During the fourth century BC, the Athenian navy was powerful and well-organized. In fact, it took Athens only eighty years to recover its fleet after defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. In years 323-322 BC, it counted 365 ships and consisted mostly of triremes, the most effective warships of that time. In order to maintain this huge fleet, Athens had established complicated bureaucratic and financial systems. It was influenced by democratic values of Athenian society, for example, the board of Dockyard Commissioners was annually elected by community, and the chosen ones were ordinary citizens. Their duty was to maintain documentation of the whole fleet, making notes about all supplies, equipment, and money operations. At the end of their term, the board wrote a report on what they were doing during the year, what they got from the previous board and what they would surpass to the next one. Inscriptiones Graecae is one of those documents. Although it was written by ordinary people, not professionals, it provides enough evidence about how the powerful Athenian fleet was functioning.
The document begins with notes about ships departing from the Piraeus’ harbor. This lists include information about name of the trireme, name of the craftsman who build it, her quality status, what equipment was on the ship, her captain (trierarch and his assistants syntrierarchs), and name of the sponsor. These notes help to understand how the whole system worked. In general, the shipbuilding was conducted by the Board of Trireme Construction, subordinate to the Council of the city. Due to limited amount of resources in Athens, the city had to establish complicated supply network in order to get timber, copper, hemp, and other materials. Thus, the equipment was valuable, and Commissioners were thoroughly writing down everything they handed over to the ship captains, such as wooden equipment, hanging equipment and hypozomata. They had several options to mark the quality of the ship, for example “new,” “old,” “first,” or “second.”
Captains, or trierarchs, were charged for any lost or damaged piece of equipment. Originally, those were men from wealthy families, who could afford to pay 3000 or 4000 drachmas (real fortune in those times). Overall, this position was too demanding, and people of Athens decided to split responsibilities of a sponsor and a captain. Moreover, a captain was allowed to hire assistants, syntrierarchs. This change was reflected in Inscriptiones Graecae, which reports about separate captains and ship sponsors.
Other chapters of Inscriptiones Graecae provide more evidence about complicated relationship between the city and wealthy Athenians. As far as sponsors were responsible for ships and equipment, provided by Athens, they could by obliged by the court to pay their debts or to give back the equipment. For example, “from Nikeratos son of Nikios from Kydathenaion for the trieres which he swore in court to return new, whose name was Alliance, built by Hagnodemos, we received 5,000 drachmai.” Often, corrupted authorities kept equipment by themselves, like treasurer of the dockyards Euthymachos, who stole 68 metal anchors. They rarely agreed to return the city’s property, and it had devastating consequences for the fleet. For example, in 357-356 BC, only 89 of 283 ships could be supplied with necessary equipment. Then, the Council started investigating corruption and prosecuting defaulters.
Overall, the Athenian navy was an example of truly democratic entity. This was a cooperation of simple citizens, the Council, and rich families of Athens. Together, they managed to create a fleet, which ensured military superiority of the city. Although they could not avoid corruption and make the system perfect, it proved to be effective.
- Gabrielsen, Vincent. “The Athenian Navy in the Fourth Century BC.” In The Age of the Galley, 234-240. Edited by John Morrison and Robert Gardiner. Conway Maritime, 1995.
- Inscriptiones Graecae 1629: Account of the Curators of the Shipyards. Translated by William Murray.