ARTICLE | Public Finance and War in Ancient Greece

David M. Pritchard

Greece & Rome / Volume 62 / Issue 01 / April 2015, pp 48 – 59
DOI: 10.1017/S0017383514000230, Published online: 25 March 2015

Link to this article:

How to cite this article:

David M. Pritchard (2015). PUBLIC FINANCE AND WAR IN ANCIENT GREECE. Greece & Rome, 62, pp 48-59 doi:10.1017/S0017383514000230

Request Permissions: Click here


1. Introduction

Before the Persian Wars the Greeks did not rely on public finance to fight each other. Their hoplites armed and fed themselves. But in the confrontation with Persia this private funding of war proved to be inad- equate. The liberation of the Greek states beyond the Balkans required the destruction of Persia’s sea power. In 478 BC Athens agreed to lead an alliance to do just this. It already had Greece’s largest fleet. But each campaign of this ongoing war would need tens of thousands of sailors and would go on for months. No single Greek city-state could pay for such campaigns. The alliance thus agreed to adopt the Persian method for funding war: its members would pay a fixed amount of tribute annually. This enabled Athens to force Persia out of the Dardanelles and Ionia. But the Athenians also realized that their military power depended on tribute, and so they tightened their control of its payers. In so doing they turned the alliance into an empire.

By 450 Athens had become a threat to Greece’s other dominant power. But Sparta struggled to counter Athens effectively. In the Peloponnesian War Sparta realized that it could only do so if it too became a sea power. However, its weak public finances ruled this out. All changed in 412, when Persia’s Great King decided to give Sparta the necessary funds. In exchange for the right to levy tribute again on Ionia’s Greeks, he helped the Spartans to acquire a large fleet. In 405 this fleet destroyed the last warships of Athens. Sparta could now dismantle the Athenian Empire and force its surrender thanks to a land and sea blockade.

In the Corinthian War Persia initially funded the anti-Spartan alli- ance, as the Spartans had decided to fight it for control of Ionia’s Greek city-states. The Athenians used Persia’s gold to rebuild their fleet and with these warships they set out to re-establish the Athenian Empire. But this represented a still bigger threat to Persia. Conse- quently it switched its funding to the Spartans. They quickly assembled a fleet in the Dardanelles, where they stopped the grain ships sailing for Athens. The Athenians feared being starved into submission once again and so accepted the King’s Peace. This treaty of 386 scuttled their attempt to re-establish their empire. To keep waging wars they now had to develop different funding sources.

In this, Athens was reasonably successful. It was thus able to keep Sparta at bay and quickly became a major regional power. But it was not successful enough to stop the rise of Philip of Macedonia. By 338 this king had defeated Greece’s other regional powers and so had made Macedonia its hegemon. His success rested largely on his public- finance reforms. His son, Alexander, became less concerned about pub- lic finance as he conquered Persia, for plunder easily paid for his army. But the hellenistic kingdoms that arose after him managed their public finances carefully. With vastly larger tax bases they fielded armies several times larger than those of classical Athens or Sparta. War for dominance among the Greeks had now moved well beyond their city-states.

Corresponding author


* This article was delivered as a paper at Macquarie University’s Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies. I thank the Centre’s Director, Prof. K. Sheedy, for his invitation to be its Senior Research Fellow for 2014. The article draws heavily on D. M. Pritchard, Public Spending and Democracy in Classical Athens (Austin, TX, 2015). For their helpful comments on the article I am most grateful to A. Florence, D. J. Phillips, C. Pry, P. J. Rhodes and K. A. Raaflaub. All translations of Greek are my own.

[vc_cta_button align=”left” title=” Download PDF” target=”_blank” color=”default” size=”small” second_target=”_self” second_color=”default” second_size=”default” href=”” icon=”2|custom”]

Other papers by David M. Pritchard

Sport and Democracy in Classical Athens

The Public Payment of Magistrates in Fourth-Century Athens

The Position of Attic Women in Democratic Athens

‘Athens’, in W. M. Bloomer (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Education

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

Sport and Democracy in Classical Athens [Spanish]