Looking to One Another: Common Knowledge and “Alignment” in the Navy of Democratic Athens

1. Introduction

1§1 From the late 480s until 322 BCE, Athens was both a democracy and a naval power.[1] These phenomena were not independent of one another, as Aristotle remarks: “the naval multitude, having been the cause of the victory at Salamis and thereby of the leadership of Athens due to her power at sea, made the democracy stronger” (Aristotle Politics 1304a). However, the system was not without disruptions. In Demosthenes’s speech 14 On the Symmories, he identifies one among several challenges that Athens faced:

For as you know, men of Athens, whenever you have all set your heart on anything, and as a result have each felt obliged to take action, you have always achieved your aim. But 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.[2]

Uttering these words to the Athenian assembly in a 4th century oration, Demosthenes identifies a core challenge to the operation of Athens’ democracy: the problem of coordinated action without a tyrant or oligarchic government to enforce and execute policy. His speech is on the finance of the Athenian navy, and such coordination would be especially difficult in an institution as complex as the fleet. Not only did it entail great logistical challenges, it was also a focal point of social tension: trierarchs, coming from the ranks of the wealthiest Athenians, funded ships while the lower-class citizens, metics, foreign mercenaries, and slaves making up the body of rowers received pay for their services.[3]

1§2 Despite the conflict inherent in such a system, and despite several catastrophic defeats such as 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.[4] Breakdowns in the system, such as the coup of 411 BCE, were unable to disrupt the pairing of democracy and naval power for very long.

1§3 In seeking an explanation for the endurance of this commitment, 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). There were certainly “many working parts” in the navy, with success depending on cooperation across a wide socio-economic spectrum. I will thus consider the role of common knowledge in smoothing over social tensions, building up confidence in the system, and helping to mitigate Demosthenes’ fear that the people would “[look] to one another, each refusing to do anything himself but expecting his neighbor to act.”

2. The Navy as a Focal Point of Social Tension

2§1 The tension that emerged from Athens’ naval system is repeatedly borne out by the literary record. The system had the potential to be unfavorable to the masses as well as elites. For example, the mining windfall of the 480s may have caused resentment when the wealth was given to the rich for trireme construction rather than being equally distributed to all.[5] Certainly the battle of Salamis vindicated the policy of Themistocles, but one can easily imagine that, to poor Athenians, the equal disbursement of the funds would seem better-suited to their short-term interests — and more democratic. Most evident, however, is griping among the trierarchic class.[6]

2§2 411 BCE saw the system break down completely with an oligarchic coup in Athens. But, as Thucydides records, the fleet stationed at Samos parted ways with the elites in power back home, continuing to operate as a sort of remote democracy (8.75-76). Comedy furnishes insights into trierarchic resentment, albeit through exaggeration. A character in Aristophanes’ Knights says as a threat “I will make you be a trierarch” (912-913). Athenaeus quotes the fourth century Attic comedian Antiphanes, who speaks of the trierarch who strangles himself because of the financial burden (103 e-f). Isocrates describes the outlook of the elite towards the liturgy system:

Some [of the rich] are compelled to recall and lament their poverty and want among themselves; others must bear the bulk of the duties, liturgies, and all the evils associated with tax levies (symmoria) and property exchanges (antidosis). These put such strain on them that life is more painful for those with wealth than for those who are continually poor.[7]

Isocrates speaks of the liturgy system in general, but specifically focuses on two features of the trierarchy, the symmories and the antidosis. He might as well be describing the “oligarchic” man of Theophrastus’s Characters, who grumbles, “When will we be delivered from the deathgrip of being forced to pay for public events and warships?”[8]

3. Honorary Measures

3§1 In response to such tension, Athens employed strategies based on common knowledge, including honorary measures.[9] One such strategy was the crowning of trierarchs for performing their service admirably, a practice attested multiple times for fourth century Athens.[10] Demosthenes’ speech 51 On the Trierarchic Crown offers a glimpse at this practice. In the speech Demosthenes argues that he, rather than other claimants, deserves the crown that the Assembly has promised to whoever is the first to prepare his trireme for a certain expedition (1). The fact that Demosthenes bothers to dispute their claim in court speaks to the motivating power of honorary crowns.

3§2 He goes on to sum up an ideal trierarch, for whom the public good would be a sufficient motivation to perform his duties:

The man acting as a trierarch for the city should not expect to grow rich from public property but to promote the city’s interests from his private fortune.[11]

But in reality patriotic motives were not always sufficient. In a society where philotimia amounted to social capital for the elites, the honor of state-bestowed crowns provided extra incentive. Demosthenes 51 adds an element of competition to the mix by offering the crown to whoever prepares their trireme first. While elite citizens strove to outdo their peers to win honor, they benefitted the state by quickly preparing their triremes. As Vincent Gabrielsen writes, “this distinction [of philotimia] was worth striving for because of its accepted ideological propriety as a visible manifestation of usefulness to the community, and because of its practical expedience in demonstrating publicly (e.g. in a court of law) that one had incurred ‘danger and expenditure.’”[12]

3§3 Another example of crowning is found in a 325/4 BCE inscription of Athens’ naval curators. Recording a decree for dispatching a fleet to establish a naval base in the Adriatic Sea, it too awards crowns based on a competition.

The people are to crown the first man to bring his ship with a gold crown of 500 dr. and the second with a crown of 300 dr. and the third with a crown of 200 dr., and the herald of the council is to announce the crowns at the contest of the Thargelia, and the apodektai are to allocate the money for the crowns, in order that the competitive zeal (philotimia) of the trierarchs towards the people may be evident.[13]

Both of these examples explicitly state their concern with common knowledge.  The naval station decree of IG II2 1629 states the reasoning for giving crowns: it is done “in order that the competitive zeal (philotimia) of the trierarchs towards the people may be evident” (201-205). Elite citizens stood to gain from having their philotimia publicized to the demos. Demosthenes 51 contains a similar sentiment; the crux of his argument rests on how the crown, by affecting common knowledge, in turn affects people’s actions. This idea first appears about half-way into the speech: “think how your deliberations will be viewed if you are seen judging some men worthy of execution and others—for the same reason—worthy of a crown” (9). Demosthenes returns to this line of argument as his final words, exhorting his audience not to find in favor of his opponents: by awarding them a crown they do not deserve, “you will teach everyone to be as cheap as possible in managing the responsibilities you assign” (22). Demosthenes, addressing the Boulē as the andres Athenaioi (22), calls on the Athenian people to consider how honorary measures affect common knowledge and, consequently, how it affects the navy.

3§4 Trierarchic service was enforced through social and legal measures,[14] so the influence of honors was mostly limited to how the trierarchs performed their service. But in cases where engagement with the navy was voluntary — including the import of equipment and the service of foreigners — common knowledge affected people’s choices of whether or not to participate in the first place. IG I3 182 is an honorary decree for Antiochides and Phanosthenes, dating to 410-407/6 BCE, for importing oars. Here we find another statement of hortatory intention[15] expressing attunement to common knowledge. The action is taken “in order that the People of Athens appear to consider important those who import oars and to give favor in the future” (5-7). It seems that such honors were effective motivators: in 411 BCE Andocides expected to be honored for selling oar-spars at cost to the Athenian fleet at Samos, but instead returned to Athens to find the oligarchic coup of in power.[16]

3§5 IG II2 276 is a 4th-century honorary decree for Asklepiodoros, a foreigner, for “fighting the enemy, sailing on the trireme of Chares of Aixone” (7-9). This calls to mind the concern expressed in Thucydides 1.143 that the Peloponnesians might try to lure away the foreigners serving in Athens’ fleet, jeopardizing its ability to man the ships. Concerns over manpower were still prevalent in the 4th century,[17] and indeed, the inscription states explicitly that it has motives beyond just honoring Asklepiodoros. It reveals, with another hortatory intention, that it seeks to send a message to Athens’ allies.

ὅπως ἂν εἰ[δ]ῶσιν π[ά]-
ντες ὅσοι ἂν στρατεύωνται μετ’ Ἀθηνα[ί]-
[ω]ν ὅτι τιμᾶι ὁ δῆμος τοὺς ἄνδρας τοὺς [ἀ]-

… in order that all who fight with the Athenians may know that the people honor good men.

IG II2 276 15-18

The decree for Asklepiodoros, then, is unambiguously concerned with common knowledge. It goes on to order that the stele be set up on the Acropolis, further disseminating its message (18-20).

3§6 Along with this decree we can consider published crew lists as another source of honor. Geoff Bakewell argues that the naval catalogue of IG I3 1032, remarkable for the high proportion of non-citizens among its listed crews, is an honorific document that seeks “to emphasize Athens’ naval dependence on non-citizens” (144, 154). But it can no longer be considered an idiosyncratic document, since a fragment of a separate naval catalogue has recently been discovered (SEG LIV 226). What did such monuments mean to the Athenians? Terming IG I3 1032 an example of “civic self-definition,” Bakewell writes,  “Its message was that citizens, allies, metics, and slaves had in the past accomplished something of military moment by working together. Even more important was its implication that they could do so again.”[18] Perhaps similar documents, while not necessarily sharing IG I3 1032’s dramatic emphasis on non-citizen service, still conveyed the message that “Athens is built on triremes and the civic orders that man them” (157).

4. Architecture and Public Space

4§1 Physical space and structures are another potential tool for alignment. As Ober explains, “Public monuments function as publicity media for conveying civic informational content … [They] may present spectators with a commonly available, relatively clear, and therefore ‘unitary’ account of some aspect of shared culture or history” (197). Some of these monuments “were distinctively concerned with making democratic content public—and thereby with building a distinctively democratic body of common knowledge” (199). Architecture and public space can have a similar effect. Ober focuses on how laying out physical spaces as “inward-facing circles” can facilitate face-to-face contact and democratic participation (199-205).

4§2 The steles bearing honorary inscriptions considered above were public monuments in their own right. But here I will consider how physical space in the Piraeus promoted alignment. Through its careful design, the Piraeus promoted effective administration and decision-making. And through its monumentality, Athens’ naval infrastructure made a statement about the city’s commitment to naval power, thus addressing the problem of coordination identified in Demosthenes 14.15  — the lack of knowledge of others’ commitments.

4§3 The Piraeus was laid out with a rigid orthogonal street grid, a design attributed to the city planner Hippodamus of Miletus. This design seems to have included clearly defined “naval zones.” Garland notes that the Zea port in the Piraeus had a “circuit wall marking off the harbour from the rest of the town,” and thus “it is likely that the naval zone, like the Emporion, formed a self-contained unit, entry to which was perhaps reserved for naval personnel.”[19] Beyond the wall was public space designated by boundary stones.[20] Such delineation of space could align knowledge through facilitating “spatial navigation.”[21] Ober explains how this relates to knowledge alignment, noting that focal points can “help to solve everyday coordination problems… [by allowing] similarly well-informed persons to coordinate their movements without detailed communication” (197). Thus, effective design of the Piraeus could help to mitigate the logistical challenges entailed by the fleet. But physical space also affected the Athenians on a more personal level, influencing even the decision-making of their democratic institutions. Both Thucydidies and Aristophanes vividly depict the atmosphere of the Piraeus before the launching of a fleet, attesting to its prominent place in the minds of Athenians.[22] Moreover, the Athenian Assembly was occasionally held in the Piraeus.[23] Both cases — launching expeditions and holding Assemblies — represent gatherings that bridged divisions of social and economic status. In these instances the effective design of physical space fostered cooperative action, thus enabling effective deliberative decision-making and efficient management of the fleet.

4§4 The naval infrastructure of Athens, though seemingly utilitarian in nature, likewise contributed to knowledge alignment. A recent archaeological publication by the Danish Institute at Athens notes that the trireme ship-sheds of the Piraeus, which were among the “largest building complexes in antiquity,” “clearly conveyed Athens’ determination to ‘monumentalise’ and glorify the naval bases that protected the city’s fleet of swift triremes at the height of her power” (Lovén 173-174). If anyone — trierarch or rower, citizen or foreigner — wavered in their confidence in Athens’ fleet, the scale of the ship-sheds reassured them with a powerful message of naval commitment.  This interpretation of the archaeological evidence is seconded in a speech of Demosthenes: “What they acquired from this effort is everlasting, both the memory of their deeds and the beauty of the dedications set up to commemorate them: the Propylaea, the Parthenon, the stoas, the shipsheds” (Dem. 22.76). Demosthenes ranks the ship-sheds of the Piraeus as a great monument on par with the Parthenon, thus revealing the symbolic value these structures held for the Athenians. In a speech where the importance of triremes becomes a key point (12-16), he is able to draw on the symbolic knowledge generated by the ship-sheds to bolster his argument.

5. Conclusion

5§1 Athens maintained its naval commitment for most of the 5th and 4th centuries, despite the combination of several disruptive forces. This commitment could be sustained because the city harnessed common knowledge in order to promote certain behavior. Honorary measures could spur the competitive spirits of the current trierarchs, while at the same time broadcasting to others the value of future trierarchic service. Honor could also encourage the trade of naval supplies and the participation of non-citizens in the fleet. These honorary steles not only created the incentive of honor, but also functioned as public monuments, promoting the message that in Athens people actively engaged in naval service rather than “looking to one another, expecting his neighbor to act.” The ship-sheds — monumental both in scale and function — accomplished a similar feat, conveying an image of strength and commitment. Likewise, the effective design of the Piraeus contributed to efficient cooperation.

5§2 Taken together, all these factors helped Athens to execute its plans. By feeding information to the body common knowledge surrounding the fleet, Athens was able to maintain itself as a mostly successful naval power for the majority of two centuries.

[1] This work is based on my senior honors thesis, submitted at Rhodes College in the spring semester of 2013. I would like to thank my project advisors, professors Joe Jansen and Geoff Bakewell. In translations below, passages from Athenian orators come from the University of Texas series The Oratory of Classical Greece. Translations of other literary works are drawn from the Perseus Project, unless otherwise noted. Translations of epigraphical texts are my own, except for IG I3 182, which is found in Engen 2010:237-238. I have slightly altered some translations quoted here.

[2] Demosthenes 14.15.

[3] On the composition of trireme crews, see Graham 1992 and 1998. For an explanation of how Athens generally navigated the tensions between economic classes, consult Ober 1989.

[4] Pausanias 1.29.16. Cf. the “Tabulae Curatorum Navalium,” IG II2 1604-1632, which give specific yearly totals of triremes in the 4th century.

[5] Herodotus 7.144, Thucydides 1.14.3, Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 22.7.

[6] In addition to the examples below: Lysias 29.4.

[7] Isocrates 8.128.

[8] Theophrasuts Characters 26.6. Trans. J. Rusten. Loeb Classical Library, 2002.

[9] There are some obvious incentives for naval power like grain imports and general military strength. But these are all explanations for why a city-state might seek naval power in the first place. I am concerned with the execution of Athens’ plans, and the maintenance of its course of action over such a long time. Athens did not have to invest in its navy to the same extent, nor did it have to implement it in the same way. For example, Rhodes eventually replaced its trierarchy with a system of professional officers (Gabrielsen 102).

[10] Honors for trierarchs (whether or not including crowns) in addition to the examples below: Isocrates 18.59-61; Demosthenes 50.13; IG II2 1623.276-85, IG II2 414a, and Plutarch Lives of the Ten Orators 844a.

[11] Demosthenes 51.14.

[12] Gabrielsen 1994:101. For a trierarch calling upon his past service to bolster his case in court, see, e.g., [Demosthenes] 50.13. Ober 1989 discusses this relationship in detail. But cf. Christ 2006, who does not share Gabrielsen’s and Ober’s optimistic appraisal of the efficacy of philotimia.

[13] IG II2 1629.190-204. Trans. Rhodes and Osborne 2003. This decree is discussed in Ober 2008:124-133.

[14] Gabrielsen 1994.

[15] Henry 1996.

[16] Andocides 2.11-13.

[17] Bosworth 2003.

[18] Bakewell 2008:156-157. Bakewell points out that, on the state level, the Athenians ultimately ignored this message. But even though “inscribed monuments could not create history all by themselves” (157), I would argue that they were still part of a pool of forces contributing to common knowledge, and thus could influence decision making on the individual level (e.g., whether or not a metic would serve in the fleet).

[19] Garland 2001:96. Pages 95-100 discusses the idea of the “naval zone.”

[20] Gill 2006:9.

[21] Ober 2008:197.

[22] Thucydides 6.30-6.32.1-2; Aristophanes Acharnians 544-554.

[23] Thucydides 8.93; Demosthenes 19.60, 125, 209.


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Bosworth, Brian. 2003. “Why Did Athens Lose the Lamian War?” The Macedonians in Athens, ed. Olga Palagia and Stephen V. Tracy. Oxbox Books. 14-22.

Cawkwell, G.L. 1984. “Athenian Naval Power in the Fourth Century.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 34.2: 334-345.

Christ, Matthew. 2006. The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens. Cambridge University Press.

Engen, Darel Tai. 2010. Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 BCE. University of Michigan Press.

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Graham, A.J. 1998. “Thucydides 7.13.2 and the Crews of Athenian Triremes: An Addendum.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 128: 89-114.

Henry, Alan. 1996. “The Hortatory Intention in Athenian State Decrees.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 122: 105-119.

Hunt, Peter. 1998. Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians. Cambridge University Press.

Hunt, Peter. 2001. “The Slaves and the Generals of Arginusae.” The American Journal of Philology 122.3.

Lovén, Bjørn. 2012. The Ancient Harbours of the Piraeus: Volume I.1. Aarhus University Press.

Morrison, J.S., J. F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov. 2000. The Athenian Trireme. Cambridge University Press.

Ober, Josiah. 1989. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.

Ober, Josiah. 2008. Democracy and Knowledge. Princeton University Press.

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