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Athenian Use and Acquisition of Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean (Aiba)

Maiya Aiba, Class of 2016


Green = Major Timber Supply Region

Magenta = Kingdom of Macedonia

Yellow = Amphipolis

Red = Persian Empire

Blue = Athens

Orange = Athenian route to Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War

Purple = Timber trade route between Athens and Amphipolis



"The riches [the Athenians] alone among Hellenes and Barbarians are capable of possessing. For is some town is rich in ship-timber, where will it sell it, if it is not allowed to do so by the ruler of the sea. And if a town is rich in iron or copper or flax, where will it find a market, if it is not allowed to do so by the ruler of the sea. In all this, however, I see just the material from which I also get my ships, timber from one, iron from another, copper, flax and wax from yet others.

Further, they will forbid those competing with us to freight to any other port [elsewhere], or the sea will not be open to them." - Old Oligarch

The use of timber in the Ancient Mediterranean should not be overlooked as it proved to bear significant influence over the economic and political environment during the 5th century BC. This exhibit focuses on Athens and their necessity for timber at this time. As argued in the above passage from The Constitution of Athens states, the Athenians’ wealth and success at the beginning of the 5th century BC was due to their control of naval commerce through the monopolization of  the raw materials needed to build ships - most importantly ship-timber. The Athenian need for timber came about through multiple factors like the Peloponnesian War and Persian War where the acquisition and access to timber resulted in several political relations. The scarcity of timber remains and available physical artifacts make such an attempt at documenting its use and history difficult. But we can begin to construct an account of timber’s significance through the resources we do have.

Athens was not always the great naval power that came into existence in the 5th century BC. Prior to the Persian Wars, Athens had invested resources into maritime policy and programs that concentrated on the trade of goods. These ships were usually round-hull constructed merchant vessels for the transportation of certain goods but the construction of warships to protect shipping was not a prominent program for the Athenians. Athenian interest in sea power initially stemmed from the conflicts within the Aegean and the Persian threat.

It wasn’t until 483 BC that the Athenians developed a naval program proposed by Themistocles involving the construction of a 200-vessel fleet of triremes.  This program came three years before the start of the Persian Wars in which the maintenance of a fleet and continuous construction became indispensable for Athen’s rise to power. Therefore, the supply of ship-timber for the Athenians became indispensable. 

But where did the Athenians acquire the timber necessary for such an extensive program and its  continuous supply?  The most apparent (and relevant for this exhibit) sources can be observed as theDelian League (and other allies) and Macedonia. On the one hand, members of the Delian League were required to pay tributes to Athen’s patron deity, Athena. Therefore, Athens was provided entire ships upon request or as a form of tribute. But, it became apparent to Athens that its dependence on the Delian League would not be enough as internal conflicts and tensions within the league posed a threat to Athenian expansion. Therefore, they sought a source outside of their local environment. Macedonian timber was the most desirable timber in the Mediterranean and the Athenians spent much of the 5th century in a tumultuous relationship with the Kingdom in order to secure the valuable material. Athens and Macedonia underwent periods of good and bad relations.  

At the beginning of the Athenian naval expansion, Alexander I was King of Macedonia and maintained an amicable relationship with the Greek city. In 480 BC he was recognized as proxenes and aeugretes for his grants of timber that most likely provided for the naval program of Themistocles. Despite its relationship with Macedonia, Athens sought to find a secure source of timber that would not depend on the political or economic agenda of other forces. The region of Amphipolis became the desired prize for Athens where they could colonize and control all trade of timber on their own terms. They made few attempts at the acquisition of the territory but were met by Macedonian opposition and were ultimately unsuccessful. 

After the Persian War ended in 470 BC, internal conflict characterized Macedonia and this instability along with the death of Alexander I in 454 BC eventually enabled the Athenians to successfully establish a colony in Amphipolis in 437 BC, securing their own timber supply. 

However, in 431 BC the Peloponnesian War brought further instability between Macedonia and Athens. The new King of Macedonia, Perdiccas, did not have the same relationship Alexander the I did. He facilitated the Spartan conquering of Amphipolis in 424 BC after which Athens never regained control of the area. Despite Perdicass’ act against the Athenians in 423 BC a treaty was established between Athens and the Macedonian king.  This treaty is an example of how essential timber was for the Athenians that they were willing to form agreements with Macedonia directly following the Kingdom’s hostility towards them. But with the loss of Amphipolis, Athens was in dire need of a source of timber and Macedonia, in need of the benefit of such an agreement, was willing to work together. This amicable environment was soon shattered at new hostility developed between Macedonia and Athens arose in 417 BC as a result of Athenian movements towards the frontiers and the participation of Perdiccas in the Spartan-Argive alliance. The conflict between the two forces prevented Athenian further access to timber but it is noted that the material used in the failed attack in Sicily was most likely supplied by the treaties of 423 BC and 421 BC. Following this defeat the Athenians responded by rebuilding their fleet and, once again, developing their foreign and interior relations. In order to rebuild their fleet they needed a large quantity of timber but with the anti-Athenian independent Amphipolis no longer an option the Athenians were prompted to once again ignite relations with Macedonia. The previous aggression between the two was fostered by the mercurial Macedonian ruler at the time; and so, with the death of Perdiccas in 413 BC and the succession of his son Archelaus, Athens and Macedonia entered into an amicable relationship. The Decree of 407 BC testified to this new stability between the two powers. As a result, Athens received her required naval supplies and Archelaus, avoiding a formal treaty, was able to carry out his own policy for Macedonia, possibly utilizing income from his timber agreements. 

The Peloponnesian War ends in 404 BC with the ultimate defeat of the Athenians an end to their power over the Aegean. Despite this loss, the invaluable role of timber in the rise of the Athenian naval power in the ancient Mediterranean is indisputable and evident when looking at the involvement of the material in the political and economic relations of Athens and those involved. Before the outbreak of war the necessity for warships and substantial naval power was unnecessary. It was not until rumblings of war were heard that the realization of an imperial fleet came to mind. With this realization came the search for the appropriate material and once timber, specifically Macedonian timber, was discovered to be that material it became one of the most valuable resources for the Athenians. The timber they constructed the triremes out of allowed them to gain naval victories in important battles that determined their dominance in the Aegean. The dependence of the Athenian success on the supply and use of timber dictated many of the Athenian decision and ultimately shaped her expansion. The complicated relationship with Macedonia would have been abandoned at the early stages had the value of timber not been so high. Altogether, the importance of timber and its influence on Athenian success, relations, and expansion can be clearly seen.

Works Cited:

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