Abstract – Looking to One Another: Common Knowledge and ‘Alignment’ in the Navy of Democratic Athens

“Whenever you have formed some desire, but have then looked to one another, each refusing to do anything himself but expecting his neighbor to act, you have never yet accomplished anything.” Demosthenes, uttering these words to the Athenian assembly in a speech on naval finance (14.15), identifies a core challenge to the operation of Athens’ fleet: the problem of coordinated action within a democratic setting. In examining this problem, I apply the concept of “alignment” from Josiah Ober’s recent work, Democracy and Knowledge. Ober defines alignment as a process “enabling people who prefer similar outcomes to coordinate their actions by reference to shared values and a shared body of common knowledge” (27). The problem solved by alignment, Ober writes, is “how a decentralized participatory democracy could have coordinated its many working parts in the absence of formal command and control and without elaborate protocols” (169). The fleet of Athens certainly comprised many working parts, as well as divergent class interests: wealthy trierarchs funded ships while the metics, foreign mercenaries, and lower-class citizens making up the body of rowers received pay for their services. Despite the potential for conflict between such diverse status groups – as well as catastrophic naval losses like the Sicilian expedition – democratic Athens hardly swayed from its commitment to naval power, constructing more trireme hulls in the 4th century than it attained even during its 5th century empire. Thus, I seek an explanation for these circumstances using Ober’s idea of alignment as an interpretive framework.

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