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ARTICLE | ‘Naval matters in old comedy’, in Athenian Democracy at War

David M. Pritchard 2018 (under contract), ‘Naval matters in old comedy’, in Athenian Democracy at War. Cambridge (Cambridge University Press).


1. Introduction

The depiction of sailors in old comedy was mainly positive. On stage Aristophanes valued sailors as highly as hoplites. He depicted both groups fighting courageously. The toils that each bore in battle equally benefitted the state. In old comedy the victories of both groups received the same praise. Athenians equally met their duty to fight for the state by serving as sailors or hoplites. This depiction of sailors parallels what we find in public oratory. The audiences that Athenian politicians and litigants faced were predominantly nonelite. Their votes directly determined who would win the debate or the trial. Consequently public speakers were under real pressure to say what nonelite Athenians wanted to hear. In their speeches they were required to confirm the perceptions of the Athenian people. This requirement makes the parallels between old comedy and oratory significant. They suggest that the comic poets confirmed popular perceptions about sailors. There is a longstanding debate about whether this genre can be reliably used as evidence for popular perceptions. Such parallels strengthen the case that it can be so used. In their reflections on war nonelite Athenians certainly took over a lot from their elite forebears. They inherited the idea that victory in battle came from the courage of the victors. They continued to base their descriptions of courage on what the hoplite did to win his battles. On stage this soldier remained the central figure in generalisations about war and gender-roles. But the Athenian people also redefined significant elements of this inherited elite culture. They rejected the low estimation that archaic aristocrats had made of sailors. Nonelite Athenians valued sailors as highly as hoplites. They invented a new abstract theory of seapower. In this theory the state’s security depended on the navy. The Athenian people believed that naval personnel deserved the credit for providing this security. Consequently sailors did not need to develop their own subculture to gain the recognition that they craved.

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