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Never Mind the New Athenians Its the Old Athenians you have to be wary of

By Roland Stephens - posted Thursday, 10 October 2002

Steven Barton hears Harold Macmillan's 60 year old assertion of the UK as the New Athens to the USA's Nova Roma and sees, in the aftermath of September 11, a clique of European middle powers aching to play the role of the world weary and indulged Greek tutor to the young, strong and idealistic Roman Emperor (Who dares to be the New Athenians?, Online Opinion 2/10/02)

There can be little doubt that much of Europe's self-professed concern about America's role in the world stems from guilt. After all, European nations raped and pillaged their way around the earth for several hundred years culminating in the global orgy of destruction that was World War II. It is also probably true that there is more than a little jealousy involved, given the decisive role of the USA in ending that conflict and the relegation of Europe to second fiddle in its aftermath. There is also some hypocrisy, given that EU subsidies for spoilt, inefficient and sometimes xenophobic Euro-farmers hurt the developing world more than the US military ever would.

However, to describe the US in unambiguously glowing terms, to see its role in the world as inherently benign and therefore in no need of measured scrutiny, is a dangerous stance. Steven Barton lauds the citizens of the USA for what he sees as their collective stance that "government can't do anything right". If that is so, then on what basis should we believe that the US Government, over which we have no power, can do no wrong?


While many analysts and commentators are fond of the America (New Rome) and UK / Europe (New Athens) historical allusion, the benefits of caution when celebrating American power are better demonstrated by casting the USA in the role of old Athens, particularly in the context of the transformation of the Delian League into the Athenian Empire.

The Delian League was a confederacy of Greek city-states constituted under the leadership of Athens. The first period of the League was from 478 to 404 BC. It was comprised primarily of Ionian maritime city-states (cities dotted up and down what is now the west coast of Turkey and modern Greek islands off that coast). Its primary purpose was to prosecute a war against the Persians whom the Greeks correctly saw as despots intent on subduing the Greek people. But it was also formed with Athens as hegemon because of her naval supremacy and because many of the Greek cities-states had grown angry and fearful of the tyrannical behaviour of the Spartan commander Pausanias, who had been leader of the Greeks during previous encounters with the Persians.

All members of the League were given an equal vote in a council established in the temple of Apollo at Delos. The quantity of ships, troops and money levied on the members was fixed by Athens. Athens exercised this power with a judiciousness that inspired loyalty and enthusiasm among the members. The League's treasury was also housed on Delos.

In 468 BC Persia was defeated at Eurymedon and many members supported the dissolution of the League. But Athens had profited greatly from its existence and argued that the danger from Persia was not over. A well-weighted combination of diplomacy and force was deployed by the Athenians to retain existing members and to cajole and intimidate non-member states into joining. By 454 BC League membership swelled to around 140 states. In 457 BC an invasion by Sparta was averted and in 456 BC the League subjugated Athens traditional enemy, Thebes. In 454 BC Athens moved the League treasury from Delos to the Athenian Acropolis, citing the risk of its seizure by barbarians.

The League was now fully morphed from an Athens protected confederacy in an Athenian Empire. By 450BC this first great western empire reached its epoch. This development was not happily received by most of the city-states, with historian Plutarch noting that people were "crying out how that the commonwealth of Athens had lost its reputation and was ill-spoken of abroad". Aristotle noted that after the Athenians had gained their empire, they treated their allies dictatorially. They insisted on the use of their currency and would garrison errant members, turning them into subject states. Only impotence prevented nominal allies from revolting.

At this very point small fractures were beginning to appear in the unity of the Empire. The web of alliances that formed the League began to disintegrate and it came to an end with the Peloponnesian War (against Sparta) in 404 BC. Athens recaptured some of her power in 394 BC and formed a second confederacy in 378 BC. But the reincarnation was a pale imitation of Athenian Empire 70 years earlier and it was forced into compromises with Sparta and was beset by Thebes. In 338 BC it was put out of its misery and relegated to history in the battle of Chaeronea by Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.


The western alliance built up in the aftermath of World War II is more akin to the Delian League than the Roman or Athenian empires. It was a confederacy presided over by a hegemon, established to respond to a defined threat. It was not and is not an empire ruled at arms length by one state through governors and client kings. If you doubt the continuing validity of this assessment consider this - Rome would not have tolerated the kind of behaviour exhibited by Gerhardt Schroeder in the last German election. If it were Augustus or any of his successors at the helm of the United States Herr Schroeder would have found himself treated to something a little more intense that a hissy fit by Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld.

But the defined threat on which the western alliance was built is gone, with a range of less imposing but vaguely defined threats taking its place. In the face of this the alliance has itself become less clearly defined. Poorly delineated alliances can turn into unstable empires, particularly when one participant in the alliance is significantly more powerful than all of the others.

There is so much that is good about the United States and so much good in what it does in the world and how it does it. It would be a shame to see that cast aside by those within Washington who would prefer to see their league morph into an empire. It would be even more of a shame if we, blinded at all the good that America does, respond to the often ill-conceived and dubiously motivated criticism of the Europeans by refusing to see the attendant risks of one country exercising so much unfettered power over the rest of the world. If we agree that as a hegemon goes the Americans aren't all that bad, then we should seek to encourage them to do those things that will extend the life of their hegemony and render it as benign as possible. The alternative will lock them into a pattern of behaviour from which they will not be able to extricate themselves and yet which will destroy all that they have built.

Ancient chroniclers of Athenian history understood all of this. Thucydides quoted the greatest leader of Athens in her golden age, Pericles, as saying to the people of Athens "Your empire is now a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go." It would be arrogant of America to think that there is no chance of its ending up in this invidious and self-destructive position. The three greatest western empires of history - Athenian, Roman and British – all grew out of the most democratically sophisticated polities of the age. Each achieved great things, but each also fell because even empires spawned by great democracies are, in the end, based on an unsustainable combination of conquest and tyranny. At this critical point in it its history America needs more than a cheer squad. We, the Europeans and all of her allies owe her our advice, even if some of it is poorly motivated and ill-conceived or uninvited.

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About the Author

Roland Stephens is a Sydney-based lawyer.

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