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Review: M.F. McGregor, The Athenians and their empire

Konrad H. Kinzl


Queen’s Quarterly 95 (1988) 897–99





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Malcolm F. McGregor, The Athenians and their empire, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 1987, pp. xxiv, 219. ISNB 0-7748-0269-3


In the aftermath of the Persian invasions of 490 and 480-79, and after the retreat from the leadership of the pan-hellenic defensive alliance by Sparta, a defensive-offensive alliance of Greeks, mostly from the Aegean islands and Asia Minor, with Athens as their leader, was formed in 478, with oaths and the symbolic dropping of red hot ingots of iron into the sea to bind them in perpetuity. One of its innovative features was a common treasury, to be located on the sacred island of Delos (hence the modern term “Delian League”). The treasury was funded from contributions, also known as “tribute”, by its members, who had been assessed, to everybody’s satisfaction, by the Athenian Aristeides. The fund was to be administered by a board of officials who were Athenian citizens. The “treasury” was moved to Athens in 454; the Athenian democracy’s practice of inscribing official documents in stone for public exhibition has left us the record of the “tribute quota lists” (a “quota” of one-sixtieth of the “tribute” was handed over to Athena in return for safe keeping): the stone chosen for the purpose was large enough to accommodate 15 years’ “quotas”. The moratorium on the collection of the “tribute” in 448 was preceded in 449 by an official treaty with Persia, the “Peace of Kallias” (there is a growing bibliography on the problem of the authenticity of the peace, denied by many, and dated to 465 by some), and the failed invitation by Perikles to all Greeks to attend a conference in Athens on how to guarantee the freedom of the sea lanes. The resumption of the collection of “tribute” in 447 signalled the “reconstructed Empire” and the completion of its “metamorphosis” from being a league.

Our perspective is of necessity “Thucydidean”: for the Peloponnesian War from its outbreak in 432/31 to 411/10 we have his full account (for the remainder, till 403/02, Xenophon is a poor substitute), and for the “Fifty Years” from 478 to 432 as well as the fragments of what once was a veritable forest of marble stelai containing state documents (to one class of these, the “Quota-Lists”, App. 6 is a superb introduction).

Malcolm Francis McGregor, doyen of Canadian Greek history, devoted a life-time to the Athenians and their Empire. His name is forever linked with crucial evidence for it, The Athenian Tribute Lists, 4 vols., 1939-53, co-authored by B.D. Meritt, H.T. Wade-Gery, and McGregor; these names are recorded in the section on The Sources (1-7; along with those of translators of Thucydides, etc.): the names of scholars who, with equal devotion, dedicated significant parts of their careers to





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the study of the epigraphic evidence are passed over in silence.

A collation of his extremely helpful chronological table (App. 1, 179 sqq.) with that of the Pentekontaëtia (the “Fifty Years”) in ATL 3 (published in 1950; a collection of two and a half dozen studies on problems of detail of imperial Athens and the evidence) reveals that he has changed his mind on not one single date. Where R. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, 1972, disarms the critic with an index entry “probably, passim” (617; cf. my review in Gymnasium 81, 1974, p. 307), McGregor strives to convey a sense of certainty.

While one might be prepared to subscribe to McGregor’s view that Athenian atrocities such as those against Melos (whose men were massacred and women and children sold into slavery, after they had resisted Athenian demands to join their League in 416/15) “should rather be ascribed to the evil effects that war has upon the character of man. In this respect human behaviour has not changed” (174), it causes distinct discomfort to be told that “the Athenian disposition of the Mytilenaean problem cannot be considered excessively harsh” (140; “only” one thousand men were executed, after the Athenians had changed their minds and did not treat them as they would treat Melos); or, “to disallow secession was common sense; the alternative meant erosion” (167); or, “to be fully armed is to discourage hostilities by others” (73; the fate of McGregor’s subject of study of course proves the fallacy); or, in an almost comical understatement, “the Empire might be likened to an insurance company” (169); or, it is a “regrettable fact that since the Second World War the very words ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ have acquired unpleasant connotations” (166). One parts company with McGregor, however, when he states (in the last chapter, “Empire: A Verdict”):

My own judgement of the Athenians and their Empire, I suspect, does not conform to that of the majority of critics. Throughout this book I have, in a number of contexts, pointed to Athenian ambitions, to their love of prestige and enjoyment of power, to the gains that accrued to them from their dominion. All this, accompanied by a vulgar prejudice against Empire, which is made somehow to seem immoral, can be built into a strong case against the Athenians. ... The ‘revisionists’ seem to resent the presence in ‘Great Men’ of qualities that raise them above their contemporaries; it is a pessimistic view of human nature. (175)

It is the hallmark of the ideologue to accuse his antagonists of ideologically blinkered vision. It is not the historian’s business to pass moral judgement one way or another, to admire, or to hate. The critic of the Athenian Empire is not morally depraved because he does his duty as a scholar, rather than admire the object of his study; no historian, in that instance, could turn to the study of Hitler or Stalin. In 1877, in an address before his Emperor, the “Pope of the Philologues” U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff spoke eloquently of “Des attischen reiches herrlichkeit” (The Glory of the Athenian Empire) (and he also recommended Athens to the Emperor as a model for an activist approach to colonial policy, “eine tatkräftige colonialpolitik”). The philologue may study a work of literature because he or she admires it, the art historian may admire the work of art he or she studies: this option is not available to the historian. McGregor has allowed his philhellenism, and his loyalty to the work of the scholars who laboured over the ATL, to overshadow his judgement of other scholars’ commitment to recovering from the ruins of the evidence a historically cogent picture of imperial Athens.

McGregor aims his book at the “North





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American undergraduate”, although he does not intend to “popularise” and invites “the scholar to join [his] readers”. He follows “the Thucydidean principle” of offering his “own judgement, only occasionally adding comment in support”. He forsakes “the usual trappings of scholarship“, the footnotes and bibliography (the latter most regrettably). The book is written in a terse, cold, imperious style, but with great clarity and intensity. By introducing on numerous occasions not only Thucydides but also the official documents he achieves an excellent sense of immediacy. By his organisation, he succeeds where his only predecessor (Meiggs) is less successful.

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