Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1

Part 2 of this series can be found here.
Part 3 of this series can be found here.

Scholars have long noted a correlation between maritime societies and the development of open social institutions. This was first noticed by scholars in ancient Greece. Plutarch wrote that the early kings of Athens invented the myth of Athena defeating Poseidon in the contest to name the city in an attempt to “to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture.” Much later, when Athens was under Spartan rule, the Thirty Tyrants tried to discourage seafaring “because they thought that maritime empire was the mother of democracy, and that oligarchy was less distasteful to tillers of the soil.”[1]

Likewise, Aristotle wrote in his discussion of political philosophy that “the naval multitude, having been the cause of the victory off Salamis and thereby of the leadership of Athens due to her power at sea, made the democracy stronger.” Sea power required lots of manpower to row triremes. If the power of the state rested on the work and valor of the majority of its people, the people would hold power in their society and not oligarchs or kings.[2]

Sea power theorists in more recent times have expanded this thesis into a broad theory of state development. In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his landmark work titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan argued that commerce by sea was a very efficient method of moving goods from place to place. Nations that are geographically disposed to the sea by being physically isolated from land threats, possessing good ports and easy access to important trade routes choose to pursue sea power because it is advantageous for them to do so. [3]

Mahan’s thesis has been further developed by others such as Clark Reynolds to explain changes in a society after they take to the sea. Because maritime states are geographically protected from land threats, they do not need to maintain large land armies. Instead, the navy becomes the most prestigious military service. Agriculture-based land powers typically have a large and very poor peasant class to till the fields, and have authoritarian political systems based on the need to mobilize manpower to defend against overland invasions. Maritime powers, on the other hand, have an economy primarily based on commerce and trade. This leads to the emergence of a thriving middle class which gains political power.

What’s more, commerce and trade mean that the people of a maritime state are constantly coming into contact with new ideas from all over the world. The combination of this competition of ideas and a powerful middle class leads to a society where capitalism, freedom of speech, art and innovation all thrive. As a result, maritime societies become more open and democratic than their land-based counterparts. They have a higher degree of individual freedom than their landlubbing neighbors, and citizens are more able to participate in the government.[4]

This process has been observe in a number of maritime powers throughout history. Classical Athens, the Venetian Republic, the Dutch Republic and Britain are prime examples of such societies. But does the paradigm still apply to the ancient Near East?



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