How oars leveled a society

In his gripping account of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the summer of 480 BC, John R. Hale observes this about the contribution of the Athenians:

Athens alone had mobilized its entire citizen body for the naval effort. . . . The hoplites of Athens had traded their shields and spears for rowing pads and oars. As for the thousands of common citizens, the naval expedition had given them for the first time a feeling of true equality with horsemen and hoplites. Oars were great levelers. Rowing demanded perfect unison of action, and the discipline inevitably generated a powerful unity of spirit. Rich and poor shared the same callused palms, blistered buttocks, and stiff muscles, as well as the same hopes and fears for the future. A new unified Athens was being forged on the decks and rowing thwarts of the fleet. (Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, p. 47)

In Hale’s estimation, it was deployment of the entire Athenian citizenry in naval engagement (at the bold prompting of Themistocles) that laid the foundation of Athenian democracy: because citizens steered the ships of war together, they were eventually prepared to steer the ship of state together.

It’s a fascinating study of how a mutually shared “liturgy” paved the way for a radical reconception of public life and civilization.

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