Festivals, Politics and Wars: The Spending Priorities of Athenian Democracy

Wednesday, 20 May, 6:30 (reception from 5:30 pm onwards)
Elisabeth Murdoch Building, Theatre A, The University of Melbourne

Dr David Pritchard (University of Queensland; Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University)

This paper calculates the public spending of classical Athens. The major public activities of the Athenian dēmos were the staging of religious festivals, the conducting of politics and the waging of wars. There is hot debate about what was spent on these three public activities. Ancient historians cannot agree whether the dēmos spent more on festivals or wars. They debate how the classical Athenians paid for their democracy. These debates go back to the first book on Athenian public finance. August Böckh famously criticised the Athenians for wasting money on their festivals instead of building up their armed forces. His book argued too that their decision to pay themselves to run the democracy forced them to tax unjustly the subjects of their empire. Calculating what they spent on their public activities would settle both debates. Böckh lacked the evidence to do such. Two centuries later this is no longer the case. But in calculating public spending this paper does more than settle longstanding debates. In classical Athens the dēmos had full control over public spending. In the assembly they authorised the one-off activities of their polis and any changes to its recurring activities. Assemblygoers understood the financial consequences of their decisions. They knew how much a proposal which was put before them would cost and what proportion of public income it would use up. They had a good general knowledge of what the polis spent on its major activities. Consequently they could judge whether a proposal cost the same as what was normally spent on such things. This made it possible for the Athenians to change their pattern of spending and so what they spent on one class of activities relative to others. Such votes allowed the dēmos to spend more on what they saw as a priority and less on what was less of a priority. Over time the sums which they spent on different public activities reflected the order of the priorities which they had set for their polis. By calculating these sums this paper confirms whether religious festivals, democratic politics or military campaigns were the Athenian people’s overriding public priority.

Dr David M. Pritchard is Senior Lecturer in Greek History at the University of Queensland. He has held research fellowships at Macquarie University, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Sydney. This year Dr Pritchard is Research Fellow in Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. In 2014 he was Visiting Scholar in Greek History at Brown University. In 2013 Dr Pritchard was the Charles Gordon Mackay Lecturer in Greek at the University of Edinburgh. He has authored Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens (Cambridge: 2013) and Public Spending and Democracy in Classical Athens (University of Texas Press: 2015), edited War, Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens (Cambridge University Press: 2010) and co-edited Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World (Classical Press of Wales: 2003). Dr Pritchard is now completing for Cambridge University Press a cultural history of the armed forces of democratic Athens.

This public lecture is sponsored by the Classical Association of Victoria, and The University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies (SHAPS) and its CONFLICT Lecture series. The lecture is free but registration is requested; just search for the event at http://alumni.online.unimelb.edu.au/.

Please join us for a pre-lecture reception which begins at 5:30 pm.