When Democracy Goes to War: The Battle of Salamis and Ancient Athens

Associate Professor David M. Pritchard's presentation for the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, titled "Salamis and Democracy: 2,500 Years Later."

This week 2,500 years ago, a Greek fleet defeated a much larger Persian one off the waters of Athens. This naval victory against the odds put an end to the long-term plan of the Persian Empire, the world’s largest, to subjugate all the Balkans.

It began the decades-long war that Athens would lead to expel the Persians entirely from the Dardanelles, Anatolia’s coasts and the Aegean Sea’s islands. Salamis, in 480 BC, is thus, probably, the turning point in the history of Classical Greece.


At the time, the Greeks agreed that the Athenians had contributed the most to this unlikely victory. This battle was possible only because the Athenian demos (people), a few years earlier, had decided to build Greece’s largest fleet of state-owned warships.

Their decision to put every last Athenian on their decks gave the Greeks a fighting chance. Yet, these innovative and courageous decisions by the demos were not one-offs. They were part of a remarkable record of military success that dated back to their foundation of Athenian democracy a few decades earlier. 

The democratic revolution

Today ancient Athens is famous for democracy. In 508, the Athenian demos rose up against a leader aiming for tyranny and expelled him and the foreign troops backing his attempt. They had had enough of the bloody struggles of their elite and demanded an active role in the decision-making of their state. This popular demand was quickly realized by the reforms of Cleisthenes. His democratic reforms made the assembly and a new popular council the final arbiters of public actions and laws.

We now know that several other Greek poleis (city-states) experimented with popular government before 508. Therefore, the invention of democracy can no longer be attributed to Athens. But Athenian demokratia was different in that it avoided the civil wars that destroyed so many other democracies. With the exception of two short periods of oligarchy, it enjoyed two centuries of unbroken operation. This state’s strong financial position meant that in the 420s it could spend 3.9 tons of silver per year employing thousands to run the government. This state pay allowed a much wider social spectrum of citizens to be politically active. The result of these differences was that Athenian democracy was more fully developed than any other pre-modern example. 

The cultural revolution

Athens was also the leading cultural center of the Classical Greek world. The arts, oratory, drama and literature were developed to a higher level of sophistication in this state than in any other. Admittedly, these cultural innovations depended on the immense wealth of Classical Athens and its ability to spend huge sums on festival-based contests. For example, in the 420s, the state as well as elite taxpayers spent 750 kilograms of silver per year on their main drama festival. Annual spending on all festivals was a staggering 2.6 tons of silver. 

Nevertheless, ever since Johann Winckelmann – the 18th century pioneer of Classical archaeology – ancient historians have attributed this cultural revolution to Athenian democracy. The famous plays of Classical Athens are a good example. They may have been written by elite playwrights, but they were performed at contests before thousands of non-elite theatergoers. Officially the judging of these contests was in the hands of 10 judges. But these judges were swayed by the vocal reactions of non-elite theatergoers. By going to the theater regularly the demos acquired an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of drama. Comedians and tragedians thus realized that their chances of winning were increased if they constantly innovated in their genres. 

Military advances

Ancient Athens is famous for such achievements; by contrast, its military revolution is not widely known. More than any other polis this city-state invented or perfected new forms of combat, strategy and military organization. It was directly responsible for raising the scale of Greek warfare by 10 times. In doing this, the Athenian demos overcame the traditional conception of courage that elsewhere impeded military innovations. This revolution represented a qualitative change from their military record before democracy. 

Sixth-century Athenians went to war usually only for the sake of contested borderlands. Their campaigns, which were extremely infrequent, went on for days or a few weeks and were settled by a single land battle. They were initiated not by the state but by the leaders of aristocratic factions. These leaders privately raised volunteers by promising them the land to be won in battle. The hoplites of such campaigns were predominantly elite and numbered only in the hundreds. 


This small-scale war-making was transformed in the first instance by the democratic reforms that Cleisthenes introduced soon after 508. These reforms massively increased the readiness of non-elite Athenians to serve in the armed forces and to start wars. In 506, the new public army defeated those of Chalcis and Boeotia in back-to-back battles. In 499, the demos sent warships to help Anatolia’s Greeks to revolt from the Persian Empire. In 490, at Marathon, they deployed 9,000 heavily armed soldiers. Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms effectively integrated Athens and its khora (countryside) for the first time. Each free male was now registered as a citizen of Athens in his local village and groups of Attica’s villages were linked together in 10 new tribes. These tribes served as the subdivisions of the new democratic council and the new public army of hoplites. These village registers of Athenians were used to conscript hoplites. Remarkably, this was the state’s first-ever effective mechanism for mass mobilization. Attica was around 20 times more populous than the khora of an average polis. Therefore, this mechanism gave Athens a huge military advantage. Demography would be a major reason for the military success of Classical Athens. 

The events of the late 480s and the early 470s set in train a second wave of Athenian military innovations. In order to get ready for the return of the Persians, the Athenian people decided, in 483, to direct unexpected public income from local silver mines towards the massive expansion of their new public navy. The 200 warships that they possessed at the end of this shipbuilding represented the largest fleet of state-owned warships yet seen. Three years later Persia’s Great King launched his expedition to subjugate the Greeks of the mainland as he had recently done to those of Anatolia and the Dardanelles. The final destruction of this huge Persian force, in 479, saw the Athenians invited to found the Delian League. 

Initially this league was a voluntary alliance of states contributing ships and soldiers or annual tribute to Athenian-led expeditions. For its first decades, the league campaigned to expel Persians from their bases across the Aegean Sea. At the same time, the Athenians began eroding the independence of league members, who, by the 450s, were obliged to pay annual tribute and had long been forcefully prevented from pulling out of what was now the Athenian arkhe or empire. 

Imperial revenues allowed the Athenians to employ vast numbers of non-elite citizens as hoplites and sailors, and to perfect forms of warfare that broke decisively from the hoplite-based conception of courage. Among numerous military innovations, they could now man large fleets and train their naval crews for months. Each crew could work collectively to take part in maneuvers at speed with other ships. In this new form of mobile naval warfare a standard tactic was retreat. Retreat was a source of shame among heavily armed soldiers. The Athenians also built tens of kilometers of walls to protect and to link Athens and Piraeus. With these fortifications in place, they developed a new way of responding to the invasion of a land army. They no longer sent out their hoplites for a land battle when their khora was invaded. Instead, they withdrew their farmers and movable property within the Athens-Piraeus fortifications. They relied on the imported food supplies that their sea power guaranteed them. 

By the 450s, the Athenians were moving many thousands of hoplites and sailors across the entire eastern Mediterranean for campaigns that lasted months, or in the case of sieges, up to a few years. They now waged war more frequently than ever before, doing so in two out of three years. They were directing more money to war than to all other public activities combined. In the 420s, for example, annual public spending on war was 39 tons of silver per year. Clearly, the unprecedented supply of income from the arkhe was a second major reason for the military success of 5th century Athens. 

Democratic war

The timing of this military revolution is very striking. The Athenian transformation of war directly follows the democratic revolution of 508. It coincides with the cultural revolution that was largely brought about by Athenian democracy. The near contemporaneousness of these three revolutions opens up a challenging possibility. The military aggression of 5th century Athens could well be another product of Athenian democracy. It could well be the dark side of the Athenian cultural revolution. Consequently, democracy may be the third major reason for the military success of 5th century Athens. 

In “Athenian Democracy at War,” I argue that the military impact of this demokratia had two sides. On one side there was the competition of elite performers in front of non-elite adjudicators that resulted in a pro-war culture. This encouraged the Athenians to join the armed forces in ever-increasing numbers and regularly to vote for war. The other side consisted of the democracy’s rigorous debating of war. This open debate reduced this militarism’s risks and encouraged military reforms. It helped to develop the initiative of the state’s generals, soldiers and sailors.


Non-elite Athenians understandably had a positive view of their own military service. Consequently, they supported those politicians and playwrights who employed epic poetry’s depiction of soldiering to describe what they did as hoplites and sailors. This depiction had been the preserve of the elite before Athenian democracy. At the same time, poor Athenians were still ashamed of their poverty. Therefore, this extension of the traditional conception of arete (courage) down the social scale made soldiering attractive to them as a source of social esteem. 

Unfortunately, this recognition of courage among non-elite soldiers and sailors proved to be a double-edged sword. While making them feel proud, it put them under social pressure to participate in, and to vote for, wars; for arete, as far as the Greeks were concerned, had to be regularly proven by actions. Those who saw themselves as courageous felt aiskhune (shame) to be accused of cowardice. Athenians could be so accused not only if they retreated from a battle before others, but also if they failed to endorse a war that appeared to be necessary. The result was that politicians exploited the fear of shame among assembly-goers to build support for their proposals for war. 

The open debating of foreign policy in Athenian democracy never reduced the willingness of the demos to be combatants and to start wars. But it did normally reduce the risk that they would endorse poorly conceived proposals for war. In foreign policy debates, politicians were free to make contentious arguments. Their intense rivalry with each other ensured that any proposal for war met opposing arguments and peaceful options. This rivalry also promoted the efficient prosecution of ongoing campaigns because politicians closely scrutinized the military expeditions that their rivals had successfully proposed. 

The constant adjudication of such debates by the demos consolidated their general knowledge of foreign affairs and hence improved the general quality of their decisions about war and peace. In addition, this high-order deliberative capacity of the demos enabled them both to see the merits of military innovations that went against traditional morality and also to take more initiative as combatants than their non-democratic rivals.

Associate Professor David M. Pritchard is an ancient historian at the University of Queensland (Australia). He is the author of “Athenian Democracy at War” (Cambridge University Press 2019), and is, this week, speaking at a conference in Athens to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Salamis.

This article was first published on ekathimerini.com.

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