Festivals or war: what would you put your money on?

German scholar August Boeckh famously criticised the ancient Athenians for wasting funds on festivals. Here the myth gets debunked with insight on the current crisis.

You could say that the Greeks loved their parties and wine so much, they made up a god for it so they could party in peace without the fear of angering the gods.
For an ancient empire, Athens certainly had its spoils. But when it came down to business, as is most commonly misunderstood, the Greeks spent vast sums on waging war, far outweighing the amount spent on festivals and religious scarifies.
German scholar August Boeckh famously criticised the ancient Athenians for wasting public income on ‘frivolous’ conquests like festivals, dramas and structures. But what the 18th century scholar neglected to do was back up any of his claims.
Dr David Pritchard of the University of Queensland gave a lecture on the topic last month and quantified the costings for both.
Surprisingly, ancient Athens ran more like a modern capitalist government, asking its wealthy citizens to fund plays, sponsor choirs and finance religious and ceremonial events. Festivals in Athens were not just spectacles of wealth, but tourist attractions.
For the Athenians, the packed festival calendar wasn’t just a way to honour the gods, it was a economic investment that came back in multiple ways.
Festivals were mostly religiously linked, and always contained sacrifices to appease the gods. But, enterprising as the Greeks are, they managed to reap back some of the money spent on these public sacrifices.
Dr Pritchard singles out the sacrificing of cows to demonstrate.
“Athens of the 330s spent 15 talents (t.) 5902 drachmas (dr.) * publicly sacrificing some 1332 cows each year,” he explains.
But that huge sum would come back into the economy with the sale of the cow hides. The income the city would gain from the sale of the hides definitely made the investment worthwhile.
Compare that to the expenses of war. Ships, warhorses, weapons and armour.
“Athens had between 100 and 250 triremes at sea between 433/2 and 423/2 and a trierarchy on average cost 4436 drachmas. This private spending ranged between 74 t. and 185 t.” Dr Pritchard says.
And that’s just on funding ships at sea.
During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Empire spent more on waging war than its democracy.
“The grand total for public expenditure is 16,334 t., which translates to an unexpectedly high average of 1485 t. per year,” Dr Prichard says.
Compare that to the entire cost of state-supervised festivals: 100 t. 2517 drachmas.
Just like today, war and foreign policy were always the main topics of political debate in Athens, and therefore became the main crux of the Athenian Empire’s conquests.
As much as it is defined today by its incredible structures and ideas, the Athens of that time never paid that much attention to its festivals and preferred to stick to its war-games.
“Even in times of peace the Athenian army and navy used up more public and private money than either the democracy or its program of religious celebrations,” Dr Pritchard says.
The debt ancient Athens would purposely get itself into was always justified in their minds for the greater good of the Empire. Overspending, it seems, never left the Greek psyche.