Athens was undoubtedly an exceptional polity. The Athenians are evidently aware of this fact. In the speeches leading up to the declaration of war between Athens and Sparta the Athenian representatives highlight their long and noble history which had brought them up to this moment in history. The much-remembered funeral oration of Pericles equally praises the unique character of Athens; Athens was set apart from the rest—the exception, exceptional.
The nature of Athenian exceptionalism is threefold. The first is cunning. The second is militarily. The third is political. That is, the Athenians believe they have the most ingenious and daring individuals in Greece; their military successes in the Persian Wars saved Greece; the Athenian regime and political order is the best in the world.
In the disputation with the Spartans the Athenians give their case, their record. “This is our record. At Marathon we stood out against the Persians and faced them single-handed. In the later invasion, when we were unable to meet the enemy on land ([reference to Thermopylae]), we and all our people took to our ships, and joined in the battle at Salamis. It was this battle that prevented the Persians from sailing against the Peloponnese and destroying the cities one by one.” The Athenians do two things in their opening statement; both of which slight the Spartans. Unlike Thermopylae (contrary to the public it was not “300 Spartans” but about 7,000 Greeks of which the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans, along with some slaves, sacrificed themselves to allow the other Greeks to retreat) where the Spartans needed the help of other Greeks to stall the Persians, the Athenians stood alone at Marathon and achieved the decisive land victory of the First Persian War which thwarted Persian invasion in 490 B.C.. Additionally, it was the Athenians who contributed the most to the victory at Salamis that put the Persian invasion to flight in the Second Persian War.
Extrapolating further the more decisive battle of Salamis (and historians are universally agreed that Salamis was more important than Thermopylae which was a Greek defeat), the Athenian representatives state, “The fate of Hellas depended on her navy. Now we contributed to this result in three important ways: we produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of the generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage. Out of 400 ships, nearly two-thirds were ours: the commander was Themistocles, who was mainly responsible for the battle being fought at the straits ([thus highlighting Themistocles’s intelligence]), and this obviously was what saved us.” Again, the Athenians are emphasizing their leading role at Salamis in which the “fate of Hellas” was at stake and that in this great naval battle “nearly two-thirds” of the ships present were Athenian. Moreover, the Greek admiral was of Athenian stock. In other words, the survival of Greece owed more to the Athenians than to any other Greek polity.
Concerning the empire that Athens suddenly found herself in possession of after saving Greece the Athenians are quick to point out that they had not acquired this empire by conquest. Though this masked the intentions of the Athenians for a grander empire, nevertheless the acquisition of this international order was not because the Athenians had conquered it as the despotic empires of the east had formed. “We did not gain this empire by force. It came to us at a time when you were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians,” and “At this time our allies came to us on their own accord and begged us to lead them.” Part of the exceptionalism of Athens is that their empire defies historical norms. It was not constructed by conquest but by kind defense; moreover, the justness of the Athenian Empire is rooted in the fact that the other Greek city-states aligned with her “begged [them] to lead.” Athens was, in essence, appointed by democratic consent to be the leader of the new Delian imperial order which Athens, in her just kindness, agreed to. The Athenians didn’t need to agree to this; nor did the Athenians ask for the burden of leadership in fighting off the Persians. It just happened. It was an accident, the exception, of history that Athens came to possess an empire unique in the annals of world history: One that came about by saving others instead of conquering others.
If the exceptionalism of Athens in the disputation with the Spartans leading to the formal declarations of war was not enough, the famous funeral oration of Pericles further spells out the so-called exceptionalism of Athens. What followed from Pericles should sound familiar to many readers today—especially Americans. Pericles begins by maintaining the Athenian political order is unique in the world, one that is not found anywhere else, “[Athens] does not copy the institutions of [their] neighbors.” Furthermore, he states, “everyone is equal before the law.”
Athens stands out as a light in the darkness of the polities of the world and even Greece. She is the only city-state that has constructed a political order different than the monarchial and oligarchic systems of the other city-states; hers is the solely democratic and egalitarian polity in Greece and the world! As Pericles continues to say, “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” Eulogizing Athens further, Pericles goes on to link democracy with meritocracy, “what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” Where other polities have their structured positions based on class, in Athens—again making her the exception—the functional organs of the democratic government are found in the “actual ability which the man possesses.”
The proto-liberalism of Athens is even further elaborated later in the speech when Pericles boldly declares, “No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings.” Athenian tolerance extends to the fact that “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.” Pericles is also counting on the exceptionalism of the Athenian order to call her citizens to virtue; to defense of this unique polity. Athens allows her citizens unique private liberties, but these private liberties are tempered by the public law; that is, in public all adhere to the public law while at home Athenian citizens do as they see fit. Athens, then, divides her makeup into the spheres of the public and private; neither impose upon the other.
Moreover, Pericles also notes that the openness of the city is equally great, “Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products…and we have no periodical deportations.” Athens does so much for the world and also brings back many foreign goods and products for her citizens to enjoy. Returning, briefly, to the geopolitical underpinning of Thucydides, we see that a marine polity—by nature—is “open” and not “closed” (i.e. isolated or promoting isolationism).
Pericles closes his funeral oration to the dead heroes of Athens by saying, “What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what her greatness was men with the spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to below a certain standard.” The exceptionalism of Athens, then, is multifaceted: Athens’ empire emerged not from conquest (as is the norm of empire building) but defense (the sole exception in history); Athens’ political order and constitution is unique, it is the only democratic, egalitarian, and meritocratic constitutional order in the world; Athens is the city open to the world which brings benefits to the world and returns to her citizens the unique gifts of foreign lands. “Her greatness,” Pericles articulates, is founded on the fact that Athens is unique in the world. For these reasons people should fall in love with Athens and come to defend her in her hour in need. I do not wish to discuss the reality of what is claimed; but this is what is being claimed by the Athenians.
From Pericles’ oration, and from the debates leading up to the war, Athens saw herself as exceptional because she was the exception to all the rules of history. Her empire was born from defense and the protection against a tyrannizing empire (Persia). Her war contribution in the defense of Greece was greater than all the other city-states. Athens and her citizens enjoyed an unparalleled wealth and freedom unlike the rest of the city-states; she respected the public-private divide but, when threatened, called upon her private citizens to do their public duty. One wonders whether the United States is more the New Athens than the New Rome.