Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Republics and Maritime Hegemonies

Trireme Olympias
Two hundred and forty-one years ago today, a maritime hegemony ran into some heavy going. Squalls had been building for a year, and the hegemonic elite probably saw nothing special about a proclamation issued in Philadelphia on that particular day.

And, indeed the sun was still rising on the British Empire; full day would only break some decades later, after an artillery officer from Corsica was forcibly retired to St Helena. Only far along the plausible midfuture of 1776 would the United States take its turn on Neptune's throne.

Now that hold is being shaken, from the most bizarre of causes. Of all the many subplots of our current national nightmare comedy, none can be funnier or more nightmarish - or just plain surprising - as the ascendency of self-proclaimed nationalists who seem to regard American maritime hegemony as a dreadful thing that should be done away with, in favor of a world order (or disorder) dominated by 'spheres of influence'.

To be sure, this would be an understandable perspective for, say, Chinese nationalists. Or nationalists from another well known Eurasian power distinguished for its achievements in space. But for American 'nationalists' to share this perspective is ... remarkable.

I know there were in late Victorian days 'Little Englanders', about whom I know only the name, though a quick google shows that the term has been revived in the context of Brexit, offering some context. Indeed, some factions in ancient Athens point in a rather similar direction - providing an unexpected segue to my broader topic.

I could say a lot more about the current American moment, but there are lots of places for that discussion, and not so many for the one I will now segue to.

To paraphrase Thucydides (the ancient historian, not the commenter on this blog), the Athenians were the first polity that we know to have possessed a maritime hegemony. There is a line of speculation - with roots in Thucydides - that Minoan Crete might have had something of the sort. The unfortified palace of Knossos perhaps gives a hint in that direction, as do some frescoes, including one suggestive of a harbor ceremony, in the 'House of the Admiral' on Thera.

A hegemony, in general, is an empire that favors indirect rule and a relatively modest profile (as empires go). A maritime hegemony, naturally, is one sustained through sea power, which broadly understood extends beyond battle fleets to the 'soft power' of sea trade.

There is a certain logic to maritime hegemony: 'distant storm-beaten ships' are inherently less in your face than tanks rolling down your street, And perhaps it is rooted in the differences between soldiers and sailors.

This is reflected in myth. The Iliad is a soldier's epic, all about the dangers and comradeship of battle, and what happens when a commanding officer disrespects his troops. The Odyssey is a sailor's epic, all about the perils of the sea and the will to reach homeport.

The most notable maritime hegemonies, in Western tradition, have been  Athens, Venice, the Netherlands, Britain, and the US. (Not all sea-ruling nations have been classic maritime hegemonies. Rome and Spain, in their heydays, were more about legions and tercios than quinqueremes or galleons. Sea power was a byproduct of their power on land.)

A curious and striking fact about those maritime hegemonies is that four out of the five had republican political systems.* Even the fifth, Britain, was something of a crowned republic, the monarch a sort of hereditary Doge.
* It is an odd fact that the ancient Greeks had no word for republic, at least no familiar one. We call Plato's book by its Latin name, which surely would have puzzled the old guy. Its Greek title, Politeia, gives us our word 'polity' - not an everyday term, and its modern meaning is any form of political entity in general - not necessarily an open, collective order, a public thing, res publica.

Sea power, it appears, does not call for Caesarism. It is true that the Roman Republic had met its Ides of March well before the Battle of Actium, but - in spite of Cleopatra and her Egyptian squadron - Actium was fundamentally the last act of a Roman a civil war. And Napoleon's intended conquest of Britain met its watery Waterloo a decade before he himself met one on dry land.

All of this, as you may not be utterly surprised to hear, has potential relevance to space and space opera. Space is not an ocean, and spacehands are not sailors. But (unless you have planet-surface stargates) it is even harder to march across a few AU or light years of space than it is to march across the lagoon of Venice or the English Channel.

As I noted in comments to last post, your all conquering star legions won't conquer anyone if a maritime hegemony sends some battlecruisers (by whatever name) to zap them all en route. Or even pepper them with target seeking kinetic cans.

On individual planets, old fashioned overland conquest can be perfectly viable, depending on local geography. (On an pelagic planet, a world of islands, you presumably need boats or aircraft if you want to make everyone build huge statues of you.)

But to dominate the star roads, or even the planet paths, you need a capable astrale, or whatever you choose to call your space fleet. And in the long term big picture the best way to get one is probably to foster the sort of society - broadly, perhaps, a richly complex and open society - that has historically been associated with the great maritime hegemonies.

Not precisely the blessings of liberty, as such, but perhaps helpful in making the space opera come out your way.


[On edit:] Ten years ago today, I speculated on the future prospects of the American idea, through the plausible midfuture and beyond.

The image of Olympias, a modern reconstruction of an Athenian trieres ('trireme') comes from the present day Hellenic Navy. How cool is that? Click to see in full embiggened glory. (And minor note that I flipped the source image.)