Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa. They even had a couple of colonies in Spain. This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip. I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post. It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water. Also, very expensive. At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year. Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).
Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field. That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards. Continue reading →
“You see this boat, children? Do you know who used to row boats like that? Slaves. All slaves. They were chained to their oars, and they were whipped to make them work, and if the ship sank they went down with it. Isn’t that horrible?”
I manage to hold back my sigh and grimace. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter if these sixth-graders swallow a grossly incorrect tidbit of information about ancient history. Certainly it would be both foolish and wrong to interrupt her in front of the class and undermine her authority by explaining that she’s thinking of Turkish galleys from nearly two thousand years later than the Greek trireme she is pointing to. I wait until the end of class, while the students are chattering, to go up and quietly tell her that those rowers, far from being slaves, were the core voting bloc of the world’s first democracy. That rowing a trireme was highly skilled labor, and they took pride in it, and the fact that their work was turning their little city-state into an empire. That their importance in both war and peace had won them the franchise; that we vote today because they rowed back then. That they did go down with the ship a lot–but it didn’t stop them from signing up in droves, because the back-breaking work made them the thriving middle class of the Greek world. She nods and thanks me; I don’t know how much she’s taken in. By and by, the end-of-day bell rings. Continue reading →
I think–I’m not certain, but I think–it was C.S. Lewis who coined the term “chronological snobbery.” It refers to our curious modern tendency to assume that, because our ancestors were less technologically, politically, and economically sophisticated than we are, they were necessarily quite stupid. I should add that we tend to apply similar reasoning, albeit unconsciously, to people in poor countries, and most of all to tribal peoples. Of course, there’s nothing logical about this assumption; if anything, it is substantially more difficult to survive in a low-tech, unstable society than in modern times, and so one would expect successful members of those societies to be more intelligent than our own elites, at least in terms of raw capacity. Continue reading →