Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Boris Island and Pericles' Port

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Boris Island and Pericles' Port

Article excerpt

During his lecture on Athens at the Legatum Institute (see p. 22), Boris Johnson placed great emphasis on Athens' development of Piraeus harbour in the 5th century BC. Did he have an analogy with a pet project in mind?

It was the statesman Themistocles who 'had been the first to propose that the Athenians should take to the sea', and in 493 BC began to turn Piraeus with its three harbours into a military facility, replacing the old harbour at Phalerum. With Persian attack from the sea in mind, he built dockyards, mooring sheds and fortifications.

This move had momentous political consequences for the poor. In 508 BC, Cleisthenes' democratic reforms had handed power to decide political issues to the people's Assembly. Since rowers, unlike hoplite fighters, did not need expensive armour, they came from the poorer classes -- and they were now Athens' main fighting force, giving them serious political clout. …

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