The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium

By Ian Morris; Walter Scheidel | Go to book overview

4
The Greater Athenian State

Ian Morris


1. INTRODUCTION

If it were worth taking the time to calculate such things, we would probably find that more books and articles have been written on the Athenian Empire of 478–404 B.C.E. than on any ancient empire except the Roman. And if we worked out how much scholarship has been served up per subject of each empire, square mile of territory, or year of the empire’s existence, Athens would surely win hands down. Every schoolchild gets to hear about its leaders, poets, and monuments.

Yet despite Athens’ renown, this was a decidedly odd ancient empire. Most obviously, it was tiny (fig. 4.1), covering just a couple of thousand square miles. It was barely big enough to make a respectable Assyrian or Roman province, let alone a Persian satrapy. Its total revenues were just 1 or 2 percent of those of the early Roman Empire.1 Fewer than a million people lived in it, as against 35 million in the Persian Empire and 50 to 60 million in the Roman or Han Chinese. In comparison to the subjects of Assyria, Persia, Rome, or (in most periods) Byzantium, these people were ethnically and culturally remarkably homogeneous; not only were they overwhelmingly Greek, but almost all of them were Greeks who self-identified as Ionians, descendants of the shared ancestor Ion. The other empires discussed in this book dwarfed the Athenian in almost every sense and lasted much longer.

Athens was a quirky empire—so quirky, I suggest in this chapter, that we would do better not to think of it as an empire at all. I make this claim and do it in this context not just to be contrary but because the claim exemplifies two of this book’s central propositions: that we should study imperialism as a subset of the larger process of state formation, and that state formation was one of the major dynamics in ancient history. By “state formation” I mean the centralization of political power in officeholders’ hands and officeholders’ attempts to extend that power, both deeper into civil society and outward by enlarging the units they governed. State formation generated conflict and competition among officeholders, between officeholders and those they administered, and between competing states. These dynamics were among the most important forces in generating not only violence and exploitation

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The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents ix
  • Contributors xi
  • 1 - Ancient States, Empires, and Exploitation Problems and Perspectives 3
  • 2 - The Neo-Assyrian Empire 30
  • 3 - The Achaemenid Empire 66
  • 4 - The Greater Athenian State 99
  • 5 - The Political Economy of the Roman Empire 178
  • 6 - The Byzantine Empire 205
  • 7 - Sex and Empire a Darwinian Perspective 255
  • Bibliography 325
  • Index 369
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