peloponnesians."

Thucydides shows his lack of confidence in Alcibiades, an ambitious Athenian commander with a penchant for horse breeding and other extravagances that "went beyond what his fortune could supply," and Nikias, a commander who initially appears sensible and knowledgeable about war financing.

Alcibiades proves treacherous and changes sides when he stands to gain personally from it; Nikias makes mistake after mistake when evaluating how to use his military resources. His refusal to evacuate in 413 in the face of insurmountable odds led to his death and that of most of the Athenian forces. Of the Athenians, Thucydides said "their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything as destroyed, and out of many, only few returned."

The Peloponnesian War dragged on until 404 when Sparta won with financial help from Persia.

Kallet says Thucydides' recognition that money was important in the making of the Athenian Empire is part of his genius. But he is not the least bit dispassionate in looking at public finance.

"In approaching Thucydides, one has to understand that ancient history was a branch of literature. He had several agendas: one was to show the importance of money; but his larger agenda was to show how human nature works."

About the Author

Funding Information

Lisa Kallet researched Thucydides on an NEH fellowship in 1998.

Her book, Money and the Corrosion of Power in Thucydides: The Sicilian Expedition and its Aftermath, will be published by the University of California Press in 2001.