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Impearls: Autonomy and the trajectories of Rome vs. Athens in history

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Earthdate 2007-09-22

Autonomy and the trajectories of Rome vs. Athens in history

Volokh Conspiracist Ilya Somin has an interesting post on the question of “How Federal is Star Trek’s Federation?”, which you can read here.  (See also my other post deriving from Ilya’s piece, which you can find here, or use up-thread/down-thread controls in the navigation panel above.)

Ilya gets into (and the comments further explore) questions like whether the Federation was socialistic (and during which period), while commenters raise the issue of just how the presence of technological replicators affects — perhaps even eliminates the meaning of — the Federation’s (or perhaps just humanity’s within it) economy.

Going in a completely different direction, however, this time I’d like to explore the applicability and consequences of a statement that Ilya made (in the context of making an analogy between it and the Federation), having to do with the ancient “Athenian Empire,” otherwise known as the Delian League.  As Ilya asserted in that piece:  “As long as the allies paid their tribute, Athens mostly left them alone and did not try to influence their domestic policies.”

I suggest this wasn’t true.  On the contrary, Oxford professor of ancient history G. H. Stevenson wrote a book with the (seemingly boring) title Roman Provincial Administration (which actually was very interesting), in the first chapter of which a striking comparison between the Athenian Empire (aka Delian League) and the Roman Empire (including the Republic) is made.  Stevenson writes: 1

At a time when Rome was an obscure Italian city an attempt had been made by Athens, the most brilliant city-state of antiquity, to found an empire in the Aegean, and to extend it as far west as Sicily.  No state in history may seem to have been so well qualified as fifth-century Athens to embark on a career of Imperialism.  Her efforts had been largely responsible for saving Greece from incorporation in the Persian Empire.  She represented the best qualities of the Greek race, and counted among her citizens men of the highest intellectual and military ability.

But her attempt to found an empire was unsuccessful.  Though no one cause can be given for her failure, it must in the main be attributed to the fact that she was merely one city state among others.  So long as each Greek city was content with nothing less than complete autonomy no political union which aspired at creating more than a system of alliances was possible.  The cause of the failure of Athens was not so much that she was a democracy, as Cleon said in the speech attributed to him by Thucydides, as that she was a city state.  Oligarchical Sparta was even less successful than democratic Athens in uniting the Greeks under her leadership.

Athens and Sparta alike were unable to refrain from an interference in the internal affairs of Greek states which even the smallest of them bitterly resented.  Athens favoured the democratic parties against the oligarchs, and sometimes even imposed a democratic constitution on her so-called “allies.”  She deprived the local courts of much of their power, and insisted that important cases should be tried at Athens.  Finally, the tribute, which at first had been willingly paid as a contribution to the defence of Greece against Persia, came to be regarded as an imposition when peace was made with Persia and the revenues of the League were expended on the beautification of the Acropolis or on a war with Sparta with which many of the allies felt that they had little concern.
 

As a result, Athens’ empire possessed little inherent cohesion and staying power, and when push came to shove, it simply fell apart.

Contrast that (as Stevenson does) with the Roman experience, where first under the Republic the Italian allied cities of Rome were granted full membership together with autonomy within the Roman State.  (Those Italian “allies” actually went to war against Rome — in the so-called “Social War” of 90-89 b.c. — in order to obtain, not their independence, but to force Rome to admit them into the Roman State!  And they won, or rather lost, whereupon the Republic did ultimately admit them, as autonomous cities, into full-fledged inclusion within Rome.)

During the Empire, this autonomy principle was extended further across the whole empire (without necessarily including Roman citizenship — rather, each city-state possessed its own citizenship), to such an extent that Edward Togo Salmon (Professor of History at McMaster University) could write, in Encyclopædia Britannica’s article “Rome, Ancient”: 2

In the empire at large, Flavians and Antonines, like the better Julio-Claudians, aimed at stability in order that its inhabitants might live in security and self-respect.  In this they largely succeeded.  Gibbon’s famous description of the 2nd century as the period when men were happiest and most prosperous is not entirely false.  […]

The empire was a vast congeries of peoples and races with differing religions, customs, and languages, and the emperors were content to let them live their own lives.  Imperial policy favoured a veneer of common culture transcending ethnic differences, but there was no deliberate denationalization.  Ambitious men striving for a career naturally found it helpful, if not necessary, to become Roman in bearing and conduct and perhaps even in language as well (although speakers of Greek often rose to exalted positions).  But local self-government was the general rule, and neither Latin nor Roman ways were imposed on the communities composing the empire.  […]

Where possible, the emperors kept direct administration from Rome to a minimum (except perhaps in Egypt), and the 2nd century was the most flourishing period of urban civilization that the empire ever knew.  […]  It is impossible not to be impressed by the spectacle of the Roman Empire in its 2nd-century heyday, with its panorama of splendid and autonomous communities.
 

Thus we see an origin, perhaps, for the radically differing trajectories of Rome and Athens in history.
 
 

References

1 G. H. Stevenson (Fellow and Praelector in Ancient History, University College, Oxford), Roman Provincial Administration, G. E. Stechert & Co., New York, 1939; pp. 4-5.

2 Edward Togo Salmon (d. 1988; Messecar Professor of History, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1954-73; author of A History of the Roman World from 30 b.c. to a.d. 138), “Rome, Ancient,” Section IV: The early Roman Empire (31 b.c.-a.d. 193), Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1974, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago; Macropædia Vol. 15, pp. 1116-1117.

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