In less than a century (between 478 and 404 b.c.e.) Athens gained and lost an empire. Among ancient empires bordering the Mediterranean, the Athenian empire was impressive neither for its size nor for its durability. But as the creation of a democratic state it was unique. No dynasty or ruling oligarchy controlled the instruments of power at Athens. Political, judicial, and military power were directed by means of public debates in which skilled speakers tried to sway the majority against their rivals’ efforts to do the same. Because power was publicly constructed, contestants for political influence at Athens developed the means to appeal to wide audiences, and to guide popular approval or condemnation not so much according to narrow, sectional interests, but by casting their arguments in terms of transcendent principles. Over the course of the Athenian experience with empire, the use of writing to hone the skills of debate and to express the principles that made arguments memorable gave rise to new habits of discourse and standards of judgment. These habits in turn provided the foundations of rhetoric, political philosophy, constitutional law, and history.
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